Although human rights activists groups have spoken out against the injustices by Burma’s military regime , SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), little awareness of the brutalities against Burmese Muslims have concerned the Muslim world. Since the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, and likewise the western interest for a new democratic state in Asia, Burma has finally captured the attention of the media. Even then, however, the media’s bias only reports the democratic progress by Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, and falls way short of covering the killings, rapes, and torturing of Burma’s peaceful inhabitants. To a lesser extent, if not non-existent, the atrocities against Burmese Muslims are rarely mentioned.
Until shortly after Britain colonized Burma in 1886, Muslims and Buddhists had lived peacefully. Britain’s creation of hostility for the Muslims led Buddhists to the anti-Muslim riots in 1938 which resulted in the massacre of nearly 30,000 Muslims and the burning of 113 mosques. Further north in the state of Arakan (Rakhine), Muslims were forced out of Burma to Bengal after the slaughter of 100,000 Muslims. After independence in 1948 and under U Nu’s Ministry, built up hostility towards Muslims created operations like Naga Min and BTF (Burma Territorial Force) resulting in deaths totaling over 80,000 Muslims.
In 1961, U Nu declared Buddhism as the state religion forcing Buddhist teaching and culture on many of the Muslims. By a military coup, General Ne Win seized hold of Burma in 1962 and declared her as a socialist country, thus lifting the declaration of Buddhism as the state religion. In 1982, Ne Win redefined citizenship so that the Rohingya, Muslims who had inhabited northern Burma as early as 788, were considered illegal aliens. This made northern Arakan grounds for ruthless killing sprees and as a result many of the Rohingya were forced to flee to Bangladesh. In 1988, the anti-government and pro-democracy movements forced Ne Win to step down, and after a few leadership changes, the power went back into the hands of the military under General Saw Maung. In 1990, Burma had its first free multi-party election in 30 years which resulted in the democracy movement leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to victor. Refusing to relinquish their power, the military regime, SLORC, placed Suu Kyi under house arrest.
The current military regime has tried to portray itself as the unifying factor of Burma by giving themselves the title SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council). However, what was once the richest nation in southeast Asia, since 1988 Burma has been declared by the UN as one of the world’s least developed countries. Likewise, while SLORC claims of its “restoration” of Burma, SLORC spends 40 percent of the national budget on the military aimed to combat its own people. Its claim to “law and order” forces nearly a million people to slave labour, 40,000 women and girls to prostitution, 300,000 people to flee to neighbouring countries, and 1.5 million to be displaced from their homes within Burma.
SLORC has shown no tolerance of Muslims either. In 1992, SLORC went on an a rampage to force, or kill, the Rohingya Muslims out of Burma. Youth were herded into warehouses where reports of 700 Muslim youth suffocated. During prayer, SLORC troops shot down a mosque martyring 200 Muslims. The amount of Muslim women and girls raped during 1992 were higher than any other minority group in Burma. Mosques were destroyed, looted, and burned. Over 225,000 Rohingyas that year fled to Bangladesh.
The US has had hypocritical action against SLORC. The same day the US State Department condemned SLORC’s killing and torture of political activists and ethnic minorities, UNOCAL paid a $7 million bonus in a contract with SLORC to expand their operations in Burma. American business support of SLORC, such as UNOCAL’s, could have easily been hindered had the US imposed stricter sanctions on SLORC. However, it would seem obvious that the US’s interest lies elsewhere, especially after Senator Feinstein, who after consulting with Secretary of State Madeline Albright and Defense Secretary Cohen, concluded that economic sanctions should only be imposed in cases such as apartheid in South Africa because “the only ones that are hurt are the people who need help.” Yet, she warned SLORC’s generals that harming Suu Kyi would result in these actions.
Many of the minority ethnic groups in Burma have signed cease-fire agreements with SLORC. The Rohingya Solidarity Alliance, the strongest unified Muslim military front in Burma, has continued their struggle and has been fighting for the independence of Arakan from SLORC’s oppressive hand without signing such treaties. The Muslim struggles in Burma have produced martyrs that have fed the hearts of other Muslims with courage.
Muslimedia - March 16-31, 1997