By Aman Ullah
“No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim!” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
“I could conquer Bengal with an army of Kulas and that not a single Burmese soldier would be required.’ Maha Bandula
Muslim seamen first reached Burma in the ninth century. There were Muslims in Burma in the tenth to the thirteenth centuries. The descendants of these Muslim traders formed the original nucleus of the “Burman Muslim” community which, in the days of the Burmese Kingdom. As the years passed, the number of Muslims in Burma increased, partly as a result of the growing numbers of descendants from mixed marriages and partly because of the arrival of growing numbers of Muslim traders and adventurers.
The very first traders to be mentioned in Burmese chronicles, who were assumed to be Muslims, are the two sons of an Arab merchant saved from his shipwrecked vessel on the shores of Martaban. They apparently reached Burma in the year 1055, during the reign of King Anawratha (1044—1077). One of the sons was Shwepyin-gyi and the other, Shwepyin-nge.
The second mention in the chronicles is from the days of King Sawlu (1077-1088) who succeeded his father Anawratha to the throne. In his youth he was educated by Yaman Khan, a Muslim Arab. On ascending the throne, Sawlu appointed his teacher, Yaman Khan as Governor of the city Ussa (which is the Pegu of today).
During his attack on Martaban, capital of the Talaings, King Minkyiswasawke (1368-1401) encountered fierce resistance organized by two Muslim officers who were finally defeated. When Razadarit (1385-1423) besieged Dagon (the Rangoon of today), he succeeded in conquering the city only with the help of Muslim sailors. Razadarit met with difficulties because there were Indian mercenaries, apparently Muslims, also serving the other side. From the middle of the sixteenth century to the middle of the eighteenth, Muslim riflemen and artillerymen, together with former Portuguese prisoners, served regularly in the Burmese army, generally in the bodyguard units.
Tabinshweti (1531-1550) conquered the port of Martaban in 1541. Many Muslim residents of the town took active part in the defense against him. In the year 1564 his successor, Bayinnaung (1550-1581), encountered Muslim artillerymen that together with the Portuguese were helping the King of Siam to defend his capital Ayuthia against the siege of the Burmese King. In his second war against Siam (1568-1569), Bayinnaung brought his own Muslim and Portuguese artillerymen from India. These were later settled in Burma and married Burmese women.
King Alaungpaya (1752-1760) conquered Syriam in 1756; there were many Muslims among his prisoners. They were forced to serve in his army under the command of Europeans, also prisoners. Four years later he attacked Ayudhya but was repelled by European and Muslim artillery ships of the Siamese army that were sailing the rivers around the city.
King Bodawpaya (Bodaw U Wine) ((1781–1819) founded Amarapura as his new capital in 1783. He was the first Burmese King who recognised his Muslim subjects officially by Royal decree, appointing specific ministers to give judgment regarding conflicts amongst his Burmese Muslim subjects.
In 1819 Maha Bandula served in the Burmese army occupying Manipur, and two years later he commanded a second Burmese force in the conquest of Assam. King Bagyidaw subsequently appointed him governor of Assam and minister at the court of Ava. In January 1824, because of increased tensions along the Bengal–Arakan border, he was sent with 6,000 troops including a Muslim Cavalry Regiment led by Captain Nay Myo Gone Narrat Khan Sab Bo to Arakan. When the British declared war in March, he immediately invaded Bengal, occupying Ratnapallang and defeating a British force at Ramu.
Khan Sab Bo’s 100 horsemen fought vigorously and bravely. More than 1300 loyal brave Kala Pyo Muslims (means young Indian soldiers) were awarded with colourful velvety uniforms. Khan Sab Bo’s name was Abdul Karim Khan and was the father of the Captain Wali Khan, famous Wali Khan Cavalry Regiment during King Mindon and King Thibaw Khan Sab Bo was sent as an Ambassador to Indo-China by Bagyidaw.
According to Henry Gouger, an English merchant who went to Burma in1822, “Maha Bandula informed the King that he could conquer Bengal with an army of Kulas and that not a single Burmese soldier would be required.’
Muslims attained eminence in the Burmese court not only in military service but also in administrative posts. During the days of King Pagan-Min (1846-1853), a Muslim was appointed governor of Amarapura, then the kingdom’s capital. The clerk of that governor was U Pain who constructed and donated the Taunthaman Bridge with more than 1000 teak piles and is still in good condition. Although the real background or aim of building the bridge was not known, before the bridge was built, British Ambassador Arthur Fair’s ship could sailed right up to the Amarapura city wall but the bridge actually obstruct the direct access by British.
Muslim eunuchs, too, were a part of the king’s entourage, along with the bodyguards; they also acted as royal couriers. In their contacts with foreign lands the Burmese kings employed the Persian language. For that purpose they kept Muslim interpreters in the capital also accompanied Burmese delegations on visits to neighboring countries. Correspondence between the British and the Burmese during the first Anglo-Burmese war (1824-1826) was likewise conducted in Persian.
In 1852, Commodore George Lambaert was sent to Burma by Lord Dalhousie over a number of minor issues related to the Treaty of Yandabo between the countries. The new king of Burma refused to consider the treaty of Yandaboo, binding on him. Then Lambert adopted a very provocative line of action. He captured one of the Burmese King’s ships. With this incident, the Burmese did not resist and the war was declared. The war ended in the Company annexing the province of Pegu and renaming it Lower Burma. The proclamation of annexation was issued on 20 January 1853, and the War was brought to an end without any treaty being signed. Pagan Min (1846–1852) was overthrown by his half brother Mindon Min (1853–1878).
On the other hand, Dalhousie raised the initial demand for compensation of £1000 to 100 times that amount, £100,000. However, the King had no budget to pay that amountof money. Then the four Muslim Maula brothers of Mandaly, Maula Musa, Maula Ismail, Maula Yusuf and Maula Haroon lend the King that money to pay the British Government for compensation. The British, instead of that sum, later gave back to them some markets in Mandalay and Rangoon, which were later known as Suruti Bazzars.
In the days of King Mindon (1853-1878), there were still thousands of Muslims who were soldiers in the king’s army and who held various administrative posts. Muslim infantry and artillery distinguished themselves in the battle of Minhla (1885) against the British, which was followed by the fall of Mandalay.
Upon the founding of Mandalay, several quarters were granted to Muslims for settlement. Also at this time, Mindon Min allocated space for several mosques, including the Kone Yoe mosque. He also donated teak pillars from his palace for the construction of a mosque in the North Obo district of Mandalay, and began constructing of a mosque in his own palace to accommodate the Muslim members of his bodyguards. Finally, he assisted in building a rest house in Mecca for Burmese subjects performing Hajj.
Thus, the Muslims of Burma contributed their services whole heartedly in the vital issues of the country, protected the country with extreme sacrifices and played their role the most significantly throughout the history of Burmese kingdom. Furthermore during the colonial period and post colonial period their sacrifices and contributions are also outstanding.
The Students rose to national prominence as nationalist leaders as a result of the university strike at Rangoon University in 1936. Among the organizers and leaders of the strike were many of the main national leaders of post-war Burma. The main force behind the strike was the Rangoon University Student Union (RASU).
U Raschid, a Muslim, was the first general secretary of the Rangoon University Students’ Union in 1931 together with prominent Burmese political leaders: Aung San, U Nu, U Kyaw Nyein, U Ba Swe etc. U Nu was the first president of the RUSU in 1935-1936 with Mr. M. A. Rashid as Vice-President and U Thi Han as the General Secretary. U Raschid was the president of the All Burma Students’ Union, while being concurrently president of the Rangoon University Students’ Union in 1936 – 1937. Aung San was then vice-president.
By December 1946, a Labour government had replaced the Conservatives in Britain and Clement Attlee was now Prime Minister. On 20 December, Atlee announced that Britain would review its policy regarding Burma. Britain did not want people in Commonwealth against their will, he explained, and Burmese nationals should frame their own constitution after the election of a constituent assembly, “on the analogy of what has already been done in India.” In this regard, on January 1947, a Burmese delegation led by Aung San went to Britain for negotiations with the government and determined on reaching a settlement. The outcome of this visit was “Aung San-Atlee Agreement”, which was signed on 27 January 1947. The total fund for the delegation was provided by a Burmese Muslim.
On his way to London, stopping in New Delhi in the first week of January, Aung San took time to study how the interim government was working in India, in order to prepare for one in Burma. There he met with Jauharlal Nehru and some Congress leaders in Delhi and with Mohammed Ali Jinnah and some Muslim Leauge leaders in Karachi.
A four member delegate of Rohingya students studying in Deobon, representing Jamiat, also met Aung San and his companions at the residence of Jauharlal Nehru at New Delhi and talked to them for 25 minutes. They submitted a memorandum to them and also later presented a Long winter Coat through Mr. Nehru. As January is a very cold month in London this coat was very useful for Aung San and he wore it proudly in London when he met with Atlee.
When London Agreement cleared the way for speedy creation of a new constitution for Burma, the problem of relations between the Frontier Areas and Burma acquired a new urgency. The Agreement, moreover, gave a clear indication of the most desirable solution to the problem, by proclaiming that it was the agreed objective of both His Majesty’s Government and the Government of Burma “to achieve the early unification of the Frontier Areas and Ministerial Burma with the free consent of the inhabitants of those areas”.
In February, 1947, leaders and representatives of the majority of the frontier peoples met members of Burmese Executive council at Panglong, in pursuance of the terms of paragraph 8(b) of London Agreement, and agreed on a form of association during the interim period until the new constitution came into force.
Aug San and his men including U Pe Khin, a Muslim, went to Panglong, where the Headman was a Muslim, by a jeep driven by a Muslim. U Pe Khin was the most important negotiator and architect of the historical Panglon treaty. Even General Aung San was disappointed, given up and decided to take the flight back to Rangoon that evening. It was U Pe Khin who persuaded General Aung San to stay for one night and to allow him to negotiate with the Ethnic Minority leaders and successfully negotiated with those Ethnic leaders to get an agreement for this most important treaty in Burma, which was the foundation for the Union of Burma and its Independence.
U Razak (Abdul Razak) was a Burmese politician who was a respected educationalist. He helped found the Mandalay College (modern Mandalay University). U Razak was Minister of Education and National Planning at Aung San’s pre-independence interim government and was chairman of the Burma Muslim Congress. He gave his life along with Aung San and other members, on 19 July 1947.
The first public appearance of Daw Aung Saan Suu Kyi was at Shwedagon Pagoda on Aug. 26, 1988, where hundreds thousands people came to hear her speech. A photograph taken at the time shows her with a microphone in hand, a tall man in a striped shirt and with a slightly bent back standing behind her. The man in the striped shirt was Maung Thaw Ka. His name is Major Ba Thaw and Maung ThawKa is a pen name. He is a Muslim and a well-known writer and journalist.
Aftermath of the military had gunned down thousands of demonstrators on Aug. 8-10, 1988; the movement needed a leader, a voice that everyone could rally behind. Maung Thaw Ka was the man who with, editor U Win Tin and film director U Moe Thu went to see Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and had persuaded her to become involved in the movement for democracy. They knew she was in town because they had seen her picture in the paper, laying a wreath on her father’s grave on Martyrs’ Day, July 19. As she had been abroad for many years, they were not sure that she could speak Burmese. Maung Thaw Ka was a pioneer NLD leader died in SPDC jail. He was buried at Kandaw Gale Sunni cemetery.
After emergence of National League for Democracy (NLD) in September 1988, among the many problems and difficulties, the financial problem is vital. The first person, who provided a huge amount of cash and a expensive car which is very necessary for the party, was U Jamal a Muslim business man of Moulmein.
Under the 2008 constitution, Aung San Suu Kyi is blocked from becoming president as she has children with foreign nationality, a clause the military leaders made sure to write into the constitution. Her late husband was British. However, she promised to be “above the president” before she won a victory in the November election. Aung San Suu Kyi plans to create a role for herself that will give her similar powers to that of a prime minister in the new Myanmar government, further circumventing a constitutional ban on her serving as president.
It was U Ko Ni who was credited with finding the legal and constitutional loophole that allowed for the formation of the State Counsellor’s role, which will give Daw Suu her similar powers to that of a prime minister in the new government.
U Ko Ni, a Muslim, was a renowned lawyer and legal adviser to the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD). He had many roles, including being a member of the International Bar Association and the Independent Lawyers’ Association of Myanmar, a founder of the Laurel Law Firm and a patron of the Myanmar Muslim Lawyers Association.
The bill to form a state counsellor role, with specific reference to the 70-year-old Nobel laureate in the text, was the first piece of legislation put to parliament on the first day of office for the democratically-elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government. Importantly, the role allows her to keep a foot in parliament as her cabinet appointments had forced her to step down from the legislature. Observers have likened the position to a prime minister-type role.
Hence, the contributions, devotions, services and sincerities of the Muslims of Burma throughout the Burmese history are immense, outstanding and self-less. They never hesitate to give their lives in the protection and wellbeing of the peoples of the country.
In spite of all these, the Muslims of Burma have nowhere to go. During sixty years military regimes the Muslims are the most oppressed, repressed and persecuted people of to country. They were denied all their individual rights, fundamental rights and on the other side they are always victims of collective punishment.
The most shocking thing today is that, once as a beacon of hope and a golden child of democracy, Daw Suu who led the struggle against the oppression and who spoke of her Buddhist commitment to nonviolence, of solidarity with those suffering injustice, of the corrupting influence of fear in standing against repression and the power of human kindness now losing her shine.
Now she crossed the line into Myanmar’s world of “Buddhist” Islam phobia. She has shown herself not only to being anti-Muslim but racist. The problem she may share with many Burmans is that the Rohingya are dark-skinned people of south Asian appearance rather than light-skinned people with predominantly East Asian features. Not so long ago, Myanmar’s consul-general in Hong Kong actually condemned the Rohingya for their “ugly” dark skin, which he contrasted with the appearance of the majority of Myanmar people.
Since as early as 2013, Suu Kyi has been arguing that Islam represents an existential threat to Myanmar’s Buddhist culture. She has consistently denied that the government has carried out ethnic cleansing in the Rakhine region, blaming the violence on a “climate of fear.” One of the few places in Europe where the Myanmar leader is now welcome is the Hungary of Victor Orban, a notorious xenophobe and authoritarian.
She had made a grossly offensive statement about being interviewed by BBC presenter Mishal Husain.
Just after she was pressed by Husain to make her stance clear on the thorny issue of Burma’s Rohingya Muslims, a minority oppressed by the country’s majority Buddhists, went like this: “No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim!”
When Husain asked if the now 70-year-old Suu Kyi condemned the anti-Muslim persecutions and massacres, the Lady became defensive and said: “I think there are many, many Buddhists who have also left the country for various reasons. This is a result of our sufferings under a dictatorial regime.”