Islam in Myanmar

Myanmar has had a Muslim presence since as early as the ninth century. Muslim sailors intermarried with local Burmese woman and settled permanently in port cities along the Burmese Coast, especially in the Arakan/Rakhine region. Arab and Persian sources mention Myanmar in the 9th and 10th centuries in the context of trade; historically, Myanmar has been at the center of a vast trade network spanning China, the Indian Ocean, the Middle East and North Africa. Other Muslims in Myanmar included Indians captured in war and resettled in the interior and Muslim mercenaries in service of Burmese kings. European accounts of life in Myanmar in the 15th to 17th centuries included descriptions of Persian and Indian Muslim settlements. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, Muslims served in the Burmese army, again intermarrying with Burmese women.

There are a variety of Burmese Muslim ethnic minorities, including the Chinese-Muslim Panthay in northern Myanmar, Shan Muslims, and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine. Since the British colonial period, relations between the Rohingya Muslim community and the Buddhist Burman community have been uneasy, and in the past few years these tensions have exploded into violence, predominantly with Buddhist mobs attacking Rohingya. Violence has spread to target other Muslim communities as well, raising concerns over the civilian government’s capacity to negotiate sensitive ethnic and religious differences, and to place controls over Buddhist monks who foment anger towards Muslim minorities.

Sources

Thomas Fuller, “Extremism Rises Among Myanmar Buddhists Wary of Muslim Minority,” The New York Times, June 20, 2013, accessed June 20, 2013.

Daniel Schearf, “Kaman Muslims Raise Concerns of Wider Conflict,” VOA News, November 29, 2012, accessed November 22, 2013.

Moshe Yegar, Between Integration and Secession: The Muslim Communities of the Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, and Western Burma/Myanmar (New York: Lexington Books, 2002).

Moshe Yegar, “The Panthay (Chinese Muslims) of Burma and Yunnan,” Journal of Southeast Asian History, Vol. 7, No. 1 (1966), pp. 73-85.

See also: Myanmar, Islam