Part 1 – Cyclone Nargis a Year Later: Understanding the Impact on Muslims in the Irrawaddy Delta

Burma1Last year, we were faced with two disasters in Asia.  Many individuals, families, foundations and corporations in the U.S. stepped up and generously supported the disaster relief and recovery of Cyclone Nargis in Burma and the Sichuan Earthquake in China.  In the same spirit of sharing, I had invited several authors to pick a topic that was not in the mainstream news but related to the disasters.  For the next several posts, we hope our readers will enjoy these stories. This one of two part post is from Wesley Hedden, a volunteer of VIA stationed in Burma.

When Cyclone Nargis made landfall on May 2, 2008, it took the lives of nearly 150,000 people, left two to three million people homeless, and caused approximately ten billion dollars in damage. In the year since the storm, hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of supplies have come to the Irrawaddy Delta from foreign governments, NGOs, the UN, and other sources. There has been extensive media coverage of the storm but very little attention has been paid to one of the largest groups affected by the storm: the Muslims who constitute an estimated ten to fifteen percent of the victims of Cyclone Nargis. As a religious and ethnic minority, Muslims in Myanmar (most of whom are of Indian descent), have traditionally been marginalized, a problem that has been exasperated in recent decades by divisive government policies. As we approach the one year anniversary of Cyclone Nargis, I’d like to take a look at how Muslims fared the storm and its aftermath.

Muslims have had a presence in Myanmar since the Bagan period, almost a thousand years ago. Although the Muslim presence was relatively limited until the Burmese defeats in the Anglo-Burmese wars of the nineteenth century, Muslims lived and worked under the various Burmese kingdoms and had extensive influence in the Arakanese kingdom of what is now Rakhine State in western Myanmar. Under British rule, hundreds of thousands of Muslim Indians came to Burma to serve in civil service positions, the British military, and to seek business opportunities. It was during the colonial period that tensions arose between Muslims (and other Indians) and ethnic Burmese Buddhists. Riots broke out on several occasions in the 1930s, killing hundreds of people. Many vicious stereotypes and myths about Muslims developed during the 1930s that persist in Myanmar to this very day. Tensions continued through World War II and the post-independence period reaching a nadir in 1962 when General Ne Win expelled upwards of three hundred thousand thousand Muslims and others of Indian descent, many of whom were third or fourth generation immigrants and who spoke only Burmese.

Burma3 More recently, in Mandalay in 1997 and Taungoo in 2001, there were riots that led to the deaths of over two hundred Muslims and the burning of Muslim homes and mosques. While the violence was led by Buddhist monks, it is popularly believed that the monks were not in fact monks, but instead government agents.

A local Muslim scholar told me that this is part of a larger government effort to tarnish the reputation of Muslims and create division between Buddhists and Muslims through books, television programs, and newspapers which propagate negative stereotypes and misinformation about Muslims. The Muslim scholar explained that his religious community in Myanmar is a “soft target” and a “scapegoat,” that the government uses to generate fear among the country’s populace to distract them from the government’s failures. To this day, it is very difficult, if not impossible, for Muslims to get a national registration card because they are classified as foreigners by the government. Without a national registration card, a person is unable to vote, register for a passport, start a business, cross state lines, or even stay in a hotel.