Thailand treated the Burmese Muslims refugees better than all the other Muslim governments

A Seat at the Table

By Edward Blair and Aung Zaw

Mae Sot, Thailand
January 17, 2006

In addition to greater international attention on their plight in exile, Thailand’s growing community of Burmese Muslims wants a voice in the political future of their country.

In October 2005 report documenting the Burmese junta’s steady assault on its Muslim minority, titled

“Myanmar’s [Burma’s] Muslims: Oppressed of the Oppressed,”

draws the following conclusion:

  1. “Caught between non-recognition as victims of religious hatred

  2. and violence by those countries who have brought sanction against Myanmar,

  3. and ignored by supposed co-religionist governments who have gone so far as to support the junta, even with arms,

  4. the Muslims of Myanmar hold the unenviable position of being oppressed even in some cases by the oppressed.”

Released by the UK-based Islamic Human Rights Commission, the report focuses primarily on the Muslim Rohingyas of Arakan State, who have fled oppression in the hundreds of thousands across the country’s western border with Bangladesh.

Junta aggression in Karen and Mon states, however, has also produced significant Muslim refugee populations, as whole communities have fled across the Thai-Burma border to Mae Sot.

Rahima bi, a 69-year-old mother of 11, was among them. Originally from Kyeikmayaw Township in Burma’s Mon State, Rahimabi fled Burma with her children in 1984, after the Burmese army attacked the Karen National Union-controlled village of Wandakian. Led by local Muslim leader Haji Yusof, Rahimabi and the rest of the village’s Muslim community resettled in Mae Sot.

Saw Hla, 96, fled Burma after the 1988 democracy uprising, in which two of her sons were arrested on charges of robbery and arson. The eldest later died in a prison labor camp. Saw Hla came of age in the waning years of British colonial rule in Burma and recalled that life at that time for Burmese Muslims was good.

She witnessed the long succession of regimes in Burma: the Japanese occupation during World War II, the fledgling independence government of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, Gen Ne Win’s regime, and finally the country’s current crop of military despots.

“This government is the worst,” said Saw Hla. “We were abandoned and betrayed.” She now lives in an area of Mae Sot known as the Bangladeshi Barracks, one of several predominantly Muslim neighborhoods. Her remaining sons work as city garbage collectors.

The Bangladeshi Barracks, a warren of narrow alleyways lined by dilapidated house fronts, circumnavigates the Bangalawalay Mosque, one of three mosques in Mae Sot. The Barracks derives its name from a wealthy Bangladeshi businessman, who bequeathed the land to the mosque to provide housing for Burmese Muslim immigrants.

Life in the Barracks and its environs revolves around the activities of the mosque. The men attend to their daily prayers-women are forbidden to enter the mosques and must make their devotions at home-and children study at the mosque school, a poorly funded affair that survives principally on rent collected from residents of the Barracks.

According to Adisak Asmimana, a local Thai Muslim and a former election commissioner for Tak Province,

  • some 30,000 Burmese Muslims live in border refugee camps.

  • About 8,000 live in Mae La camp just outside Mae Sot.

  • Restrictions on mobility and employment, among other things, make the refugee camps an unwelcome option for many in Mae Sot’s Muslim community.

Hasan, a 24-year-old migrant worker, lives in a crowded apartment complex adjacent to the Bangladeshi Barracks with his wife and newborn daughter. “I did not want to live in the camp,” he said. “I have many friends there, but I would rather work so I can support my family.”

He carries a UNHCR refugee registration card and has waited for nearly 3 years to be resettled in a third country. He visits the local office every month to check the status of his application. “I hope to go to the United States.”

That hope is common enough among Burmese Muslims, particularly with young people, some of whom have lived most or all of their lives on Thai soil. Though they speak Burmese, they have no memory of life in Burma.

Thailand has struggled for years-with varying degrees of success-to accommodate the steady stream of Burmese refugees across its western border. As with other ethnic minorities, Burmese Muslims have received a mixed reception.

Ekachai Nitibhumikun, a Thai Muslim lawyer in Mae Sot and an Executive Committee member of Masjit noor-ul-Islam mosque, suggested that Thai Muslims are of two minds about their Burmese co-religionists.

  • “There are two groups of Thai Muslims,” he said.

  • “One sees the Burmese as a burden.

  • The other views them as Muslim brothers who need protection and assistance.”

  • Thai Muslims have made_

  • substantial contributions to the Burmese community.

  • They built the school at Bangalawalay Mosque.

  • According to Adisak, Thai education department officials have also consulted with Burmese Muslim schools about curricula.

Ekachai added that_

  • the Thai government has provided some funding to Burmese mosques for vocational training.

  • In general, however, Burmese Muslims must rely on their own meager resources, or non-governmental support.

Thein Htun, 64, was a sergeant-major in the Burmese army’s Light Infantry Division 28, before fleeing Hlaing Bwe in Karen State for Mae Sot in 1992-he was accused of friendly connections with Karen rebel forces. Seven years later,

  • he opened a small school for the children of migrant workers.

  • Of the 98 students there, 87 are Muslims.

According to Thein Htun,

  • Thai education officials often visit the school to examine the curriculum,

  • but it receives no assistance from the Thai government

  • or from local Thai Muslims.

  • It survives principally on support from a local Catholic missionary.

“The school charges no tuition and costs 12,000 baht (US $300) per month to operate,” said Thein Htun. “When funds are available, teachers receive a small salary.”

The curriculum blends traditional subjects with

  • religious education.

  • Students receive religious instruction in morning and afternoon sessions,

  • including Arabic

  • and moral lessons drawn from the life of the prophet Mohammad.

  • In between, they study English, Thai, Burmese, math, science and geography.

“We do what we can for the students, but few will have the opportunity to study beyond what they receive here,” said Thein Htun.

Prospects for the children of Burmese Muslims

  • fortunate enough to hold “pink” ID cards,

  • issued more than a decade ago by the Thai government, are better.

  • They enjoy the full benefits of Thai citizenship,

  • including access to Thai schools.

For the majority of Mae Sot’s Burmese Muslims, however-living, as most of them do, outside the refugee camp system and forced to fend for themselves as migrant workers, short-term laborers and in some cases small business owners-support from the Thai government, as well as the city’s numerous non-governmental organizations, does not exist. Mosques are the principal source of aid and serve as cultural, as much as religious, hubs of the community.

They also provide a point of contact to resolve disputes that arise between Thai and Burmese communities. According to Thai lawyer Ekachai, few serious problems arise. Some instances of revenge beatings for personal offences have occurred within the two communities, but such cases are few.

A principal concern for both communities is the lure of the drug trade. The lack of employment and educational opportunities for Muslim youth make them easy targets for drug gangs, according to Adisak.

Haji Abdool Wadoose, a Burmese Imam, said that mosques in Mae Sot have initiated a weekly program to teach young Burmese Muslims how to better integrate into Thai society, with an emphasis on avoiding any participation, as users or dealers, in the town’s drug trade. “There have been problems in the past with drugs among our young people,” he said. “We have succeeded in resolving these issues, but we are always concerned about protecting our youth.”

The ambiguous position of Burmese Muslims in Thailand has been further complicated in recent years by the government’s delicate relationship with its own Muslim communities. As the IHRC report notes: “Thailand…has a long history of persecuting its Muslim minorities and 2004 saw the massacre in police detention of 84 in Southern Thailand.” That event helped to revive a deadly insurgency movement in which nearly 2,000 people have been killed since January 2004.

The ongoing unrest in southern Thailand has affected the Muslim community in Mae Sot.

The city’s rapidly growing Muslim population (Thai and Burmese) has drawn the attention of government authorities concerned that the insurgency could spread. According to several local clerics,

  • Thai military intelligence agents make frequent visits

  • to monitor activity in the mosques

  • and interview local Muslims

  • about possible connections to militant groups operating elsewhere in the country.

By all accounts, Burmese Muslims in Mae Sot have no connection to militant Muslim factions in Thailand or elsewhere. By virtue of their refugee status in Thailand, they are even cut off from their religious peers in other Muslim countries-something that the All Burma Muslim Union hopes to change.

Based in Mae Sot, the ABMU has attempted since its creation in 1980 to provide_

  • political leadership for Burmese Muslims in exile.

  • A member of the Democratic Alliance of Burma

  • and the National Council of the Union of Burma,

  • the ABMU also maintains a company of troops that has served with soldiers of the Karen National Liberation Army in Karen State’s Brigade 4 district since 1983.

“The ABMU is fighting for a_

  • democratic Burma

  • and a federal union, like other national races,” said Hamid, secretary-general of the group.

  • “We have a duty to be involved in the affairs of Burma, and the first duty is to bring down the military dictatorship.”

The organization’s influence to date, however, has been slight. Its soldiers in Karen State number only about 100 and they have seen little military action beyond light skirmishes since 1995.

“Recruitment is hard,” said Chartade, a former captain in the ABMU’s KNU Muslim contingent and a resident of the Bangladeshi Barracks. “Our young people are more interested in finding work in the larger cities like Bangkok instead of fighting in the jungle.”

In concert with its armed opposition to Burma’s military regime, the ABMU has also made efforts to bring the plight of Burmese Muslims to the attention of the international community.

The group issued a joint statement with the All Burma Young Monks’ Union in May 1997, urging Asean to reconsider their decision to admit Burma that year. “To accept SLORC [Burma’s then ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council] into your association will further frustrate the efforts of the Burmese people to build a free and prosperous country,” the statement concluded.

According to the secretary-general, the ABMU’s goals are much the same as other ethnic opposition groups.

“We want to play a role in a future federal union in Burma to represent the interests of Burmese Muslims,” said Hamid. “We are not extremists. We simply want equal protection under the law.”

The desire for_

  • equal protection-at home

  • and in exile-seems to be the order of the day for Mae Sot’s Burmese Muslim community.

  • Like the majority of refugees, they wait for the opportunity to return to a free Burma.

  • Meanwhile, they do what they can to provide for their families,

  • practice their religion without constraints

  • and hope that greater attention is given to what the IHRC calls “the oppressed of the oppressed.”