Moshe Yegar and Muslims in Burma in the Days of Kings
RVision Article and Analysis
By Aman Ullah
[Moshe Yegar, was a Second Secretary at the Embassy of Israel in Rangoon during early 1960s. During his stay in Burma he submitted a thesis on the subject “Muslims in Burma” for his M. A. degree to the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. His subject was to deal with the Muslim community in Burma from the eleventh century up until the year 1962 with a purpose of reconstructing the chronological history of the community and to follow the main trends that characterized that community. This article is some extractions of his thesis.]
Muslim seamen first reached Burma in the ninth century. Southern Burma, or more exactly, the coastal regions of Arakan, the Delta of the River Irrawaddy, Pegu, and Tenasserim, was known to the Muslim sailors of that period who traded in the eastern waters. 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 continued contact of Muslim traders with Burma from the ninth to the sixteenth centuries did leave some traces. There were relic of a number of temples built by Muslim sailors in various places along the coasts from India to Malaya. These buildings, known as buddermokan, are equally holy to Muslims, Hindus, Chinese, and Buddhists. They were built in memory of the saint Badr al-Din Awliya*, who is said to have appeared during the first half of the fifteenth century. This Badr is worshipped as a spirit (Nat) by the Buddhist, as an inferior god (Deva) by the Hindus, as a spirit by the Chinese, and as a saint by the Muslim. His worship is the same as that accepted throughout the East for spirits and supernatural creatures, revered by the whole population regardless of religion. The worship symbolizes an ancient “universal” belief in the God of the Flood, introduced to Burma by Muslims and mixed with a variety of Hindu, Buddhist and animistic beliefs.
In Burma there are several mosques of this type: One, in Akyab, apparently built in 1756; another in Sandoway, and a third on a small island of the Mergui Archipelago off the Tenasserim coast. Their principal devotees are sailors and fishermen. The architectural style, with minaret and cupola and the niche on the west side (mibrab), synthesizes the Burmese pagoda and the Muslim mosque. There are also graves of saints (dargah) in Sandoway, Bassein, Syriam, and other places which are said to be of other saints and not of Badr al-Din Awliya. “The people who revered them hardly know anything about them except that they are the tombs of the Muslim saints of days gone by”.
Well before the decline of Muslim shipping, important Muslim trading communities had settled in the coastal towns of Burma. The monk Sangermano who lived in Burma during the years 1763-1807, wrote that “the commerce is entirely concentrated in Rangoon, where it is exercised by the inhabitants, as well as by a number of Mahommedan Moors, some Armenians, few English, French and Portuguese, who have taken up their residence there”.
Michael Symes, a British representative who came to negotiate with the King of Burma in 1795-96 and again in 1802, noted in his memoirs that Persians, Armenians, and Muslims had divided most of the trade in Rangoon among themselves. The growing necessity to deal with a large number of foreigners, amongst them many Muslims, who had settled permanently in Burma, often moved the government to appoint selected persons of these communities to position connected with the control of trade and the contact with foreigners.
Parallel with their commercial penetration in the coastal towns of Burma, the Muslims also settled in the interior of the kingdom. They came as mercenaries in the service of the Burmese kings and the local lords, or as prisoners of war. The army of King Anawratha (eleventh century) already boasted Indian units and bodyguards, Muslims apparently among them. 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. “It is possible that Mahomedan shipmen, when hired to fight, used in Burma on a few occasions towards the end of the fifteenth century something that could be distinguished as a firearm”. 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.
Generally speaking, the Burmese kings who forced their Buddhist subjects to adhere to Buddhism, were tolerant toward foreigners. Bayinnaung was the first Burmese king to show religious intolerance toward non-Buddhists. He also forbade Muslims to slaughter cattle for the “Sacrifice Feast”. 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. Alaungpaya, too, forbade Muslims to kill cattle.
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. British Henry Yule who visited Burma in 1855 wrote that the governor of Pagan was also a Muslim who was executed. 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 (ใ 824—1826) was likewise conducted in Persian.
Henry Yule provides eye-witness reports on the role of the Muslims in the Burmese army in the middle of the nineteenth century: “The artillery force in personnel amounts to 500 men. About eighty of these are natives of India who have settled in Amarapoora. The rest are Burmese, Munnipooris, and Pathis, or native Mahomedans. The Munnipooris and people from India receive monthly two baskets of rice; the Burmese have land free of rent; and the Pathis, who were enrolled in the corps by the present king, have exemption from certain occasional payments”. Muslims also participated in the fighting of the second Anglo-Burmese war (1852).
In the days of Burmese 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.
In the sixteenth century the Burmese kings started settling Muslims in Upper Burma, near Myedu in the District of Shwebo. These villages still exist today. The settlers were mostly Muslim prisoners who had been brought there at various periods. The first groups were Muslim prisoners from among the defenders of Pegu in 1539 and 1599; and from the raids of Arakan by Tabinshweti in 1546 and 1549. King Anaukpetlun (1605-1628) conquered Syriam in 1613 from the Portuguese adventurer De Brito who had tried to proclaim himself king of the city. The Portuguese and the Muslim soldiers, as well as the sailors who were for the most part Muslims who had come to help De Brito, were taken prisoner and were then settled in Myedu and elsewhere in the neighbouring districts – Sagaing, Yamethin, and Kyaukse. They received lands as payment for their services to the king. They had regularly to supply 150 musketeers to the palace guard and this service was passed on by inheritance. King San`e raided Sandoway in 1707 and brought several thousand Muslim prisoners to Myedu. In 1708 a group of 3000 Muslim refugees from Arakan settled in the region. They were distributed among the districts of Shwebo, Yamethin, and Taungoo, and were also forced to supply palace bodyguards as payment for districts of Shwebo and Yamethin during the days of King Alaungpaya (1752-1760). They came to offer military service. The Burmese took care to distribute the Muslim settlers in small groups and in many villages so as to prevent the formation of a strong Muslim force which might constitute a threat to the kingdom. The Muslims of these regions and their descendants are to this day called Myedu Kala or Kulabyo (apart from the name Pathee, given to Muslims in Burma in general). In the population census taken during British times the Myedu Muslims were registered as a separate group.
The Muslims quickly assimilated into their Burmese surroundings, gave up their own language, customs and dress, but retained their religion. By the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth there were already Muslim communities of considerable size in all the principal cities of Burma. They generally lived in separate quarters for foreigners called kaladan, “foreign dwellings”. They were controlled by special officials bearing the title Kalawun.
There are some few Burmese converts to Muslim, generally from the influence of a Muslim husband or wife; converts not being molested in any way by the Government. But the majority of the professors of this faith are supposed to be of Western descent. Some families believe themselves to have been settled in Burma for five or six hundred years; other are descended from Mussulmans of India or Western Asia, whom chance or trade has brought hither as voluntary emigrants in later years; other from Mahomedans of Aracan or Munnipoor, and perhaps Kachar, forcibly deported by the Burmans during their inroads into those countries. But all having intermarried with the natives they are undistinguishable at sight from other Burmans, except those whose family migration is of late date, and who possess a very peculiar and distinct physiognomy.
They wear the Burman dress, speak the Burman language, and are Burmese in nearly all their habits. Every indigenous Mussulman has two names … As a son of Islam he is probably Abdul Kureem; but as a native of Burma, and for all practical purposes, he is Moung-yo or Shwepo. Mahomedans are found sparsely in the rural districts as well as in the capital, and have occasionally their humble mosque, where five or six families are found together.
There is no doubt that similar Muslim communities existed in most other cities of Burma. The first mosque in Rangoon was apparently built in 1826, after the signing of the Yandabo agreement at the end of the first Anglo-Burmese war. It was destroyed in 1852 when the city was conquered for a second time by the British. Arakanese Muslims who settled in the city at that time built the “Arakanese Mosque” which is the oldest one standing in the town today.
King Mindon (1853-1878), known to be tolerant and charitable toward other religions, built two churches and a missionary school for the Christians and helped the Muslims to build mosques. He decided to build a hostel in Mecca for the comfort of Burmese Muslim pilgrims and at his own expense sent Burmese Muslims with money to erect the building which exists to this day. When he died, representatives of all the foreign communities, including Muslims were invited to pay him homage as he lay in state.
In the last period of Burma’s history prior to the British conquest, from 1795 until the fall of Mandalay in 1885, the Muslims were active in state affairs between the British and the Burmese kings. During those years, several diplomatic missions were sent to the Burmese kings from the Governor General of India, for the purpose of strengthening friendship ties with Burma. These overtures were resisted by the population of the Burmese ports, especially by the Muslim and Armenian traders who feared British competition.