A Geography of Anti-Islam Violence: Burma

The 2000s are not a good time to be a Muslim, because “Muslims” (if there is such a generalized community, which of course there isn’t) are routinely vilified in the media. But this post isn’t about the “lamestream” media that the West (and the U.S. in particular) finds itself saddled with. This post concerns the anti-Islam sentiments of “societies” themselves, specifically in South Asia. A cursory look at recent history will uncover plenty of evidence of violence, sometimes pogroms, against Muslims. Of course, the latent desire for certain people to target, discriminate against, and kill other certain people isn’t helped by current events and the way they’re portrayed.

You know the elephant in this blog post. September 11, 2001. When the actions of 19 individuals, tied to a single organization, not only destroyed two towers and thousands of lives, but was used as justification to vilify the system of beliefs for well over a billion people. Sadly, the media (and the rest of us) are all too willing to present and discuss these conflicts in one dimensional terms, “they were Muslim”. This is the first in a series (not necessarily in order!) of discussions of violence targeting Muslims, today’s post focuses on Burma.

But like all conflicts, the ones I present have multiple dimensions. These discussions revolves around the point that these societies (all societies in fact), made up population groups, are all fractured along multiple identity lines. Sometimes the cracks aren’t visible, nothing manifests in the news. Otherwise the cracks are all too visible. You can see them in your own society, if you know where to look (hint: the cracks). The cracks though run in multiple directions. But as humans, we try to generalize and simplify – in order to make sense of complex situations. The problem, of course, is that we believe our own simplifications and take these as truth. The only truth, of course, is that it is complex and any one thing could never be (fully) explained in a single blog post.

Burma has been experiencing periodic violent conflict, cast in the light of ethno-religious terms by the media, over the past several years. Considering the way the media is structured, especially with the “24-hour news cycle”, and the authoritarian nature of the military regime, we can be certain that the Myanmar conflict has been ongoing (or simmering) for years, perhaps decades. International news are unlikely to report “continued tensions between Muslims and Buddhists”, since this isn’t likely to grab a reader’s attention. However, one-off stories of “Gang of [fill in religious group] kill scores in [fill in place of worship of other group]” are likely to generate readership and interest. A sufficiently authoritarian government (see: Stalin, Tito, Asad for example) is also more apt to keep inter-population group tensions at a minimum through a combination of carrots and sticks. The carrot is providing state/public resources to favored population groups. The stick is… they’ll kill you if you cause trouble. With Burma’s tentative steps towards democracy, ethnic tensions are boiling over. Probably because there’s increased international scrutiny, meaning we’re paying attention more AND because they (Rohingya and Burmans) know we’re paying attention and probably because the government is on its “best” behavior, i.e. not killing trouble-makers.

Last year anti-Muslim violence was concentrated in the west, in Rakhine (formerly Arakan) state. This state hosts, in very broad terms, the Rohingya and Rakhine communities. The Rohingya speak an Indo-Aryan language, similar to (but distinct from) Bengali, and typically practice Sunni Islam. Because of this cultural and linguistic similarity with the majority population group in Bangladesh (the Bengalis), a number of Burman sources in Burma (Myanmar) contend that the Rohingya are “illegal immigrants.” In contrast, the Rakhine community speak a dialect of Burmese, which is a Sino-Tibetan language. They principally adhere to Theravada Buddhism (the so-called “Hinayana”/”Lesser Vehicle” ). The community is also related to the Burman population group (the largest ethnic group in Burma) as well as the Marma and Chakma groups in Bangladesh (which principally reside in the Chittagong Hill Tracts). The recent change has been the spread of Buddhist violence to new areas quite far from Rakhine/Arakan, where there isn’t much of a Muslim minority population to speak of.

The fundamental question is… are the Rohingya illegal immigrants? No. First, who would choose to settle in an isolationist, authoritarian military state. Would anyone want to illegally settle in North Korea? Turning to our history books, Islam was present in South and Southeast Asia centuries before the arrival of the British. It first arrived via Sufi saints and mystics who integrated with local communities, adapting to their customs. It came again through the sword of Turkish invaders. Obviously, the Sufis had more of an impact on local populations. Over the intervening centuries, Muslim traders often settled in commercial and port towns and used their connections to facilitate international trade (much like Chinese traders elsewhere in Southeast Asia). Arakan was one such commercial outpost. Importantly, Arakan also bordered Chittagong and the rest of Bangladesh, which had become increasingly Islamic during the British Raj (due in no small part to the eastern province’s (East Bengal) depressed economic status and the crushing oppression of the Hindu caste system). The history of the last independent Arakan kingdom, Mrauk U, is intimately tied with Bengal. After Burman conquest of Arakan in 1785, the Burma Empire engaged in atrocities amounting to ethnic cleansing (though the source discounts the existence of “Rohingya” in Burma prior to the 1800s).

The lamestream media’s darling, Aung San Suu Kyi (winner of the ::cough, cough:: Nobel Peace Prize) made “rare” (not even my words) comments on the violence gripping the country recently. Honestly, they weren’t even comments it was a shrugging response, a lame answer. It was (gasp) a politician’s response. ASSK commented that she was “not a magician” and couldn’t use magic to make tensions dissipate. Thanks for clearing that up! Prior to this I cannot recall ANY substantive comments from ASSK on ethno-religious violence in Burma (of which there are several instances). As the BDnews24 article observes, ASSK herself is a “devout (Theravada) Buddhist.” I’m guessing that ASSK is a Burman Buddhist. While the decision to support or criticize violence between two population is an individual decision, that she shares a similar language and religious affinity is a hurdle. The violence is focused around the Muslim minority community of Burma, some of whom also happen to share a similar language with Bengali (spoken in Bangladesh and India). Of course, the Muslims have existed in western Burma since before the absorption of the last independent kingdom of Mrauk U in 1785. However, Burma was part of the British Raj, which would facilitate a great deal of “internal” migration within the Raj. This migration, often encouraged by the British to foster economic advancement, would not have been welcomed by the “native” population.

Finally, all of this violence comes about a year before Burma conducts its first census since 1983 (the pilot census should have just been completed a week ago). A census typically forms the basis for the distribution of public resources and political power, it is a catalog of a state’s most important resource – people. People are not, as you should know by now in this post, a homogeneous mass. There is no single Burmese nationality. In a country dominated by a single ethnic group, the Burman for instance, what would happen if a census showed that a minority group, the Rohingya, had actually experienced faster population growth than the Rakhine? If the Rohingya knew and could put aside their own internal differences, they could be reasonably confident of forming a state government sensitive to their rights and desires. Why might the Rohingya be a larger population group? For the simple reason that they are oppressed and poor. Children are their social security, the state doesn’t provide for this group like it does for the favored Rakhine.

Demography always returns to bite autocrats in the ass.

A Geographic Perspective on Attacks on the Hindu Community in Bangladesh

This post returns to the topic of religious cleansing in Bangladesh, the same subject as a post a few days ago. While I won’t be revisiting this topic continually, as this blog is supposed to be more than tracking current events, I do find myself keeping tabs on this particular country and issue. As I’ve said previously, I find issues of identity and violence particularly compelling within the discipline of Geography and considering that I wrote my thesis on Bangladesh… let’s just say I can’t keep away!

For this post, I wanted to map out recent attacks on the community as reported in a battery of news reports from BDnews24 (while I’d prefer the Daily Star, BDnews24 has a working RSS feed, well done). From my thesis I ended up acquiring district-wise population of religious communities in Bangladesh, but only for 1991. Apparently, these numbers were captured in 2001 or they were not reported. Incidentally, the center-right Bangladesh National Party was in power in 2001. Guess who was part of the ruling coalition? If you guessed the Jamaat-e Islami Bangladesh I owe you a drink. At any rate, not reporting the numbers of religious minorities during that particular regime is a little… odd, to say the least. Keep in mind that academics, and some NGOs, have been discussing the “missing millions” of Bangladeshi Hindus for at least a few decades at that point in 2001. The Census results for 2011 seem to be available, but in a useless format (PDF) so it will take me some time to get it converted to Excel and then into a more user-friendly GIS format (stay tuned!). More to the point, religious statistics are also in the 2011 results (you really have no idea how excited I am right now!!). And to make it even better, individual villages, unions, and sub-districts (upzilas) have that information – this is unprecedented! Well folks, I’m sorry but there will be some more Bangladesh-centric blogging!

Back on topic, obviously I don’t have the 2011 data available (since I literally just found it!) so we’ll have to make do with the 1991 until I crunch it so, at the very least, there will be an update.

As we can see on the map below, the Hindu community (at least the folks who decided that they would self-identify, which isn’t a foregone conclusion in a society that has routinely targeted minorities for prejudice and violence) is primarily concentrated in peripheral districts outside the capital at Dhaka (which is the central city figuratively and literally). The largest concentration is in the southwest, in Khulna and Barisal division (those borders are not shown). As I indicated in the previous post, Khulna “should have” gone to India in 1947. Joya Chatterji (1999) has a great article on the making of the Bengal frontier. The deciding factor for Khulna being provided to Pakistan, rather than India, lies not in human geography (since Khulna was majority non-Muslim at the time) but in economic geography. Calcutta, one of the principle trade centers for British India, was going to India. However, its link to the Ganga River was bisected by a Muslim-majority district, Murshidabad. In order to secure Calcutta’s link to the rest of India, the Indian National Congress was willing to trade Khulna for Murshidabad. The other aspect, which Chatterji points out deftly, is the internal politics at work. She argues that INC leaders were already thinking ahead to dominating electoral politics and so cut-out Khulna and the likely voter base there. You can identify, roughly, where Murshidabad is located. There’s a noticeable lack of Hindu communities north of the Khulna concentration, just across the border lies Murshidabad (in West Bengal state, India).

Attacks on the Hindu Minority Community and its Population, 2013/1991 (via ME!)

Attacks on the Hindu Minority Community and its Population, 2013/1991 (via ME!)

Overlaying recent attacks reported by BDnews24 (there are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 reports mentioning 7 distinct sub-districts), there are only a few conclusions that we can make, none of them strongly. I’ve heard elsewhere that Human Rights Watch has a report out condemning violence and noting at least 100 attacks, that would be useful material for updating this work. In the meantime, the attacks betray JIB’s diffuse reach in Bangladesh. It would seem that JIB, and their supporters, are either avoiding targeting the community in the largest metropolitan areas (the divisional capitals) or I’ve missed the reports (which is likely). However, temples are being burned to the ground in the district towns, such as Gazipur Sadar and Faridpur Sadar (labelled Gazipur/Faridpur S.). From an organic state framework, these attacks are happening in relatively state-powerful areas – district towns. One hopes that these attacks aren’t occurring with the complicity of the local police…

Moreover, the attacks are occurring where there are relatively large number of Hindus (like Morrelganj in Bagerhat district, Khulna, the southern most) and small numbers of adherents (Shibganj in Chapain Nawabganj district, Rajshahi, the western most). In Nawabganj, Hindus made up 4.8% of the population in 1991, in 2011 they made up 4.0%. In Shibangaj itself, Hindus make up only 2.8% of the population (2011 data).

The decrease is starker in Bagerhat district. In 1991, 22% of the population claimed to be Hindu, in 2011 that proportion dropped to 18%. In Morrelganj, the minority Hindu community makes up 10.5% of the population.

When I had initially started this particular geographic exercise I hypothesized that JIB activists and supporters might not target the Hindu community in large concentrations (like Khulna) because of the likelihood for retaliatory attacks. Instead, I hypothesized that the JIB would target the community in places where it was less populous (like Rajshahi). Obviously I was wrong and right on each count, respectively, forcing me to amend my hypotheses as I continue to dig.

I could amend this model to include the fact that local JIB leadership will target, whoever and wherever they feel like, population-size be damned. Additionally, I should account for decreases in the Hindu population. Why? Because if I know its decreased, based on a Census report, than local militant Islamists certainly know it. What do they have to fear, there’s less Hindus now then there were in 1991. On the other hand the minority community of Hindus, while the largest minority religious group in the country (by far), is fast dwindling. After being routinely targeted over the decades and assuming that the Government, now as well as then, isn’t going to assist, and being acutely aware of being a minority group – perhaps the only recourse is simply to leave the country? In the end, the Islamists get one of the things they want: a fully “Muslim” Bangladesh.

This is one of the problems with the 24-hour news cycle and humanity’s inherent attention deficit disorder. We’re quick (or not) to jump on obvious genocides: Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia. But slow-burning problems, like the displacement of millions of Bengali Hindus, fails to spark a debate. Even within India, a country one would think would be more sensitive to this situation, this is scantly (if ever) reported. On the other hand, the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka has been grabbing headlines in the Times of India for weeks, literally. But, then again, Sri Lanka’s treatment of Tamils (even before the emergence of the Liberation Tigers) leaves much to be desired, but that’s for an upcoming post.

Bangladesh and Hindus: A Geography of Cleansing

A special edition post reflecting the news from Bangladesh on the execution sentence issued to one of the primary leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JIB). For those not in the know, the JIB is an Islamist political party (a party seeking to replace the “democratic” state of Bangladesh with one based on shari’a [Islamic] law). While I could write at length (and have elsewhere) on Bangladesh, the salient pieces of information here are the country’s lack of coherent state identity (are we Bengali or Islamic?) and it’s history of accommodating Islamist ideology (that the center-left Awami League is attempting to reverse). The execution order comes on the heels of a trials focused on accusations of war crimes (genocide) committed by senior JIB leaders during the country’s independence conflict in 1971 (independence from Pakistan). Estimates vary but between 1 million and 3 million people in what was East Pakistan lost their lives. Unsurprisingly, supporters of the JIB, including party activists and the party’s student wing (Islami Chhatra Shibir), have started rioting in the country.

The riots themselves are the subject of this special edition post for they betray the JIB’s view of Bangladesh and their answer to the “state identity” question. This current view conforms to the reason its senior leaders stand accused of war crimes, as we shall see. Generally, these riots highlight the nexus between identity, geography, and people, in other words, human geography.

As reported in Bangladeshi press, JIB activists “torch[ed]” a Hindu temple in the southeastern district of Noakhali of Chittagong division. Tensions between the Muslim and Hindu communities have been long standing (since at least the early 1900s) and due, in part, to British imperial policy. As most colonial and imperial powers learned, it was easier to govern areas by empowering a community (often a minority) over the others. The history of Islam of India (and Bengal) extends much before the arrival of the British, of course, generally Islam came via the sword (Mughal and Turkish conquerors) who were generally Persian and elitist. The other avenue were through Sufi monks, who often adapted Islam to local practices, it was this latter avenue that generally won converts among local population groups. However, the most “Indians” (keep in mind a unified political entity of India didn’t exist until the British left, and technically still doesn’t). Because of the existing bureaucratic and administrative structure of (Muslim) Mughal “India”, it was easy for the imperial power to co-opt as it replaced Mughal authority with British authority. And it just so happened that the Muslim community was, based on the entirety of Bengal province, a minority.

As the population of the province grew, attracted by potential economic gains thanks to Calcutta’s link to the wider British empire, the British decided to sub-divide Bengal to more easily govern it. The province underwent two or three “partitions” before being officially partitioned in 1947, during Indian/Pakistani independence. Generally, the partitions and combinations angered one community or another (as land, power, and people are inseparable). But the big wrench was the 1947 partition.

At this point Indians had to answer the question, based on Pakistan’s departure, are we a country of Indians (despite Pakistan’s removal, and adjusting for the north-south divide) or are we a country of Hindus (because of Pakistan’s removal, though allowing for a north-south regionalism). Pakistan, until 1971, had it easy – “we are a country of Muslims” – united. Of course, in practice the government was dominated by Punjabi Muslims in West Pakistan. In 1970-1971, when East Bengal managed to elect Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as a Prime Minister, he wasn’t allowed to take his position. Bangladesh, with India’s help, gained its independence in 1971 after enduring a civil war that killed millions and accusations of atrocities against the Pakistani Army and Bengali collaborators (bringing us to the trials against the JIB leadership). However, Bangladesh now had an existential crisis – what defines the state? Are they Bengalis? Perhaps not since West Bengal state (primarily Hindu) is part of India. Are we Muslims? Perhaps not since we just broke away from “Pakistan”.

Obviously, the JIB sees the answer as Bangladesh is a “nation” of Muslims, pan-Islamism in regards to Pakistan. This is why their senior leadership committed war crimes against Bengali civilians during the independence movement as part of the al-Badr and Razakar militias. This is why JIB activists targeted a Hindu temple during this unrest, because they are not a legitimate part of the body politic (to the Islamists) . The situation for Hindus is so bad in Bangladesh that a number of academics have discussed the “missing millions” in Bangladeshi Hindu population. While some are murdered, most are forced out of their homes, their lands and property confiscated, and wind up in India. While the JIB may certainly engage in this activity there’s bound to be additional culprits. A systematic study of the links between political parties and social organizations with this problem has yet to be undertaken by Bangladeshi academics (and if it has I don’t know about it).

The geographical link lies in the relative concentrations of the Hindu community within Bangladesh. Primarily, according to past Census data (1991 and 2001), the community is concentrated in the country’s southwest in Khulna division (see map below), which shares a border with West Bengal state. This relatively large concentration of Hindus was actually used as a reason to include that division with India before the 1947 partition. While the countries were largely organized along social lines (Pakistan being Muslim, India being non-Muslim), there were notable economic exceptions. In the case of Bengal, urban areas were allowed to control their hinterlands. Thus, Calcutta ended up receiving hinterlands in Murshidabad that were primarily Muslim, while combined Pakistan (through Chittagong) received non-Muslim hinterlands in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Khulna was somewhat of a surprise decision, assigned to Pakistan despite having a large Hindu minority population.

Hindu Community in Bangladesh, 1991/2001 (via wikipedia)

This geographic disconnect between monolithic state identity and local-level realities continue to be a source of instability for both countries. Indeed, another Bangladeshi press article reported that hardline elements of the “sizeable population of Urdu-speaking Muslims” (interesting since Bengali is a separate language) sympathize with the JIB. Moreover, West Bengal “hardline Islamist radical” elements are attempting to enter Bangladesh.  The article reports that India is calling for the sealing of the border between West Bengal and Bangladesh.

From Earth Snapshot: Haze over Bangladesh

For those of you with readers, if you haven’t subscribed to Earth Snapshot yet, you should really consider it. Multiple daily satellite images of Earth, aside from their beauty they’re a valuable learning tool in their own right.

A few days ago, Earth Snapshot released this view (and reproduced below) of the eastern Bay of Bengal showing Bangladesh, Burma (Myanmar), and parts of northeastern India. The caption for the image discusses mountains natural ability to block smoke and haze from traveling over them. As we all know, heat rises, but when it is forced upwards by a mountain chain the air cools, forcing it back down if the mountain ridges are too high. This is an important aspect of the precipitation cycle, warm moist air low-lying areas and oceans are eventually forced upwards when they are pushed into mountain chains, as the air cools the moisture is released as precipitation, watering the mountainside and traveling downhill towards rivers and, eventually, larger bodies of water. In this image, we see haze from India and Bangladesh (attributed to agricultural fires and pollutants) locked out of Burma by the eastern Himalaya.

What is most striking to me is the clear delineation of the border between Bangladesh and the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya. Meghalaya’s landscape is dominated by the Khasi Hills, which are lush and heavily forested. Further north beyond the forested hills are the agricultural lands along the Assam Plain (on either side of the Brahmaputra river). The eastern boundary of Bangladesh with India and Burma is less discernible thanks to the forested Chittagong Hills, foothills of the eastern Himalaya. Finally while Bangladesh is overwhelmingly agricultural land (Dhaka is just obscured by a cloud), we can still make out the Sundarbans in the country’s south, at the western mouth of the combined Ganga-Brahmaputra (Padma-Jamuna) river system. This extensive mangrove forest is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna (including the endangered Royal Bengal tiger). Beyond the wildlife, the Sundarbans also absorb some of the devastation brought by cyclonic activity which routinely ravage the country.

In contrast with the haze over Bangladesh, the skies over Burma are clear allowing us to clearly see the mouth of the Irrawaddy river and its floodplain.


haze over India and Bangladesh (via eosnap)