Different Myanmar Muslim groups

Muslims in Myanmar are mostly Sunni, of the Hanafi sect, with a small and ever decreasing number of Shi’ite sect followers. Today, Muslims could constitute as much as 13 per cent of the total population, although some experts on Myanmar assume them to constitute about 4 per cent or less, as stated in the official Myanmar census.[1] Although the census insists that Muslims represent no more than 3.8 per cent of the population (MOFA 2005), the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA 2005) states that they represent 4 per cent. Myanmar Muslims themselves estimate that they number approximately eight million.[2] It is not unusual for Muslims residing in non-Muslim countries to feel that the real Muslim census figures are underestimated. Thai Muslims complained about the 1960 Thai national census that recorded 1.5 million Muslims, when their number could have been double that, if not more (see Suthasasna 1983–84).

Muslims in Myanmar can be categorised into four different groups, omitting some significant Muslim minority communities: Pantay (Selth 2003:5–6), the largest group, includes the Rohingya of Rakhine (Arakan) whose members number approximately one million throughout the country; Bamar who converted to Islam in the time of Bamar kings and who call themselves ‘pure Bamar Muslims’; Indian Muslims born in Myanmar of two Indian Muslim parents; and the Zerbadees, who are the children of mixed marriages between Indian Muslim fathers and Burman mothers (Matthews 2001:5). Each group has very different relationships with the Buddhist majority and with the regime of Myanmar today (Selth 2003:5).

[1] Andrew Selth (2003:5) also noted a few who believed that Muslims could constitute 16 per cent, or eight million, of the total population, although most statistics for Myanmar are unreliable and this matter is not an exception. It is said that representatives of faiths other than Buddhism often mistrust the official religious statistics; see Matthews (2001:5).

[2] Speech delivered by Maung Ko Ghaffari, 12–15 February 2005, Cheongpyeong, Korea, cited in Lisanul—Islam Magazine, May–June 2005, Yangon, p. 86.