Law, Politics and Islam in Myanmar

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Date(s) - 05/10/2015
10:00 am - 11:00 am

Isaac Brown Seminar Room, Building 55, Ground Floor



Law, Politics and Islam in Myanmar

 Presented by Dr Melissa Crouch

Faculty of Law, UNSW



In the lead up to the Myanmar elections in November 2015, one issue has stood out: the precarious position of Muslims. From the recently enacted four laws that restrict inter-religious marriage, conversion and polygamy, to the disenfranchisement of those who do not hold full citizenship (many of whom are Muslims), opposition towards Islam has become a tool to garner political support. The dominant representation that emerges from these developments is the stereotype that Muslims do not belong in Myanmar. This presentation seeks to unpack recent developments and counter these perceptions by identifying ways in which Muslims in Burma have constructed a ‘Burmese Muslim’ identity.

In this talk I demonstrate that the primary response of Muslims to the resistance they have faced has been to promote a ‘Burmese Muslim’ identity that emphasises the ‘localised’ nature of Islam as a way of reaffirming their sense of belonging to the state. In contrast to the trend of Islamisation around the world since the 1970s, the existence and practises of Muslims in Myanmar primarily demonstrate a deep affiliation to local traditions. In focusing on the lived experiences of Muslims in Myanmar in historical context, I demonstrate the diversity within and among Muslim communities in Myanmar and the efforts Muslim communities have gone to in order to ‘fit in’ to this majority-Buddhist society. In particular, I identify three facets of theBurmese Muslim identity and the ways in which this identity is reiterated and reinforced in response to such challenges. First, Muslims have been active participants in political life in Myanmar as a way of demonstrating their commitment to the state. Second, the debates among the different Muslim communities on Islamic education have primarily affirmed the use of Burmese language. Third, the insistence that Burmese Muslim women should be free to wear traditional Burmese dress is a visible representation of the position of the Islamic community. In each of these ways, Muslims stand out for the remarkable lengths they have gone to in order to affirm their belonging to the Buddhist-majority state. The construction and reinforcement of the idea of a ‘Burmese Muslim’ is therefore key to understanding how Muslims have responded to the resistance they face in Myanmar.



Dr Melissa Crouch is a Lecturer at the Law Faculty, the University of New South Wales. She has previously been a Research Fellow at the International Institute of Asian Studies (Leiden); the Centre for Asian Legal Studies, Law Faculty, National University of Singapore; and the Asian Law Centre at the Melbourne Law School, the University of Melbourne. She focuses on socio-legal research in Southeast Asia. She is the author of Law and Religion in Indonesia: Conflict and the Courts in West Java (Routledge, 2013). She is the co-editor (with Tim Lindsey) of a volume on Law, Society and Transition in Myanmar (2014, Hart Publishing); and editor of Islam and the State in Myanmar (forthcoming Dec 2015, Oxford University Press). Melissa teaches in the areas of constitutional and administrative law, comparative law, Islamic law, and the legal traditions of Southeast Asia.