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A sadly forgotten Muslim visionary

Mandalay is an unpleasant city. It bears little resemblance to the evocative image conjured up by Kipling’s poem of the same name.

There are no flying fishes, spicy garlic smells, girls in yellow petticoats, elephants piling teak or even tinkly temple bells.

It’s a big, hot, ramshackle city in the middle of Myanmar’s dusty central plains – a place you try to escape from to the nearby ancient capital of Ava, pagoda-rich Sagaing, or the cool hill town of Pyi Oo Lwin.

But when you’re stuck in Mandalay, there’s always one thing that brings great pleasure, and that is to cycle around the original university campus, where wonderful white stone edifices are redolent of Oxford.

It’s invariably deserted, aside from a few pariah dogs and other cyclists taking a short cut between the still, tree-shaded buildings.

Fearing unrest by dissident students, the military shut down the university and replaced it with smaller, more controllable colleges in distant suburbs.

But the old girl remains a magical place — especially the Chemistry Faculty’s colonnaded building, opened by Sir Spencer Harcourt Butler, then governor of Burma, on December 22, 1924.

Shortly before this auspicious event, a young man who had been schooled in Mandalay and had later graduated from the prestigious Rangoon College upset the governor.

He was Abdul Razak, later known simply as U Razak, and he helped lead a student boycott aimed at opposing the British colonial education system.

Despite his anti-establishment bent, Razak was appointed headmaster of the Mandalay National High School at the tender age of 23.

Clearly a man to watch, he was spotted by General Aung San, the nation’s independence hero and father of today’s opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The general judged people by their merits, not whether they were dark-skinned or Christian or graduates or from ethnic minorities (or, in Razak’s case, Muslim).

It was irrelevant to him that Razak’s father was an Indian Muslim and his mother a local Buddhist.

All that was important was that Razak was a visionary educationalist and a superb administrator.

Aung San appointed him to the pre-independence cabinet as Minister of Education and National Planning.

Tragically, however, both men were assassinated, along with five other ministers, in Rangoon on July 19, 1947. At the time, Razak was also chairman of the All Burma Muslim Congress.

It seems incredible. In today’s Myanmar, it is inconceivable for a Muslim to become a senior minister or hold a top government post.

Certainly, under Aung San’s daughter, Suu Kyi, there will be no Muslims in the cabinet and precious few, if any, in her entire party.

Myanmar’s Muslims have been marginalised, disenfranchised and semi-offic-ially characterised as objects of hatred.

This process began in the 1930s and peaked under the military dictator Ne Win, who expelled large numbers of Burmese Indians, especially Muslims, and seized the assets of others so they had little option but to leave.

As well as decimating the ranks of Muslims, this action caused them to be regarded as alien fifth columnists trying to dilute, if not bring down, Burma’s pure Buddhist majority.

That is why the massacre in Meiktila — where Razak was born — occurred last week and why little, if any, action will be taken against the killers.

It is also why, when Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy contested the 1990 election, not one of its 392 victorious candidates was a Muslim.

Unlike her father, Suu Kyi is a real politician. Her key concern is to do whatever is necessary and expedient to win the presidency in 2015.

If that means ignoring the Rohingya Muslims, and their brothers slaughtered in Meiktila, so be it.

Poor Razak must be turning in his grave, but at least his memory lives on.

If you ever visit the old Mandalay campus, please look out for Razak Hall, which houses the university’s library.  Just don’t expect to find any Muslims inside.

Contact our regional insider Roger at rogermitton@gmail.com

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