The turban stays on: How young Myanmar Sikhs confront discrimination

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Climate and rights activist Zay Linn Mon stands outside the former Punjab school in Yangon where his brother was told to remove his turban. (Photos by Lorcan Lovett)
By Lorcan Lovett | MYANMAR |

Between a Hindu temple and a Salvation Army church sits a four-storey-high school in downtown Yangon. Its foundation stone bears the name of Dr Randhir Singh, the Sikh who founded it on 24 February 1934.

The school was established at a time when anti-Indian sentiment was already brewing in Yangon, then known as Rangoon, the nation’s capital. But within three decades, covering the Second World War to the Burmese military coup in 1962 that established military rule, many Punjab students were forced to leave the country.

Fast forward to 2018: one Sikh boy sat among the Buddhist students, a sole representative of the school’s original faith. A new head teacher, who was apparently unfamiliar with the Sikh religion, gave the student an ultimatum: either the turban goes or you do. The young boy was eventually allowed to wear his turban, but the teacher was never held accountable for the discriminatory behaviour.

That episode in the classroom may be indicative of a once-flourishing community, eventually beaten down to obscurity. But most Sikhs at a nearby temple, or gurdwara, would disagree. Their modest numbers are growing, worshippers tell New Naratif. The new generation is unafraid to grapple with a biased system. They are winning small victories for equality here and there, such as the freedom to express their religion in certain spaces, while also obtaining smaller bureaucratic reforms.

The Sikh student’s brother, Zay Linn Mon, 23, is one of those rare people in Myanmar who openly calls for justice for the country’s persecuted Rohingya Muslims.

A climate and rights activist, he, as well as his mother, explained to the brother’s headmaster that the turban is not a taqiyah (a Muslim prayer cap), and that Sikhism and Islam are two different religions, the latter of which is vilified by Buddhist extremists.

“I feel guilty saying that,” said Zay Linn Mon. “It’s not the teachings of the Sikh people to throw another community under the bus.”

But for him, the problem runs deeper than pitched battles for wearing a turban. Whether it is in a government identification photo or a school, it all boils down to Islamophobia, he says.

“Some authorities mistake us with Muslims, others know who we are, but [think that] if Sikhs are given favourable treatment, Muslims will also ask for the same,” he says. “And that’s something the authorities definitely do not want.”

Read the full story, ‘The turban stays on: how Myanmar’s young Sikhs are confronting discrimination’ (New Naratif, 8 June 2020), here. New Naratif is a movement for democracy, freedom of information, and freedom of expression in Southeast Asia. We aim to make Southeast Asians proud of our region, our shared culture, and our shared history

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Myanmar gurdwara in Pwintphyu (Asia Samachar, 19 Jan 2020)

ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs / Punjabis in Southeast Asia and beyond. Facebook | WhatsApp +6017-335-1399 | Email: editor@asiasamachar.com | Twitter | Instagram | Obituary announcements, click here |

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