No Place for Islam? Buddhist Nationalism in Myanmar

ASIA--PACIFIC, 21 Oct 2013

Harrison Akins – Al Jazeera

The continued violence against the broader Muslim community stains any democratic reforms in a country.

In Rakhine State in western Myanmar, during President Thein Sein’s visit to the region earlier this month, a mob of hundreds of Buddhists descended on a Muslim village – more than 70 homes were burnt to the ground and a 94-year-old Muslim woman lay dead from stab wounds. This attack is just the latest in a series of clashes between the Buddhist and Muslim populations around the country.

Despite the democratic and economic reforms in Myanmar over the past year and a thaw in this once isolated authoritarian state’s relations with the West, the growing violence against the Muslim population is a tragic reminder that Myanmar is still far from fully relinquishing the problems stemming from decades of military rule. For many Muslims, particularly the Rohingya people of Rakhine State, the hopeful talk of democracy and freedom as the dark shadows of the junta recede, is but empty rhetoric as the oppression and prejudice of the past half-century at the hands of the Burmese- and Buddhist-dominated military government continues unabated.

History of persecution

While many minority groups in Myanmar suffered at the hands of the government, the Rohingya, numbering roughly 2 million, face the denial of their identity and a threat to their mere existence. The BBC has referred to the stateless Rohingya as “one of the world’s most persecuted minority groups”.

The Rohingya, the historical inhabitants of what was then Arakan State (which was renamed Rakhine State in 1989 at the same time Burma was renamed Myanmar), remained a part of Myanmar after independence from British rule in 1948, despite early discussions of joining the bordering East Pakistan. After the military junta under General Ne Win rose to power in 1962, the government started a process of establishing a nationalist identity based on the dominant ethnicity and religion – Burmese and Buddhist. This was a shift from the more inclusive vision of Myanmar’s Founding Father, Aung San, who included representatives from minority ethnic and religious communities on the short-lived Executive Committee of his interim government, before he was assassinated in 1947.

The Muslim Rohingya, as both non-Burmese and non-Buddhist, were labeled foreigners and incorrectly called “illegal Bengali immigrants” who came to Myanmar under British rule. Beginning in the 1970s, the Burmese military embarked on campaigns to ethnically cleanse the nation of the Rohingya.

The first of these, Operation Naga Min or King Dragon, was initiated in 1978 for the purpose of identifying “illegal immigrants” in the country and expelling them. The symbol of the King Dragon is an important aspect of Buddhist mythology. Naga, a mythological dragon, is originally an Indian motif and figures prominently in the legends of the Buddha. A Nagayon, or “sheltered by dragon”, temple in Myanmar is closely tied with the idea of the dragon as protector. The temples carry a carving of this dragon, resembling a hooded cobra, protecting a Buddha image with its hood. Identification became the first step in this large scale ethnic cleansing operation of the military “protecting” the sanctity of Buddhism from the “foreigners” who posed a “threat”.

During this operation, the Rohingya were subjected to widespread rape, arbitrary arrests, destruction of mosques and villages, and seizure of their lands. Rubble from mosques was often used to pave roads between military bases in the region. A mass exodus of nearly a quarter-of-a-million Rohingya refugees fled across the Naaf River for neighbouring Bangladesh in a period of only three months. Many of these refugees were repatriated to Myanmar the following year.

In 1991, a second military operation, Operation Pyi Thaya or Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation, was launched for the same purpose of expelling the Rohingya population. Two-hundred-thousand Rohingya refugees fled again into Bangladesh. Nearly 300,000 refugees remain there today in makeshift refugee camps, many without food or medical assistance, with only 28,000 in officially recognised United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) camps. Bangladesh has rejected any proposal for local integration of the Rohingya, citing that the Rohingya are “environmental and economic burdens, social hazards in the village, and breeders of Islamic militancy.”

Bangladesh has impeded or rejected efforts to improve the camps and offer humanitarian aid as they fear this will serve as an incentive for refugees to remain in the country and for further Rohingya to cross the border from Myanmar. In 2011, they  rejected a $33m aid package from the United Nations to be used for the Rohingya refugees.

They are treated with equal contempt by other countries in the region. There have been many media reports of the Rohingya “boat people”, fleeing by sea, being shot at by the Thai navy, being captured and sold by Thai officials to human traffickers, or being held indefinitely in immigration centres in Australia and resorting to suicide rather than continuing to face a hopeless situation.

Genocidal actions?

Within Myanmar, the Rohingya have consistently been denied their identity. Under the 1982 Citizenship Law, they were officially stripped of their citizenship which was reserved for the 135 officially recognised ethnic groups. As non-citizens, the Rohingya were required to have government permission to travel outside their villages, repair their mosques, get married, or even have children, all arrestable offenses if done without a permit. Government permission, however, is procured through bribes which few can afford.

Since 1994, a local policy was implemented for those Rohingya who do gain permission to marry to limit them to only two children, a policy which was given full government support in May 2013. If a woman becomes illegally pregnant, she is forced to either flee the country as a refugee or get a back-alley abortion under extremely unsanitary conditions. Many who choose to have an abortion die due to their inability to receive proper medical care as a result of the travel restrictions.

Many Rohingya have also been forced to labour on various construction projects as modern-day slaves, including building “model villages” intended to house the Burmese settlers encouraged to come to the region to displace the Rohingya. There have been reports of  forced prostitution of Rohingya women by the local Burmese security forces.

It is well to remember Article 2 of the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide which states: “Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such: Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.”

It was this tumultuous history which fed the June 2012 violence against the Rohingya at the hands of the neighbouring Buddhist Rakhine. While the official death toll was 192, Rohingya human rights groups claim that there were over 1,000 killed. Mobs of Rakhine burned entire villages to the ground with over 125,000 Rohingya forcibly displaced without any aid or assistance. A Human Rights Watch report called the incident state-supported “ethnic cleansing”, writing that the government security forces “assisted the killings by disarming the Rohingya of their sticks and other rudimentary weapons they carried to defend themselves”. Many media reports referred to this violence as “sectarian” implying that each party played an equal role in the violence.

President Thein Sein reiterated the following month that, in the eyes of the government, the Rohingya were not citizens of Myanmar and that he wished to hand over the entire ethnic group to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in order to settle them in a different country. Buddhist monks in Mandalay held protests against the Rohingya in which they supported the proposal of the President.

969 movement

In the past year, while the government has opened up to reform and relations with the West, there has been an expansion of the violence against other Muslim communities. The March riots in Meiktila in central Myanmar which burnt more than 1300 homes in Muslim neighbourhoods and killed 43 people were instigated by Buddhist monks who were part of the 969 movement. The movement, whose spiritual leader is a Buddhist monk named U Wirathu, encourages local people to boycott trade with Muslims and shop only at Buddhist-owned stores which display the number 969, a number which symbolises Buddha’s teachings and Buddhist practices. They view Muslims as a threat to the nation. A demonstration in support of U Wirathu saw Buddhist monks carrying banners which read, “Not The Terrorist, But The Protector of Race, Language and The Religion.” The latest violence, in September, has implicated the Kaman Muslims in the Rakhine State, who are recognised as one of the official ethnic groups of Myanmar and granted full citizenship.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the heroine of democracy and human rights, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and daughter of Aung San, has condemned the recent violence against the Muslim community but has remained curiously silent on the suffering of the Rohingya. During a November 2012 BBC interview, when questioned about the Rohingya, Suu Kyi answered, “I am urging tolerance but I do not think one should use one’s moral leadership, if you want to call it that, to promote a particular cause without really looking at the sources of the problems.” She continues to refer to the Rohingya as “Bengalis”. This is in contrast to remarks by US President Barack Obama at Yangon University during his official visit to Myanmar last November, where he acknowledged the “dignity” and suffering of the “innocent” Rohingya people, a position few inside of Myanmar have been willing to take.

The continued plight of the Rohingya, both in Myanmar and as refugees abroad, as well as the continued violence against the broader Muslim community stains any democratic reforms in a country which has known little but violence and civil war for the past half-century. The situation is desperate as the violence is only getting worse and expanding to new groups.

Myanmar needs to take a firm stand on the side of human rights, pluralism, and security for all of its citizens, promote the rule of law, and, at a more basic level, recognise the existence and the suffering of the Rohingya. Only then can a democratic Myanmar be recognised as legitimate in the eyes of the international community and its own people.


Harrison Akins is the Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service and assisted Professor Akbar Ahmed on his study, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (Brookings 2013). 

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