Reworking the Colonial-Era “Indian Peril”: Myanmar’s State-directed Persecution of Rohingyas and Other Muslims


Maung Zarni & Natalie Brinham - TRANSCEND Media Service

“It would be best if they were not here. I do not want to see them in this country. Since the dawn of history Indians have been the leaders of attacks against the Burmans on behalf of the white faces.”
— Saithan (Burmese writer), New Light of Burma, 6th June 19371

“(Buddhist) Brother, you might already have heard of the news about the Buddhist mob in Rakhine lynching a group of Rohingyas in broad day light. Even in Yangon if you are a Muslim and say something wrong or behave slightly irritated at a teashop or a bus stop the Buddhists would howl “you mother-fucking Kalar (nigger), how dare you say something or behave like that.” If you go to certain neighbourhoods and run into a group of drunkards they recognize your Indian features and beat you up. So, I too fear for my life living in this country of ours. I was born here. And this is the only country I know I belong. Burmese is my mother tongue. Out of fear and despair, I have looked at different possibilities of going to work in Malaysia or trying visa lottery to USA. But the truth is I don’t really have any prospect for leaving my birthplace. I am stuck here.”
— A Burmese Muslim resident, 7 July 20172


Myanmar’s widely hailed transition3 from the military dictatorship to the adoption of a Chinese model of great commercial opening with a calibrated political liberalization – “discipline flourishing democracy”, as the generals call it4 – has one unintended consequence for the country’s military-controlled-government: ugly things get exposed. All of a sudden, the dark secrets of this predominantly Buddhist nation of 51 million people with diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds are laid bare for all to witness. The world has access to hitherto-closed-off sites of religious and ethnic persecution via the new-found media. First, the world witnessed the eruption of violence – two large bouts in 20125 – between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist Rakhine communities in the Western coastal region. Within a year, there were incidents of organized violence against Muslims in about one dozen towns and neighbourhoods across the country.6 The Burmese social media sites were littered with various hues of genocidal ‘status updates’ and comments, and remains so to date. Many openly call for slaughter of “all Muslims” while others are more specific about the type of Muslims they should be killed, “Kill all illegal Bengalis” – a popular racist reference to Rohingyas, indicating they belong in former East Bengal (Bangladesh), but not in Buddhist Myanmar.7

Led by Buddhist monks, protests sprang up in Rakhine state, as well as other major urban centres such as Mandalay and Yangon, calling on the quasi-civilian government of ex-general Thein Sein, which the military installed, to get tough on Muslims and expel all “Bengalis” to any country, Muslim or Western liberal, that would take them. In fact, in his meeting with António Guterres, the then visiting head of the UN High Commission for Refugees in Naypyidaw in August 2012, President Thein Sein stated “the only solution” to the troubles in Rakhine was either to send unwanted Rohingyas to third countries or to contain them in UNHCR-administered camps.8 The Burmese media outlets including those run by former Burmese political exiles chimed in, echoing the official and popular view that Rohingyas were illegal Bengali migrants with no organic ties to the country.

In the eyes of the democratic “transitologists” all this is a sign of Myanmar liberalizing its society and institutions. Freedom to organize protests, freedom of speech, freedom of press have finally arrived, or so it felt. Oblivious to background histories, or simply uninterested in the relevant past, many Burma watchers and ournalists view the organized violence against Rohingyas as simply an inevitable, if painful, by-product of multi-ethnic societies in political transition ala the Balkans.9

Based on five consecutive years of research, including archival works in Burmese and English, bi-lingual discourse analyses, hundreds of interviews and in-depth conversations we had conducted with the members of the Muslim and Rohingya communities, we argue that the two unfolding parallel phenomena with inter-linkages, namely a sharp rise in fear, loathing and organized violence against Muslims across Myanmar and the official persecution of and mass violence against Rohingyas are in fact on a continuum of racism – strategic choices made by both the country’s most powerful military and the democratically elected NLD government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Those who approach and frame several large-scale bouts of violence in Rakhine since 2012 and the violence against Muslim communities across the country as “sectarian” between the country’s Buddhists and Muslims, overlook something factual and crucial. Both phenomena predate, by several decades, the country’s “democratic transition” which began in 2011. We argue in this essay, that it is not the process of opening up which has catalysed simmering and latent religious and communal tensions to boil over: the violence is a direct outcome of the central, military-controlled state playing the race and faith card for its own evolving strategic ends (for instance, to retain the military’s paramount role in national politics, calibrate the scape and pace of the country’s reforms, thwart the growth of universal human rights as a unifying organizing civic discourse and so on) in a country rich in religious and ethnic diversity with a strife-torn past.

The Revival of the Popular Notion of “the Indian Peril” and Its “Transference”

In order to better understand how the well-documented popular anti-Muslim fear among the majority non-Muslim public has been mobilised and how the systematic persecution of Rohingyas in Western Myanmar is enabled, it is helpful to take a glance back at the past. Myanmar’s pre-colonial expansionist kingdom of Buddhist Burmese from the Dry Zone plains centred around Pagan, Ava, Amarapura, Mingun, Saggaing and Mandalay. Upcountry Myanmar took the Western coastal kingdom of Buddhist Rakhine as its latest colonial possession through a bloody military campaign in 1785. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of Rakhine war refugees, both Muslim and Buddhist subjects of the fallen Rakhine Buddhist kingdom, fled into the British protectorate of East Bengal (East Pakistan after Indian-Pakistan partition in 1947 and renamed Bangladesh in 1971, after the War of Independence). It was this new interface between the Burmese-controlled new territories – Rakhine – and East Bengal westward of Rakhine that finally led to the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1824. After two more successive conflicts between the two empire-building powers, the Burmese met the same eventual fate as their previously conquered people to the West – Rakhine: the Burmese Empire collapsed and was swallowed up into British India by 1886.

Through Burmese eyes, the threat and advent of the colonial British was not simply seen as an economically-defined imperialist attempt to conquer a new territory and its constitutive population and natural resources (for instance, teak, minerals and precious stones). In his Royal Declaration of War against Britain, the last King, Thibaw, openly framed Britishers as anti-Dhamma Kala (or alien heretics) whose victory would be a menace to Buddhism.10 As the king, he was, by the chief Patron-Protector of Buddhism.

It was several decades, in the 1870s and 1880s, later when the British colonial administration began the large-scale importation Indians, both Muslims and Hindus in roughly equal numbers, into British Burma.11 The colonial administration subsidized the Indian labourers and other agriculturalists including Indian Chettiar money-lenders to fill labour and financing needs of the fast-growing rice industry in a sparsely populated British-controlled Lower Burma following the opening of Suez Canal in 1869 which sped up commerce between Europe and Asia. This sharp increase in Indians and the resultant interface between the local communities and the newer arrivals caused major unease among the local Burmese population, especially the British-educated Burmese elite with their awakened nationalist consciousness. The general sentiment of the threat of “Indian penetration”, and its impact on the future of Burma as a predominantly Buddhist society, spread among both the Burmese political elites, including those who ran the Burmese press and participated in the limited parliamentary politics of the 1920s.12

This nationalist concern became more acute as the result of the worldwide Great Depression which caused widespread economic hardships. There was a sharp rise in popular Burmese sentiments of fear and resentment towards other colonized peoples of Indo-Aryan features, be they Muslims or Hindu, or any other religious affiliation.

The nationalist Burmese newspapers and their allies in the colonial parliament seized on this rising anti-Indian racism and dusted up a 10-year-old, little-known publication which contained anti-Buddhist views, inflaming the already tense racial atmosphere. Race riots between Muslims and Buddhists subsequently broke out in Rangoon, where the Indians made up 60% of the city’s population. The British Colonial Government’s Riot Inquiry Committee set up in 1938 to investigate both the immediate trigger and the underlying causes, published its Interim Report, which stated:

“It is no answer to say that this question of Indian Immigration is a mere “bogey” raised and maintained by the Burmese (nationalist) Press, by Thakhins (Burmese nationalist agitators), and by politicians for their own purposes. Whether it is true or not – , and it is in our opinion, there is some truth in it – the plain fact remains that it now is an established and a disturbing influence in the minds of the people. And we are concerned here to record our view that this influence really does exist and that it is dangerous. We think it would be altogether misleading for us to suggest that the jealousy or suspicion or fear (whatever is the right expression) of the Burman towards the Indian in Burma as it exist today is a mere passing phase. If only from the point of view that the uneasiness which the Burmans feel about this matter provides, as it stands, first class material to which constant propaganda is susceptible of being, and is being, directed, it is, in our view, urgent that an examination of the whole question should be undertaken without loss of time to ascertain to what extent the apprehensions of the Burmese community are real or not. For we do not think that it will be allowed to cure itself. There will always be found people who will exploit it for their own purposes” (p. 22).13

This popular anti-Indian migration sentiment was based on grievances and fears on the part of the local Burmese. However, it only boiled over into violence when mobilized by the Burmese press, the radical nationalist Thakhins and colonial era Burmese politicians for their own agendas. The committee report picked up on this when it wrote: “In June 1938, the “Thiha”, a Burmese owned weekly newspaper, warned Indians that by monopolizing all kinds of commercial enterprise they would incur the displeasure of the Burmese. The example of the Jews in Germany was mentioned and it was suggested that such a state of affairs might occur in Burma” (p. 36).14

Since the publication of this report, both the alien rulers and the large number of people of Indian origin had long “gone home”. The Union Jack came down in January 1948, and the country saw two large exoduses –the first on the eve of Japanese invasion in 1942 and the second after the crippling economic nationalization by the Burmese military in 1964. The majority of these Indians had indeed made Buddhist Burma their sole home and had come to love their adopted country. Myanmar’s population of people of Indian subcontinent origin of Islamic background today is only 2.3% of the overwhelming Buddhist majority.15 The country’s politics and economy are under the tight control of Burmese Buddhists, civilian and military – not Indians of any faith.

After the last sectarian riots of the 1930’s, the popular fear of the “Indian Peril” was replaced by the pressing need to focus on gaining independence from the British colonial administration which returned to Rangoon after the 3-year interregnum of the Japanese Occupation during WWII. The Burmese political class – now led by the Marxist-inspired nationalists, most prominently of Aung San, with their strictly secularist, non-racialist, inclusive view of “Burmese-ness” – steered public discourse away from the pre-war racialist sentiment.16 Within a year of independence, as the country plunged into a 3-way civil war – Burmese communists, non-Burmese ethnic minorities and the first ethnically Burmese-controlled government in Rangoon – the old fear and loathing of Indians faded into the background for the time being.

Still, collective memories of “the Indian penetration” or the Indian -both Hindu and Muslim- domination of the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar endured, though latently. In recent anti-Muslim violence, one can observe the finger prints of the military-controlled state and state-backed societal actors such as prominent Buddhist monks in the opening up of this can of racial worms.17 It is rather curious that despite the visibly heavy presence of Yunnan Chinese – and their hold on the informal sector of the economy in the upper half of the country – from the old city of Mandalay all the way to the Sino-Burmese border regions – has not given rise to organised violence despite pervasive anti-Chinese sentiments18 within all segments of the Burmese society, including the military leadership and the rank and file.19 Organized violence has exclusively been directed at the Muslim communities – not Chinese businesses or their wealthy residential quarters. The question then is who is doing the directing of public frustrations and discontent towards one community, but not the other, although they are both conceived as “guests” or “non-indigenous”?20 One must confront the elephant in the room, namely the military-controlled State and the societal actors that enjoy blanket impunity for any acts of harms or words of bigotry against Muslims and Rohingyas, not the Chinese.21

A crucial point here is this: while choosing to make sure anti-Chinese sentiments do not boil over – because the giant next door, China, is too powerful to anger and because Beijing has served as the “protector” of the Myanmar military regime when it was treated as an international pariah. State and non-state actors have instead reworked – in their official and popular discourses – the old fear of “the Indian Peril” in order to make it applicable in the contemporary context. Two significant developments came about during the two eras of military rule (1962-88- and 1988–2011), namely Islamaphobia resulting from global perceptions of the rise of Muslim power and the state-manufactured perspective of Rohingyas as illegal and/or unwelcome “Bengali” immigrants who do not belong in Buddhist Rakhine land of Western Coastal Myanmar.

The Rekindling of anti-Muslim Racism in Society for Political Use

The military coup of 1962 launched under the leadership of Ne Win as Chair of the newly formed Revolutionary Council, was met with the protests from political monks and campus activists, which had become political allies in their opposition against military authoritarianism. As such, military leaders and strategists identified political monks, students and other segments of society as ‘above-ground threats to building a new socialist order, with the generals as its revolutionary managers’. Indeed, the traditional alliance of monk-student-opposition-dissidents, behind Aung San Suu Kyi as the rallying figure, remained a threat which they sought to neutralise until very recently. Military leaders reached the institutionalized conclusion22 that civilian politicians and liberal democracy were ill-suited and insufficiently strong to bind the multi-ethnic society in which ethnic populations made up an estimated 30-40% of the total population, and were aware of the need for an umbrella ideology to justify their grip on power. The generals have tried hoisting different ideological banners over the years including “the Burmese Way to Socialism”, “restoration of law and order”, later “peace and development” and more recently “discipline-flourishing democracy”.

Military leaders have maintained their vision to unite under the military’s guardianship along the lines of the old Buddhist kingdom of warrior-kings. Consequently, the generals have opted for the tried and tested strategy to consolidate power in multi-ethnic societies with divergent class, religious and ethnic interests: divide and rule. Simultaneously, the leadership perseveres with its official call for national unity, national consolidation and peace.23

The strategic and political uses of ‘race’ and ‘faith’ by those in power have been well-documented – not least in the aforementioned Interim Report of the Riot Inquiry Commission of 1939. On the eve of Burma’s independence in 1946, the slain national hero, the late U Aung San, former Thakhin nationalist leader, had publicly accused the last colonial administration of attempting to destabilize the country’s political situation by playing the race card.24 Similarly, Prime Minister U Nu, a close colleague of Aung San, was accused during his election campaign of exploiting the Buddhist majority’s religious sentiment by offering to make Buddhism ‘the state’s official religion’ in 1960.25 By this time, the Burmese military through its public relations department or ‘psychological warfare division’ had also begun to mobilise Buddhist identities by framing Burmese communist challengers – both above and underground- as “the Enemy of Buddhism”.26

By the early 1990’s following the rise of the human rights, pro-democracy opposition movement, the senior most Burmese military leadership – in fact, Senior General Saw Maung, head of the ruling junta himself – had actively pursued the manufacturing and propagation of anti-Muslim racism through the government’s Department of Religious Affairs, as documented by Reuters’ journalists in their Pulitzer-winner series of investigative articles. Before the advent of Facebook and other social media sites, the fear-mongering narrative relating to Muslims – such as Muslim men as rapists, abusers of Buddhist women, economic exploiters of poor Burmese public – was disseminated through short-monographs and carefully planted moles among Buddhist monks, as well as through classic “whisper campaigns”27. Twenty years after the deaths, under house arrest, of the Muslim Cleanser of the Armed Forces and the Initiator of this anti-Muslim propaganda campaign, ex-general Ne Win and his hand-picked successor Senior General Saw Maung, their legacy that repackaged the colonial-era “Indian Peril” – this time as Muslim Peril – has taken root in the popular consciousness.

The call for the liquidation of Myanmar’s Muslims was made openly by Rev. Wirathu, a young, charismatic monk who hails from the Buddhist heartland of Mandalay where he declared, as early as 200128, to rousing cheers of his fellow Buddhist monks his intention to “boycott, ostracize and eventually starve the Muslims of Myanmar”. This was ten years before the country’s military-led “transition”. In other words, the spread of anti-Muslim popular hate speech was already in wide circulation long before the military’s media reforms and the arrival of Free Speech and the social media on Burmese soil.

After the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from her last house arrest in November of 2010, the military leaders witnessed the continuing popularity of their nemesis, both at home and abroad. And the call for genuine democratisation, which included changing of the military’s Constitution of 2008 which puts the military above the law on all matters it deems to be of concern to ‘national security’, remained strident and popular throughout the country. Meanwhile Rakhine nationalists had mobilized their communities in pressuring the central government of ex-general and President Thein Sein for the more equitable share of revenues from the sale of natural gas and for greater political and administrative autonomy for Rakhine people. Then came the collapse of the 17-years of bilateral ceasefire – the only one in writing – between a powerful Kachin Independence Organization/Army and the Burmese military. It was against these parallel developments one needs to understand the sharp rise in anti-Muslim racism – hate speech, organized violence against Muslim communities – and the fear-mongering of illegal “Bengalis”, taking over Western Burmese state of Rakhine. Virtually the entire class of Myanmar’s western-educated professionals, intellectuals and technocrats proactively spread Rohingyas as “ignorant descendants of illegal Bengalis” view through both social media sites and Burmese language services of BBC, Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and the Democratic Voice of Burma.29

Using the rhetoric of freedom of speech and publication, the military-backed semi-civilian government of Thein Sein in effect provided blanket impunity30 against any form of hate speech, however severe and genocidal, against Myanmar Muslims and Rohingyas.31 Meanwhile, in direct violation of the country’s existing law which only allows one national Buddhist Order or Sangha to prevent discord among different circles of monks and keep the Order under one national governing body of monks, Thein Sein government allowed the establishment of a new parallel monk organization32 under the banner of “the Association for the Protection of Race and Faith”. In its final months in power, the military’s proxy government passed four “national race and faith protection” laws33, and touted the passage of these laws as one of its major achievements as it went into the election of 2015.34

The great majority of Buddhists, in the Burmese press, human rights circles, intelligentsia and creative communities, were swayed by the revival anti-Muslim sentiment.35 Civil society circles bought into the official view of Rohingyas as “illegal” Bengali who pose an imminent threat to the Buddhist Nation of indigenous peoples. These civil society groups spread the image of Muslims as a threat and Rohingyas as the illegals who could in due course morph into “Jihadists”, with funding and other forms of support from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and even OIC. A case in point is the half-hour Burmese language interview (11 July 2017) between Irrawaddy News Group chief-editor Aung Zaw and former Information Minister ex-Colonel Ye Htut where both amplified the official narrative of how “Bengalis” who do not belong in Western Myanmar state of Rakhine are fast-becoming potential Jihadists.36

National-Securitization of Muslim Lives

Today the everyday activities of Myanmar’s Muslims from Rakhine State to Mandalay have been branded as threats to national security, resulting in state-intrusion in many aspects of Muslims’ lives, causing varying degrees of symbolic and physical harm. Food donations to Muslims – both in humanitarian and religious/cultural contexts – now come under the purview of Myanmar’s security forces. In the latter part of the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan this year, Myanmar authorities in the central administrative office of the second largest division – named Mandalay Division – issued a general directive, ordering its township and ward administrative branches, including Myanmar Police Force units, to ensure that international philanthropic and humanitarian groups do not distribute any in-kind or food donations intended for consumption during the fasting month to Muslim communities under their local jurisdictions without prior official permit. Even those with official permits should donate under close supervision by state authorities.37 The implied message and the involvement of Myanmar security forces – police in this case – is that food stuff and other consumer goods for household use donated by groups outside Myanmar are a national security concern.

Meanwhile, in the Western Myanmar state of Northern Rakhine, the World Food Programme has reportedly discovered alarming levels of food deprivation among Rohingya Muslims, severely affecting upwards of 80,500 children. Human Rights Watch attributes the emergence of extreme malnutrition as the intended outcome of Myanmar authorities who have locked down large areas where Rohingya reside in response to a few isolated incidents of armed attacks on Myanmar border security posts since October 2016.38 The population has long been forced to exist in abysmal human conditions where malnutrition levels have been compared to famine-like situations in sub-Saharan Africa39. This situation amounts to what Amartya Sen, world’s leading scholar on famines, calls acts of “institutionalized killings”40 of the Rohingya as a target group, on the sole basis of their ethnic and religious identity, and their physical presence on the Rakhine Buddhists’ land to which Myanmar officially and popularly claims Rohingya Muslims do not belong. The deliberate policies and administrative orders that have blocked humanitarian aid over sustained periods, restrict “nutritional opportunities” – in Amartya Sen’s words- for Myanmar Muslims and Rohingya.41

Between the two communities, Myanmar Muslims and Rohingya, the latter are needless to say incomparably worse off, with allegations of ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and slow genocide. When communities are subjected to monitoring, control and restrictions in terms of life-sustaining food stuff coupled with denial of access to adequate or even basic medical services, we are, in effect, moving into the space where a case can be made that Myanmar may be using food as “a weapon of persecution”. In his article entitled “The Nazis Used It, We Use It: The Return of Famine as a Weapon of War”, Alex de Waal discussed the use of (man-made) famines as a weapon of war, which were used by the Nazis as well as other Western powers, against a target population.42 As Gregory Stanton, Founding President of Genocide Watch and past President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars notes, “Since the beginning of genocide studies with Lemkin, Hilberg, Kuper, Charny, Fein, Hovannissian and many others, ‘genocide by attrition’ including starvation, has been a major concern of genocide scholars.”43

Religiously Motivated Demographic Engineering

Myanmar military has had a 50 year-firm grip on what Louis Althusser called “Ideological State Apparatuses” (i.e., education systems, religious institutions, community groups, information ministries, etc.). They have consistently, and falsely, told the domestic public that there is no such ethnic group as “Rohingyas” and that they are Muslim interlopers from the neighbouring Bangladesh who only came to Rakhine as colonial era farm labourers after the first Anglo-Burmese war of AD1824 when the British annexed Rakhine into British India. The profound impact of this sustained and systematic propaganda about Rohingya history, identity and presence cannot be overstated. Typically, when confronted with the irrefutable primary historical evidence dating back to 179944, or ever several centuries earlier, and official documentations45 from the Ministry of Defence validating Rohingyas’ claim of historical and official belonging to both pre-colonial and post-colonial Myanmar, even the educated class of Burmese – Buddhist clergy, technocrats, journalists, writers, human rights activists, not to mention diplomats and pro-democracy ex-military officers – would refuse to accept the factual truths.46

In the public’s eyes, the growth of this “illegal” Muslim migrants – illegal because the public has been told that they are on Buddhist soil only because of the unscrupulous Burmese immigration and border guard forces manning “the Western gate”, that is, N. Rakhine, along the Myanmar-Bangladeshi borders and therefore need to be “shipped” out of the country. In his book “Our Country’s ‘Western Gate Problem’”, ex-military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt, considered “Myanmar’s most powerful military leader” while in office, opened his Introduction to the book with the patently false assertion that “the pre-colonial Rakhine State of Myanmar had never had any Muslim presence”. He then went on to link explicitly Islam with the wars, violence and terrorism in the Middle East, insinuating that the presence of Muslim Rohingyas – “Bengali” in his racist reference – spells deep trouble for Myanmar.47

What is little known beyond the well-publicized periodic waves of violence, both vertical (state-directed acts of violence) and horizontal (locally organized communal violence), against Rohingyas as members of an ethno-religious group, is the demographic engineering in which the military governments have been engaged over decades since the Operation Crow (Kyi Gan Sit Hsin Yay) of 1966.48 The military have two major demographic concerns: first, to double the country’s total population up to 100 million because of the country’s geographic position sandwiched between India and China,49 and being adjacent to densely populated Bangladesh and second, to radically (read unnaturally) change the Muslim (Rohingya, ethnically) character of Northern Rakhine State.50 In pursuit of the twin-goal, the military have done three things: 1) they have turned a blind eye to the fact that ethnic Han Chinese from the neighbouring Yunnan state of Southern China have entered and settled throughout upper regions of Myanmar; 2) they have subjected the population to a “campaign of terror” under the disguise of “immigration checks”, centrally directed from the Ministry of Defence the direct result of which are the drastic reduction of the size of Rohingyas from Rakhine as hundreds of thousands periodically flee Western Myanmar for Bangladesh and other 3rd countries, and the instant illegalising of the great majority who choose to remain inside Myanmar; and 3) establishing Buddhist settlements where the military and local authorities implement the scheme of state-directed transmigration of Buddhists51, that is, the government facilitate the West-Bank-style resettlements on the Rohingya region, transporting and resettling different Buddhist populations made up of retired Myanmar civil servant families, Myanmar criminal convicts with Buddhist background from Rangoon and other regions, Bangladeshi-born Buddhist Rakhines and other Myanmar-related ethnic groups whose ancestors were either the 18th century war refugees who fled to East Bengal, or those who were natives of pre-colonial East Bengal when the two adjacent regions of East Bengal and Western Burma were conjoined under the rule of a single monarch.

Obviously, to increase Myanmar’s population (of non-Muslims) was a strategic goal of the military leaders as early as 1990’s. Several years ago Myanmar government of ex-general Thein Sein granted blanket citizenship status to about 80,000 Han Chinese living in Eastern Shan state pocket near Yunnan Chinese borders. It even created for the group a new ethnic category – “Mon Yaung Myanmar”, and announcing to the public officially that the newly minted citizens are to be referred to as such while the military – and now the administration of Aung San Suu Kyi – continue to maintain the official stance that Rohingyas do not exist and they don’t really belong in Myanmar. It is the religious identity of Rohingyas which ultimately accounts for this sharp contrast in Myanmar’s official treatment of non-Muslim migrants from China or those from the Sino-Burmese borderlands and Rohingyas from the Burmese-Bangladesh borderlands.

During the civil war of 1971 between West and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Pakistani General Tikka Khan (‘Butcher of Bengal’) orders to his troop: “I want the land not the people….”52 What befell on the fate of “the people”, unwanted on that wanted land of East Pakistan was left to the local commanders. In the midst of the two bouts of the horizontally organized violence – sectarian violence – in June and October 2012 during which Rohingya communities bore the overwhelming human costs, a decorated Burmese brigadier general who was stationed in Rakhine told the Burmese author pointedly, “What can we do, brother, they (Rohingyas) are too many? We can’t kill them all.”53 Indeed Myanmar military leaders, the architects and implementers of this religion-based demographic engineering, know they can’t kill all Rohingyas. But they certainly have resorted to various strategies of destruction of Rohingya community as an ethno-religious group. The most deplorable human conditions where life-essentials such as food and access to basic medicine are deprived or restricted are the direct outcome of central policies regarding Rohingyas.54 Indeed Myanmar’s exceptionally hostile treatment of Rohingyas as a group oscillate between acts of ethnic cleansing and slow genocide.55 How can it be otherwise when Rohingyas have been kept like “chickens in a vast cage”, awaiting their time of death and destruction, on land or in high sea, as a young Rohingya56 put it in a personal Facebook message to us, after he and a group of Rohingya IDPs met with the visiting UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee on 12 July? Alas, a century after the perceived Indian threat to colonial Burma’s future – the “Indian Penetration” or “Indian Peril” – stirred the Buddhists’ imagination, post-independence Myanmar is engaged in the act of “transference”, this time targeting Rohingyas as caged chickens, potential agents of foreign “Jihadists”.

A New Muslim-Free Myanmar under the Military-NLD partnership of Islamophobes

The perceptions of threats – real or imagined – to a nation are raison d’être for all military institutions the world over. Based on popular, historical and official discourses about the people of India ancestry Myanmar’s most powerful institution – the military – has since 1966 framed Rohingyas as “a new threat to national security”. The colonial-era nationalist calls to pass laws “protecting Buddhist women” from Indian men, presumed abusive and predatory have also come to fruition: ex-General Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government enacted four “National Race” laws, strictly controlling proposals for interfaith marriages between Buddhist women and Muslim men.

With Communist threats fading into a non-concern at home with the collapse of the longest political party – the Communist Party of Burma – in 1989, the year of the Fall of Berlin Wall, and ethnic groups all having jettisoned their original aim of independence/secession from the Union of Myanmar, Myanmar military indeed needed a common enemy of the Buddhist nation. While the first persecution of Rohingyas began as a state-organized project of national security with its first large-scale campaign which drove out upwards of 270,000 Rohingyas into the neighbouring Bangladesh in February 1978 the military found it in its strategic interest to involve both the nationalist Rakhines in the region and the Buddhist public at large.

This has enabled the military to steer the growing popular discourses of and demand for speedy and genuine democratization among the traditionally religious and anti-Muslim electorate. It forces the NLD party to move away from its push for Constitutional amendment to make Aung San Suu Kyi President and phase out the military’s hold on the parliaments at all levels. The increasingly Islamophobic Buddhist electorate is more concerned about “the imminent threat” from potential Jihadists than democracy and human rights none of which they have ever really tasted in their lives. It has for all intents and purposes nipped the Rakhine nationalist demand for greater revenue sharing from the central government-controlled lucrative gas and oil industry offshore from Rakhine coast line, as well as other multibillion dollar projects in Rakhine state. Rakhine population has become consumed by fear and loathing of Rohingyas whom in their view take Rakhine land and threaten Rakhine Buddhist way of life.

What we call the “double-persecution” of Myanmar’s Muslims and Rohingyas has become a powerful unifying issue among the traditionally distrustful social forces in Burmese society: the ruling military, Suu Kyi’s NLD, the culturally revered Buddhist Order or monks and the Burmese intelligentsia and culture industry of movie-makers, artists, etc. For they all share this “global perception of the rise of Muslim power”, and the attendant fear and loathing of Muslims in and outside Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi, From Global Icon of Liberal Freedoms to Genocide Denier?

To the dismay her many supporters around the world, Suu Kyi attempted to explain the violence against both Myanmar Muslims and Rohingyas on Britain’s national flagship radio programme by excusing her “generally peaceful” fellow Buddhists. She said, “fear is not just on the side of the Muslims, but the fear is on the side of the Buddhists as well”.57

Aung San Suu Kyi, typically sprinkles her essays and speeches with canonical Buddhist concepts and passages – such as loving kindness in her attempt to both explain her political views to the outside world and communicate with her domestic Buddhist electorates.

Myanmar Armed Forces today, unlike the past, can boast of being Muslim-free. As a matter of fact, last year the serving Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the Commander-in-Chief, has added58 the protection of Buddhism and “Buddhist Race” to the existing list of the military’s bounden national duties, besides prevention of the ‘disintegration of the Union of Myanmar’, maintaining the ‘territorial integrity’ and ‘peace and stability’ at home.

With different and parallel reasons, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party and its rival, the army-backed USDP have effectively emptied all political institutions out any Muslim citizens – regardless of how many centuries of lineage they have in the country.

The fiction of “immigrant race” or “guest” as a weapon against Rohingya Muslims

What makes the persecution of Rohingyas as opposed to the persecution of Myanmar Muslims stand out as a case where the charge of a state-sponsored genocide can be made, is not simply the acts as defined in the Genocide Convention of 1948 (and subsequently the Article 6 of the Rome Statute) but the original conception of a genocide put forth persuasively by Raphael Lemkin. As paraphrased by Daniel Feierstein, noted scholar of genocides and author of Genocide as Social Practice: Reorganizing Society under the Nazis and Argentina’s Military Juntas (Rutgers, 2014), genocide involves, in essence, both the destruction of the group’s identity by the perpetrators and the imposition of a new group identity on the victims. In the words of Feierstein, “they (victims) don’t exist. They never existed. They will never exist as who they say they are.”59

In our essay60 on the evolution of Rohingya persecution from the peaceful population control of an ethnic community who culturally and historically saddle the borderlands between the post-WWII nation-states of Bangladesh and Burma we have detailed how the initial concerns of cross-boundary fluid migration of Rohingyas has evolved regressively into a case where the Myanmar government is being credibly accused of ‘crimes against humanity’ ‘ethnic cleansing’ and/or even a ‘slow genocide’. Against this long post-independence history of the state’s direct involvement with Rohingya affairs, it is misleading to frame the plight of Rohingyas as the outcome primarily of ‘sectarian conflict’ between them and local Buddhist Rakhines. Rohingyas exist – not live – under human (or inhuman) conditions in Western coastal region ripe with chronic violence, “intentional deprivation”61 of food and basic medical services, all forms of freedom including physical movements, forced labour, sexual violence with state impunity, execution, extortions and false blanket accusations of “terrorism”62 – and all this is induced by policies made centrally by the successive Burmese military regimes, in Rangoon and since 2006 Naypyidaw. It is these deplorable conditions on land, coupled with chronic, large scale violence, mostly military-organized and at times communal, but with the security forces collaborating with groups of local militant Rakhines, which have forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas to flee their birthplace and homeland, both on foot across the land-border into Bangladesh and by boats to places as far flung as Canada and Australia, not just to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

Ethnic Rohingya and Rohingya have long been economically interdependent in eking out a living in one of the poorest states among Myanmar’s administrative regions. Cross-border trade, retail businesses, transport of goods, fishing, etc. necessitate the cooperation between these two communities – with Rakhine Buddhist controlling state bureaucracies and Rohingya Muslims engaging in primary production, financing, etc.63

In our comprehensive study entitled “The Slow Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya” which focuses on the history of Rohingya identity and presence, as well as the decades-long history of what we characterize as “the slow burning genocide” of Rohingyas, we have provided a detailed account of this persecution.

It suffices here to note emphatically that Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingyas in Western Myanmar state of Rakhine and the sharp rise, again with the state’s blanket impunity, in hate speech and bouts of organized violence against the general Muslim population throughout Myanmar need to be seen on a continuum of strategic choices pursued by the military leaders out of their own institutional agendas, and informed by their own personal fear and loathing of Muslims. Given that Aung San Suu Kyi, who had, until recently, been seen worldwide as “the icon” of freedom and human rights placed in the same league with Gandhi, Mandela and King, proved capable of cleansing her parliament and government of her fellow country people whose only “sin” is they are Muslims, it is no longer a dismissible conspiracy theory to argue that Myanmar’s most powerful institution, the Tatmadaw, and the Suu Kyi’s elected government are both playing the ‘race-and-faith’ card at the expense of the country’s Muslims and committing a systematic, and sustained persecution against Rohingyas.

Heavily swayed by the military’s manufactured propaganda regarding both scapegoated Muslim communities, the public itself has come to view the latter as two integral components of a single Common Threat to the nation. If indeed Buddhist Myanmar is united in this two-fold crime against these two populations because of their religious and ethnic identity then the prospects of Myanmar seeking or finding homegrown solutions – without external interventions – are non-existent. But, on the other hand, given that there is zero appetite on the part of the world powers, or political will, coherence or even capacity within the global governing institutions the future of these two religious and minority communities looks incredibly bleak.

After nearly 30-years since their Great Uprisings of 8.8.88 (8 August 1988), the majority Buddhist people of Myanmar have not enjoyed genuine freedoms or democracy or human rights, despite Aung San Suu Kyi, playing the respectable façade of the current transition. When the oppressed majority themselves fall prey to the military’s systematic mobilization and partake in everyday acts of injustice and systemic repression of their fellow country-men and women such as Muslims and Rohingya, then they end up undermining their own ultimate struggle for freedom, and their collective humanity. This may well prove to be the greatest act of self-harm the patriotic Burmese are doing to the future of their beloved country.


  1. Riot Inquiry Committee (1939) Interim Report of the Riot Inquiry Committee. Rangoon, Burma: Government Printing and Stationery (hereafter cited as Riot Inquiry Committee).
  2. Personal communications with a young Muslim resident sent a Facebook Messenger note.
  3. “US President Obama hails Myanmar’s “remarkable journey”, BBC, 19 November 2012. 14 July 2017.
  4. For the official military’s view of ‘democracy’ see Democracy vs Discipline, Tommy Pauk, The Global New Light of Myanmar, 31 January 2016 14 July 2017.
  5. See Human Rights Watch (2012) “Burma: End ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ of Rohingya Muslims”, 14 July 2017 & Channel Four (UK) “Burma authorities accused of ‘ethnic cleansing’” 22 April 2013. Accessed 14 July.
  6. For a detailed case study of one of the incidents, see Justice Trust (2015) Hidden Hands Behind Communal Violence in Myanmar: Case Study of the Mandalay Riots, New York, NY: Policy Report. Accessed 14 July 2017. (hereafter “Hidden Hands”).
  7. See “Facebook in Myanmar: Amplifying Hate Speech?” Aljazeera English, 14 June 2014
    Accessed 14 July 2017.
  8. See Brinham, Natalie (December 2012) “The conveniently forgotten human rights of the Rohingya”, Forced Migration Review pp. 40-41.
  9. The International Crisis Group’s experts typically advances the view that “it is not unusual for countries emerging from authoritarianism to experience inter-communal strife”, while dismissing the instrumental role of the Burmese military behind these “communal” conflicts in Myanmar’s case. See “A Dangerous Resurgence of Communal Violence in Myanmar”, ICG, 28 March 2013 Accessed 14 July 2017.
  10. Royal Declaration of War signed by King Thibaw and His Ministers (original in Burmese), Mandalay, 7 November 1885, pp. 72-73 & English translation p. 74, in Yebaw Hla Myo (1968, ed.) Pyidaungsu Myanmar Naing Ngan Thamai Wun Sar Choke Sar Tan Mya (Official Historical Records of Myanmar State), Yangon.
  11. For a concise discussion of the Indian migration to the colonial Burma see Riot Inquiry Committee (1939), p.14-20
  12. ibid. see, in particular, Chapter VI entitled The Press and Other Political Influences, pp. 33-48.
  13. ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. This census date does not include over 1 million Muslim Rohingyas. See “Myanmar census data on Muslim population raises doubts,” AA News Agency, 23 July 2016.
    Accessed 14 July 2017.
  16. For the most comprehensive, secularist, inclusive national vision – in Burmese – ever articulated by a Burmese political leader, see Aung San’s address (20 January 1946) to Shwedagon Middle Terrace Conference, Rangoon in The Collected Speeches of Bogyoke Aung San, Rangoon: Literary House, The Union of Burma Government Press, 1971, pp. 50-51. hereafter “Aung San’s Shwedagon Middle Terrace Conference Address (1946)”.
  17. See Zarni, Maung “Myanmar’s neo-Nazi Buddhists get free rein”, Asia Times, 9 April 2013 & “Military Roots of Racism”,* Asia Times* , 3 September 2013 14 July 2017. Also see “Hidden Hands” (2015).
  18. Walker, Beth (13 May 2014) “Anti-Chinese sentiment on rise in Myanmar”, China Dialogue, Accessed 14 July 2017.
  19. Face-to-face interviews and conversations in Bangkok and Phnom Penh with 100 Myanmar interfaith activists from upcountry Myanmar cities of Mandalay, Lashio, Taunggyi, PyinOoLwin, and Myitkyina between 2013 and 2016.
  20. In his remarks to the 1982 Citizenship Act Drafting Committee held at his Presidential Residence in Rangoon on 8 October 1982 Chairman of the Burma Socialist Programme Party and ex-general Ne Win spelled out the three categories of citizenship. Here he introduced to the country who is a “guest” and who is a “host” in terms of the country’s inhabitants. See “Translation of the speech by General Ne Win provided in The Working People’s Daily (the official English language newspaper of Burma)” , 9 October 1982, at Accessed 18 July. Echoing the old racist sentiment propagated by the late despot General Ne Win, Myanmar’s best known racist hate-preachers such as Sitagu Abbot and Wirathu continue to promote this ‘guest-host’ view of citizens, portraying all non-Buddhists as “guests”.
  21. Andrew R.C. Marshall (27 June 2013) “Special Report: Myanmar gives official blessing to anti-Muslim monks”, Reuters, Accessed 14 July 2017. Hereafter “Myanmar’s official blessing to anti-Muslim monks” (2013).
  22. The articulation of this view dominated the state-controlled media outlets following the bloody crackdown of 1988 nationwide popular uprisings. Also personal communications and interviews with serving and ex-military personnel from Myanmar Armed Forces conducted in Thailand, Philippines, and USA between 2004 and 2009.
  23. For an in-depth discussion on the Burmese Armed Forces in terms of their ideological orientation, mode of operations, self-perception, class position in society, etc. see the three-part analysis by Zarni, Maung (16 October 2013) “Myanmar’s Black Hole: Evolution of a Mafia State in Myanmar”, Asia Times, Accessed 18 July 2017.
  24. Aung San’s Shwedagon Middle Terrace Conference Address (1946).
  25. Smith, Donald Eugene (1965) Religion and Politics in Burma. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. Press. p. 237.
  26. The Burmese author grew up and lived under the military rule for 25 years. This “communist as anti-Buddhist, Dhamma-less heretics was part of our everyday vocabulary.
  27. “Whisper campaigns” is the term that the late Colonel San Tha, a former Central Executive Committee member with General Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programme Party regime in 1970s’, used to describe how the military intelligence (MI) disseminated misinformation among the Burmese public. The MI continued to rely on the same misinformation campaign in the 1990’s before there was any Internet and social media penetration in Myanmar. See Hlaing, Kyaw Yin (Winter, 2008) “Challenging the Authoritarian State Buddhist Monks and Peaceful Protests In Burma”, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, 32:1-125-144, specifically p. 138. Accessed 18 July 2017.
  28. “Buddhist monk uses racism and rumours to spread hatred in “,* The Guardian*, 18 April 2013. 14 July 2017. Also on file with the authors is Wirathu’s full audiotaped sermon during which he publicly called for “starving all Muslims” in Mandalay in 1001.
  29. For a typical Burmese language interview on “Rohingyas as illegal Bengali descendants” see “Interview with Dr Yin Yin Nwe” of Myanmar Presidential Rakhine Commission”, Voice of American Burmese Service. 12 May 2013 Accessed 18 July 2017. Dr Yin Yin New is former Head of UNICEF China and Cambridge-educated geologist. She is also former daughter in law of the late General Ne Win.
  30. “Myanmar’s official blessing to anti-Muslim monks” (2013).
  31. See “Hidden Hands” (2015).
  32. Than, Tin Maung Maung (1993) “Sangha Reforms and Renewal of Sasana in Myanmar: Historical Trends and Contemporary Practice. In Trevor Ling (ed.) Buddhist Trends in Southeast Asia. Social Issues in Southeast Asia. ISEAS, Singapore: Singapore, pp. 6-63.
  33. “Hyper-nationalists celebrate four ‘race and religion’ laws”, Myanmar Times, 15 September 2015. Accessed 14 July 2017.
  34. Thein Sein Government released a three-minute Burmese language YouTube clip as part of its election campaigning against Aung San Suu Kyi’s then flagship opposition party of NLD as the 2015 general election approached.
  35. The renowned former student leaders caused deep dismay among their international supporters including human rights organizations when they began talking about the primacy of “national security” over basic human rights of Rohingyas. Even Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD government was defending the anti-Muslim national race and faith laws at the UN. See “New govt to defend ‘race and religion’ laws at UN meeting”, Myanmar Times,6 July 2016. Accessed 14 July 2017.
  36. See Burmese Edition. 12 July 2017. Hhereafter “AungZaw-YeHtut Irrawaddy Burmese Interview” (2017).
  37. Zarni, Maung (4 July 2017) “Myanmar to Humanitarian Groups: THOU SHALL NOT FEED THE MUSLIMS – without Gov. Knowledge & Monitor”, TRANSCEND,
    humanitarian-groups-thou-shall-not-feed-the-muslims-without-gov-knowledge-monitor/* *
    *Accessed 14 July
  38. “Starvation hits Burma’s Rakhine state as food supplies dwindle”, Asia Correspondent, 9 July 2017.
    Accessed 14 July 2017. Hereafter “Starvation hits Burma’s Rakhine state” (2017).
  39. Personal communications with a former UN senior official previously based in Yangon, 2005.
  40. Amartya Sen on the Slow Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingyas, Harvard University, 4 November 2014. Accessed 14 July 2017.
  41. Ibid.
  42. de Waal, Alex (26 June 2017) “The Nazis Used It, We Use It: The Return of Famine as a Weapon of War”, The London Review of Books, Accessed 14 July 2017.
  43. Email communications with the authors, 13 July 2017.
  44. For the most learned discussion on the issue of respective claims for “indigeneity” made by both Rohingyas and Rakhine Buddhists see Charney, Michael (11 May 2016) “Arakan or Rakhine in Myanmar since the 14th Century: From Inclusion to Polarisation and Exclusion”, remarks delivered at the Conference on Myanmar’s Democratic Transition and the Persecuted Rohingyas, Oxford University, Accessed 18 July 2017.
  45. See Poling, Gregory B. (13 February 2014) “Separating Fact from Fiction about Myanmar’s Rohingya”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC 18 July 2017.
  46. “AungZaw-YeHtut Irrawaddy Burmese Interview” (2017).
  47. Western Gate Problem, 2016. Introduction.
  48. See ex-General and ex-Chief of Military Intelligence Khin Nyunt (2016) Our Country’s Western Gate Problem, One Hundred Flowers Literary House: Yangon. pp. 15-19. (hereafter *Western Gate Problem, 2016.
  49. General Khin Nyunt’s Burmese Language Lecture (marked Top Secret) delivered at the National Defence University Management Course In-take 3/93, on 30 November 1993, printed in Myat Khaing(ed.) Interview with ex-General Khin Nyunt, Revised Edition. Quality Publishing House: Yangon. p. 158.
  50. Western Gate Problem, 2016. Introduction.
  51. Ibid. pp 38-40.
  52. The Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, Sonu Patel, 5 March 2012. 14 July 2017.
  53. See Zarni, Maung & Alice Cowley (Spring 2014) “The Slow Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya”, Pacific Rim Law and Policy Journal, 23: 3, p.684.
  54. Ibid.
  55. See a brief legal analysis on the subject presented by former staffer with the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser, and clerked in the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Southwich, Katherine (2 December 2016) “Confronting Genocide in Myanmar”, *Policy Forum (of the Asia and Pacific Policy Society). Accessed 14 July 2017.
  56. Personal communications, 12 July 2017.
  57. “AUNG SAN SUU KYI ‘ATTACKS ON MUSLIMS NOT ETHNIC CLEANSING’, BBC News, 24 October 2013 14 July 2017.
  58. “Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing pledges to help safeguard Buddhism,” Myanmar Times, 24 June 2016 Accessed 14 July 2017.
  59. See “Genocide Roundtable”, Conference on the Rohingya, the University of Oxford, 24 May 2016. Accessed 14 July 2017.
  60. Cowley, Alice & Maung Zarni (20 April 2017) “An Evolution of Rohingya Persecution in Myanmar: From Strategic Embrace to Genocide”, Middle East Institute, American University, Accessed 14 July 2017.
  61. “Starvation hits Burma’s Rakhine state” (2017).
  62. Myanmar’s attempts at turning its persecution of Rohingyas into an issue of terrorism have gotten some traction within ASEAN region since 2016. See, for instance, Singh, Jasminder & Muhammad Haziq Bin Jani (December 2016) “The Rohingya Crisis: Regional Security Implications”, Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore. Accessed 14 July 2017.
  63. Face-to-face Interview with a Rakhine-Rohingya researcher and civil society activist, Bangkok, Thailand, October 2016.


Dr. Maung Zarni is a Burmese activist blogger, Associate Fellow at the University of Malaya, a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, founder and director of the Free Burma Coalition (1995-2004), a visiting fellow (2011-13) at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, London School of Economics, and a nonresident scholar with the Sleuk Rith Institute in Cambodia. His forthcoming book on Burma will be published by Yale University Press. He was educated in the US where he lived and worked for 17 years.

Natalie Brinham is a Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) PhD student at Queen Mary University of London researching statelessness and state crime. She has worked for many years in NGOs in the UK and Southeast Asia on forced migration, trafficking and statelessness in both frontline service provision roles and research and advocacy roles. This included four years working as a research and advocacy consultant on a multi-country project on the human rights of stateless Rohingya. Under the pseudonym Alice Cowley, she co-authored a three-year study on the Slow-Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya with Maung Zarni. She holds an MA from UCL Institute of Education and a BA (Honors) from the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Originally published by The Brown Journal of World Affairs

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 22 Jan 2018.

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