The targeting of the Rohingya communities in Myanmar today is nothing short of a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’ . To this day, 900,000 Rohingya refugees have sought shelter in the neighbouring state of Bangladesh , driven out by military-led attacks in the Northern Rakhine State. This is a surprising fact considering the supposed ‘democratic’ nature of Aung Sung Suu Kyi’s government. Furthermore, given the country’s announcement of its intention to transition from an authoritarian state (controlled by the military, the Tatmadaw) to a democratic one in 2011, how can we understand this obvious abuse of power?
At present, there are two key narratives which can explain why the Rohingya have been targets of targeted ethnic violence. Firstly, during the military regime (1962-2011) the Rohingya came to be identified as ‘illegal immigrants’ by the passing of new exclusionary legislation and secondly, that they posed a security threat because of their ‘expansionist’ agenda. The origins of both of these narratives can be traced back to colonial times. However, whilst they didn’t actively discriminate against the Rohingya, colonial policies shaped the Rohingya into a vulnerable target to be scapegoated both by the military and majority Burmese and extremist Buddhist groups later on.
So, what has been the response of the civilian government to this humanitarian crisis and how has the military justified its blatant ethnic violence? In 2019, the then Prime Minister and Nobel Peace prize winner, Ms. Suu Kyi testified in front of the International Court of Justice, defending the military against allegations of ethnic cleansing. Ms. Suu Kyi’s response was vague, referring only to the possibility that a disproportionate use of force had been applied . This highlights the fragility of the civilian government in Myanmar and that its continued existence is dependent on good relations with the military elites. Myoe (2011) argued that so long as democratisation occurred within the confines of the 2008 military Constitution, the democratic rule would be tolerated . For example, given Ms. Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) increased majority after the 2020 elections , it is unsurprising that the Tatmadaw initiated a military coup. Even with their fixed 25% of parliamentary seats, the military would have been unable to oppose the NLD’s popular agenda to pass constitutional reforms. Ultimately these reforms would have prevented the military from blocking liberalising reforms in parliament, resulting in the limitation of their political power.
Against this backdrop, how has colonialism contributed to this current state of affairs? On the most basic level, the colonial period in Myanmar saw the re-configuration of ethnic identity, which can be argued to set the foundations for the Rohingya to be resented by the majority groups and later actively discriminated against during the military regime. The use of ‘divide-and-rule’ is a common strategy of colonial powers, involving the separating and re-organisation of sub-national groups in society and is used to assert colonial power more efficiently . This strategy re-configured how society viewed ethnic identity  and ultimately resulted in a ‘highly polarised multi-ethnic society, where ethnic consciousness was significantly enhanced’ (Cornish, 2021, 14). This shift was important because it occurred over a long period, meaning that as different ethnic groups were consolidated within themselves at different times, different groups ended up having different experiences of British colonialism. Therefore, the British period increased the salience of ethnic identity, which is often argued to be the source of conflict in multi-ethnic states.
This leads to my second point, one that emphasises the origins of the Rohingya community in Myanmar, which is arguably one of the key root causes of the current conflict and has been used to legitimise anti-Rohingya violence. Britain’s occupation of Myanmar was achieved in three stages, starting with the colonisation of Arakan and Tannaserrim states in the South . During this first stage of colonization, the British encouraged the flow of migrant workers from British occupied Chittagong, India into the Rakhine state . This is incredibly important because the military regime used this to denounce the Rohingya as ‘illegal immigrants’ and being of Indian rather than Burmese descent. For example, the 1982 Citizenship Act revoked citizenship for approximately 600,000 Rohingya on the basis that they were not an indigenous group. Not only did this strip over half a million previous citizens of political rights, but it denied their existence as one of the 135 recognised ethnic groups by the state, further stripping them of the ability to acquire jobs or healthcare. This was the first time that belonging to one of the ‘national races’ had become a prerequisite for citizenship. So, whilst the politicisation of ethnic identity occurred after the end of British rule, it is unlikely that such a policy would have been passed without Britain’s re-organisation of ethnicity into separate identities, and labour migrant policies during the first stage of occupation.
Now with regard to the second narrative mentioned earlier; that the Rohingya are perceived to be a threat to the Buddhist majority, we can again trace the origins of this narrative to colonial times. Prior to the Second World War, the Rohingya were already resented by other ethnic groups because of favouritism from the British . This was exacerbated during the War when the British promised the Rohingya their own homeland in return for their support; a stark contrast to the Burmese majority supporting the Japanese. Bearing this in mind, the perception of the Rohingya as a separatist ethnic minority can be better understood. In a sermon delivered by a leading radical Buddhist monk and leader of the anti-Rohingya ‘969 Movement’, U Wirathu claimed the Rohingya would seek to prioritise the survival of their own ethnic group above that of the nation. In other words, he claimed the Rohingya associated with their ethnic identity, over their national identity. This insight into the attitude of a leading extremist Buddhist figure reinforces the notion that developments during and since the Second World War have consolidated the Rohingya’s reputation as a group that threatens the unity of Myanmar.
To sum this all up, the instigators of violence towards the Rohingya were not rooted in colonial times, but the conditions which made the Rohingya susceptible to scapegoating and vulnerability were created by the British regime. Today the Rohingya’s portrayal as a secessionist seeking, outsider group with no formal ties to being a national race or indigenous ethnic group within Myanmar can explain the current policies that seek to remove them from Myanmar’s history.
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 Myoe, Maung Aung. “The soldier and the state: the Tatmadaw and political liberalization in Myanmar since 2011.” South East Asia Research 22, no. 2 (2014): 233-249.
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