Myanmar’s Rohingyas: Power Struggle, Buddhist Assertion & Ethnic Divide

ISSSP Reflections No. 42, May 31, 2016

Author: Albertina Nithya B.


The Rohingya Muslims are considered as the most persecuted community of the 21st century. Are the Rohingyas victims of the power struggle in Myanmar? Are the Buddhists using this division among people to demonstrate their assertion vis-à-vis the military? Is the attack on Rohingyas a clash of ethnic identities in Myanmar?

What are the political undercurrents?

Myanmar is a diverse 8aa2society, but the Rohingyas are not part of the 135 registered ethnic groups. While one can state the overriding common sentiment of the Burmese to consider the Rohingya Muslims as illegal immigrants, the problem goes much deeper. The Rakhines are one of the dominant ethnic groups in Myanmar. Their ability to thwart a unanimous victory to the popular NLD in the Rakhine state demonstrates their considerable influence. The Rakhine National Party, created with the merger of Arakan League for Democracy and Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, resulted in the formation of the second largest ethnic political group in Myanmar. Thus it became prudent for any party meaning to establish government, to ensure a place in the good graces of one of the largest vote banks. The Rohingya issue became a political weapon to be wielded by parties to assert their power.

The military is widely believed to be behind the scenes of the communal tensions and plays a crucial role in the recent upsurge in violence. This is evident from the various reports written about the 2012 massacre including the Al Jazeera documentary. Also the research undertaken by Prof. Penny Green with a team of experts from ISCI proves beyond reproach that the 2012 massacre was not a communal riot but planned violence. The research goes on to implicate the military regime in the injustices meted out to the minority community. But why does the military engage in such activities? – political survival.  A false image is constructed by which the role of military becomes indispensible for ensuring safety and security in the state. This leads to closer cooperation and working relationship with the civilian government. It has been observed earlier when the first civilian government of U Nu shared power with the military to suppress the ethnic conflicts.

Slandering and denouncing the Rohingyas became a sure-fire way of ensuring popularity and reputation for the political party. It became a trend, a mainstream sentiment that found resonance among the populace. The political construct of the term ’Rohingya’ is being largely associated with the identity of a Bengali Muslim. Positioning oneself as being against the Rohingyas sends the message of supporting the 500,000 Buddhist monks of the country. The military junta by aiding the monks takes on the role of being the defenders of Buddhist religion and Burmese culture. This, in turn, appeases the dominant forces of the Rakhine province where political parties are largely anti-Rohingya in nature. For example, the Arakan National party’s slogan is “love your nationality, keep pure blood, be Rakhine and vote ANP.”

The linking of Rohingya Muslims with extremist groups is another disturbing trend that is emerging in contemporary times. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s statements, at the 13th ASEAN Chiefs of Defence Forces Informal Meeting in Vientiane, Laos, declared that all the member countries of ASEAN should come together to combat the regional threat of “Bengali extremism” related to the migration of Rohingyas. This demonstrates the fact of how the ethnic and religious identities of being a Rohingya and a Muslim are interchangeably used and reveals the country’s deep feeling of ‘Islamophobia.’

What are the religious undertones?

The 124 year long British colonial rule of Myanmar created among the Burmese, deep feelings of mistrust and resentment towards the foreigners. Buddhist monks like Ashin Wirathu, the face of anti-Muslim organisations like 969 and the Ma Ba Tha movement, are expertly using the xenophobia among people to instigate hatred and violence against the Rohingyas. Almost all the communal tensions that had happened since 2012 are preceded by inflammatory speeches by the radical monk.

The power possessed by the Buddhist monks was evident from the ‘saffron revolution’ of 2007 where they were able to force the government in letting out Aung San Suu Kyi for a few minutes to the view of the public. Though the revolution was a failure, it compelled the government not to underestimate the influence of the monks. The next series of steps adopted by the government displayed its intentions to consolidate the power of the monks to strengthen its reins on power. The anti-Muslim sentiments of fringe groups occupied the mainstream dialogue of the state and resulted in the creation of religious organisations like the 969 movement. Thus the military and the religious extremists forged a symbiotic relationship. But from the results of the current election that happened in November 2015, it was the radical monks who turned out to be the greater beneficiaries.

With charisma, unfounded claims and persuasive words, Wirathu played with the insecurity present among the populace to boost his own popularity. The Rohingya Muslims have become expendables in the hands of extremist monks in their quest for political power and the device they use is the protection of Buddhist religion from the criminal Muslims. Article 364 of the constitution of Myanmar forbids monks from taking part in any political activity. Wirathu, through his actions has proved how getting a seat in the parliament is not the only way by which you can exercise power.

The reason for the victimisation of Rohingyas by Wirathu is seen in his speeches as he paints a vile picture of the small number of wealthy Muslims residing in Mandalay and Yangon. A fear of being economically dominated and left at the mercy of the Muslim community seems to be the preposterous ideas constituting his hate speeches. He claims that if they continue to be complacent, the now poor Rohingyas may become rich and come to dominate them in the future. He also cites another reason for the Rohingyas to be ousted from the land. Labelling them as “enemies of the people” who use violence and distinguishing them from the other Muslims in the country by calling them ‘Bengali Rohingyas,’ he builds a special case for the minority Rohingya.

Why are the other religious minorities not getting persecuted? There are 1.2 percent more number of Christians than Muslims in Myanmar. Any logical explanation would lead to a higher probability of Myanmar’s Christians getting persecuted since they have the same religion as the coloniser. They are more susceptible to fall victim to the country’s sentiments of xenophobia. Then why are the Rohingya Muslims being victimised? The significant number of Muslims in the Rakhine state is one reason attributed for their unjust treatment. This maybe the reason why the Muslims in other parts of the state don’t undergo the same treatment as the Rohingyas.

Images showing the devastations caused by the bombings of Islamic fundamentalist groups in various corners of the world are used by the radical monks in forwarding their case of Muslims being dangerous. Gradually, Wirathu and his group of fanatical monks are assuming the face of Buddhism in South Asia, eclipsing the identity and viewpoints of other moderate Buddhist sects. The TIMES magazine portraying Wirathu as the face of Buddhist terror was banned not only in Myanmar but also in the predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka displaying his international stature. Fearing repercussions and possibility of losing their Buddhist votes, both the majority parties USDP and NLD have towed the line by not fielding even one Muslim candidate. The division among the people in the Rakhine state has served as the perfect vehicle for the augmentation of the influence of the overzealous Buddhist monks. They are playing with the ethnic and religious identity clashes happening in the state.

Paranoia due to clash of ethnic identities?

The animosity between the Rakhines and the Rohingyas started as early as WWII where the former supported the Japanese while the latter was aided by British with weapons. Similar to other ethnic communities, the Rakhines and the Rohingyas differ vastly in their culture, customs and traditions. With the progression of time, the Rakhines in the south started feeling insecure and feared the erosion of their culture and tradition by the Rohingyas. The demand of the Rohingyas for an autonomous state in the northern part of Arakan also exacerbated their fears.

Further complicating the issue was the economic woes of the state. The Rakhine Buddhists already had a problem with the nationalist party of Myanmar and was an ethnic minority in their own way. The paranoia of being dominated by the Rohingyas both culturally and economically set off a violent and insidious hatred to grow among the ethnic group of the Rakhines.

Also the Rohingyas are not seen as an inherent part of Myanmar’s community as seen from themrohingyas being referred to as Bengali Muslims. The state derogatorily labels them as kalars and jailed 5 men last year for mentioning Rohingyas as part of Myanmar’s ethnic community in a calendar. Rohingyas are considered as outsiders and invaders and are seen as an extension of the era of colonial oppression. This symbolism of the Rohingya’s identity makes them the victim of wide-spread hatred among the Burmese. The presence of groups like ISIS in the contemporary world also results in stereotyping the Muslims and coming to the conclusion that all Muslims are terrorists. This phenomenon has been seen in the various protests that happened on the streets of Myanmar throughout 2015 when the crisis of ‘boat people’ captured the attention of the international system. Placards carrying slogans such as “We are under attack by terrorist so called boat people” are common sights in the country.

The majority feel they need to protect their country against the supposed UN bullying of Myanmar. The Burmese masses consider Rohingyas as Bengalis and fear the usurpation of their identity, religion and country. All of this makes them turn a blind eye and be indifferent to or sometimes become the perpetrators that contribute to the dismal plight of the Rohingyas. Any source that links the history of Rohingya with Myanmar is considered as false, fake and a bunch of lies supplied by media in exile.

As seen from above, political, religious and ethnic factors come into play and are interconnected with each other, making the Rohingya crisis one of the most complex issues of the 21st century. Islamophobia is running rampant in the country and the issue of discrimination against Muslims, which is forcing them to flee the country, is of grave concern and needs to be explored further. The fate of 1.3 million people rests on the way in which the crisis is going to be treated by the international community. The pressure they are going to apply on Myanmar to find the earliest possible solution for the refugee situation is of crucial importance.

The silence of NLD is worrying as it is the democratic voice of the country. Many scholars have attributed the relocation of the Rohingyas from the camps to their previous homes and the reduction on the number of Rohingya Muslims trying to flee the country to the democratic government. But the other side contemplate that the fear of human smugglers, perilous journey and being forced into bonded labour are the main deterrents for the fall in numbers. Critics have defended the Suu Kyi government by denoting its nascent state and believe that with the consolidation of power in the course of time, she will address the issue with due importance. But time is something the Rohingya Muslims are short of.

About the Author

Ms. Albertina Nithya B. is pursuing M.A. in International Studies at Stella Maris College, Chennai. She can be reached at <albertinanithya[at]gmail[dot]com>. Views are personal.  

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