Islamophobia: Myanmar’s racist fault-line

Myanmar’s Rohingya suffer brutal state crime because of deeply entrenched and unchecked Islamophobia, writes author.

Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi meets with the media
Aung San Suu Kyi's willful silence on racism in Myanmar suggests only "a form of cynical politicking" [EPA]

Abu Tahay is a small passionate man who has something important to say. He has said it to David Cameron, to William Hague, to Hugo Swire and now here in the single air-conditioned room of a small local grass roots organisation (optimistically named “Smile”) in Mingalar Taung Nyunt township in Yangon, he is saying it to me. It is a desperate story and he is well-versed in it. 

It is the story of the Rohingya: rendered stateless at the hands of the military junta, brutalised by armed Buddhist nationalists, abused, dehumanised and displaced by the current Myanmar state and now fleeing the country which refuses to recognise them. 

Bare life in Arakan 

The Rohingya are an ethnic group with ancient traditions in Myanmar and a continuous physical presence there for at least past two centuries. But they are defined by the Myanmar state as Bangladeshi nationals with no right to the privileges of Myanmar citizenship. 

Abu Tahay, chair of the Union National Development Party, shows me the historical evidence which positions the Rohingya ethnic minority in Myanmar before the military’s pre-colonial citizenship cut-off date of 1823. He shows me research from the Australian National University which identifies 8th century Rohingya stone monuments, in the Myanmar state of Arakan (also known as Rakhine). It is compelling evidence and he leaves nothing out. 

On its basis, the Rohingya are surely entitled to Myanmar citizenship and ethnic minority recognition. Instead, theirs is a “bare life” in which every aspect of social and political life is restricted and diminished. 

The “reforming” government of Thein Sein has shown no sign of affording the Rohingya anything but continued persecution, dehumanisation, discrimination and violence. Unconscionable then, that the International Crisis Group chose to honour Thein Sein with its peace award this year. 

There are an estimated 800,000 Rohingyas living in Arakan state, but the number is dwindling fast. Thousands have fled and continue to flee on boats into the Bay of Bengal to escape the anti-Muslim state-sponsored violence which took the lives of nearly 200 in late 2012. Tens of thousands of Rohingya people were displaced in the terror that ensued, and 130,000 were forced into detention camps near Sittwe after their homes were destroyed in June and October. 


Rohingya: Stateless and Unwanted

According to UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, the camps in Sittwe, Myaybon and Pauk Taw evidence a “dire humanitarian situation” and are characterised by overcrowding, a lack of access to clean water and sanitation, a high risk of disease, food insecurity, child malnutrition, and “harsh and disproportionate restrictions on the freedom of movement”.

There are also between 200,000 and 300,000 unregistered Rohingya refugees living outside camps in Bangladesh, in addition to 29,000 registered in camps assisted by UNHCR.

In Thailand, Chris Lewa [PDF], coordinator of the Arakan Project and Rohingya expert, reports that conditions for the 1,600 or so Rohingya men in immigration detention centres are appalling. “They are jails,” she says, “where people cannot even lie down.”

State crime and Islamophobia 

During the second wave of violence, however, it was not only the Rohingya, but also Kaman Muslims from coastal fishing villages in southern Arakan were forced to flee as their communities were attacked. Although the Kaman are a recognised ethnic group with full citizenship rights, those rights did not protect them from racist state-sponsored violence that destroyed homes and livelihoods. 

Nor has citizenship protected those thousands of Muslims currently subjected to a vicious wave of anti- Muslim violence across Myanmar – in Meiktila, Yamethin and in the Pegu townships of Zigon and Nattalin. These attacks, which left many dead and thousands displaced, demonstrate that citizenship is no protection against the communal violence and Islamophobia corroding Myanmar’s reformist agenda.  

The targets of these attacks were not the Arakan Rohingya as much as Muslim citizens, their mosques, businesses and homes. State-sponsored violence against Muslim communities has been orchestrated by Myanmar’s security forces – specifically the NaSaKa border force and assisted by Arakan nationalists, paramilitaries and extremist Buddhist monks. They have been able to act with impunity. 

The cruelty and ferocity of the recent violence has been wrenchingly captured in photographs and footage of charred bodies, blazing villages, displaced people, IDP detention camps, armed monks and Buddhist nationalists. Across the country, the violence is being reinforced by the “969” anti-Muslim campaign. Led by the militant racist monk, Wirathu, the campaign is gaining traction with local groups across the country that are holding meetings and producing CDs, pamphlets and stickers in an effort to persuade the Buddhist majority to boycott Muslim businesses.

According to Andrew Selth, these anti-Muslim riots are not simply a manifestation of the new freedom Myanmar is experiencing (as some would argue). Rather Selth contends that religious tension has always been a feature of the Myanmar political landscape:

“Full rights for Muslims were enshrined in the 1947 constitution, but in 1960 Buddhism was made Burma’s state religion and after the 1962 coup the military regime tended to equate Muslims with colonial rule and the exploitation of Burma by foreigners. Muslims were not permitted to run for public office, join the security forces or work as civil servants. The number of mosques was restricted, some Muslim cemeteries were destroyed and a number of madrassas were closed.” 

Chris Lewa concurs. “Buddhist nationalism,” she says, “means that there is strong anti-Muslim feeling here – they are frightened by the change and fearful of losing traditional superiority.” Thein Nyunt, chair of the New National Democracy Party, made no concessions in his defence of the current 1982 law when he declared

“The citizenship law is intended to protect our race; by not allowing those with mixed blood from making political decisions [for the country], so the law is very important for the preservation of our country.” 

Back at the “Smile” office, as our interview draws to a close, Abu Tahay shows me the statistical data he has painstakingly gathered and meticulously compiled on the current abuses suffered by his people. The arrest figures, deaths in custody, deaths in detention camps and rape statistics – all derived from Arakan court records and information drawn from victims’ families – are further evidence of his people’s anguish. 

He believes it is this kind of proof that will persuade the international community to challenge the Myanmar government on the question of its citizenship laws. This evidence is every bit as – indeed probably more credible than anything produced by the Myanmar authorities and clearly demonstrates that the Rohingya are victims of systematic and enduring state crimes. 

But Abu Tahay’s struggle for recognition is dictated by and predicated upon the terms of the former racist Junta. If the Rohingya can prove and in turn convince the authorities of their ancient right to citizenship and win their place at the Myanmar minority table they will win something – but they will not win a victory against Myanmar racism or protection from the violence preached by hate-filled Buddhist monks like Wirathu. Unless racism is defeated, the violence we have witnessed against the Rohingya, the wider Muslim community and other minorities will be sure to continue. 

Inside Myanmar, the lack of discussion surrounding the Rohingya Muslims reveals how deeply ingrained and institutionalised Myanmar Buddhist nationalism is. Why are many of the most courageous Myanmar human rights activists, many of them former political prisoners, so unwilling to engage in support of the Rohingya? 

One such activist from 88 Generation told me, “The Rohingya is not our ethnic group. Bengalis use the label ‘Burmese Rohingya’ as a passport for asylum… we need to examine who should be a citizen… but it will be difficult to support citizenship. If, however, the Rohingya ask for their human rights, we are ready to support.” 

Aware of the paradox, but unwilling to elaborate further, he pushed our conversation on to other topics. In my time in Myanmar, this was a common and unsettling experience. 

Challenging an icon 

But it is Aung San Suu Kyi‘s refusal to speak out against the crimes endured by the Rohingya that has provided cover for the international community’s failure to intervene. At the outset of the recent waves of anti-Muslim violence, Myanmar’s icon of freedom and democracy was at one with the military-backed government in her singular calls for the restoration of law and order by – it must be noted – the very same state security forces which so terrorised the entire Myanmar population for five brutal decades. 


by ”Thein

, so the law is very important for the preservation of our country.”]

Rather than stand up against Buddhist-led racism, she has pegged her colours firmly, not to the oppressed Rohingya, nor to the increasing victims of Islamophobia, but to her former military jailors, for whom she shares a “great fondness” and whom she now charges with the task of implementing the rule of law. 

To this, Abu Tahay asks, “But how will the rule of law be reinforced? Why does the government never take action against racist police, the NaSaKa border security forces, the Rakhine [Arakan] nationalist para-military forces who are committing the violence?” 

His question is perhaps the most pertinent challenge to Myanmar’s ruling elite. Suu Kyi insists that questions of justice cannot be addressed until Myanmar’s constitution is amended and the rule of law is adopted. Why this is so, is puzzling: surely, building a just society requires, at the very least, the immediate demand for justice when injustice abounds. 

Suu Kyi’s willful silence on racism in Myanmar suggests only a form of cynical politicking. Until the holy grail of constitutional reform – which would free her to run for President – is within grasp, she is apparently happy to side with a regime which uses brutal force to suppress dissent (see the Letpandaung Copper Mine protests) and engages in the ethnic cleansing of an abject group of Myanmar people whose demands are simply to be recognised as such and treated with dignity.

Racist fault-lines

Racism is Myanmar’s political fault-line and while the epicentre might reasonably be understood as the ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya community in Arakan, the central fracture itself must be understood as institutionalised Islamophobia, deeply embedded and historically informed.

There is little dispute that the Rohingya Muslims have suffered the most pervasive and brutal of recent state-sponsored crimes, but to focus only on the Rohingya is to fragment the racist violence experienced by the whole Myanmar Muslim community and to be drawn into arcane legal debates around the rights and wrongs of immigration and citizenship policy which pertain most specifically to the Rohingya.

History forces us to move beyond the immediacy of the Rohingya in order to challenge the more pervasive violence corrupting Myanmar’s transition from dictatorship. 

Abu Tahay’s faith in the British political elite is touching. “They were very supportive,” he tells me about the meeting with David Cameron and other UK government representatives in April 2012. I am sure they were. In the comfortable surrounds of the British Ambassador’s Residence in Yangon, it would have been impolite to be anything less. 

But Cameron, Hague and Swire have done nothing at all to help the Rohingya, nor are they likely to. Their signatures were glaringly absent from the December 11, 2012, and April 4, 2013, House of Commons Early Day Motions, condemning the Myanmar government for its treatment of the Rohingya and other Muslim minorities. 

For the moment, the Rohingya must rely on the moral force of their cause. But while there is more economic and political mileage in doing business with their oppressors, the British government will continue to pay only lip service to Abu Tahay and the Islamophobia that underpins the relentless persecution of his community. 

Tahay’s stateless people continue to live in cruel isolation with few friends. And Tahay is growing tired, “I don’t have the inner strength that’s why we need the international community,” he says quietly. 

Penny Green is Professor of Law at King’s College London and Director of the International State Crime Initiative.