top of page

Myanmar whitewashes ethnic cleansing

Credit: Council on Foreign Relations

An official report into last year's violence in Rakhine State, launched on April 29 at the government's foreign donor financed Myanmar Peace Center, is intellectually, ideologically, empirically and analytically flawed, underscoring President Thein Sein's bid to whitewash the recent ethnic cleansing of Muslim Rohingya in the western state, which borders Bangladesh. Established on presidential order, the Inquiry Commission has been conflicted from the day of its inception on August 17 last year. The five individuals who were hand-picked to launch the report on Monday were a curious mix themselves: the country's most famous political comedian, the former daughter-in-law of the late despot General Ne Win, a well-known former student leader, a well-known former exile, and the president's personal adviser and interpreter. Thein Sein and his allies are increasingly using various crisis inquiry commissions, including the Aung San Suu Kyi-led Letpadaung Mountain Copper Mine Inquiry Commission and now the Rohingya Ethnic Cleansing Inquiry Commission, as public relations instruments to deflect public attention from its spectacular failures in handling popular discontent, state-sponsored violence against civilian populations, and mass ethno-religious violence. In instances where the role of government institutions was instrumental, for instance in last year's pogroms in Rakhine State, inquiry commissions have become useful tools of deflection for Naypyidaw. The latest official report, originally classified as "secret", of the Rakhine Sectarian Violence Inquiry Commission was strategically released to counter the damning and credible April 22 report "All You Can Do is Pray: Ethnic Cleansing and the Crimes Against Humanity in Myanmar", released by US-based rights lobby Human Rights Watch. The Inquiry Commission was stacked with cooperative technocrats, ethnic minority leaders, socialites, religious leaders and so-called human rights activists who were prepared or compelled to sign off on the report despite knowing it contained verifiably false and distorted facts about important issues under investigation. As a product of such an unholy alliance, the commission's report is patently un-professional, non-independent and unprincipled. Devoid of crucial truths, it is a document utterly uninformed by any well-established analytical concepts such as "ethnic formation", "identity formation", "state's mobilization" in genocide studies, "discourse", "nationalism", "history" - through which all scholars and researchers of the social world attempt to make sense of even ordinary human affairs, including genocides. Ethnic labels in Myanmar, including for the Chin and the Kachin, were externally imposed by British colonial administrators and American Baptist missionaries on the "natives". These were disparate groups who originally identified themselves tribally, as clans and along geographic lines. The new ethnic labels were less than 50 years old upon independence in 1948. Mal-informed by the prevailing pseudo-scientific knowledge about race and ethnicity in Europe, the British colonials and American missionaries grouped these "tribal peoples" in borderlands together for administrative expediency. As Indian economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen correctly pointed out during a public seminar on Myanmar at Columbia University last September, the geographical areas now known as Arakan or Rakhine State frequently changed hands among neighboring feudal rulers, and boundaries were always elastic in the pre-colonial era. The Rohingya Ethnic Cleansing Inquiry report officially stresses how the Rakhine feudal lords expanded their reach over territories in what was then Bengal, while making light of the fact that there were Bengali kings who ruled what was then the Kingdom of Arakan. Academics, especially establishment ethno-nationalist historians, have long proven capable of recounting the past only from a victor's perspective. The two leading scholars on the Inquiry Commission are no exception. For a commission that was led by two historically trained Burmese and a retired Rangoon [now Yangon] University history professor, the report's treatment of the history of a people whom the commission insisted on referring to as "Bengali" is anything if not "ethnocidal" - that is, an attempt to erase concrete historical evidence that the Rohingya, a self-referential identity, existed as an ethnic community and was officially recognized by the state under the democratic government of prime minister U Nu. This recognition of the Rohingya as an official constitutive ethnic group of the country, as well as their full citizenship status, was not confined to civilian politicians from the ruling political parties. During its two-year caretaker government (1958-60), the army's senior most leadership of General Ne Win and his deputies including Brigadier Aung Gyi officially recognized the Rohingya by their own self-chosen ethnic name: the Rohingya. While Thein Sein's commission's historians claimed to have poured over the archival records at the country's National Archives relevant to these "Bengalis", to borrow the standard Rakhine reference to the Rohingya of western Myanmar, they violated professional ethics as researchers by blatantly omitting any concrete evidence that the Rohingya were both an official ethnic group and citizens of Myanmar. In fact, one doesn't need to bother going to the archives to verify the Rohingya's ethnic identity and their citizenship status. Photographic copies of the verifiably authentic official records (for instance, Burma's Encyclopedia published by the Government Printing Press in 1964, official transcripts of speeches by the Burmese generals bearing the Rohingya's name, Burmese state newspaper clippings announcing a national radio program for various ethnic languages including the Rohingya language, parliamentary records, etc) are easily accessible in numerous social media sites and on-line archives. But the commissioners, either as anti-Rohingya Islamophobes or under duress from the government that appointed them to the Inquiry Commission, especially the professional historians among them, evidently chose to weed out any historical evidence that contradicts Myanmar's racist Citizenship Act of 1982, which was designed with input from Rakhine nationalists and earlier anti-Muslim elements in the Ministries of Defense and Immigration to strip Muslim Rohingyas both of their ethnic identity and citizenship standing. Forgotten history In the hands of the commission's Cornell- and Harvard-trained historians, including the likes of chairman Myo Myint, secretary Kyaw Yin Hlaing and Professor Tun Aung Chain, the Rohingya's migratory history began only in 1824 and going on to the Japanese advent in 1942, when large scale communal violence between the Rakhine and the Rohingya took place. The entire two decades of the 1950s and 1960s, during which the Rohingya were both official ethnic peoples and had citizenship rights, were completely skipped in the report's historical section. This omission highlighted the anti-Rohingya Rakhine nationalist version of history which denies that the Rohingya ever existed. State-sponsored ethnocide, which began with the brutal immigration campaign of 1978 which drove out nearly 200,000 Rohingya from the Rakhine state across to neighboring Bangladesh, was "unproblematized" by the commissioners, all of whom insisted that they were "politically independent". The ethnocide is all the more shocking considering the commission's ethnic diversity, including representatives from the ethnic Kachin, Chin, Karen, Shan and other communities that have experienced oppression from state authorities. Ethno-religiously, the commission was a good mix - that is, except that there was no Rohingya - nay, "Bengali" - representation. Dr Myo Myint (Bama or Bama-identified), Khun Tun Oo (Shan), Jana Lahtaw (Kachin), Dr Salai Andrew (Chin), U Soe Thein (Bama), Dr Yin Yin Nwe (Shan-Bama), Dr Kyaw Yin Hlaing (Shan-Bama), Zarganar (Bama), Aung Naing Oo (Bama), Ko Ko Gyi (a national security race?), Tin Aung Moe (Bama), Daw Than Than Nu (Bama), (Vet) Dr Aye Maung (Rakhine with neo-Nazi views), Aye Thar Aung (ultra-nationalist Rakhine), Reverend Margay Gyi (Karen), U Tun Aung Chain (Karen). There are also Myanmar Muslims (ethnically Indians) and Myanmar Hindu.

With the exception of the Muslim commissioners, none of these ethno-religious diverse commissioners fought against the state-sponsored ethnocide of the Rohingya in the form of the commission's vehement opposition to the word "Rohingya". The two Muslim leaders who challenged this ethnocide and stood up for the Rohingya's own "imagined identity" were kicked out. Their crime? - frivolous charges of speaking to the press about the inquiry while others who also spoke to the media were left untouched. As to be expected, the report made no mention of how politics got in the way of establishing truths about the mass violence in Rakhine State. In fact, the commission sought to confirm the popular anti-Muslim racism without problematizing the recent growth of this increasingly virulent strain of Islamophobia and anti-Bengali sentiment across all indigenous national races of Myanmar. The commission did raise passing concern about the 969, a neo-Nazi movement ostensibly led by Buddhist monks from Myanmar's leading teaching monasteries, and its divisive impact on ethnic and social relations in society. But it fell far short of pointing out the need to take seriously the new neo-fascist turn in the country's well-known anti-Muslim, pro-Buddhist racism. The report's authors chose to describe the now world infamous 969 rather mildly as "a campaign among the Buddhist to defend their own faith and to encourage intra-Buddhist commerce and trade". All this is troubling but not unexpected. It was under the Religious Affairs Director-Generalship of Commission chair Dr Myo Myint that there was a proliferation of anti-Muslim quasi-religious publications, long before the previous crop of ruling generals allowed for greater freedom of press, assembly and speech. The leading voice of 969, Buddhist monk Wirathu, recently told the Associated Press that his views were formed as early as 2001. Sadly, nearly half of the commissioners are my old, and now former, friends. Their collective document is unmistakably Bama racist/Orientalist in orientation, treating both communities in the conflict with a typical popular Bama contempt and dislike. This is adding insult to injury for both parties in the conflict, namely the Rakhines and the Rohingya. The Rakhines are portrayed essentially as lazy natives who can not compete with the thrifty, business-savvy, hard-working "Bengalis" without the intervention of the state and its blood-based neo-fascist 1982 Citizenship Act. The Rohingya are described as elementary school children-like people who, having obtained commission members' hand-phone numbers from their Muslim contacts in Yangon, kept on calling the commission members to blabber on about their sufferings and whine about their grievances. These portrayals repeat a crucial racially charged popular narrative that turns out to be factually incorrect, namely that three Bengalis raped and brutally murdered a 28-year-old Rakhine Buddhist woman, the supposed first spark of the following pogroms. This was pointed out to me personally by a more honest commission member, Myanmar's most famous political comedian and former political prisoner, Zarganar. This rape case is vitally important because the commission identified it as a key trigger for anti-"Bengali" mobilization by Rakhine nationalists, politicians and parties, including some of the Rakhine members of the Inquiry Commission, including Aye Maung, a vet-cum-MP in Naypyidaw from the Rakhine National Development Party, an ultra-nationalist group that has claimed to be working for the "purification of Rakhine state". But the arrested and alleged rapists were officially registered as two Kaman Muslims and a Rakhine adopted by a Rohingya Muslim family in Pauk-taw Township. Zarganar, one of the five members who was one of the leading spokespersons for the commission at the press conference where the report was launched, told this writer in no uncertain terms that he interviewed the doctor in Rakhine state who performed the post mortem of the raped woman's corpse. According to this videotaped interview, the alleged Rakhine rape victim bore no sign of having been raped. Yes, she was brutally murdered and her jewelry was gone. But she was certainly not raped, recounted Zarganar, based on his one-on-one recorded interview with the doctor. The doctor was eventually forced by the authorities to sign the official post-mortem report that established the rape that did not take place. Then there was no mention of the "suicide in police custody" of one of the alleged rapists - Htet Htet, a non-Bengali adopted son of a Bengali family. Nor was there any mention of the fact that his freshly widowed wife was also found dead, allegedly having "drowned" in a local well. Was there foul play? It appears that Zarganar, the well-respected political comedian and dissident who went to jail four times since the 1988 pro-democracy uprisings crushed by the military, was compelled to put his name to the official commission report which contained statements and misinformation which he himself knows are patently and verifiably false. The entire report is riddled with inter-contradictions and inconsistencies that are not explained. For instance, the report raises the issue of the lack of or weak inter-agency coordination among the army, intelligence, civil administration, immigration, attorney general's office and Rakhine chief/prime minister's office. It discusses how and why the security forces and constitutive agencies only listened to direct orders from Naypyidaw. But the commission chose not to ask why Naypyidaw failed to issue orders to provide adequate measures to protect the targeted Rohingya communities. Instead, the National Defense and Intelligence Council (or Kar-lon in Burmese) did nothing to mobilize security forces to protect the Rohingya, troops which Thein Sein and his deputies knew would obey only direct orders from ministerial headquarters. Perhaps one silver living in the dark episode is that the report accurately states that local authorities in Rakhine State have absolutely no power to order security forces, including army, police, and border-control interagency troops, to do anything to quell mass violence. This was and still is something only Thein Sein's central government can do. Command questions That begs the question: why did the union level leadership of Thein Sein and his deputies on the Council in Naypyidaw choose not to mobilize the troops to restore order while the same security troops were called in to firebomb sleeping Buddhist monks protesting a China-invested mining project at 2 am using canisters containing white phosphorous? Alas, this is a question that fell outside of the purview of the presidential commission. Furthermore, vague if not imaginary statistics are cited throughout the 186-page document without accompanying narratives or explanations. The commission did not even bother to account for its own official statistics from the government. The fact is that the greatest number of deaths and destruction were borne by the Rohingya. And yet a highly disproportionate number of the Rohingya vis-a-vis the Rakhine have been tried. In the first wave of Rohingya-Rakhine violence in June last year, 4,188 Rohingya homes were destroyed while the Rakhine suffered the loss of 1,150 homes. In the second wave of violence in October, 2,371 Rohingya homes were destroyed as opposed to only 42 homes that belonged to the Rakhine. And again, out of a total of 1,835 arrested in connection with the mass violence, 1,589 are Rohingya and only 246 are Rakhine. Perhaps the scholarly presidential investigators on the commission could advance and test a hypothesis that the economic productivity of Rakhine Buddhists (all Buddhists in Myanmar?) must be inversely correlated with the destructive capacity of the group. For the report orientalized the Rakhine as a low-productivity group, or more crudely, lazy natives. The commission's official statistic implies the awesome power of a small group of Rakhine - 246 to be exact - to destroy thousands of homes and dozens of mosques in about a dozen different towns and cities and make over 120,000 Rohingya refugees homeless, shelter-less, internally displaced persons in a span of just five months. If this number of Rakhine terrorizers, arsonists and slaughters does not seem quite convincing given the magnitude of death and devastation they had wrought throughout northern and southern Rakhine State, then who else aided and abetted the principal terrorizers among the Rakhine who wanted a Rakhine State only for the Rakhine?

There is no mention in the report of a single case wherein any official, security or civil, was held accountable for his or her leadership failure, or worse, participation in the pogroms. According to Zarganar, his official request that the investigators be allowed unfettered access to all the important officials alive, past and present who have served in western Myanmar over the past 25 years was never granted. He told me that many of the officials were transferred to remote places after the commission was formed on August 17. So what is Naypyidaw trying to hide? That question, of course, also lied outside the mandated scope of the Presidential Inquiry Commission. The spread of rumors and hate-speech against Rohingya on social media was touched on as an important issue, and yet no attempt was made to point out that Thein Sein's spokespersons, Major Zaw Htay and Deputy Minister of Information Ye Htut, are internationally known figures who use social media to disseminate deliberately false news and engage in hate and fear-mongering. At the time of the crisis, Zaw Htay was spreading grossly inaccurate news, including that "a group of armed radical Muslims have entered Rakhine from [the] Bangladesh side". Meanwhile, Ye Htut spread official lies, including the notion that there was "no need for further provision of shelter for the Bengali IDPs because the government has provided them with everything for the coming rainy season". The report rightly recommends urgent provision of adequate shelter and other humanitarian assistance because of the dire, overcrowded IDP camps for 100,000-plus "Bengali". Echoing the International Crisis Group's monocausal explanation that communal violence often accompanies democratic openings, the report sees greater freedom of speech as a causal explanation for the spread of hate speech. The commission decided it was not worth noting that it purged U Nyunt Maung Shein and U Tin Maung Than, the two prominent and non-pliant Muslim members of the commission who were actually pushing for truths about the communal violence. That push obviously did not go down well with chairman Dr Myo Myint and Border Control Minister Lt-General Thein Htay. According to U Tin Maung Than, two days after a 15-minute heated phone conversation last autumn over what should be reported to commission patron Thein Sein and how frequently reporting should be done, he was expelled from the commission in the same manner he was appointed - that is, with no prior knowledge nor explanation. Chairman Myo Myint was on record saying to U Tin Maung Than that "the welfare and security of these people are not the commission's responsibility, nor do you need to send President Thein Sein important updates." Although Zarganar pushed to get access to crucial heads of security forces stationed in Rakhine State to conduct a proper inquiry, he later complained that both the commission's chairman and secretary did their best "to derail the inquiry". Inquiry commissions are generally not about seeking or finding incriminating evidence that will lead their commissioning presidents to the gallows. Thein Sein may be a liar with a straight face but he ain't dumb. Preemptively, the eight mandates outlined by Thein Sein in fact did not include any study of the role of the state, its institutions, or the responsibilities of the national leadership. Above all, the report simply reinforced the state-sponsored Rohingya ethnocide and chose to overlook the elephant in the room: the military-led state and its crucial role in the Rohingya ethnic cleansing. Instead of shedding light on the utter inaction of the characteristically trigger-happy Myanmar security forces, the commission focused instead on highlighting the need to modernize these already heavily and happily armed troops. Rigged recommendations The first dozen recommendations in the four-page English-language Executive Summary of the report are all about security sector modernization, not security reform, while lip service is paid to the need to act in line with international human rights standards and Myanmar's international treaty obligations. The report recommends that the international community, spelled Washington, help to equip security forces with new toys, including CCTV capacities, assault speedboats, and various new weapons to deal with the cross-border problem of Bangladesh's "population explosion". Certainly, the US Pentagon would love to help bring the Tatmadaw (Myanmar's army) and other auxiliary units up to the human rights standards exercised at the US-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or Guantanamo Bay detention facilities in Cuba. For a report that bore the signatures of 24 technocrats, establishment historians and academics, wealthy local merchants and traders, socialites and religious leaders, the recommendations about security sector modernization are rather impressive, so much so that one wonders if the report was the commission's gift to the Ministry of Defense and its next generation of generals. For a report littered with references to "human rights" and "international legal norms", its contents shows no sign that commissioners even bothered to glance at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the UN Conventions on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Nor did the commission deem it worthwhile to consult with either the research findings and reports from the Arakan Project or the National University of Galway's authoritative "Crimes Against Humanity in Western Burma". In fact, the commission considered the use of the term "ethnic cleansing" as part of an attempt to unduly internationalize local issues and an act of international nongovernmental organization (INGO) exaggeration. Or, perhaps, the commissioners felt human rights documentation was out of their professional depth without such training or an official political mandate. The commission must have known, however, that other non-native organizations such as Human Rights Watch were going to do an independent and more professional job of investigating the violence. Meanwhile, the commissioners seemed very much at ease when advocating "voluntary" population control of the Rohingya. The commissioners were of the view that this rapid procreation or "population explosion" among the people they insisted on calling "Bengalis" made worse the already acute sense of collective existential insecurity among the Rakhine. There is detectable patriotic sentiment in the reports finding that 80% of the fertile agricultural acreage in certain locations of Rakhine State are now in the hands of hard-working and thrifty "Bengali" agricultural workers and land-owners while landless and lazy Rakhine have fallen deeper into destitution. Even Myanmar's civil society, manufactured by the European Union and international donor funding, must be pleased with the commission's emphatic framing of the genocide as simply "communal violence". Alas, this is the civil society that refuses to call ethnic cleansing in their midst by its proper name. In the words of Aung Myo Min, a Myanmar human rights educator from the Human Rights Education Institute: "In such a sensitive situation, the use of the phrase 'ethnic cleansing' is unacceptable. Ethnic cleansing means eliminating other ethnic groups. This is not the case [in Rakhine State]." George Orwell, the inventor of the phrase "double-speak", worked in Myanmar during the colonial period in the 1920s. Orwell's ghost continues to roam in "democratic" Myanmar, possessing the dissidents, technocratic and intellectual mountebanks, ethnic nationality leaders, religious figures, human rights educators, and civil society leaders. In sum: Allah bad, Buddha good. Buzzword phrases such as "clean government", "good governance" and "transparency" perversely litter the commission's report. No doubt the new policy of this soon-to-be clean government will be to approach the issue of "communal violence" holistically, including through the preventative use of the "weapons of conflict resolution" the report recommends the international community provide to Myanmar's ethnocide-complicit security forces. A truly independent inquiry would have recommended the establishment of an early warning system of future genocidal waves. It also would have recommended more empirical research that probed the deeper causes of last year's "communal violence" in Rakhine State. The commission's varnished findings suggests the need for a new resolution research center, located perhaps near the Rohingya mass graves which Human Rights Watch uncovered. Scholars in the field of genocide studies have established that extraordinary mass violence, including ethnic cleansings, are seldom simply domestic or internal events in nation states. Rather, they frequently have an international dimension. These dark events generally take place in an international environment where external players are more concerned with their own strategic and commercial interests than large scale human sufferings, be they in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, and now Myanmar. Donor governments of the pro-human rights West have reacted with hostility to Human Rights Watch's characterization of their newfound business and strategic partners in Myanmar as "ethnic cleansers" and "criminals against humanity". Thein Sein's inquiry, on the other hand, is sprinkled with the liberal discourses of conflict resolution, humanitarian management, and national reconciliation. It is thus no doubt more palatable to the international community of diplomats, investors and military strategists determined to cozy up to his self-proclaimed "democratic" regime. If anything, the Rohingya Ethnic Cleansing Inquiry Commission report offers a hint of things to come out of Thein Sein's Myanmar Peace Center, into which foreign donors have already poured millions of dollars to pursue state-sponsored "peace" with the Kachin, Karen, Shan, Chin and other ethnic victims of over 50 years of state-sponsored terror. One can only hope that these ethnic communities are not given similar racist treatment as that suffered by the Rohingya. Maung Zarni is a Burmese activist blogger ( and visiting fellow of Civil Society and Human Security Research at the London School of Economics. (Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Follow Genocide Watch for more updates:

  • Grey Facebook Icon
  • Grey Twitter Icon
  • Grey YouTube Icon
bottom of page