An Evolution of Rohingya Persecution in Myanmar: From Strategic Embrace to Genocide


“Send us as many birth control pills as you can. They (Myanmar troops) are gang-raping our women. They are arresting and killing all our men. There is nothing else you can do. Just pray to Allah and to wish us speedy deaths! This is just simply unbearable,” said a Rohingya woman talking from her mobile phone from Myanmar’s predominantly Rohingya region of Northern Rakhine State bordering Bangladesh.[1] [See Figure below right.] She was talking to her brother, an unregistered refugee living and working in a poor and rough neighborhood called Salayang on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Among the handful of Burmese eager for updates, listening to the phone conversation on speaker phone was U Maung Maung, a respected Muslim leader and activist from Mandalay, also making a living in Malaysia. Maung immediately posted this on his Facebook timeline on November 20, 2016,[2] hoping to alert people to the shocking events unfolding. Western experts on the region note there is an “information blackhole,”[3] owing to the Myanmar government’s lockdown of Northern Rakhine State for its ‘security clearance operations.’ As such, Myanmar authorities have barred access to humanitarian aid groups and local and international media. This latest lockdown was a result of the killing of nine Myanmar police officers which was believed to have been instigated by Rohingya hoping to form a resistance group.

However, Maung’s attempt to alert the world via Facebook came to naught. The post was in Burmese language. But more importantly, his alert — like many others conveyed by ‘locals’ — had not been vetted by any Western organizations or international human rights ‘experts,’ who have become the standard bearers of facts or “truth-conveyors” relating to other peoples’ experiences of atrocities. Victims and their accounts need first to be vetted by these mediating agencies — a system understood only too well by the Burmese government with its blanket denials of the allegations coming out of the information black hole it created. Aung San Suu Kyi Government’s Information Committee referred to the atrocities on many occasions, “fake rape”[4] and “exaggerations” or “fabrications.”[5]

Following hundreds of similar allegations and coordinated documentation by Rohingya groups of mass killings, mass rape, and destruction of whole villages, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCR) sent a team to interview Rohingya refugees who had recently fled to Bangladesh — 70,000[6] of whom had arrived in four months. Based on over 200 interviews, OHCR issued a damning Flash Report (Feb 3) complete with harrowing tales of burning elderly Rohingya men alive and slitting children’s throats.[7] The U.N. estimates that Myanmar may have killed as many as 1,000 Rohingya men in recent violence alone.[8] This information, presented at the 34th session of the Human Rights Council,[9] did not result in the much-hoped-and-lobbied-for U.N. Commission of Inquiry with a view towards the International Criminal Court. The result was a compromise — a ‘Fact Finding Mission’[10] — which both the military[11] and the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government[12] are determined not to accept or cooperate with.

We have previously argued that far from being a new phenomenon, waves of state-directed violence and communal destruction such as these have been occurring since 1978 and are part of a process of ‘slow-burning genocide.’[13] Two other independent studies published a year later reinforce our findings.[14] Over these decades, Rohingya experiences and sufferings have been tossed across multiple discourses that deny the central role of the military such as “communal violence”[15] or since the October 9 raids, “Muslim insurgency” pregnant with potential for escalations involving “international terrorism.”[16] In recent years, these have run concurrently with human rights bodies and organizations framing the situation as “ethnic cleansing”[17] and “crimes against humanity”— U.N. Special Rapporteurs and the OHCHR included.

Despite these shifting narratives, the fundamental nature of the problem has remained constant. The military-controlled state has attempted to “cleanse”the nation of the largest Muslim minority in Myanmar, unique with legitimate claims to Northern Rakhine as their ancestral home. Firstly, this has been attempted through legal, bureaucratic, and administrative means — such as removing their rights to citizenship, destroying and revoking documents in Rohingya possession, refusing to register thousands of Rohingya infants, household checks, as well as subjecting them to a web of criss-crossing security grids by which the freedom of movement of the Rohingya population is severely restricted and monitored.[18] Secondly, it has been attempted through denial of their history/identity and propaganda campaigns that serve to de-nationalize them.[19] Where these two attempts have not been achieved, communities have also been subjected to physical destruction through methods such as burning property, evictions, and killings.

However, this has not always been the case. In 1961, the Burmese co-author’s late great uncle, Zeya Kyaw Htin Major Ant Kywe, a decorated nationalist solider, was the Deputy Commander of the administrative district of Mayu in 1961, which was effectively established as a homeland for Rohingya in Rakhine State in order to maintain law and order[20] in the region where the central government was confronted with rebellions from two different fronts: Muslim Rohingya separatists and Buddhist Rakhine nationalists clamouring for statehood.

On Myanmar’s Independence Day (January 4, 1948), even as the Union Jack was lowered at the colonial Secretariat in Rangoon, the Burma Army was engaged in ferocious battles against armed Rakhine (Buddhist) rebels[21] who wanted to reclaim the sovereignty they had lost to the militarily dominant Burmese Buddhist group in 1784.

In the years following Myanmar independence in 1948, the central government, specifically the Ministry of Defense, strategically sought to embrace Rohingyas as a bona fide ethnic minority of the new Union of Burma,[22] with equal and full citizenship rights, along with multiple other minorities with armed revolts against the ethnically Burmese central government. It is essential to see the root of the Rohingya persecution not simply in the sectarian ethnic conflict between the two main co-habitant communities in Rakhine state of Western Burma, namely Rakhine Buddhist majority and Rohingya Muslim minorities, but in the ethnic triangle involving also the majority Burmese in ultimate control of the state (both the military under General Ne Win and the civilian political coalition headed by PM U Nu).[23]

Although the Burma Army was fighting battles on two fronts in West Myanmar, it was the Rakhine rebellions that presented a more serious threat to the central government than the simultaneous Muslim/Rohingya armed movements, some of which sought, with no success, to join with the predominantly Muslim nation of Pakistan (East Pakistan). During the Rohingya surrender ceremony of 290 Muslim rebels, held on 4 July 1961 in Northern Rakhine town of Buthidaung, the Commander of the Border Area Administration and Territorial Forces Colonel Saw Myint promised “absolutely no religious or ethnic discrimination” against Rohingyas — vis-à-vis Rakhine Buddhists —and guaranteed “equal protection under Law for all those who abide by the law and live in peace.”[24] Saw Myint’s superior and the second in command, after General Ne Win of the Burma Army Brigadier Aung Gyi, presided over the ceremony and explained the need for Rohingyas as an ethnic minority group to recognize and accept the primacy of political allegiance to the Union of Burma over their kinship, cultural, and religious ties in exchange for the full citizenship rights and ethnic equality which they were offered.[25]

In addition, as early as May 1960, the Ministry of Defense agreed to the Rohingyas’ request to carve out the predominantly Rohingya geographic pocket in Northern Rakhine State and establish a new district named after the local river Mayu. The co-founder of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, the then-young Lt-Colonel Tin Oo, was tasked with establishing the Mayu District, which was to be administered centrally from the Burmese-controlled Rakhine Military Command.[26] Rohingyas’ request was precipitated by the moves made by Prime Minister U Nu’s re-elected civilian government in order to fulfil its election pledge of granting Rakhine Buddhists a separate statehood, within the Union of Burma.[27]

Within eight months of the establishment of the May-U District, General Ne Win and his deputies staged a coup against U Nu’s government on the pretext that Nu’s opportunistic electioneering and weak leadership were emboldening ethnic minorities’ demands for devolution of power away from the Burmese centre. While the coup leaders continued to honour the arrangements with Rohingyas, the policy orientation of the military leadership shifted towards racist, isolationist, xenophobic, and socialistically doctrinaire. The more liberal and less radical military leaders such as the Deputy Commander in Chief of Army Brigadier General Aung Gyi and Colonel Chit Myaing were sacked in 1963 and 1964.[28]The remaining military leaders under Ne Win’s commandership began to marginalize and eventually cleanse the Armed Forces of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu officers unless they agreed to convert to Buddhism. Having remade this once-multiethnic, multi-faith national institution of unrivalled power and control over society, the military leadership turned its sights to society at large.[29] Most important, the army leadership initiated, promoted, and sustained the process of radically reimagining ethnic and political histories, national identity, and the society at large along the army’s new “purist” Buddhist vision.[30]

In 1978, Ne Win launched a centrally organized, violent operation against Rohingyas of both Southern and Northern Rakhine, under the pretext of surprise immigration checks. Known as Operation King Dragon, the events of 1978 are carved into the consciousness and the inter-generational memories of Rohingya communities. It was conducted as an interagency campaign of terror involving Immigration, Religious Affairs, Police, Courts, Army, Navy, and police intelligence, as well as local administrations made up of anti-Rohingya Rakhine.[32] Myanmar’s former chief of military intelligence until 2004, Ex-General Khin Nyunt, who was operationally involved on the ground as a young major from Special Operations Bureau, Ministry of Defense, serving as the Commander of Infantry Regiment No. 20 based in Rakhine, wrote that a total of 277,938 fled, between February 12 and June 3, from Western Burma into the neighboring Bangladesh.[33] Shut off from the outside world by an isolationist military regime, the Burmese public — the Burmese co-author included — was misinformed of this operation as an act of national defense, under the slogan “the (Buddhist) race could be swallowed up by other (alien) race”[34] — an understanding that still resounds today. This was the first of the chronic waves of state-sponsored and state-condoned violence against Rohingyas which have resulted each time in hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing “unbearable life on land.”

Following Ne Win’s coup in 1962, the nation’s vision fundamentally changed — from one that sought to establish peace through a unified multiethnic nation based on equality, to one which harnessed and mobilized the Buddhist public’s anti-colonial sentiments, and along with this their anti-Indian (subcontinent) and anti-Muslim