Reworking the Colonial-Era Indian Peril: Myanmar’s State-Directed Persecution of Rohingyas and Other


Myanmar’s widely hailed transition from military dictatorship to a Chinese model of great commercial opening and calibrated political liberalization— “discipline flourishing democracy,” as the generals call it—has had one unintended consequence for the country’s military-controlled government: ugly things have been exposed.4 Suddenly, the dark secrets of this predominantly Buddhist nation of 51 million people with diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds have been laid bare. The world now has access to hitherto-closed-off sites of religious and ethnic persecution via international media such as CNN, BBC, wire news agencies, and so on. First, the world witnessed the eruption of two large bouts of violence in 2012 between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist Rakhine communities in the Western coastal region of the country.

Within a year, there were incidents of organized violence against Muslims in about one dozen towns and neighborhoods across the country.

Burmese social media sites were littered with various hues of genocidal comments, articles, analyses, and updates, and remain so to date. Many openly call for the slaughter of all Muslims (or Kular, in Burmese), while others are more specific about the type of Muslims that should be killed: the phrase “kill all illegal Bengalis,” a popular racist reference to Rohingyas, indicates that they belong in former East Bengal (Bangladesh) and not in Buddhist Myanmar.7

Led by Buddhist monks, protests sprang up in the Rakhine state and in other major urban centers such as Mandalay and Yangon; they called on the quasi-civilian, military-backed government of ex-general Thein Sein to crack down on Muslims and expel all Bengalis to any country, Muslim or Western liberal, that would take them. In fact, in President Thein Sein’s meeting with António Guterres—the then visiting head of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)—in Naypyidaw in August 2012, Thein Sein stated that “the only solution” to the troubles in Rakhine was either to send unwanted Rohingyas to countries that may be prepared to accept them as refugees or to contain them in UNHCR-administered camps.8

Burmese media outlets, including those run by former Burmese political exiles, echoed the official and popular view that Rohingyas were illegal Bengali migrants with no organic ties to the country. In the eyes of experts on democratic transitions, these voices from the

mushrooming private media outlets are a sign of Myanmar’s civil society relish- ing its newfound press freedoms in a liberalizing political system. Freedom to

protest, freedom of speech, and freedom of press have finally arrived, or so it is felt. Oblivious to background histories, or simply uninterested in the relevant

past, many Burma-watchers and journalists view the organized violence against Rohingyas as simply an inevitable, if painful, byproduct of multiethnic societies in political transition, à la the Balkans.9 In this piece, we argue that the two unfolding parallel phenomena—namely a sharp rise in fear, loathing, and organized violence against Muslims across

Myanmar and the official persecution of and mass violence against Rohing- yas—are in fact part of a continuum of racist strategic choices made by both the

country’s most powerful military leaders and the democratically elected govern- ment controlled by Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for

Democracy. This conclusion is based on five consecutive years of our research, including archival works in Burmese and English, bilingual discourse analyses, and hundreds of interviews and in-depth conversations with the members of the Muslim and Rohingya communities, as well as interfaith activists from inside Myanmar, such as Buddhist monks and Christian leaders.

Those who frame several large-scale bouts of violence in Rakhine since 2012 and the violence against Muslim communities across the country as sectarian disputes between the country’s Buddhists and Muslims overlook the crucial history of the region and the peoples concerned. Both phenomena predate, by several decades, the country’s military-led democratic transition, which began in 2011. We argue, however, that it is not the process of opening up that has catalyzed simmering and latent religious and communal tensions to boil over. Rather, the violence is a direct outcome of the central, military-controlled state playing the race and faith card for its own evolving strategic ends in a country rich in religious and ethnic diversity. The Revival of the Popular Notion of “the Indian Peril” and Its “Transference”

The issue of the identity and presence of Rohingyas in the Rakhine region of Myanmar has been much debated. Aung San Suu Kyi herself weighed in on the debate, citing their historical presence as a “non-factual” but “emotive” proposition.10 The presence and identity of Rohingyas as an ethnic community of Islamic faith belonging to Arakan, or Rakhine, were irrefutably established in the primary historical sources published soon after the Burmese annexation of Rakhine, a fact that effectively undermines today’s official and popular narrative that Rohingyas were colonial-era seasonal farm “coolies” who settled in Northern Rakhine only after the British conquest of the Western region of the Burmese kingdom in 1825.11

the brown journal of world affairs Maung Zarni and Natalie Brinham

To better understand how the well-documented, popular anti-Muslim fear among the majority non-Muslim public has been mobilized and how the

systematic persecution of Rohingyas in Western Myanmar is enabled, it is help- ful to take a glance at the past. Myanmar’s pre-colonial expansionist kingdom

of Buddhist Burmese from the Dry Zone plains centered around Pagan, Ava, Amarapura, Mingun, Saggaing, and Mandalay. The Upcountry Myanmar Court

took the Western coastal kingdom of Buddhist Rakhine as its final colonial pos- session through a bloody military campaign in 1785.

As the result of Upcountry Myanmar Court’s successful, if bloody, annexa- tion of this multiethnic Rakhine Kingdom in 1785, hundreds of thousands of

Rakhine war refugees—both Muslim and Buddhist subjects of the fallen Rakhine Buddhist kingdom—fled into the British protectorate of East Bengal (called East Pakistan after the Indian-Pakistan partition in 1947 and renamed Bangladesh in 1971, after the war of independence). It was this new interface between the recently Burmese-controlled territories—Rakhine—and East Bengal westward of Rakhine that finally led to the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1824. After two more successive wars between the two empire-building powers, the Burmese met the same eventual fate as their previously conquered people to the West: the Burmese Empire collapsed and was swallowed up into British India by 1886. Through Burmese eyes, the threat and introduction of colonial British rule was not simply seen as an economically-defined imperialist attempt to conquer new territory and its constitutive population and natural resources (for instance, teak, minerals, and precious stones). In his Royal Declaration of War against Britain, the last King, Thibaw, openly framed the British as anti-Dhamma Kala (or alien heretics) whose victory would be a menace to Buddhism.12 As the king, he was the chief patron-protector of Buddhism.

Several decades later, in the 1870s and 1880s, the British colonial adminis- tration began the large-scale importation of Indians, both Muslims and Hindus

in roughly equal numbers, into British Burma.13 The colonial administration subsidized the inflow of Indian laborers and other agriculturalists, including

Indian Chettiar moneylenders, to fill labor and financing needs of the fast- growing rice industry in sparsely populated, British-controlled Lower Burma

following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. This sharp increase in Indians

and the resultant interface between the local communities and the newer ar- rivals caused major unease among the local Burmese population, especially the

British-educated Burmese elite with their awakened nationalist consciousness. The general sentiment of the threat of “Indian penetration” and its impact on the future of Burma as a predominantly Buddhist society spread among the Burmese

political elites, including those who ran the Burmese press and participated in the limited parliamentary politics of the 1920s.14

This nationalist concern became more acute as the result of the worldwide Great Depression, which caused widespread economic hardships. Popular Burmese sentiments of fear and resentment toward other colonized peoples of Indo-Aryan features, be they Muslim, Hindu, or any other religious affiliation, sharply rose in this period.

The nationalist Burmese newspapers and their allies in the colonial parlia- ment seized on this rising anti-Indian racism and dusted up a 10-year-old, little- known Burmese language publication entitled Mawli and Yogi, which contained

anti-Buddhist views—thus inflaming the already tense racial atmosphere. Race riots between Muslims and Buddhists subsequently broke out in Rangoon, where

the Indians made up 60 percent of the city’s population.15 The British Colonial

Government’s Riot Inquiry Committee, set up in 1938 to investigate both the im- mediate trigger and the underlying causes, published in its Interim Report:

“We think it would be altogether misleading for us to suggest that the jealousy or suspicion or fear (whatever is the right expression) of the Burman towards the Indian in Burma as it exists today is a mere passing phase. There will always be found people who will exploit it for their own purposes.”16

This popular anti-Indian migration sentiment was based on economic and

cultural grievances and fears on the part of the local majority Buddhist popula- tion. Popular economic grievances were rooted in the progressively dispropor- tionate share of farm and landownership in the hands of the Indian settlers,

including moneylenders. Additionally, interracial marriages, particularly those between Buddhist women and Indian Muslim men, were seen as a threat to the predominantly Buddhist national way of life. However, the situation only boiled over into violence when mobilized by the Burmese press, the radical nationalist Thakhins, and colonial era Burmese politicians working for their own agendas. The committee report picked up on this when it wrote:

In June 1938, the “Thiha,” a Burmese owned weekly newspaper, warned Indians that by monopolizing all kinds of commercial enterprise they would incur the displeasure of the Burmese. The example of the Jews This sharp increase in Indians and the resultant interface between the

local communities and the newer arrivals caused major unease among

the local Burmese population. the brown journal of world affairs Maung

Zarni and Natalie Brinham in Germany was mentioned, and it was suggested

that such a state of affairs might occur in Burma.17

Since the publication of this report, both the alien rulers and the large number of people of Indian origin had long since gone home. The Union Jack came down in January 1948, and the country saw two large exoduses—the first on the eve of Japanese invasion in 1942 and the second after crippling economic nationalization by the Burmese military in 1964. The majority of these Indians had indeed made Buddhist Burma their sole home and had come to love their adopted country. Myanmar’s population from the Indian subcontinent with an Islamic background today is only 2.3 percent, compared to an overwhelming Buddhist majority.18 The country’s politics and economy are under the tight control of Burmese Buddhists, civilian and military—not Indians of any faith. After the last sectarian riots of the 1930s, the popular fear of the “Indian Peril” was replaced by the pressing need to focus on gaining independence from the British colonial administration, which returned to Rangoon after the three-year interregnum of the Japanese Occupation during World War II. The Burmese political class—now led by the Marxist-inspired nationalists, most prominently Aung San, with their strictly secularist, non-racialist, inclusive

view of “Burmeseness”—steered public discourse away from the pre-war racial- ist sentiment.19 Within a year of independence, as the country plunged into a

three-way civil war between Burmese communists, non-Burmese ethnic minori- ties, and the first ethnically Burmese-controlled government in Rangoon, the

old fear and loathing of Indians faded into the background for the time being. Still, collective memories of “the Indian penetration” or the Indian—both Hindu and Muslim—domination of the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar

endured, though latently. Apparent in recent anti-Muslim violence are the fin- gerprints of the military-controlled state and state-backed societal actors, such

as prominent Buddhist monks, in the opening up of this can of racial worms.20 Interestingly, the visibly heavy presence of Yunnan Chinese—and their hold on the informal sector of the economy in the upper half of the country—has not given rise to organized violence despite pervasive anti-Chinese sentiments within all segments of Burmese society, including the leadership and the rank and file of the military.21 Organized violence has exclusively been directed at the Muslim communities, rather than at Chinese businesses or their wealthy residential quarters. The question, then, is who is directing public frustrations and discontent toward one community but not the other, even while they are both conceived of as “guests” or “non-indigenous.”22 One must confront the elephant in the room, namely the military-controlled state and the societal actors

that enjoy blanket impunity for any acts of harm or words of bigotry against Muslims and Rohingyas, but not the Chinese.23

Crucially, the Myanmar military regime chooses to make sure that anti- Chinese sentiments do not boil over because the giant next door, China, is too

powerful to anger and because Beijing served as the external protector of the Myanmar regime when it was treated as an international pariah, particularly during the period when Myanmar was under international sanctions from the 1990s until their gradual lifting from 2011 onwards.24 State and non-state actors have instead reworked—in their official and popular discourses—the old fear of

the Indian Peril to make it applicable in the contemporary context. Two signifi- c