Burma, Arakan, Thae Chaung. Displaced Rohingya man who fled recent violence by boat. October 30, 2012.
© 2012 Ryan Roco.

By Francis Wade

Several minutes into President Obama’s speech at Rangoon University in early November, Burmese state television channels that were broadcasting the historic occasion – the first visit to Burma by a U.S. president – cut their simultaneous translations. Unbeknown to non-English speaking viewers, Obama had begun steering the speech into uncomfortable territory, touching on continued Burmese army offensives in Kachin state and the ethno-religious violence in Arakan state. In broaching the two topics, he knew he was taking on Burma’s rulers and a sizeable proportion of the country’s population. “For too long, the people of this state, including ethnic Rakhine [Arakanese], have faced crushing poverty and persecution,” he said of the latter. “But there is no excuse for violence against innocent people. And the Rohingya hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do.”

Despite the diplomatic tone Obama struck, his words provoked anger. “His comments are very far away from the reality of what is happening in Rakhine – historically, economically, politically,” said Oo Hla Saw, spokesperson of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), which holds 35 seats in parliament and ostensibly represents the Arakanese population in government.  “So we are very disappointed for his comments.”

Since June, Buddhist and Muslim communities in Burma’s west have been embroiled in fighting that has claimed hundreds of lives and displaced more than 110,000 people, the vast majority from the Muslim ethnic minority group, the Rohingya. Many now live in sprawling camps or Muslim-only ghettos, some of which are receiving no outside assistance. Yet many of the country’s most progressive voices have refused to speak out, despite various observers questioning whether ethnic cleansing against the group is underway.

At the centre of the turmoil is a fierce dispute over the identity of the Rohingya that, despite only periodically erupting in mass violence, stretches back decades: they claim a generations-old presence in Burma (one record from 1799 mentions them, although their name is largely absent from British records), while Muslims are believed to have lived in what is now Arakan state as early as the ninth century when Persian and Moorish traders arrived there. But many Arakanese and Burmese, the government included, consider the Rohingya recent illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They are denied citizenship and the accompanying rights that this brings – the ability to travel, marry and worship freely. President Thein Sein in July unsuccessfully requested UN help in resettling the more than 800,000 Rohingya living in Arakan to a third country, a bid that drew accusations the government was plotting a mass expulsion. Later, in November, he wrote to Ban Ki-moon stating that his government would address the citizenship issue and the causes of the violence “once emotions subside on all sides”.

Whilst being flippant and diversionary (putting the blame for the violence on “emotions” rather than a combination of state-engineered discrimination and decades-old nationalistic tensions), the comment suggests that anger will soon die down; for anyone who has been to Arakan state, this couldn’t be further from the truth. During a visit to camps outside the state capital of Sittwe in October I was met with the sight of malnourished children living in bamboo structures without roofs. One camp, Ohne Daw, was packed with recent arrivals from the razed village of Pauktaw and had received no outside assistance. Muslims and Buddhists both say they fear being attacked if they stray into one another’s territory – with Arakanese making up the vast majority of the state’s population, few Rohingya leave their confines. “We are scared that one day the Rakhine will enter and attack us; the government also wants that,” says Aye Aye, a Rohingya teacher in his mid-thirties who now lives in the Aung Mingalar quarter in Sittwe after his house nearby was burned five months ago.

While the violence itself has been largely confined to Arakan state, the ramifications have spread much wider. Following the initial wave of rioting in June, which security forces appeared to have contained, another round of violence flared again in mid October, reportedly after a domestic dispute in a Rohingya household. Satellite images published by Human Rights Watch show thousands of homes, the vast majority Rohingya, across the north of the state burned to the ground, while refugee camps have swelled. But a new element to what began as an ethnic conflict has been added in the past month: in October two unidentified men on a motorcycle threw a grenade into a mosque in Karen state, eastern Burma. Police have not identified a motive, although locals reportedly wondered if the attacks “were related to communal violence in Arakan State.” Kaman Muslims in Arakan state have also been targeted. Unlike the Bengali-speaking Rohingya, Kaman Muslims speak Arakanese and are recognized as one of Burma’s 135 ‘national races’ (the government believes they are descendents of a unit of archers who defended the Arakan kings in the 17th Century at the Court of Mrauk U). In October this year they were targeted for the first time. The two incidents offer up the prospect that this conflict has taken on a religious dimension, a fear that has been building since the first wave of rioting in June, when the local authorities flattened religious buildings in Aung Mingalar. “If this is not religious violence then why does the government bulldoze mosques?” asks Aye Aye.

The results of an investigation into the October conflict by Reuters showed that the crisis had been pushed further into new territory. “The wave of attacks was organized, central-government military sources told Reuters. They were led by Rakhine nationalists tied to a powerful political party in the state [the RNDP], incited by Buddhist monks, and, some witnesses said, abetted at times by local security forces.”

The complicity of Burma’s security forces comes as no surprise, given their maligned reputation – Human Rights Watch has dozens of eyewitness testimonies that corroborate Reuters’ findings of official collusion. But the role that monks have played in stirring the violence is perhaps more shocking; they have a reputation as stalwarts of the pro-democracy movement in Burma and as a force for peace.

Less than a fortnight before the grenade attacks, the head abbot of the Mae Baung monastery in Hpa-an, the capital of Karen state in eastern Burma, circulated a document that called for Buddhists there to cease all contact with Muslims – marriage, trade, and renting of land and property. “Anyone who disobeys the above rules would be punished severely,” said an article in The Myanmar Post detailing the incident. A Thailand-based NGO worker also explained how Burmese colleagues had traveled to Karen state in October to renew their IDs, and were asked whether they were Muslims; immigration authorities explained they were drawing up a list of all Muslims living there. Around the same time, the All-Arakanese Monks’ Solidarity Conference, which was held in Sittwe on October 18, concluded with a statement that called on Arakanese to “expose sympathisers of Bengali Kalars [a pejorative term for Rohingya] as national traitors along with photos and spread the information to every township.”

The incitement of a “witch-hunt” by monks follows on the heels of several recent monk-led protests in western and central Burma. One of these, in Mandalay, was carried out in support of Thein Sein’s July request for UN assistance to expel the Rohingya, and which attracted around 2,000 monks. One placard held aloft by a monk at that rally read: “Not our race, not our blood, not our children — Drive out the lowlife Bengali Kalars from our country.”

Members of the monastic community, whose revered status as spiritual guardians of the nation took on more tangible qualities in the wake of the 2007 monk-led protests against military rule, have also fiercely objected to proposals by the 57-member Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to set up an office in Arakan state in the wake of attacks on Muslims, who receive little security or financial protection from the state. A senior monk in Sittwe, U Nya Nya, told me that the Rohingya violence against Arakanese was being “masterminded by terrorist groups like the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation”, a Bangladeshi-based outfit whom some believe have links with Al Qaeda. He went on to claim that the French aid group, Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), also had terrorist connections, an outlandish sentiment that is nevertheless widespread among Arakanese. MSF warned last month that ultra-nationalist Arakanese were threatening and intimidating staff to the point that the group’s ability to distribute aid to victims of the violence was impeded.

Religious persecution in Burma is not a new phenomenon. The Kachin ethnic group in Burma’s north, who practiced ancestral worship and animist elements of Buddhism until the mid-19th Century arrival of Baptist missionaries like Eugenia Kincaid, have long claimed abuse on religious grounds by the government. Shortly after fighting flared between the Kachin Independence Army and Burmese troops in June 2011, Kachin alleged that churches were ransacked and burned. In one incident in October last year, troops reportedly opened fire on worshippers in the village of Namsan-yang, before razing the church[1]. Christians in Chin state face a similar situation; forced conversion via targeted recruitment to cheaper Buddhist “training” schools run by the government has been documented by rights groups.

Yet the Arakan crisis represents the first time in decades that openly anti-Muslim campaigns of violence have taken place. Burma’s first dictator, General Ne Win, who came to power in 1962, introduced a law banning all Muslims from joining the army or taking up government positions. He justified the move by claiming, as he did during the mass expulsion of Indians in the 1960s, that the majority of Muslims had been brought into Burma as laborers by the British rulers, and thus were not worthy of the treatment afforded to native Buddhists. His brazen xenophobia fuelled an anti-Muslim propaganda campaign that was used to whip up public support for the anti-Rohingya pogrom of 1992, when some 200,000 were driven into Bangladesh. Up to 300,000 Rohingya now live in Bangladesh, but Dhaka has so far allowed only 28,000 to be registered by the UN as refugees. Bangladesh fears a flood of Rohingya across the border if they grant refugee status to all.

Public support of the government’s anti-Rohingya stance has become entrenched among many Arakanese, and Burman across the country, who continue to consider Rohingya as ‘outsiders’. The sentiment is not consistent, however – other non-Burman groups, like the Chinese who have migrated in their millions to Burma over the past fifty years, are afforded rights comparable to Burmese citizens. This suggests an antipathy towards Rohingya that goes beyond mere opposition to their legal status in the country (epitomized by current Burmese representative to the UN, Ye Myint Aung, who once described them as “ugly as ogres”) Many Arakanese allege the term Rohingya was invented by Bengali immigrants in the 1950s, many of whom had been brought to Arakan by the British, as a pretext to gaining status as a distinct ethnic group. The Sittwe monk U Nya Nya says that it is a question of claims to land by “illegal Bengalis” that has angered Arakanese, but again, the same level of anger is not directed at Chinese, who according to some estimates now make up half the population of Burma’s second city of Mandalay. “Before Arakanese had tolerance, but we no longer do. They are land invaders. Maintaining our [Arakanese] security is our right.” He echoes a fear that is building among Burma observers. “Both sides have great anger, but if people keep identifying as Rohingya, the problem will get worse. I am really concerned this is becoming a religious conflict.”

While the bulk of the Arakanese attacks are targeted toward the Rohingya, recent violence against the Kaman suggests the differentiation between citizen and non-citizen as deserving of abuse is beginning to erode. With an obvious anti-Muslim stance within the government, which continues to contaminate policy into the supposedly democratic era, this conflict could evolve into something more far-reaching, as the signals coming from Karen state portend.  How this has occurred is unclear, but the vehemence of Arakanese nationalism, born partly of antipathy towards the British colonial policy of bringing thousands of migrant workers into the state from India, and which has evolved over the decades to include resistance to attempts by the government to stamp a Burman identity on the state – has developed into an animosity toward all non-Buddhist there. “We are wedged between Islamisation and Burmanisation,” Thein Tun Aye, spokesperson for the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, told the BBC recently.

Ashin Sopaka, a politically active Burmese monk now living in Germany, told me that he thought the nationalism among Arakanese monks so strong that, with the rape of a Buddhist woman by three Rohingya men in late May that triggered the rioting,  “it has become racism”. The ties that bind Arakanese nationalism to religion have historical roots in the country’s fight for independence from British rule. In the 1920s, the Arakanese monk U Ottama, widely considered Burma’s first ‘political monk’, took up the anti-colonial struggle, and used the Buddhist concepts of freedom from obligation to help transform it into a religious struggle akin to India’s.

But evidence of a transition from nationalism to racism, along with the recent attacks on Muslim sites of worship, points to a greater crisis that bodes ill for the country as a whole. As in the case of persecution of Christians in Burma, the situation is exacerbated by a demagogic government that considers Buddhism to be on a higher plain than all else; indeed that conflates Buddhism with Burmese nationalism, and casts non-Buddhists as foreign invaders. Now, however, even Burma’s most celebrated progressives, from famed student leader Ko Ko Gyi to Aung San Suu Kyi, refuse to acknowledge this bigoted undercurrent as the prime factor in the slow destruction of Arakan’s Muslim population, and with that, the chances of lasting reconciliation are greatly reduced.


Francis Wade is a Thailand-based journalist. He has been covering Burma and Asia-Pacific since 2009. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera English, Asia Times Online, New Internationalist and elsewhere.

Ryan Roco is a photographer and human rights researcher. He has been based on the Thailand-Burma border for the last two years covering issues of human rights, identity and conflict in Burma and its borderlands. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, BBC Burmese, PBS Newshour, Human Security Gateway and Human Rights Watch among others. His work will feature in a forthcoming photo essay, here at The Revealer. 

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs. 


[1] Reports about the incident vary.