Tue, Oct 03, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Deep-seated Buddhist mistrust of the Rohingya has a long history

The origins of the distrust and hatred toward the group displayed by nationalists in Myanmar can be found in British colonialism, the Japanese occupation and democratization, among others

By Grant Peck  /  AP, BANGKOK

Illustration: Yusha

The prejudice and hostility that Rohingya Muslims face in Myanmar stretch beyond the country’s notoriously brutal security forces to a general population receptive to an often virulent form of Buddhist nationalism that has seen a resurgence since the end of military rule.

Many of Myanmar’s Buddhists have objected to the way the media and international community have portrayed the crisis in Rakhine state, which has caused half-a-million Rohingya to flee the country in the past month. Rather than recognize what the UN calls ethnic cleansing, they see a threat to national sovereignty and the future of Myanmar as a Buddhist-majority nation.

The standard academic work cited by Buddhist nationalists seeking to argue their case against the Rohingya — who they see as migrants living illegally in Myanmar — has a telling title: Influx Viruses: The Illegal Muslims in Arakan.

“They are seen as foreigners trying to infiltrate the country and Buddhists of the strident type see them as trying to undermine their faith,” said Robert Taylor, who has studied Myanmar’s political history.

Yet, just as Rohingya have roots in Myanmar stretching back centuries, so do the historical forces that have shaped their oppression.


The Rohingya, while not recognized as an ethnic group in Myanmar, are descendants of centuries of intermingling between indigenous Muslims and migrants from the area that is now Bangladesh and India’s West Bengal. They lived mostly untroubled until after the British arrived and Myanmar became part of British colonial India, and later the separate colony of Burma.

For about a century until the 1930s, more than a million South Asians — Muslims and Hindus alike — flooded into the country to take jobs as laborers, civil servants and moneylenders, leading to a “deep resentment” among the Burmese, said Mikael Gravers, a Danish anthropologist specializing in Myanmar.

They “took work from Burmese and land from peasants who could not pay their debt,” he said.

The identity of Indians was intertwined with the British colonizers and that was seized upon in the 1920s by the nascent Burmese nationalist movement, in which Buddhist monks were closely involved.

“Burmese nationalists saw themselves as colonized twice, first by the British, secondly by the Indians who, in particular, dominated the economy,” Taylor wrote in a 2015 study of ethnicity in Myanmar.

The Rohingya, with their dark skin and South Asian features, were caught up in this resentment. By the time the British were pushed out by the Japanese in 1942 — an invasion welcomed by the nationalists — Buddhist locals in Arakan, which is now Rakhine, took out their frustrations on those seen as British allies: Muslims, including the Rohingya.

Thousands were killed in attacks and Muslim counterattacks.


Myanmar is almost 90 percent Buddhist and for nationalists, religion has always been a successful issue with which to whip up support. That has been helped, both past and present, by the involvement of Buddhist monks in the movement.

With monks involved, “the alleged threat posed to the persistence of Buddhism as the religion of the majority of the population began to seem real,” Taylor wrote. “The memory of ‘Indian domination’ and ‘Buddhism in danger’ became part of the legacy of the nationalist movement inherited by Myanmar politicians and historians.”

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