Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’

By Bertil Lintner 4 September 2017

None of Myanmar’s many crises has captured as much attention from the outside world as the Rohingya issue in northwestern Rakhine State. Conflicts between Muslim and Buddhist communities, the often brutal intervention by the country’s security forces, and the subsequent flight of tens of thousands of Rohingyas to neighboring Bangladesh, have been covered extensively by the international media. Foreign diplomats, representatives of the United Nations and an advisory commission requested by the Myanmar government and led by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan have visited the area and come with recommendations for a solution to the crises.

The publication of Francis Wade’s book Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’ is, therefore, very timely. The author, a former journalist with the Democratic Voice of Burma, a television and broadcasting station that until recently was based in exile, takes the reader on a tour across the country, not only in Rakhine State, and relates his meetings with local officials as well as ordinary people and activists on both sides of the divide. The book is written in elegant prose and there is no doubt that he has spent considerable time examining the root causes of the conflict, including its historical background.

But the main problem with the book is that he makes no clear distinction between Myanmar’s different Muslim communities. It is easy to get the impression that all of them are, in one way or another, Rohingya-related, when they, in fact, have diverse origins and may not have more than their religion in common. The vast majority of Myanmar’s Muslims speak the Bamar language as their mother tongue and live in an urban environment where many of them are engaged in trade and commerce. They may be able to trace their ancestry to the Indian subcontinent, but that is not always the case. The Panthays are of Chinese origin and differ considerably from other Muslims when it comes to customs, traditions and culture.

Many Myanmar Muslims have played important roles in social life, government service and politics. Among them are U Raschid, a prominent student leader during the fight against British colonialism in the 1930s who became a minister in several governments after independence in 1948; U Razak, a prominent politician who was assassinated along with Aung San and the other martyrs on July 19, 1947; Ba Galay alias Mohammed Bashir, a comedian and entertainer who invented the character U Shwe Yoe, the jolly dancer with his broken umbrella and ill-fitting longyi who for almost a century has been a major figure in any pwe (traditional dance troupe performance); Pe Khin, who was considered the chief architect of the historic 1947 Panglong agreement between Aung San and representatives of the Shan, Kachin and Chin ethnic minorities that paved the way for the establishment of the Union of Burma, and later became a prominent diplomat; Maung Thaw Ka, or Major Ba Thaw, a naval officer who became a famous writer who, in 1988, became one of the founders of the National League for Democracy; Kan Chun, a popular cartoonist from Mandalay; and, in more recent years, Ko Ni, an expert on constitutional law and one of Myanmar’s most outstanding lawyers, who was assassinated on January 29 this year. None of these prominent Muslims is mentioned in Wade’s book, and it would be hard to put them, even now, in the category “other,” which the author uses to describe the place of Muslims in Myanmar society today. There are Muslim communities scattered in towns all over the country.

By contrast, most Rohingyas live in rural areas bordering a country where people speak the same language and share a common culture. After independence in 1948, militants among them wanted to join the then East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh in 1971. That rebellion fizzled out in the 1950s, but, in the 1970s, organizations such as the Rohingya Patriotic Front emerged followed by the radical Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) and today’s even more militant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. This is no excuse for atrocities committed against communities in the northwestern Rakhine townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung, where the majority of the population consists of Muslims who speak the Chittagonian dialect of Bengali and call themselves Rohingyas, but it is important to understand that the situation and dynamics there are fundamentally different from those of Muslim communities in Myanmar’s urban centers. Wade does not analyze these questions, and what it really means when the conflict in Rakhine State spills over into those communities.

In order to show that the Rohingyas have lived in their area for centuries, Wade quotes, as do many supporters of the Rohingya cause, a 1799 report by Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, where he mentions a people called “Rooinga” who lived in what is now Rakhine State (p. 65). Who they were is unclear, and Buchanan-Hamilton met them in Inwa (Ava), the then capital of the Myanmar Empire, not in today’s Rakhine State. He was also primarily a botanist and a zoologist, not an ethnographer or anthropologist. And we have to wait for 150 years before any mention of a people called “Rohingya” or something similar appears, and then as a political term denoting the Muslims of northwestern Rakhine who until then had been referred to as Chittagonians.

Naturally, any people have the right to call themselves whatever they want, but we have to recognize that the name “Rohingya” in the way it is used today is a recent one which would be hard to trace back to the late 18th century. The name came into widespread use when Pakistan and Myanmar became independent countries and some minorities felt the need to establish a firmer, ethnic identity within those new nations. In a similar vein and at roughly the same time the Rakhine Buddhists living on the East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) side of the border began to call themselves “Marma.” Who the first was to use the name Rohingya is not clear, but we know that the term Marma was officially coined by Maung Shwe Prue, a Rakhine chieftain in erstwhile East Bengal, in the late 1940s to give his community a distinct nationality. And it is worth noting that the Marmas have never had any problem acquiring Pakistani and later Bangladeshi citizenship while the Rohingyas remain stateless.

There are also, unfortunately, some glaring factual errors in Wade’s book which could have been avoided if the manuscript had been checked more carefully by experts, or why not by any well-informed Myanmar person. There are frequent references to the July 1988 “fall” of the old dictator Ne Win, who, according to Wade, was succeeded “by the rule of his Chief Justice, U Maung Maung” (p. 38.) First of all, most observers don’t believe that Ne Win was ousted in 1988. He resigned from his last post in the governmental hierarchy, chairman of the then ruling Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP), to become the power behind the throne, where he remained for several years after 1988. And his successor as BSPP chairman, on July 26, was Sein Lwin, a hardline former military officer who, the following day, also succeeded San Yu as president. Maung Maung came into office on August 19, after Sein Lwin had resigned on August 12.

Wade also claims that the Myanmar military “deployed helicopter gunships to fire on villagers” after an attack on police stations in October last year (p. 264). The Myanmar military has Russian-made Mi-35 “Hind” helicopter gunships, but those have been deployed only in war zones in the Kachin and Shan states. In Rakhine State, only transport helicopters have been used. Those may have had door gunners, but that doesn’t make them gunships.

Myanmar readers may also be confused over his haphazard use of Myanmar honorifics. Some men are referred to by their male honorifics “U” and “Ko” and some females by their honorific “Ma” while others are not, giving the impression that those are part of their names (the male honorific “U,” or Uncle is normally used in English text only when the person in question has no more than one name, like U Nu or U Thant.) And King Thibaw is called “King Thibaw Min” (p. 22 and elsewhere), a redundancy as “Min” is “King” in the Bamar language. But it gets more serious when Wade attempts to explain why the Rohingyas are excluded from Myanmar citizenship. He traces the origin of the division of the population of Myanmar into a multitude of different ethnic groups back to the British colonial power which, he asserts, “counted, or indeed created, 139 ethnic groups in its 1931 census.” That census was a section in the Census of India, as Myanmar then was part of British India, but Indian censuses, before and after 1931, do not define ethnicity. They are based on language, including dialects and sub dialects, and that can hardly be described as “ethnic groups.” There is, however, a sidebar in the 1931 census with a list of 20 ethnic groups, but that is more like a footnote to the rest of the text than a thorough survey of the ethnic composition of the colony.

It gets more complicated when Wade consistently refers to the country’s “135 national races,” which he seems to believe are listed in some annexure to the 1982 Citizenship Law. Wade is not alone in claiming this. The same mistake appears in writings by many Western journalists reporting on the crisis in Rakhine, but the 1982 law does not mention any “135 national races.” Instead, the law and its annexes specify different kinds of citizenship, stating that “Nationals such as the Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Burman, Mon, Rakhine or Shan and ethnic groups as have settled in any of the territories included within the State as their permanent home from a period anterior to 1185 B.E. (1823 A.D.) are Burma citizens.”[i] In addition to ensuring full citizenship to people from those eight categories, the law lays out rules for granting other residents “associate citizenship” and “naturalized citizenship.” That was how those among the Rohingyas who had Myanmar citizenship lost it.

The first time “135 national races” was mentioned was in the early 1990s, when Myanmar was ruled by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). British Myanmar expert Martin Smith writes in his 1994 study Ethnic Groups in Burma: Development, Democracy and Human Rights: “The State Law and Order Restoration Council, which has ruled Burma since 1988, itself refers to the ‘135 national races’ of Burma, but has produced no reliable data or list of names.”

One of the earliest official references to “135 national races” is to be found in an article written by “a high-ranking Tatmadaw officer” and published on August 7, 1991 in the Working People’s Daily: “The fact that there are 135 national races living in Myanmar Naing-Ngan is a hindrance to the idea of drafting a constitution based on the ‘big race concept.’ If the State is to be constituted on ‘the big race concept’ the matter of putting an end to the armed insurrections within the country will not be possible and this may cause worse racial disturbances.” In a 1991 speech, then junta leader Gen Saw Maung also for the first time mentioned “135 national races.”

In other words, all major ethnic groups would have to be split up into an abundance of smaller sub-groups as part of a policy that can only be described as one of “divide-and-rule.” No official, complete list of all those “135 national races” was actually produced until it was time for a new census—and that was in 2014. That list also lends credence to the suggestion that the exercise was meant to create divisions within the ethnic states rather than uniting the country behind a functioning, federal concept. Besides, it must have been a formidable task to create “135 national races” in a country, which more realistically would have between 20 and 30 ethnic groups. The list mentions, for instance, 12 different ethnic groups in Kachin State, nine in Kayah State, 11 in Kayin State, 53 in Chin State, nine Bamar groups, one in Mon State, seven in Rakhine State and 33 in Shan State.

Wade does not provide any analysis of this, which makes it hard to understand the background to Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts, and why, after decades of independence, there still is a civil war in the country’s frontier areas. But there, again, the situation in northwestern Rakhine State is fundamentally different from that of other conflict zones. The vast majority of Muslims living in Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung may be peasants who just want to be left alone, but radicals among them do have contacts with like-minded groups in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi-Arabia and the Gulf countries. Some Rohingyas even went to fight in Afghanistan in the 1980s, others have more recently been trained by militants from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Wade mentions militancy among some Rohingyas only in passing, which is a major shortcoming. Those militants may or may not enjoy widespread popular support, but they are nevertheless there and their attacks can be deadly, as we have seen now in August. And many Buddhist Rakhine would find it disturbing, to say the least, that maps accompanying the emblems of those groups always include the whole of Rakhine State in the territory they claim as theirs.

Despite all those shortcomings, omissions in the narrative, and some factual errors, Wade’s book is worth reading. It is a useful and somewhat controversial contribution to the debate, and, as such, it is bound to be received with accolades as well as criticism. And that debate is needed if we are ever going to see a solution to a conflict that is tearing Rakhine State apart and also affecting other parts of the country.

[i] (accessed on November 23, 2016).