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History of Ethnic Conflict in Myanmar

Imagine being a stranger in your own country. A foreigner in your own backyard. There is no refuge in the day, and all you hear is war every time you turn your head at night. Your neighbors consider you to be illegitimate tenants of the land, despite the fact that your ancestors have lived on the land for generations. Well, this is the reality for countless Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

The primary ethno-religious groups at conflict are the Rohingya Muslims and Theravada Burman Buddhists. The Burman Buddhists are the largest ethnic group in Myanmar (Burma), while the Rohingya are a small Muslim minority group primarily confined to the Rakhine state. Buddhists in the Rakhine state despise the Rohingya, and the conflict between the two groups is often described as one of the world’s longest civil wars. Despite the Rohingya living in Myanmar for centuries, the government does not recognize them as citizens. Myanmar is a textbook example of ethnic conflict and ethnic cleansing.

The Rohingya people have a harrowing history of conflict in Myanmar, as they have been beleaguered by the Burmese kingdom, Great Britain, Imperial Japan, and currently the Burmese Buddhist government and military. In the 9th century, the Rohingya were settled in Arakan (modern-day Rakhine state) where they forged close ties with Arab traders and is how they encountered Islam. In the late 18th century, the Burmese King Bodawpaya conquered Arakan and forced thousands of Rohingya to flee.

This Burmese kingdom would last for several hundred years before Great Britain facilitated the movement of the Rohingya back into Arakan. After the British conquered Myanmar, they converted it to a province of British India and would rule for over a hundred years. The Rohingya worked on projects in Rakhine state and many of them re-settled there. In 1942, ethno-religious tensions rose when Japan invaded Myanmar because many Burman Buddhists supported Imperial Japan, while the Rohingya Muslims supported Great Britain, primarily because they were promised statehood even though they were never given it.

The British retreated which allowed for a brutal Burman Buddhist regime to emerge and prompted the Arakan Massacres of 1942. Japanese and pro-Japanese Burman Buddhists murdered tens of thousands of Muslims in the surrounding villages, which caused many of them to flee persecution. In 1948, Myanmar was granted independence from the British which intensified animosity between ethnic populations, because the Burmese government began to crack down on Rohingya.

Military Dictator Ne Win in uniform as a young man (History Answers).

The fractious political structure of the new Myanmar Republic was unstable and would not sustain itself.

In 1962, The army chief of staff Ne Win staged a coup d’état and assumed the role of head of state, prime minister, and chairman of the Revolutionary Council. He believed the parliamentary system put in place post-colonial rule was not appropriate for Myanmar, so his military council would govern for decades to come instead.

Furthermore, Ne Win founded the BSPP (Burma Socialist Programme Party) the year he took over and this would be the dominant political party in the country until the late 1980s. His coercive government resembled policies from the USSR as he shifted Myanmar towards a centrally-planned economy, nationalized vital industries, and pursued autarky which cut them off from the rest of the world; furthermore, this would become known as the “Burmese way to socialism”. Former Professor of Political Science at Yale University R.J. Rummel says coercive societies are commanded by totalitarian regimes, which have no regard for life outside of political control; and is characterized by nationalizing industry, restricting religion/freedom of speech, and is revolutionary (Rummel, Power Kills: Democracy as a Method of Nonviolence, 2003).

As stated earlier, Ne Win was the chairman of the Revolutionary Council in Myanmar and restricted freedom and nationalized industry which are indicators of totalitarianism. In 1962, Ne Win began by nationalizing Burma Oil company, British chemical companies, and the Indo-Burma Petroleum company so that his council would have sole economic influence, which was a strategic political and economic decision. This prompted many British, Indian, and Chinese settlers to emigrate out of the country. Similarly, in 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser made the highly controversial decision to nationalize the Suez Canal which forced British and French businessmen out of the region.

Commemoration of 8888 Uprising in Myanmar (AFP).

For Burman Buddhists attending university, August 8, 1988, marked a nationwide democratic revolt against military rule would be known as the “8888 Uprising”. This student-led uprising started after a disagreement between college students and supporters of the dictatorship which turned into hundreds of thousands of people marching to Rangoon, the capital of Myanmar. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as the leader of this movement and rallied the Burmese people against the militarized government. A month later, the government would silence these protests with unabating force; moreover, 3000 people were killed, 3000 more went to prison, and 10,000 activists fled to a safer environment.

Despite the harshness of the military crackdown, the protests did bring tangible change to Myanmar, with the first “free and fair” elections in 1990. Current State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi's political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won 80% of the parliamentary seats, but ultimately were denied by the military and many of these political dissidents were prosecuted.

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

Ironically, in the same year Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 more than 250,000 Rohingya refugees fled torment from the hands of military forces who claimed they were trying to keep order in the Rakhine state.

In August of 2017, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army used guerilla war tactics to attack 30 police and military posts in Myanmar, which prompted a violent response by the military that killed over 9000 people and scorched over 200 Rohingya villages. Brown University Security Track Director of International and Public Affairs Concentration at the Watson Institute, Ivan Arreguin-Toft, describes barbarism as the intentional killing or torture of non-combatants in the pursuit of a political or military objective. This is precisely the approach the Burmese military took towards the Rohingya during this conflict. Survivors have noted how soldiers raped women and children, hurled babies into fires, and decapitated men (Arreguin-Toft, Ivan. How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict, 31. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

The political structure of the government in Myanmar is peculiar because it is a parliamentary republic, yet the military does not act on behalf of the government. The de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and holds the title of state counsellor, which is tantamount to a prime minister, but she does not possess power over the military. The military junta ruled the country from 1962 to 2011, but the constitution still permits the military to control by force. Under the constitution, the military holds at least 25% of the parliament at any given time.

Rohingya Genocide protest in Bangladesh (Getty Images).

Additionally, the military can act independently of the government, which allows it to unilaterally lash out against the Rohingya. Military juntas throughout history have not been able to sustain peace.

For example, The Dirty War in Argentina (which lasted from 1976 to 1983) took place after former President Juan Peron died and the military junta overthrew his wife who assumed the role of president, Isabel Peron. Once General Jorge Rafael Videla usurped the office of president, he viciously cracked down on communist guerrilla groups, political opponents, and anyone who he perceived to be connected to these groups.

Hopefully, the military junta in Myanmar is dismantled by the mechanisms of the international community, otherwise, the Rohingya will continue to suffer in their homeland for decades more. Western democracies who tout themselves as paragons of freedom should actionably commit to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine under the ethos of humanitarian intervention concerning international law. The Rohingya humanitarian catastrophe is perhaps the worst since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.


Arreguin-Toft, Ivan. How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. p.31

Al-Mahmood, Syed Zain. "Timeline: A Short History of Myanmar's Rohingya Minority." The Wall Street Journal. December 23, 2016.

Rummel, R. J. Power Kills: Democracy as a Method of Nonviolence. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2003.

II. HISTORICAL BACKGROUND." Burma/Bangladesh: Burmese Refugees In Bangladesh - Historical Background.

Oo, Hla. "Hla Oo's Blog." 1942 Genocide of Buddhists in Maungdaw District. January 01, 1970.

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