Historical Legacies of Myanmar’s Ethnic Cleansing

History Apr 29, 2022

By Maeve McGuire

Cover Image Via UN Refugees

The United Nations has defined ethnic cleansing as a “purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas” (UN Security Council 1992). Currently, Myanmar is embroiled in one of the worst cases of human rights abuses and ethnic cleansing in the modern era, as the ultra-nationalist military continues to perpetuate violence against the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority. The United Nations and other international organizations widely cite the Rohingya crisis as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing, and many scholars go further to assert that this ethnic cleansing also qualifies as a genocide. Genocide, as defined by the UN, is the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” (UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide 1948). The UN Commission of Experts assert that ethnic cleansing acts could fall under this definition if they lead to purposeful destruction of a population. Thus some scholars have argued that Myanmar is committing genocide. The state has the capacity and either indifference or active support from the larger population to inflict such violence on the Rohingya, and the lack of an adequate response from the international community (Ibrahim 2021, 110). This outright assault on the basic human rights of the Rohingya has been predicated on the long lasting tensions between the Burmese ethnic group and Muslim Rohingyas that stems from the country’s colonial legacy. The recent coup d’etat has further alarmed the international community, as the resurgence of the Myanmar military has explicit implications for the already dire situation of the Rohingya.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, was a British colonial holding from 1886 to 1948. Like other colonial holdings, Myanmar was extremely ethnically diverse, as the British carved the territory out based on their own desire for material wealth and consolidation of their position in Asia. After World War II, Myanmar nationalists rose to demand independence from Britain, like other countries at the time. The ethnically diverse population formed their own militias based on their heritage, and there were calls for the creation of separate states for these ethnic groups. It is during the independence movement that the Myanmar military was born, playing a “critical part in guaranteeing the country’s sovereignty and protecting the new government from dozens of ethnic and anti-government militias” (Murphy, Turpin, and Kukick 2015, 76-89). The military, referred to as the Tatmadaw, sought to create a cohesive institution that cracked down on dissent from ideological or ethnic lines (Min 2008). This structure is so deeply embedded in the tradition of waging counter-insurgency operations against ethnic militias that it is cemented in its foundation, playing a critical role down the line as the Tatmadaw gained power within Myanmar society. The military was also essential for mobilising Myanmar society around the preservation of the Buddhist majority, citing it as the defining unifying factor in the post-colonial state. This is because Buddhism was conflated with nationalism to fight against colonial “modernization” efforts that prized secularism above all. Hence, Buddhism is sewn into the very fabric of Myanmar’s conception of state and citizenship.


Brutal Military Crackdown on Myanmar Civilians (Via Science Photo Library.)

Recent developments in Myanmar such as the 2015 elections, which resulted in a majority for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party (NLD), and the Saffron Revolution in 2007, were promising signs of a change of power within the country (Min 2008). Particularly, Suu Kyi’s rise in power was a cause for both national and international hope for the creation of real democracy within Myanmar. When Suu Kyi and the NLD swept into power in November 2015, many believed that she would usher in democratic reforms and address the already dire situation for Rohingyas and other minorities within the country (Hiebert, Jackson, and Nguyen 2016). Many also believed that the military would be pushed out of the civilian government with the democratic election of 2015, further blossoming hope of real institutional change. However, the structure of the Myanmar government continues to perpetuate the unchecked and unbound power of the military, as well as the continued subjugation of minority rights, particularly the Rohingya people. Myanmar’s current constitution, created in 2008, gave the Tatmadaw’s commander in chief complete control over national defence and security, as well as executive power and considerable influence in the National Assembly because 25% of its seats are required to be nominated by the Commander (Myoe 2014). The Tatmadaw has unchecked power, with no civilian oversight, and is an independent institution from the government. Their influence is particularly volatile to minorities such as the Rohingya, as the military employs the “Four Cuts” strategy when dealing with ethnic conflicts throughout the country. The strategy was developed by Ne Win, the leader of the military dictatorship from the 1960s to 70s, and is when the military cuts off access to food and shelter, funds, intelligence and recruitment to minorities in conflicts (Murphy, Turpin, and Kukick 2021). This is the strategy employed in the Northern Rakhine state to the Rohingya since the inception of the country, and has perpetuated the human rights crises in Rohingya communities.

Further, Suu Kyi herself has not lived up to international expectations about reinstalling democracy in Myanmar. While she has significant institutional barriers to addressing issues such as the Rohingya crisis, this does not excuse her lack of inaction and failure to address human rights abuses. Prominent cases of violence perpetrated against Muslims in recent years, such as the 2017 assassination of human rights activist U Ko Ni, were left unaddressed by the NLD government (Barany 2018). Further, the NLD did not nominate a single Muslim to fill parliamentary seats despite the thousands of competent and eager candidates. This political exclusion insulates and perpetuates ideas that Muslims are not part of Myanmar.

In conjunction with this expansion of military power and NLD inaction since the 2011 democratic reforms, a nationalist Buddhist movement has emerged that supports the Tatmadaw’s violence against the Rohingya. The “969 Movement” in Myanmar has surfaced over the past decade in Myanmar, but is based upon the pre-existing ethnic and religious tensions. The Buddhist nationalist movement is based on the fear that Muslim communities will “threaten the status of Buddhists as the majority” (Burke 2016). Specifically in the Rakhine state where most of the Rohingya people live, the ethnic Rakhines fear “becoming a minority within their own state” (Ibid), and therefore are drawn to the 969 Movement and Tatmadaw’s message of protecting and promoting the strong majority.

Myanmar Buddhist Monks that took part in the Saffron Revolution (Via Thierry Falise.)

This combination of a strong, unchecked military that promotes a unitary nationalist identity and the rise of the extremist 969 Movement proved to be especially potent in the conflicts with the Rohingya after the supposed institutional democratic reforms of the Myanmar government in 2011. During the 2012 violence in the Rakhine state, rumours that a Rakhine Buddhist woman was brutally murdered by Rohingya men mobilized both the ethnic Rakhines and military to “massacre [the] Rohingyas”, leading to widespread violence within the state (Anwary 2021). This specific conflict “displaced 140,000 people”, and the brutal violation of Rohingyas’ human rights. Entire communities were wiped out, and “mass graves were found in which Rohingya civilians were buried” (Ibid 95). It is agreed among scholars that the “main aggressors [in the violent attacks in the Rakhine State against the Rohingya] were affiliated with Rakhine Buddhist networks” (Burke 2016, 259), who were supported further by the military intervention. While President Thein Sein publicly stated that the perpetrators of violence would be brought to justice, little was truly done to protect the Rohingya population. Sein’s statement was a contradiction to his previous assertion that the Rohingya “threatened the stability of the Rakhine state” prior to the 2012 wave of violence, reinforcing the Myanmar’s majority groups’ beliefs that the Rohingya do not belong in Myanmar (Anwary 2021, 94). Further, the military and ethnic Rakhine groups further isolated Rohingya communities, preventing access to critical resources such as food, water, and medical assistance and led to thousands fleeing the country. The conflict also led to Buddhist nationalists lobbying for laws to “protect Buddhist race and religion” (Ibid), further stratifying the population.

Violence has continued to manifest since the 2012 attacks, with the most recent wave of widespread violence occurring on August 25, 2017. On that day, a newly armed Rohingya organisation, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, attacked police stations and government offices. This led to a complete retaliation from the military, who “indiscriminately targeted civilians, burned villages, shot people on site, raped women, looted and blocked humanitarian aid” (Khin 2017, 43). This campaign’s goal was to drive the Rohingya completely out of the country by either ethnic cleansing or forcing the Rohingya to flee to Myanmar’s neighbours Bangladesh and Thailand. The all out assault by the Tatmadaw was supported by the ethnic Rakhine mobs in the state, as they were “working side by side with soldiers, hacking people to death” (Ibid 44). The civilian government was also complicit with the actions of the military, as the NLD government, led by Suu Kyi, “failed to oppose” the anti-Muslim rhetoric of both the military and Buddhist ultra-nationalist movement that helped enflame the ethnic tensions within the Rakhine state (Anwary 2021, 96). The civilian government also did not respond adequately to the violence perpetrated by the Tatmadaw, in part because the civilian government was under the thumb of the military. However the government’s inaction and support for the military’s policy did allow for the Tatmadaw to carry out widespread violence against the Rohingya. The government was complicit in the 2017 attacks, in particular, as it forced Rohingyas to move to internally displaced (IDP) concentration camps in the border areas of Myanmar and Bangladesh '' (Ibid), further violating the rights of the Rohingya community. By 2017, around 400,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh, and the government placed landmines on the border in order to further prevent any Rohingyas from returning. Satellite images show the destruction inflicted onto Rohingya communities by the military and organisations in support of them, as entire villages were burnt to the ground. The Rohingya people are being ethnically cleansed from Myanmar by the Tatmadaw and supported by other institutions in the country where anti-Rohingya sentiment is deeply embedded into it. The Tatmadaw has violated human rights principles numerous times since the inception of the nation, and is able to continue to do so since they have unchecked power in Myanmar society. Their “Four Cuts” strategy effectively seals off Rohingya communities, blocking humanitarian aid and violating human rights standards by depriving them of basic necessities and perpetuating a cycle of poverty. Further, the brutal assaults on the Rohingyas has led to the mass migration of communities to neighbouring countries, creating an international refugee crisis as well.

Satellite Images of Scorched Earth Policies to Perpetuate the Ethnic Cleansing of the Rohingya (Via Amnesty International.)

The international response to the ongoing crisis has been extremely limited and ineffective, as the Rohingya community still faces widespread violence. The UN Security Council Statement on the human rights situation regarding the Rohingya was blocked by China, who continued to support the Myanmar government (Bi 2018, 14). The United States and its allies did have harsh economic restrictions on Myanmar, but they have been gradually lifted since 2011 until the recent coup d’etat. The US also has tried to help institute governmental reforms through assistance programs, but failed to assist in “reforming its military institutions” (Murphy, Turpin and Kukik 2015, 77), one of the main issues in Myanmar currently. Overall, the lacklustre international response to the human rights crisis regarding the Rohingyas has allowed for the continued violence against their community.

In the aftermath of the 2021 coup d’etat, widespread violence and crackdown has characterised the country. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, at least 2,800 people have been arrested during the protests as of March 24, specifically targeting many journalists (“Political Prisoner Data”). There are conflicting reports about how many people have died at the hands of the Tatmadaw, but most news outlets are reporting that around 275 civilians have been killed. The most staggering and frightening numbers reported are in regards to how many children have died; Reuters reports that “at least 23 children have been killed”, with the youngest victim being seven years old (Reuters Staff 2021). This highlights the brutal, unrelenting tactics the Tatmadaw are using with regards to protesters within Myanmar. With Suu Kyi being held by the military indefinitely, the Tatmadaw once again assumes control of the government. General Min Aung Hlaing has become the de-facto leader of Myanmar, and his rule has drastic implications for the Rohingya. Aung Hlaing personally oversaw violence against the Rohingya and actively participated in the Tatmadaw’s ethnic cleansing campaigns (Goldman 2021). There is no doubt that the Tatmadaw will take an aggressive stance against the Rohingya, as the military has already committed egregious acts of violence on the ethnic majority of Myanmar. Further, military rule and suppression of journalists will allow for violence towards the Rohingya to be kept unreported. Other major issues that will only be exacerbated under the new military junta includes access to food, water, shelter, and medical attention. Coronavirus testing has also collapsed in the wake of the military takeover (Reuters 2021). Coronavirus is known to hit marginalised communities extremely hard, and the resources the Rohingya currently have access to is virtually zero in wake of the coup and pandemic. Under the military junta, the ‘Four Cuts’ strategy will continue to be employed, but to new heights, and further exacerbate the issues of access to basic necessities. The installation of the military junta in 2021 will only worsen the already dire circumstances of the Rohingya, as the military will be able to carry out their ethnic cleansing agenda against the Rohingya without any form of oversight.

The Rohingya crisis stems from the deeply embedded colonial legacy of Myanmar and the modern state’s formation. The military and the rise of an ultra nationalist, anti-Muslim movement within Myanmar has caused increased tensions amongst the majority and minority ethnic groups, shaping the construction of the government and society in a manner that subjugates the Rohingya. The Tatmadaw is able to continue to perpetuate these violent attacks without repercussion because of their power in the government, the fact that they are a separate institution from the government and have no accountability mechanism, and because of the pre-existing ethnic and religious tensions that have existed since colonisation by the British. Further, the civilian government prior to the 2021 coup did little to prevent the military’s brutal suppression of the Rohingya, being complacent actors and allowing for the Tatmadaw to carry out its ethnic cleansing agenda. The military coup of 2021 will have drastic effects on the current situation in the Rakhine state, and could lead to even more violence in a country already wracked with it.

2021 Protests Against the Arrest of Suu Kyi, but will her return do anything to alleviate the crisis? (Via Reuters.)