Satellite images of townships in Myanmar’s Rakhine State reveal entire Rohingya villages that have been burned to the ground, reduced to smouldering rubble and ash, while nearby ethnic Rakhine Buddhist villages remain intact. 

In the past few years, Myanmar has engaged in an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority group, which has sent an estimated one million refugees fleeing into neighbouring Bangladesh. The Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces, has utilized massacre, rape, and the burning of villages in attempt to expel the Rohingya from the country. In response, the United Nations has recently described the crisis as the “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Recently, the Rohingya crisis has received widespread news coverage. However, much of the coverage lacks the historical context needed to adequately understand the roots of the crisis. Islamophobia and anti-Rohingya violence within Myanmar are not new; nor is this the first time the Rohingya have been pushed into Bangladesh via ethnic cleansing campaigns. The oppression of the Rohingya has been in the works for centuries and has deep roots in the British colonial era. 

Essentially, when the British colonized Burma between 1824 and 1948, they strategically pitted each of the region’s ethnic groups against each other and encouraged xenophobia. However, it is crucial to keep in mind that this article merely serves to provide some historical context behind the Rohingya genocide. While the British colonial policies created lasting damage, it would be incorrect and irresponsible to blame them for the extent of the contemporary crisis. The Myanmar government is quick to point fingers at their colonial past, but they are responsible for repeatedly choosing to entertain and fuel xenophobic sentiment, and for committing genocide against the Rohingya.

The Divisive Colonial Experience

The British colonization of Burma progressed in a series of waves, as a result of three Anglo-Burmese wars. It was originally ruled as a province of British India, but in 1937, it was transitioned to become a crown colony and to serve as a buffer zone between India and the rest of Asia. During this period, Britain encouraged the mass migration of Muslim agricultural workers from Bengal and Chittagong to move into Arakan (present-day Rakhine State, where most Rohingya live) to work in unoccupied and fertile lands to cultivate rice, fruit, and tobacco. The British also subsidized the migration of Indians to other towns and cities across Burma to occupy lower and intermediate bureaucratic positions. As a result, the number of Indian migrants across Burma skyrocketed during this era. 

The British also used their infamous ‘divide and rule’ policy to pit the country’s many ethnic groups against each other to easier establish their own authority. In order to discourage a strong resistance or nationalist movement, the British sought to dilute traditional Burmese national identity, which is largely centered around Buddhism. They enforced the separation of religion and state and discouraged people from practicing Buddhism and engaging in other traditional aspects of Burmese culture. 

Meanwhile, minority groups were given special administrative privileges and granted higher degrees of freedom to preserve many of their traditional political and tribal structures. The Rohingya were one of these groups which the British propped up in order to pit them against the Rakhine people, a Buddhist minority group which also inhabits the Rakhine State. 

Making the majority group feel as if they are under threat while privileging minority groups is a common means of stoking xenophobia, and often a recipe for disaster. The Burmese Buddhist majority began to view the minority groups, especially the Rohingya, as a threat. In the early twentieth century, there were a series of nationalistic riots across Burma, often directed at the Rohingya and other so-called “foreigners.” 

World War II further exacerbated tensions between ethnic groups and cemented anti-Rohingya sentiment. The Burmese majority sided with the Japanese, while most of the ethnic minorities fought alongside the British. The Rakhine, however, was one of the only minority groups to fight with the Japanese, meaning the Rakhine and Rohingya often directly fought against each other. Once the Allies had won the war and the Japanese were expelled from the region, the British rewarded the Rohingya for their loyalty by appointing them to newly created administrative posts. Unsurprisingly, this angered the Rakhine and Burmese majority groups, giving them another reason to despise the Rohingya. 

Perpetuating the Colonial Legacy in Independent Burma

Burma gained its independence from Britain in 1948, but the colonial legacy continued through the twentieth century and still persists today. The systematic separation of the country’s many ethnic groups and widespread Islamophobia has been enshrined and codified in Burma’s legal system. 

A series of laws were passed in 1948, 1974, and 1982, which barred most Rohingya from citizenship. Since independence, the Burmese government has repeatedly claimed the Rohingya to be foreigners and legacies of the British colonial era, referring to them as “illegal Bengalis,” alluding to the fact that the British encouraged the migration of thousands of Bengali and Chittagonian labourers into present-day Rakhine. The 1982 Citizenship Law, for instance, states that full citizenship is reserved exclusively for ethnic groups who are recognized as having resided in Burma from 1823 or earlier – an undisguised reference to the British colonial period, which began in 1824. 

This ‘foreigner’ rhetoric is extremely dangerous and has been continuously used to encourage and justify atrocities committed against the Rohingya. In 1978 and 1991, the Burmese government embarked on a series of ethnic cleansing campaigns with the aim of cracking down on “illegal immigrants” and purging remnants of colonial oppression from the country. The Rohingya were subjected to the destruction of villages, rape, murder, and the desecration of mosques, and each campaign resulted in 200,000-300,000 Rohingya fleeing into Bangladesh, similar to the atrocities we’re seeing today. 

Even after the country transitioned to democracy under the rule of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Islamophobia and violence against the Rohingya have worsened. Radical Buddhist nationalism, under the guidance of the monk U Wirathu, self-proclaimed “Burmese Bin-Laden,” is used to incite violence against Muslims while using social media to spread false information and hate speech. Aung San Suu Kyi refuses to use the term “Rohingya,” referring to them as illegal immigrants, and repeatedly denying allegations of genocide.

Today, the Rohingya are described by the UN as “the most persecuted minority in the world.” They are stateless people, without the protection of any government, and the prospect of safe repatriation in the near future remains slim. By situating the crisis in its historical context, we can see that this is far from a new phenomenon, but rather an intentional project of oppression and Islamophobia that has been in the works since the British colonial era and perpetuated by a series of regimes. 

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Dorothy Settles

Dorothy is the co-founder and former executive director of Spheres of Influence. Her work focuses on social movements, climate change, and conflict across Turtle Island and Southeast Asia. Originally from...

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