Shadow over Burma: the Rohingya crisis in context
By Elisa Sandri

In late August, alarming reports and harrowing images started to surface from Myanmar. It soon became clear that Rohingya people—a Muslim minority living in a remote region of Rakhine State, bordering Bangladesh—were being killed, tortured, and their villages burnt down. Official Myanmar state outlets reported that Rohingyas had attacked local communities and opened fire on civilians. The government claims to have intervened in defence of local victims. However, there is little evidence to support these claims. At the time of writing, more than 300,000 Rohingyas have been forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. The stories told by Rohingya refugees describe appalling human rights abuses, deliberate destruction, and targeted violence. Reports are surfacing of  land mines planted on the routes that Rohingyas are taking to flee. Humanitarian aid has been banned by the central government and there is no way for aid to reach the affected population. The UN human rights chief has described the Rohingya persecution as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and a “catastrophic humanitarian situation”. Some commentators have gone further, arguing that the situation might qualify as genocide.

The persecution of Rohingyas is not new. In 2012, episodes of violence arose after the rape and murder of a woman allegedly by the hands of three Rohingya men. In reprisal, Rohingyas were attacked and killed by civilians, police, and Buddhist monks. In the wake of this violence, an estimated 140,000 Rohingyas were displaced in Rakhine State and in nearby countries, including Bangladesh and Malaysia, with an additional 20,000 Rohingya fleeing by sea between October 2012 and April 2013. Those who fled did not always find refuge, and many were trafficked, sent to labour camps, tortured or forced to work in modern-slave ships.

Despite Myanmar officially recognising 135 ethnic minorities in the country (including some Muslim minorities), Rohingyas are not included in this list. They are considered to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh, and the government claims that Rohingyas are in fact Bengalis. They are not recognised as citizens of Myanmar, hence cannot access basic services, such as healthcare and education, and have no right to possession or documentation. They are stateless, as they are “individuals who are not considered citizens or nationals under the operation of the laws of any country”. Because they do not have access to education or work and they are consistently discriminated against, Rohingyas are one of the most destitute groups in Myanmar, and among the most persecuted in the world.

81144t7RlVLThe roots of this discrimination can be found in modern Burmese history. Myanmar, at the time called Burma, was under the British colonial rule from 1824 to 1948, and part of British India. The beautiful book Burmese Days by George Orwell, inspired by the author’s experiences as an imperial policeman in the colonial station of Katha, in the Sagaing region, paints a powerful picture of these times.

With the expansion of commerce and infrastructure, there was an increasing demand for low-skilled labour. Colonial administrators started to move labourers largely from Bengal in British India to Burma and vice versa. The Rohingyas lived in remote areas between the two countries and were among those groups dispatched from one country to the other. Since the country’s independence in 1948, some Rohingyas settled permanently in Myanmar. However, the military government, which seized power in 1962, started to dissolve Rohingya social and political organisations as they were considered illegal migrants. By 1978, over 200,000 Rohingya left Myanmar due to the discrimination and marginalisation. Under the 1982 Citizenship Law, Rohingyas, even though they had lived in Myanmar for more than four generations, came to be classified as ‘non-nationals’ and ‘foreign residents’. According to this definition, only groups living in the country before 1824 qualified as ‘national races’. However, Lieberman argues that before British rule, ethnicity in Burma had little bearing, and ethnic distinctions were blurred, especially in remote areas of the country (see also Edmund Leach’s, Political Systems of Highland Burma). Like in other countries under colonial rule, colonial officials created set boundaries between different groups and attributed to them personal and innate qualities: for example the Kachin and Karen were stereotyped as honest and simple, the Burmans as devious and childish. During colonial times, the name Rohingya was not commonly used to describe the ethnic group for there was no real reason to distinguish them. The seeds of today’s hostility against this group can be found in this colonial history and in the discriminatory ethnic policies perpetrated by the military dictatorships.

Nevertheless, there are other elements to consider. Saskia Sassen argues that religion and ethnicity have little to do with the persecution of Rohingyas. Instead, she states that business interests are at the heart of this campaign: for the past two decades the military has been taking land from smallholders without offering compensation. The military junta is profiting from the country’s rich resources, including timber, gold and jade, as well as favouring large corporate acquisitions of land. Recently, the government allocated more than three million acres in Rakhine State to corporate rural development. On September 11th, the Rakhine State government announced plans to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with local investors at the end of the month. The MoU will set plans for a new special economic zone in the conflict-hit area of Maungdaw, where, according to official figures, 400 people were killed at the end of August. Expelling the Rohingya from their land might be done in light of future business and the focus on religion has ‘overshadowed the vast land grabs that have affected millions, including the Rohingya’.

Downtown Yangon

Having lived in neighbouring Thailand for a few months and having travelled to Myanmar at the beginning of this year, I am closely following the news from Southeast Asia. During my time there, I met activists, NGO workers, and migrants from Myanmar, as I worked for a local NGO providing advocacy for migrant workers. During that time, it became clear that even the educated voice of democracy in Myanmar had no time for the Rohingyas, including some local human rights activists and historical advocates for freedom in the country. I had an uncomfortable conversation with a member of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, the Burmese pro-democracy movement that stemmed out of the student-led protests in 1988, opposing the military rule of Ne Win. As someone who has risked his life for the freedom of his own people as well as an outspoken human rights activist, I thought it would be interesting to ask him what he thought of the Rohingya situation. His response was the not at all what I had expected. He stated that he supported the violence, after all, the Rohingya started it by attacking the military first; the Rohingyas are illegal migrants from Bangladesh and should go back to their country; if they want to remain in Myanmar they have to assimilate into one of the official minorities available, otherwise they should leave. He was not the only one to hold these views, as I received similar answers from other people I met during my travels. Unsurprisingly to me, on 13th September, the 88 Generation made a public statement in favour of the government’s reprisal in Rakhine state.

The Rohingya issue runs deep in the country’s consciousness. Historically opposite factions in the country are coming together against what they identify as the ‘common enemy’. It appears that the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, also known as ‘The Lady’ in Myanmar, is ready to sacrifice Rohingyas for the stability of the country and her political position. She could – and should – condemn the violence, but with a population and support base so hateful towards Rohingyas, she might run the risk of angering and alienating those around her. If she was to condemn the violence against Rohingyas, she could lose her credibility among those who have supported her for almost a lifetime, including 88 Generation members. The consequence of this is the ethnic cleansing of a vulnerable, persecuted people.

Pictures of the 1988 protests

On top of that, the current situation in Rakhine State might serve as a distraction from the failed nation-building process of Myanmar, and the “Rohingya’s cultural, religious and linguistic differences, has made them the expedient scapegoats” in this context. Apart from Rakhine State, several other areas of the country have been experiencing conflict for decades and the country is far from reaching internal peace. From the Shan to Kachin, Mon and Karen people and dozens besides, ethnic conflict and oppression have been raging for generations. There are over 600,000 internally displaced people of various ethnicities in Myanmar and to this day there are over 100,000 Karen refugees on the Thai-Myanmar border. Though the Rohingya people are arguably suffering the most, the current crisis in Rakhine State must be seen in the context of a wider series of ethnic conflicts and oppression of many minorities which contribute to the volatile situation in the whole country.

After fifty year of oppressive regime, Myanmar began opening its doors to foreign visitors in 2012 and started down the road to democratisation, but the political stability of the country is still precarious. Although the country has pledged a commitment to democracy, the military junta is still in control. The 2008 Constitution guarantees the military’s unbalanced representation in government. The military has also exclusive control of the three important ministries of home, defence, and border affairs, and, most important of all, they can seize back power in an instant. Aung Sang Suu Kyi, State Councellor and de facto democratic ruler, by taking part in the civilian government, has submitted to this constitution, which she publicly loathed and boycotted before she decided to lead the country in 2012. She is now in a position where not only she cannot openly criticise the military, but she has become the one and only face of Myanmar, receiving the ire of world leaders, letting generals directly responsible for the violence in Rakhine State off the hook.

Soldiers on a train
On my way to Hsipaw in Shan State, I shared a train carriage with Tatmadaw soldiers going to fight near Lashio, a town 50 miles from my destination

Suu Kyi’s biographer, Peter Popham, recently stated that the only thing the Lady can do now is to resign. This would certainly be a good plan, however unlikely: the country is coming out of an extremely dark period that lasted over fifty years, where the only ray of hope was Suu Kyi herself. The Lady, together with her father, General Aung San, who played a big role in the struggle for independence from the British, are the only national heroes in a country thrashed by a series of brutal military governments. She devoted all her adult life to challenging generals, endured house arrest for fifteen years and sacrificed her private life to fight for democracy. People in the country have been desperately hanging on to the chimera of a brighter future when the Lady comes to govern the country. If she resigns, Myanmar might fall back into harsh military rule, as in effect there is no other democratic leader who can lead the country at this complex time.

The gate of Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s house where she was under house arrest for fifteen years has now become a popular tourist destination

While condemning the violence towards Rohingya, a more nuanced look at the country and its history should be taken into account. Rohingyas are destitute, discriminated against and have nowhere to go, as they are unable to live peacefully in Myanmar, and do not want to be forcibly relocated in Bangladesh. At the same time, in the backdrop of this crisis, there is a country that is struggling to find its stability and its place in the world after decades of internal conflicts and military rulers. Perhaps, the only way this crisis can be resolved is through nation-building and peace-building processes in the rest of the country.


Dirks, N.B. (2001). Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Princeton University Press.

Leach, E. (1964) Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure. Norwich: Fletcher and Son. First published 1954

Lieberman, V. B. (1978) Ethnic Politics in Eighteenth-Century Burma, Modern Asian Studies. 12(3): 455-482

Orwell, G. (2001). Burmese Days. Penguin Classics. First published in 1934

Popham, P. (2017) As Aung San Suu Kyi’s biographer, I have to say that the only good thing she can do now is resign, The Independent. 8th September. [Online] Available from:

Sardiña Galache, C. (2014) Rohingya and National Identities in Burma, New Mandala. 22nd September. [Online] Available from:

Sassen, S. (2017) Is Rohingya Persecution Caused by Business Interests Rather than Religion?, The Guardian. 4th January. [Online] Available from:

UNHCR (2017) What is Statelessness? [Online] Available from:

Elisa Sandri is an ADST alumna (2016). She’s now doing freelance research and hoping to come back to Sussex to start a PhD.
Thanks to Matt Hughes for his contribution to this article. All the photos (apart from featured image) were taken by the author in Myanmar.

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