The Invisible Race – The Rohingyas, Part II, Why Are They Hated?

Maungdaw fire

[Please Read Part I…}

Buddhists have a reputation for being gentle. I conjure up an image of a meditating monk being harrassed by a fly. It lands on his nose but he maintains his peaceful composure. That’s how we think of Buddhists.They wouldn’t swat a fly. I’ve been looking at videos of the massacre. Houses are burning and people are running about trying to get away. There are photos of bodies lying on a beach and horrible living conditions for the homeless Muslim Rohingyas. This isn’t how I think of Buddhists. What’s wrong? Why do these Buddhists hate these Muslims? Why do the Rakhines hate the Rohingyas? There must be a good reason. What is behind it?

Rakhine Refugee Camp
Rakhine Refugee Camp

I’ve decided that a lot of the hate part of the equation can be laid firmly on the back of colonialism, a period when the Burmans1  were forced into an attitude of subsurvience not only to the conquering British but to the Indians they imported as administrators. And it wasn’t only in the Rakhine state. It was all over the country. While the British were in power, Indians pretty much ran the country. And they profited from it because the British didn’t only bring in administrators. They brought in businessmen and money lenders. Indians under the British all but ran the police and were a heavy presence in the army. A sense of shame smoldered in the Burmese spirit. This was, I think, why Burma remained insular for so long. It all stems from WWII. In a very real and palpable sense the Burmese suffer from national paranoia but as often is the case with paranoia, there were real and actual events that created it. So is it actually paranoia or is it experience, a bad experience that lasted over a hundred and twenty-four years, the period the British dominated Burma?

I think one of the reasons the British were so successful in managing their extensive empire was the fact that they often used the native cultural values and the existing system of government to administrate the populace. In India, there was the caste system with Brahmins at the top. The British educated the Brahmins and placed them in charge. After the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857, they created a new class of warriors known for their loyalty and obedience to the British. The Gurkhas are a classic example of this. For the British it was simply easier to think of Burma as an extension of India and to use Indians to administrate it. For the Burmese it was a humiliating hell.

Burma isn’t India and the religion is Buddhism not Hinduism. The people stem from a different racial group. Indians are Aryan and the Burmese seem to be more closely identified at least in language to the Chinese. In a sense the Buddhist Burmese are democratic, democratic with a small d. They have no caste system and there is more of a sense of equality. They didn’t see the British as better than them and putting Indians in a position of dominance over them was intolerable.

It was a prolonged kidnapping, a kidnapping that lasted well over a hundred years. After such a long time, the victim, in this case the Burmese, struggles under a severe psychological strain and there is a fear that it will happen again. The Indians that were still in Burma when I lived there from 1969 to 1972 were nostalgic for the British. There were reasons for this. Under the British, they had positions of authority; after they left, they had none. The Indians suffered from something resembling Stockholm Syndrome. They identified with their captor. The Burmese never identified with the British, not the way the Indians I knew did, and that is lucky. Because the Burmese weren’t nurtured in the same way the Indians were; they never lost their perspective. I may be getting a little over my head here but this may have saved the Burmese their sense of self, their sense of being Burmese.

In the Rakhine it was similar but not the same. The Burmese perception is that the British imported the Rohingya and there is much to be said for that viewpoint. When the British conquered the area in northern Rakhine state they decimated the people that were then living there causing it to be sparsely populated. But it was good agricultural land so they encouraged the people of what is now Bangladesh to farm the land. The newcomers were given plots of land and the population of Rohingyas in the area grew exponentially. According to British colonial figures the Muslim population of Rakhine grew from 58,000 in 1871 to 179,000 in 1911.2 That’s tripling the population.

It’s also important to remember that during the British era there was no political border between Rakhine and Bengal and the population flowed freely. What and where is Bengal? Historically, it was a province of India. The western part of what once was Bengal is now in India and the eastern part is Bangladesh. Bengalis can be either Hindus or Muslims. In India Bengalis are mostly Hindu and in Bangladesh they are mostly Muslims. There is a perception on the part of the Burmese that the Rohinghas are dark skinned. They use the perjorative word, kalar, Sanscrit for black, to describe them.

The Burmese feel that the present population of Rohingyas came from that era. They recognize as citizens only those people who can verify their ancestry prior to the first Anglo Burmese War in 1824. There was no political state of Rakhine so there are no population figures from that time and the Rohingha cannot prove their ethnicity.

The Burmese also feel that the Rohinghas do not control births. Since there isn’t a census and the Burmese refuse to take a census of the Rohinghas it is impossible to determine whether or not this perception is valid. Poligamy is legal in Burma and Rohingha men have more than one wife if they are able.

There is also a perception that the Rohinghas send their boys off to fight foreign wars. I found this in Wikpedia that seems to verify this belief:

Among the more than 60 videotapes obtained by CNN from Al-Qaeda’s archives in Afghanistan in August 2002, one video showed that Muslim allies from “Burma” got training in Afghanistan. Some videotapes were shot in RSO3 camps in Bangladesh. These videos which show the linkage between Al-Qaeda and Rohingya insurgents were shot in the 1990s. Besides, RSO recruited many Rohingya guerrillas. According to Asian intelligence sources, Rohingya recruits were paid 30,000 Bangladeshi taka ($525) on joining and then 10,000 taka ($175) per month. The families of recruits killed in action were offered 100,000 taka ($1,750). Rohingya recruits, believed to be quite substantial in numbers, were taken to Pakistan, where they were trained and sent on further to military camps in Afghanistan. They were given the most dangerous tasks in the battlefield.4 

Whether this is incidental or rampant is unknown but the perception is that the Rohingyas are rich because of it. They are also thought to be drug runners. If this is true then one reason for it may be that the Rohingyas have no other option. As foreigners in their own land, they cannot work, cannot go to school, and cannot avail themselves of medical services. If the Rohingyas have become a breeding ground for insurgents and guerillas it may be because they have no other option.

By WWII half the population of Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Burma’s capital city at the time, was Indian and Indians represented 16% of the total population. When the Japanese invaded in 1942, half a million Indians fled from Burma overland into India mostly on foot. When Ne Win took over in 1962, the government nationalized Indian businesses and disenfranchised the Indians. This led to another exodus of about 300,000 Indians. Those who stayed cannot be citizens and are barred from owning businesses, working in the civil service or serving in the military.5 I was there during this time and witnessed the distress of the Indian population first hand.

There are a great number of indigenous minorities in Burma, a detail most of us know little about. In fact there are 135 distinct ethnic groups as first defined by General Ne Win’s government in 1962, a list still used today. The major ethnic populations in Burma are: Bamar, 68%; Shan, 9%; Kayin, 7%; Rakhine, 3.5%; Chinese, 2.5%; Mon, 2%; Kachin, 1.5%; and Indians, 1.25%. The percentage of the balance of the 135 minorities is too small to mention here. The unrecognized ethnic groups are Anglo-Burmese, Burmese Chinese, Panthay, Burmese Indians, Gurkhas, Pakistanis and lastly, the Rohingyas.6 There are no census figures for unrecognized groups. They are simply in the country illegally.

For a hundred and twenty-four years the British were masters. They called themselves Thakins and demanded that the Burmese refer to them thus. Thakin is a term of respect for elders. The Burmese chaffed under this. During Independence, Aung San Su Chi’s father and his band of thirteen used the term to refer to themselves. It was a rebellion against the hated British. The British weren’t Thakins; the Burmese were.

During the years leading up to Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, the Rohingyas fought in the Mujahid Insurgency. They wanted the northern part of Rakhine, where Muslims were concentrated, to be annexed to Bangladesh. A Mujahid is one who struggles for Allah or Islam. Literally it is an inner struggle. The Burmese resented this disloyalty.

The big question is whether the Rogingyas existed prior to the first Anglo Burmese War in 1923 and there is historical evidence that the area in nothern Rakhine state was home to Arabs as early as the 7th century. Again in the 15th century there is evidence that the Buddhist Kings modeled themselves after Mughal emporers even to the point of using Arabic court titles. Arabic and Mughal influence were strong until the Buddhist Burmese invaded and conquered Rakhine in 1785.

In 1785, Buddhist Burmese from the south of the country conquered Arakan. They drove out or executed all of the Muslim Rohingya men they could find; some 35,000 of Arakan’s people likely fled into Bengal, then part of the British Raj in India.7 

No one wants them, not Bangladesh. Bangladesh is too poor. Not Thailand or Malaysia, India or Australia. Not the Arab countries. These people represent a terrible financial burden and no one is coming forward to help them. The UN calls them one of the most persecuted minorities on earth and with good reason.

It’s an ethnic cleansing. There is no other word for it. The Rohingyas are invisible to the Burmese. They aren’t citizens. They are foreigners and they want them gone. A new census was started in March 2014 but the Rohingyas weren’t counted. The first question census takers asked was, “What is your ethnicity?” If the answer was Rohingya, they moved on. They want the Rohingyas to answer “Bengali” which would make them foreigners. It’s a simple way to ignore over a million people and Burma is doing it. The estimated census cost is around $60 million much of which is being financed by the United Nations, Great Britain and the United States. Will the international community be willing to finance a bogus count, one that denies the existence of the Rohingya? I wonder.

One last thought. What happens on a personal level when the authorities in charge are biased and unfair? What happens when they can’t be trusted? This is where the Burmese people are right now. They haven’t been able to trust the government. The government lies. The British government lied to them. Ne Win’s government lied to them. And in all probability, Thein Sein’s government lies to them. The government has recently opened up but there are signs that it is going back to its old ways. Recently four Burmese journalists and their magazine’s CEO were sentenced to ten years of hard labor. Their crime? They reported on an alleged weapon’s factory. So where is the truth? It is more likely to be in rumor, in what your neighbor says is true and when the official “facts” differ from your neighbor’s rumor, rumor is believed. When the girl was raped. Remember. That’s what started this. A young woman was raped in May of 2012. When she was raped and murdered, no one thought the authorities would do the right thing. No one trusted them. They felt it was up to the people so they rioted. In a country where the legal system is fair, the authorities take care of things. In a country where the authorities are arbitrary in their enforcement of the law, there is chaos. The greater the mistrust, the greater the chaos, the sadder the outcome will be. Rumor rides on the heels of modern technology. The cell phone can go where large cameras cannot and rumor quickly blazes into a wildfire. I can only pray for the Rohingyas. Where will they go? Who will accept them? Where are they now?

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  1. The Bamar or Burmans are the dominant ethnic group of Burma (Myanmar), constituting approximately two-thirds of the population. []
  2.  “The Government Could Have Stopped This”, Human Rights Watch, []
  3. RSO – Rohingya Solidarity Organization, the main and most militant faction of Rohingya organizations at the Myanmar/Bangladesh border. []
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19 Thoughts to “The Invisible Race – The Rohingyas, Part II, Why Are They Hated?

  1. As I read I am remembering a comment from an employee of mine. She was Indian and our discussion was casual over coffee about some world views. She said that she believed the world was not divided into first world and third world. She believed the big difference was between countries that had been conquered and those that were conquers. I mulled this over and saw her words turn to reality at an International meeting. I don’t remember the precise argument but it was about actions in Indonesia. Suddenly a Dutch delegate in frustration said–well it belongs to us anyway. For a few seconds you could have heard a pin drop. Then the furor erupted.

    1. Interesting comment, Vickey. As I remember, the Dutch weren’t known for benevolence. They were hated. Your friend was right. There is damage to the psyche of both the conquerer and the conquered. I don’t see a resolution for the Rohingya. They have no patch of soil to call their own. Burma won’t relent and world disapproval will only cause them to shut down again. I’m feeling frustrated and angry at both sides right now. The UN in a Solomon stance may help but it will only ameliorate not solve the problem.

    2. Vickey, I think what your friend said rings true for many instances. I’m not a history buff, but I believe many colonies were divided up with no regards to ethnic differences. Hence, a lot of ethnic tensions in many former colonies today. The problem with the Rohingya is a sad one, and there’s no solution in sight. Like someone said in the comment, the perspective may change in 20-30 years, but will there be any Rohingya left then? I recognize that it’s easier for me to judge the Burmese, never had been oppressed, but eventually one has to move past the hate and forgive, no? I sure hope so…

  2. This is such a good overview — I appreciate having the historical perspective. What a terribly sad story. Very well-written. Thank you.

    1. Thanks Cathy. Having lived there, I have an unusual and unique perspective but I know it doesn’t make me right. I hope I add to the understanding.

      1. The history is reasonably correct but you use yesterday as an excuse for actions of today.
        Q. Why is it that where Muslims go trouble always follows.?
        Islam is happy to leave them there, for they know as good Muslims they will take over.

        Coincidentally you failed miserably to mention the facts of today, Rohinga men focus there criminality on these otherwise meek peoples.

        Q. What do you have to do to get happy people to become bad people.?

  3. What shall happen to the great unwashed? In the US border states, the Middle East, Italy, Europe, the Ukraine, Russia, China and Africa, that’s the question. The answer seems unremittingly ugly.

    1. It is ugly and I’d rather not look at it. No one does. I don’t feel responsible for what happens in the world. It’s an occasional thing that I feel I understand something or have an opinion about it. This case is unusual. All cases are unusual I know but this one has unique features to it. War shifts populations. Poverty shifts populations. Lots of reasons. Very few solutions. Thanks for reading.

  4. Unfortunately for us, the country itself is very right wing and super conservative. I shouldn’t expect the suppressed tension to resolve all on it’s own in due course but the hatred towards the brits should subside by the next 20-30 years. Burma is an odd mix of xenophobia, nationalism, and religious fever like many other colonised countries but what makes us susceptible to civil war is that we, as a country has no drive to take matters into our own hands and change our future, but instead; bicker about skin colours and puerile feuds. Perhaps a little bit of Nietzsche would do us good 😀

    1. Dan,
      Anger, suppressed or not, is a horrible emotion. Hate is even worse. You have a wonderful country and I thank you for your incisive comments. Myanmar stands unique among nations. You can be proud of your history. As an American, I want to see Democracy but who knows what is best. I’m not sure I understand the Nietzsche comment. What did you mean?

  5. nice and well written.. now i know why rohingya is being hated by burmese government.. and yet ethnic cleansing is teribble issues in this 2015 era.

    now this rohingya topic is warm issue in Indonesia. in recent last months there were rohingya refugee seeking assylum in thailand and malaysia but their navy keeping out them from their land territories. after all, the rohingya refugee came to Indonesia.

    in Indonesia itself many people think to help out the Rohingya people (the reason is they have same faith in Islam). now the refugee landed in Aceh Province (one of special province in Indonesia that have syariah law). they think about to keep rohinya people in unhabitant island (which indonesia have so many of that) just like vietnam war refugee in galang island (you can google it).

    but the government of Indonesia and navy keep rohingya away from our territories because they said rohingya is illegal immigrant that may can bought problem in Indonesia.

    now our government will make a meeting with thailand, malaysia, and myanmar authorities to seek resolution for this problem

  6. Hannah, thank you for your insight. I just had a long conversation/debate with my cousin who lives in Thailand earlier today (I live in the US.) And our views are so far apart that we couldn’t even find a common ground. I feel for the Rohingya, while he believes they’re mercenaries from the old English and will also aid in the secession of Southern Thailand. And it’s unfortunate that he’s not the only one who feels this way. What is the truth about the Rohingya? Probably somewhere in the middle of the two sides. But what more important is how will this come to an end. There has been other ethnic cleansing, and the rest of the world could only watch helplessly (at least it seemed.) I’m rooting for a different outcome this time.

    1. I wonder if that is a common reaction in Thailand. The Thai military just ended the parliament there and the Thai military has been coming down hard on journalists. The Irrawaddy newspaper, a Burmese newspaper out of Thailand, has been silent on the excesses of Thailand and Malaysia in the slave trade. The press was once free in Thailand. It’s curious that they aren’t commenting on the dead bodies found in the jungles. I would have expected better coverage from them. Are they afraid? Can anyone tell me?


    1. I don’t know where you are from but I share your sensibilities. I don’t understand how the Burmese can be so very ugly. Aung San Suu Kyi must agree with those who hate the Rohingyas. Why else would she be silent? She can’t run for president anyway. The military won’t let her. If she believes in stopping the massacre of the Rohingyas, she should say so, loud and clear. If she agrees with the government that they are vermin and should be exterminated, then we should be told and they can take away that Nobel prize. She doesn’t deserve it. Where are you, Aung San Suu Kyi.

  8. There are a few flaws in the article despite its rich description on Rohingya issue. First, Thakin is not a term of respect for elders, it is actually a term for kings or rulers. Next, Kalar doesn’t have derogatory meaning, it is derived from a Bali word Kuli denoting “a noble race”. Since Buddha himself is an Indian, Burmese people refer to Indian as Kalar (in Urdu and Bengali, Kalar happens to mean “dark skin” or such). Plus, it can simply mean “foreigner” from the West because white people are still being called as Kalar Phyu in Myanmar. Third, you left out the fact that the name Rohingya never appeared in British colonial records. You can check Census conducted during British rule. I suggest you read a book called “Races of Burma” by Major C.M Enriquez to better understand on Indigenous races in Myanmar. The Rohingya issue is much much more complicated than you describe.

    1. Ah Phyaw,
      Thank you for writing. I appreciate any corrections. I’m not an expert although I try to be as accurate as possible.
      The term, Thakin, was used to refer to kings and rulers. That is true. What bothered the Burmese was that the British demanded to be called Thakin also and that was a bitter pill for the Burmese to swallow. I believe it is still in occasional use today to refer to an elder who is respected and honored. It’s probably not in everyday use.
      The term, kalar, definitely seems to have a derogatory meaning. The monk, Wirathu, for example, spits it out like a curse when he uses it for Muslims.
      The book, Races of Burma by Major C.M. Enriquez, was written in 1924 with a particular purpose in mind. The India Central Publishing Department published it avowedly to assist in recruiting Indians for the British Army. Major Enriquez had a company of Burmese Rifles composed of Kachins. The book is available as a PDF at I’m having trouble adding this as a link but the whole book is available for anyone who wants to check it out. It is not something I would use as a reference today as it is very dated in it’s language and attitude. Major Enriquez was an excellent writer. I particularly like his description of Burmese women. There is a photo of a Burmese woman with a parasol on page 2. The caption in part reads, “the Burmese lady is a very adorable little person. Her head is also screwed on the right way, which cannot always be said of her menfolk.” Cute, isn’t it? I think it speaks volumes.
      I’m not sure if the British used the term, Rohingya, or not. It’s not important to me what they did in the 1930’s. This is a new era.

  9. A just government will control and make sure justice prevails, regardless which side started it. Does not seem to happen here. Instead there is more bloodshed and that is a big concern.

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