Latest Highlight


Abid Bahar, PhD

( Part of the essay is adapted from Abid Bahar's book "Burma's Missing Dots," 2010) 

Burma is a medium-sized country; rich in mineral resources and agriculture, and the majority of its people are followers of the Buddhist faith. With such material and spiritual assets, it should be a peaceful and prosperous nation, but the reality is different. Burma has become a despotic country with a world-wide reputation for human rights violations and producing refugees. It is now clear that from the time of Burman King Anawrahta’s accession to power, through the advent of military rule in the 1960s until the present day, Burmese rulers have treated ethnic and racial minorities as subject peoples or even aliens. This is the most important idiosyncrasy in Burma’s history; even at the present time, it is causing massive refugee movements to neighboring countries. Seen in this light, Burma’s problem is not primarily a democratic predicament but an ethnic one. In this work, I hope to provide the missing dots to the derisory understanding of Burma presented in the popular media. 
Burma became independent in 1948, but it squandered its opportunity to become a truly modern nation. It has become clear from this research that in the last couple of centuries, Burma has developed two distinctive models of rule: the military’s model of rule by force and the democratic model of leadership with citizens’ participation. The tradition of the Kings is indigenous to Burma. In the new jungle capital, Nayapyidaw (City of Kings), it is not the statue of Aung San or U Nu that tower over the city, but those of the three kings who sought to keep Burma together through their genocidal rule. 

The Burman model of ruling by force while still claiming to be good Buddhists began in the time of the Pagan King, Anwardhta (1044 -77). Anwardhta was a usurper who deposed and banished his elder brother, and then took over power in mainland Burma and began occupying the territories in the South, North and East. Anwardhta also made Burma a Buddhist Theraveda kingdom. The King founded Buddhism as the state religion and appointed himself defender of the faith. He also proclaimed himself ruler of the newly-annexed territories, two-thirds of which today are inhabited by minorities. He made Buddhism a political ideology. This model of brutal oppression of minorities was so diligently practiced by Burmese rulers that, referring to the tradition of another Burmese king of the late 18 century and its effect on 19th century politics, Harvey says “The reasoning on which Bodawpaya acted was not peculiar to himself. It was the regular policy of most Burmese kings...It was not unlike the policy of European countries in former times, but they outgrew it.”(1) The traditional belief among ethnic Burmans - that they are the citizens of Burma and the minorities are only the strangers in their land - is a direct result of the model established by the Burmese kings. This type of chauvinistic mentality forms the basis of xenophobia in Burma, and persists even among some representatives of the so-called modern democratic leadership movement. Meanwhile, the suffering of the minorities continues. 

Despite strong commitment to the traditional kings’model, there was one point in its history that Burma experienced a marked shift toward the model of democracy. Burma’s British colonial history was brief –
from 1824-1948— and during this time, Burma did not manage to evolve a system comparable to that in western democracies. Burma’s move toward democracy received its greatest setback when Aung San, the leader of the liberation movement, who wanted to terminate the traditional Burman understanding of minority peoples as subject peoples, was assassinated along with his entire team, by ultranationalists. This occurred only six months before the country’s independence. Thus, without Aung San, Burma missed its first great opportunity to become a modern nation. 

Chris Lawa comments: “Arakan is no less than a microcosm of Burma with its ethnic conflicts and religious antagonisms, and is by far the most tense and explosive region of the country.” (2) The Western media concentrates mostly on Burma’s eastern border ­with Thailand based on information gained from NGOs. This book focuses on the Western frontier where human rights violations based on racial discrimination are rife. What is even more serious is that there have been systematic efforts to exterminate Burmese-born Rohingya citizens. Based on the military’s interpretation of history, Rohingyas are not Burmese citizens because they are not considered indigenous people of modern Burma, where an ethnic group is called "taingyintha" which translates as "native of a country." As a result, Rohingyas are denied their birthright. The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states: "Every child has the right to acquire a nationality."(3) In its attempts to scare away the Rohingyas, the military conducts intimidating night raids against the villagers, ostensibly to verify their citizenship. Marriages have been banned, forced labour has been imposed, and destruction of villages and rape has been used as a weapon of war against minorities, particularly the Rohingyas. These are some of the medieval practices that the military has utilized without any remorse. 

Although the rulers of Burma are mostly responsible for the genocide, their numerous collaborators are equally answerable for their crimes. The Convention on Genocide spells this out unequivocally in Article IV: “Persons committing genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in Article III shall be punished, whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals.”(4) And in the post-Nuremberg world, genocide is no longer the internal business of individual national governments, but of the entire international community. 

The defiant junta attempts to excuse itself by claiming that Rohingyas entered Burma after 1824, the year the British occupied Arakan. According to this interpretation, only the ancestors of people who settled prior to 1823 are the indigenous people of Burma and those who arrived later are not citizens. To the military rulers, it is up to the present so-called noncitizens such as the Rohingyas to prove the residence status of their ancestors. This is unfortunate for the Rohingyas, since all their ancestors born before 1824 are long dead. The other criterion to justify citizenship, that they should speak good Burmese, is also not helpful to Rohingyas since most inhabit the border regions where Burmese is rarely spoken. This situation is not peculiar to Rohingyas, Burma is a vast country of peasants and fisherman of multi ethnic and racial backgrounds. Like the Rohingyas, not all of its people situated in fringe areas speak Burmese. To qualify for citizenship, one also needs to be educated. Rohingyas, however, are mostly peasants, and even worse, no schooling is now allowed for Rohingyas. They are poor and mostly uneducated; which alone disqualifies them from Burmese citizenship. Another criterion for gaining citizenship is to be of good character and of sound mind. It is scarcely surprising that underprivileged Rohingya, who are largely stateless and unemployed, will have difficulty satisfying this criterion in the eyes of the Burmese elite. To remove the traces of Rohingya existence in Arakan, Burma’s Arakan state has even been renamed the Rakine state. All these gradual tightening measures finally led to the new 1982 Constitutional Act that declared Rohingyas to be stateless people.

Rohingyas have distinct racial features that set them apart from Burmese and Rakhines, and discrimination against them is simply racist. The military’s policy in dealing with Rohingyas is termed by scholars and human rights groups as “genocide through intimidation.” (5) The military government’s policy has been assimilation, also known as “Burmanization” for minorities that are racially and religiously similar to the Burmans, and extermination for groups like the Rohingyas. As a result of the intimidation policy, close to a million Rohingyas are stateless today. (6)

The Rohingya/Rakhine/Burman Triangle 

What is more difficult for the Rohingyas is that they are caught in a triangle between the Burmese military and the Rakhine population of Arakan. The Rakhine population in general sees Rohingyas as a threat to their exclusive claim to Arakan, and therefore supports the military’s extermination policy. Likewise, since 1962, the Burmese military has oppressed the Rohingyas in an attempt to gain the support of the local Rakhine population. Surprisingly, in this scenario, self-styled pro-democracy writers such as Aye Chan, Aye Kyaw or the monk Ashin Nayaka, spread xenophobia at home in Arakan but preach democracy abroad. In spite of such flagrant contradictions, they continue to be counted among the heroes of Burma’s high-flying democracy movement. Not surprisingly, on the question of the military’s grave human rights violations against stateless Rohingya people, the democracy movement leaders have no clear plan. For the military, the human rights issue is a purely domestic question. However, the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews during World War II has made this interpretation of sovereignty untenable. As a result of the prosecution of Nazi leaders as war criminals, the newly defined legal category of “crimes against humanity,” and the creation of the United Nations, human rights practices within states came to be defined as “legitimate sources of international concern.” ((7) 

Rohingya Genocide Rohingyas who don’t want to leave Burma are being used as forced labor to build highways or to carry loads for the military. Under the circumstances, Rohingyas leave Arakan for other countries in the region. Historically speaking, what triggered the Rohingyas' statelessness is not that Rohingyas are foreigners in Burma. In fact, Rohingyas have a history in Burma dating back to the 8th century. Their status was even recognized by Burma’s democratically elected U Nu government in 1954. (8) 

Arakan, situated between South Asia and South East Asia, is both an extension of Burma and of Bengal and the Rakhines and the Rohingyas are the expressions of this historic reality. But in the Burman-Rakhine general definition, Rohingyas are categorized as noncitizens, even “influx Viruses” according to a phrase coined by Rakhine intellectuals. So instead of recognizing the historic fact of chronic Burmese invasion and occupation of Arakan, resulting in the rise of the many non-Bengali settlements in Chittagong, Rohingyas are now being labelled by Rakhine intelligentia as foreigners who deserve to be exterminated. 

Leafing through the pages of the infamous xenophobic book: Influx Viruses written by Arakani intellectuals, one of Voltaire’s sayings naturally comes to mind: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” These writings provide the Arakani hoodlums with pseudo-intellectual justification for their genocidal acts in Arakan. The Military leaders are even more convinced by these writings. In reply to a question about the Rohingyas’ citizenship in Burma, the Burmese Ambassador to Bangladesh, Thane Myint, lately said, chuckling: “Many people are claiming they lived in Rakhine [Arakan] state a long, long time ago. Some of them are, or have been, living in Myanmar [Burma]. Some of them may not be [from Burma].”(9) What is frustrating to human rights groups is that to avoid controversy neither the military nor the democracy movement leaders will say no outright to the Rohingya’s claims of Burmese citizenship in one-on-one encounters. But they will do nothing about it. Indeed, this is a typical manifestation of Burmese “democracy,” which in reality is a blatant case of xenophobia in action. 
Buddha visited Burma

Burmese people are so devoted to Buddhism as a national identity that most people believe that Buddha actually visited Burma; an Arakanese would say he only got as far as Arakan. In the present hopeless situation, if Buddha actually visited Burma, he would doubtless have a great impact and might succeed in bringing about some radical changes. Unfortunately, Buddha never visited Burma, not even Arakan. Burmese Buddhists, unfortunately, have not yet learned to be compassionate toward minorities. In this book we have seen Buddhist monks led by the military government vandalizing Mosques in Mandalay. Here, Christian and Chinese minorities occasionally become targets of ultra-nationalist forces, some of which were led by the monks themselves. Due to the nationalist strain in Burmese Buddhism, Burma’s Buddhist monks have a history of involvement in ethnic violence. (10) Buddha would be mortified at such behaviour. 

It seems Buddhism in Burma is inextricably interwoven with the political ideology of domination by the Burman majority. Thus, it is evident that both the military and the democracy movement leaders use religion to their own advantage. This is also true because unlike classical Tibetan Buddhism, Burma’s Theraveda Buddhism has a history of involvement in secular affairs. It is interesting to note that Burmese nationalism first began with the formation of the Young Men’s Buddhist Association. 

Under the present circumstances in Burma, both the democratic leadership and the military remain hugely uncommitted to minority rights. What is needed by the democracy movement leaders is to be open to sincere debate, defending human rights, and uniting the many ethnic minorities. It seems that the leadership needed to bring about democratic change in Burma is practically nonexistent. There are several reasons why this is so; one is Aung San Suu Ki is in jail and is unable to lead the nation. In addition, the peaceful demonstrations staged by Buddhists have tended to achieve no practical results. All that has happened in this very confused “Burmese way to democracy,” or what the Burmese military calls its “way to disciplined democracy. 

Ideally, Buddhism should help to promote human rights and the dignity of human beings. Indeed, according to Buddhism, “each human being has unique value, which should be protected and cultivated.”This emphasis on the uniqueness and intrinsic importance of individuals is, in turn, directly compatible with, and conducive to, a universalistic concept of human rights that seeks to guarantee the security and integrity of every human being.”(11) It appears that long years of military rule created authoritarian institutions and a deeply ingrained tradition of intolerance toward minorities. In such a context, the leaders of the opposition democratic movement could not develop an effective, parallel model to challenge the military. Demonstrating the recent growing confidence of the army, a poem, entitled “Armed Forces Day resolve” states “With secure Road Map, March we in unity” and “Skyful of lies and slanders, Low-breds overseas, And foreign-relied traitors.” (12) 


In contemporary Burma, people tend to look for enemies. They normally pick on Muslims as easy targets and public enemy number one. But in our search for the greatest public menace in Burma, we found that the Swindlers were the most dangerous enemy of the Burmese people. These are the civilian collaborators of the military and are the hidden enemy of the democracy movement. What is the nature of this collaboration? The swindler fights only with the mask of the devil. He sees democracy as only applicable to his own group and provides justifications for the military to commit genocide. What is needed in Burma is not so much a democracy movement as human rights education because a full understanding of human rights entails both rights and obligations. While Burman-Rakhines are entitled to have human rights, they should also respect the human rights of others. 

Finally, what are the conditions that keep the military in power in Burma? This study shows that it is the military leaders’ deep commitment to keeping “true Burma” together by force and driving “extrinsic” elements out. The democracy movement leaders” model of Burman democracy, which should be a model of multi-culturalism, is less committed to protecting minority rights than the military is to eradicating them. Thus, before the democracy movement can truly progress in Burma, these are the central contradictions that need to be understood and resolved. 

Suffice it to say, the history of Burma is the history of its ethnic groups’ struggle against the Burman majority’s attempt to keep them a subject people. From our vantage point, Burma's missing dots are not to be found in the differences between the military regime and the democracy movement, but in the deeply rooted question of ethnic intolerance that lies at the heart of self-identity of all Burmese, authoritarian and “democratic” alike. When the radically ethnic nature of this dilemma is properly brought to light, only then will we be able to connect the dots and discern the emerging face of genocide that has underlain Burmese internal policy for so long. 
Democracy is about citizenship and the military’s exclusionist model of defining the indigenousness of ethnic groups negates the notion of citizenship. Burma was born with deep structural problems. Ever since its independence, the military has continued to apply its medieval method of nation-building by the eradication of its ethnic members and their heritage.

The democracy movement leadership in provinces like Arakan and elsewhere is very weak. Similar manifestations of xenophobia aimed at exterminating the Christian minorities persist in Kachine and Karanni states. In Arakan state, no measures have yet been taken even to condemn the racist anti-Rohingya stances of so-called democracy movement leaders such as Ashin Nayaka, Aye Kyaw and their organization, the ANC. In consequence, the genocide continues. 

As the years slip by, Burma faces a growing demand for change. The findings of the present research suggest that to fight a winning war, the democracy movement as a whole should undergo dramatic internal changes in outlook. In a country with a large ethnic population such as Burma, nationalism ought to seek a compromise with pluralism. It should not look for enemies. What is needed is to replace some of the spurious leaders who in the name of spirituality preach xenophobia, ethnocentrism and ultranationalism. 

Contrary to the above, true revolutionaries are not shy people. They know the difference between democracy-lovers and the reactionaries. As a matter of duty and also to discourage the reactionaries and their pretensions, true democrats should bring these people to public attention. Thus, what Burmese revolutionaries need is to look for not the enemies in ethnic groups but friends. In fact, unlike the military’s xenophobic approach of finding friends only in the Burman and Rakhine ethnic groups, in order to live in the present, true democrats should find friends in all the people of Burma otherwise Burma continues to live in the past. 



(1) Harvey, G.E. Harvey, History of Burma: From the Earliest Times to 10 March 1824 The Beginning of the English Conquest, (London: Frank Cass and Co. Ltd), 1967, 153)" 

(2) Chris Lewa, Conflict, discrimination and humanitarian challenges in Northern Arakan State” Forum Asia, Bangkok, livered at the EU – Burma Day 2003 Conference, Brussels, 8 October 2003

(3) The international covonant of civil and political rights (ICCPR) Article 24 (A) 

(4) Ibid 

(6) The figure was disclosed to me by Chris Lewa in Geneva. Lewa works closely with the Rohingyas in Chittagong and in the Arakan province, estimates that about 200,000 undocumented Rohingya refugees now live in Bangladesh and another 500,000 Rohingyas now live in all over the world. 

(6) Chris Lewa, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)Bangkok, Thailand, pyright @ 2003, rum Asia,

(7) Prime Minister of Burma, U Nu and his democractic government recognized the Rohingyas as an indigenous ethnic community of Burma. On 25th Sept. 1954 at 8:00 p. m., the Prime minister, in his radio speech to the nation declared Rohingya as an indigenous ethnic community of Burma.

(8) James Smith, quoted in “What is Genocide?”

(9) Clive Parker, “The Rohingya Riddle, June, 2006.

(10)Photos of Pegu riot shows monks even entered inside Mosques to carry out destruction. 

(11), Reeta Chowdhari Tremblay, James Kelly, Michael Lipson and Jean F. Mayer (2008) Human Rights: Origins, Concepts, and Critiques. Toronto; Thomson-Nelson Publishers, P.11, 93

(12) Junta reaffirms noble history of military
http://www.mizzimab content/view/ 838/1/

  1. I just found your web site for the first time and I think it is marvelous — an extremely valuable, well written and well presented. I learned a lot. I just added you to my favorites and will be back.

Write A Comment

Rohingya Exodus