A History of Minority Persecution in Myanmar

Author: Dan Crowley

Sub-editor: Greta Kantor

CW: Rape, violence, disturbing images

Myanmar is a majority Burmese-Buddhist nation, with a population of ethnically Muslim Rohingyas in its northern Rakhine province. The 1970s saw the onset of concerted persecution against the Rohingyas by president Ne Win, most notably through ‘Operation Dragon King’ (ODK) in 1978 which sought to expel Rohingyas from Rakhine. This forced removal stemmed from deep-seated historical divisions in Myanmar that were inflamed by British colonization, the Japanese occupation, and the Burmese independence movement. As the objects of this persecution, the Rohingya people of Myanmar and the diaspora have and continue to experience immense physical and emotional trauma, 

Historical Divisions and Collective Memory

There exists a deep-rooted history of ethnic tensions in Myanmar. Discriminatory citizenship laws were enforced against the Rohingya people as a result of beliefs that their inhabitance of Rakhine did not pre-date British colonialism. Case in point was President Ne Win’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which extended citizenship only to those whose ancestors had lived in Myanmar in the ‘period anterior to… 1823 A.D.’ This law was intended to redress historicalwrongs, rather than contemporary wrongs. As Ne Win explained in a speech in October 1982:

‘If this law must be explained, what has happened in the past must necessarily be recalled… those foreigners who had settled in Burma at the time of independence have become a problem. We made these… laws to solve this problem.’ 

The historical belief that non-Burmese minorities were ‘immigrants’ was the central motivating factor behind the law, as evidenced by Win’s frequent historical references to the ‘remote past… in the aftermath of the first Anglo-Burmese war’, ‘the period between 1824 and the time we regained independence’, and the ‘time of independence’ itself, in 1948. 

While Ne Win was a pivotal figure in the persecution of Rohingyas, field research conducted by historians Anthony Ware and Costas Laoutides shows that Win’s historical beliefs were shared by many of his fellow Burmans. Costas and Laoutides observed from interviews with ‘Rakhine and Burman key informants’ that many ‘insist on articulating their historical narrative up front as the basis of their position.’ Like Ne Win’s, these narratives centered on the idea of Muslim ‘infiltration’ during colonialism, interrupting the pre-colonial ethnic ‘unity’ of Myanmar. It seems that Ne Win’s historical arguments were not mere ideological inventions, crafted to justify his law, but were reflective of widespread sentiment in Myanmar.  

Given that Rohingya settlement in Rakhine pre-dated British occupation, these historical narratives are inaccurate.. As noted by Burmese historian Azeem Ibrahim, Myanmar’s national borders are a modern innovation, and Rakhine, populated by non-Burman minorities since the pre-historic period, has only been considered part of Myanmar for short periods of history. Despite being inaccurate, these narratives were how the past was preserved in the Burmese collective memory. As noted by Ware and Laoutides, ‘collective memory’ is a shared view of the past that, although ‘constructed’ and ‘selective’, determines how a group uses history to inform contemporary actions and policies. Accordingly, it was not necessarily what happened in the past, but what was remembered about the past that brought about the persecution of Rohingya people.

Inflamed questions of identity 

Questions of citizenship and national identity were inflamed by British colonization, the Japanese occupation, and post-war Independence. As noted by imperial historian Linda Colley, contact between colonists and colonized peoples frequently had the effect of strengthening national identity and the concept of ‘the Other’, those who existed outside that national identity. This phenomenon can be observed in Myanmar. In a speech in 1945, Burmese independence campaigner Aung San charted the development of nationalism in Burma under British and Japanese occupation. Aung San says that early uprisings against colonialism were diffuse and ‘spontaneous… peasants’ revolts’, with no unifying ideology or nationalized characteristic. But as time went on, a more ‘conscious nationalist movement’ emerged, through which distinctions between Burmese and ‘the Other’ grew sharper: the Burmese economy was agricultural while the British economy was industrial; education was universally ‘imparted… by Buddhist monks’;economic divisions were not ‘so sharply differentiated as in other countries’; and, Burmese society was ‘idyllic’, in contrast to the ‘repressive and callous’ ways of colonizers. 

As Myanmar strove for independence in the years after World War II, political leaders fought to create a Burmese nation uncontaminated by ‘the Other’. Religion was a key flashpoint in this fight. General Aung San passionately argued at the 1946 Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League that the Buddhist religion ‘professed by the greatest bulk of our people’ should be at the center of an independent Myanmar. Aung San was not as hostile to religious minorities as future presidents like Ne Win, assuring the Anglo-Burman Council in 1946 that he would not ‘confine the definition of a nationality to the narrow bounds of race or religion.’ But his rhetoric did create clear distinctions between the Buddhist majority, and ‘foreign’ minorities within Myanmar. For instance, enfranchisement of non-Buddhist Burmese was said to be strictly conditional; ‘you have to prove that you want to live and to be with the people of this country, not by words but by deeds.’ Aung San also offered a veiled warning to religious non-conformists, foreshadowing the persecution of Rohingya Muslims: ‘(Buddhism) has several indications of its becoming possibly the greatest philosophy in the world, if we can help to remove the trash and travesties which antiquity must have doubtless imposed on this great religion.’ 

Aung San was not only a prominent political architect of Myanmar’s independence movement but, as noted by the Lowy Institute, one of the ‘most potent’ and enduring ‘symbols’ of independence itself. His speeches are therefore authoritative sources for understanding political dynamics in this period, and on this basis it can be argued that the independence movement had strong religio-nationalist tendencies, which laid the foundation for the persecution of non-conforming minorities in the 1970s. Notably, Buddhism became a central tenet of the governments of U Nu and Ne Win, the first two presidents of independent Myanmar who implemented what Burmese political scientists Maureen Aung-Thwin, Thant Myint-U and Thant Mynt-U call ‘Buddhist socialism’. Aung San’s conception of Burmese national identity, forged against the identity of non-Burmese ‘Others’ during struggles for independence, thus had an enduring power in Myanmar, inflaming the deep-seated historical divisions held within the Burmese collective memory

Impact on Rohingya lives: physical trauma 

Government persecution of minorities has brought about significant physical trauma for the Rohingya people. Rohingya refugee Habiburahman published a memoir recalling the violence he suffered and witnessed as a child in Rakhine, including ‘rapes’, ‘massacres’, stoning, vandalization, and abduction. Habiburahman makes it clear that this violence was directly caused by the ‘repression and terror’ of Ne Win’s government, citing ODK as the originating evil, as emphasized by a mournful song taught to him by his grandmother: ‘The Dragon King will carry you off. Poor people, poor Rohingya…’ Violence was primarily inflicted by the military, but also by the police, as well as civilian Rakhine and Bamar Burmans. As Habiburahman says, it was impossible for a Rohingya in Rakhine to avoid harm: ‘the choice of target is completely arbitrary. Violence reigns.’   

Violence also arose withinRohingya families, as well as from outside of them. A photo taken by Bangladeshi photographer Saiful Huq Omi documents a confronting instance of domestic violence committed against Rohingya woman Tayeba Begum, who was stabbed seven times by her husband. As shown in Figure 1, Begum lies on her deathbed, extending her lacerated hand towards the camera:

Figure 1: Untitled, Saiful Huq Omi.

Habiburahman also recalled being assaulted by his father as a child: ‘(father) pushes me against the bamboo wall. He gives me two lashes on the back with a stick. He grits his teeth in an attempt to stifle his cries of rage…’ Notably, Habiburahman linked this treatment to anti-Rohingya persecution, saying that his father used to discipline him for ‘putting his life in danger’ by venturing into the military ‘black zone’ and publicly associating with non-Rohingya children. Sociologist Amy Friedman, from the Refugee Women in Development organization, has argued that men from displaced and persecuted communities have ‘heightened male vulnerability’ as a result of suffering ‘torture, violence, or rape’, leading to greater instances of domestic violence within these communities. It can thus be argued that violence perpetrated against Rohingya peoples has, through this mechanism identified by Friedman, created flow-on cycles of violence within Rohingya communities. 

Habiburahman seems to exercise significant creative liberty in his account, describing events from his early childhood in a vivid, novelistic first-person present tense. However, the events and experiences he relays are corroborated by a fact-finding report published by the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, which, based on extensive interviews with Rohingya people, concluded that ‘gross human rights violations and abuses’ of a ‘horrifying nature and ubiquity’ had been perpetrated by the military against Rohingyas. One anonymous Rohingya made a strikingly similar observation to Habiburahman about the arbitrariness of anti-Rohingya violence: ‘there were no rebels in my village. But the army just came and attacked the people.’ Sources like Habiburahman’s memoir can thus be considered reliable as they express well-attested facts, albeit in a stylized way. 

Figure 2: Untitled, Saiful Huq Omi.

Impact on Rohingya lives: displacement and disassociation  

Government persecution has also resulted in the displacement of Rohingya people, both through emigration and forced expulsions. However, for some Rohingyas, this displacement has been liberating.  As Habiburahman described, fleeing his native Rakhine felt simultaneously dangerous and uplifting: “I am going on a perilous journey to escape this bottomless quagmire of life as a Rohingya… if I succeed, a world of possibilities is waiting to be discovered outside Arakan.” 

More often, however, these journeys compounded trauma. Saiful Huq Omi’s photographs document the squalor and suffering of life in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh and Malaysia. Figure 2 shows the confronting image of Ali Malia, 24 hours before his death from ‘an “unknown” disease’ that Bangladeshi doctors were unable to treat. News articles paint an equally bleak picture of life in refugee camps including human trafficking, disease outbreaks, deportation, and refoulment. 

Displacement has also brought about significant emotional trauma, through the loss of family, land, and ethnic and religious identity. Persecution of Rohingyas can be understood both as a physical genocide, committed through violence, and a ‘cultural genocide’, committed through the suppression and eradication of Rohingya culture. Cultural genocide has had an enduring effect on the lives of Rohingya people, as evidenced by Habiburahman’s choice of title for his memoir ‘First, They Erased Our Name’, referencing the fact that the word ‘Rohingya’ was ‘forbidden’ in Rakhine. The last lines of Habiburahman’s memoir were dedicated to feelings of restlessness and incompleteness that came from the loss of his kindred ties:

‘my brother, sisters, and I are dispersed over several continents, stateless and rootless… today, our people are scattered. Rohingya are living in exile around the globe, but our hearts are more than ever in Arakan.’ 

As illustrated in a poem by Yasmin Ullah, a Rohingya refugee resettled in Canada, the draw of home was strong even for those who had lived outside of Rakhine for the majority of their life: 

            I keep missing a place I barely know. 

Home – untouched

families I can never return to, 

how I long 

            for their 


The physical and emotional trauma inflicted against the Rohingya people and the diaspora was profound: not only were people displaced from their country and family, but also from their sense of self and belonging. 


The government began persecution of the Rohingyas in the 1970s as a result of dominant historical narratives about foreign “infiltration” during colonialism. These narratives were inflamed by the Burmese independence movement, which sought to create a culturally and religiously unified nation. Government persecution has led to complex forms of trauma for Rohingyas, both physical and emotional, originating from outside and within their communities, and affecting Rohingyas outside and within Myanmar.

Image credit

Saiful Huq Omi, Untitled, unknown date (around 2012), photo of Abul Kalam, courtesy of Saiful Huq Omi.


Primary Sources

Figure 1. Saiful Huq Omi, Untitled, unkown date (around 2012). Photo of Tayeba Begum, available at: https://saifulhuqomi.wordpress.com/.

Figure 2. Saiful Huq Omi, Untitled, unkown date (around 2012). Photo of Ali Mia, available at: https://saifulhuqomi.wordpress.com/.

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