As a Burmese American observing Myanmar (also known as Burma) from afar throughout decades of military rule, I worried that conditions in my country of birth would deteriorate, and that widespread violence would erupt before the long isolationist country democratized. But when Myanmar began its peaceful transition to democracy a few years ago, I hoped it had dodged the bullet, miraculously navigating that passage without significant further turmoil. As events this year have proven, my hope was misplaced.
My critical miscalculation was minimizing the sectarian nature of the Burmese military’s longstanding oppression, and ongoing persecution of ethnic and religious minorities – including but not limited to the Rohingya – on account of their identity. Throughout decades of military rule, the military was the biggest threat and a common enemy against which many Burmese in Myanmar as well as abroad rallied. The military mercilessly targeted anyone who dared disagree with or challenge it, regardless of their ethnic and religious identity. Insidiously, this masked the identity-based persecution against minorities perpetrated by the military throughout its rule.
Myanmar is a diverse place where individuals from a wide range of ethnic and religious backgrounds coexisted for centuries. The British, who colonized the country for the better part of the 19th century until independence in 1948, intentionally utilized a “divide and rule” strategy of fostering ethnic divisions to weaken opposition and consolidate control. The British also encouraged immigration from the Indian subcontinent to assist with administering the colonial state and to work in commerce, minimizing the political and economic leverage of the majority Bamar population. Meanwhile, British missionaries deliberately targeted ethnic minorities for conversion to Christianity, weakening the institutional power of Buddhism in the colony.
The British profoundly disempowered the Bamar – politically, economically, religiously, and culturally. These wounds remain raw today, and perhaps explain why the military’s strident nationalism resonates with so much of the country’s Buddhist and Bamar population. Much of what Burmese family and friends have told me on this topic demonstrate this injury, and the acute fear of again losing Myanmar to outsiders – be it to Rohingya “invaders” or to our erstwhile colonial British overlords and other western powers yet again meddling in Myanmar’s internal affairs. Anxiety about the dilution of Myanmar’s Buddhist identity is another motivating factor, feeding into Islamaphobic sentiment and an irrational concern that the country will be “overrun” by Muslims like the Rohingya.
Throughout its reign, the Burmese military has promoted Buddhist nationalism focusing on membership in ethnic groups deemed present in the country before colonialism – referred to as the taing yin thar. The intention, ostensibly, was to redress the wrongs of colonialism, and return Myanmar to its pre-colonial status. But this nationalism also conveniently supplied justification to squash rebellions from minorities such as the Karen, Kachin, Chin and Kayah – many of whom are not Buddhist – and to persecute them on account of their ethnicity. The Rohingya, by contrast, were assigned a different role in the military’s narrative. While other ethnic groups faced conquest and forced inclusion in the Burmese state as taing yin thar, the Rohingya were cast out of the Burmese identity altogether. The military conflated the Rohingya with other South Asians who migrated to Myanmar during the colonial era. As a result, the Rohingya – who have been present in Rakhine state for centuries – were ultimately excluded from the taing yin thar, and deemed perpetual foreigners in their own country.
As I followed the rise of the extremist Buddhist movement Ma Ba Tha while Rohingya abuse escalated, I compartmentalized their hardline views as those of a noisy fringe movement which didn’t enjoy widespread traction (as American progressives did with white nationalists until last year’s election of Donald Trump as president). Only too late, it became undeniably clear how much Ma Ba Tha’s intolerance resonated not just with a small set of extremists, but with a large swath of Myanmar’s Buddhist population. Many in Myanmar may have united against the military only a decade ago, but the sectarian tensions set in motion by the British and exploited by the military have sadly come to roost. It may be that a silent majority of the country is more sympathetic to the Rohingya than it appears from the outside, as civil society activists contend. I certainly hope this is true. Even so, it’s still undeniable that the bigotry fostered by Buddhist extremists has become mainstream in Myanmar.
Achieving clarity about identity group oppression in Myanmar was excruciating, and anyone in the Burmese diaspora watching this story unfold should be horrified – regardless of their own ethnic and religious background. Like the Rohingya, we are minorities in the countries where we reside. As immigrants and children of immigrants, we understand what it’s like to be seen as foreign when we’re right at home. We’ve been subjected to racial bias and discrimination, like when a laundromat in Fort Wayne, Indiana – home of the largest per capita Burmese community in the United States – posted a “No Burmese” sign. Burmese people in the west are keenly aware of the current xenophobic backlash sweeping the west, and of our vulnerability in this environment. Upon hearing about a potential immigration ban in the United States, my 7 year old – who was born in the United States and has never been to Myanmar – asked if we’d have to “go back to Burma.” While any bias we encounter pales in comparison to the shocking brutality the Rohingya have experienced at the hands of the Burmese military, we still live our daily lives as minorities during a surge of nativism. In our countries of adoption, we are more like the Rohingya than not, even as our own torment them back in Myanmar.
Khin Mai Aung has written about civil rights issues in publications such as the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon in addition to the Huffington Post, and was formerly a lawyer at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. The views contained in this article are solely her own.