“Kyaw Kyaw, you cannot only care for human rights; we must also care for our people.” So says an unnamed young Burmese man in the film My Buddha Is Punk, a documentary about the courageous punk band Rebel Riot, as members of the band and others discuss politics during a meeting for their community in a grungy concrete room in Yangon. Rebel Riot—Kyaw Kyaw is the lead singer—has been engaging in anti-fascist and interfaith activism as well as charitable work in Myanmar for several years.
Our people, says the young man sitting across from him, echoing the rhetoric of his elders. In that short phrase lies the heart of the catastrophic violence that continues to plague Myanmar. In a country that contains over 135 different state-recognized ethnicities, the young man’s reference to a single one, the Bamar (“Burman”) majority, as “our people”—the classic “us” and not “them”—points to the deep dysfunction of cultural imagination displayed by the country’s majority.
“What are you going to do,” the young man continues, pressing Kyaw Kyaw, “if the Muslims occupy our place and our Buddhist culture disappears?”
He is speaking to a very real fear that pervades Burmese society today: that the Buddhist Bamar majority will be disempowered by an international Muslim conspiracy whose vanguard is the Rohingya. The fact that Myanmar is 68 percent Bamar and 90 percent Buddhist, with only 6 percent of the country Muslim (of which only a fraction are Rohingya), has not quieted this paranoia. It has been deliberately stoked by decades of propaganda from the Tatmadaw, the Bamar-dominated military that has controlled the country since 1962, either directly or behind the guise of civilian leadership.
Although international attention has focused on the plight of the Rohingya since military-led violence has driven almost 800,000 since 2017 to flee the country to neighboring Bangladesh, the persecution of the Rohingya is only the most egregious symptom of the violent interethnic conflict that afflicts Burma, a violence fueled by the Bamar supremacism of the ruling government and the oppression it directs at the Shan, Kachin, Karen, Mon, and other historic peoples of Myanmar.
Related: Inside the Rohingya Refugee Camps
The situation of the Rohingya still in Myanmar, although perhaps not as perilous as those in the poverty stricken refugee camps of Bangladesh, is also dire. According to numbers from Human Rights Watch and the Arakan Project, in the estimated 578 intact villages in Myanmar (288 were destroyed by the Tatmadaw) an approximate 484,00 Rohingya remain, reportedly facing ongoing government imposed restrictions on their civil rights and access to medicine, education, and food. On June 5 the UN and Myanmar signed a deal to establish a framework for repatriating Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh, but most human rights organizations working on the crisis remain pessimistic about the ability to guarantee the Rohingya rights and security in Myanmar, and the deal has been criticized by advocate organizations around the world.
Some in Myanmar say interethnic division has gotten worse since Aung San Suu Kyi’s ascent to power with the election of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in November, 2015, during the country’s first truly free election. Ethnic groups throughout the country voted for Suu Kyi in hopes that she would bring change, but military raids on the Kachin and Shan have actually increased since then. A decision of the new government to erect statues of the assassinated Burmese hero Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father, beginning early in 2017 in ethnic areas was met with rage from the Mon, Kachin, and other groups. Although the plan may have been intended to symbolize both Aung San’s reputation for federalism and the heritage and inspiration represented by his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, the gesture was at best insensible, for the celebration of a Bamar hero in ethnic territories was inevitably seen as just more Bamar-centrism.
Related: Who Is the Real Aung San Suu Kyi?
“The Rohingya have experienced the very worst and most vicious treatment of all the minorities,” Penny Green, a director of the International State Crime Initiative research center in London, explained in a phone interview. “This is because they are the easiest target, they are in an isolated place, and there is a strong historic resentment toward them in Myanmar. Yet what is really being attacked is difference; it is a fascist idea. All of the ethnic groups in Myanmar represent challenges to the Bamar Buddhist elite’s control over state identity. There are strong parallels to the way Iraq has treated the Kurds or Israel has treated the Palestinians.”
The world abounds currently in examples of ethnic persecution, from severe examples like the ongoing oppression of the Tibetans in China or the Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories, to less brutal but no less morally egregious examples like the Roma in Europe and the persecution of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Indeed, understanding the roots of—and possible solutions for—chauvinist and interethnic violence and injustice has become a pressing international task in the 21st century.
The roots of ethnic conflict in Myanmar are multipronged, based in the historical, cultural, and even topographical realities of the country. Before the creation of the Union of Burma in 1948, the region was home to many peoples. Spread out over a dazzling green country of mostly jungle, a striking array of diverse cultures lived separated from each other by the region’s many mountains and valleys.
“Burma was not a country when the British colonized it,” said senior Burmese dissident U Kyaw Win, a longtime activist for democracy and interethnic harmony who was formerly close to Aung San Suu Kyi. He spoke by phone from his home in exile, in Colorado. “It was not a modern nation state; it was several little kingdoms. A man might rule 20 households, and he’s the most powerful guy, so he’s the king. It was a country coming out of the tribal age.”
When Indian Buddhism came to the region now known as Myanmar in the 3rd century CE, carried by Indian monks and merchants, the area was dominated by the Mon in the south and the Pyu in the north, both of whom had migrated from China at different points. Five hundred years after Indian Buddhism arrived, the Pyu were dominated by Bamar-speaking peoples who arrived from southern China; the majority in Myanmar today are descended from them. The Arakan Kingdom in the West was controlled by the progenitors of today’s Rakhine. In the 14th century, the Shan, also from southern China, settled in the northeast, and the Muslims who would eventually call themselves “Rohingya” began arriving in the 15th century. The Bamar, Mon, and Rakhine largely followed Theravada Buddhism, although tantric, Hindu, animist, and Muslim religious practices also flourished. The foundations of the modern state of Myanmar were laid by the Konbaung dynasty (1752–1885), whose Bamar rulers seized power from the Mon, the Shan, and other groups to build their empire. Their expansionist dreams were shattered when the British invaded, making Burma a province of India in 1886 and instigating divisive policies that still reverberate today.
The British characteristically played ethnic groups against each other, stoking intertribal tensions and creating a complex legacy of resentment along the way. Resistance to British rule raged in the northern territories until 1890, when the British destroyed entire villages in a scorched earth policy aimed at stopping guerrilla attacks. The elder Aung San, then a student, became a key member of a group known as the thakins, or “masters,” a term that had been used to previously address the British, and eventually rose to become the group’s leader. The thakins threw off British rule partially by allying with the Japanese, who promised military training and support for an uprising. When the Japanese subsequently invaded Burma in 1942, their colonial ambitions became clear, leading to disillusionment among their Burmese partners. Aung San changed sides and allied with the British against the Japanese, successfully driving them out by 1945. The country left behind by Britain and Japan’s colonial chess games was devastated by warfare, torn by ethnic and political divisions, and paranoid about foreign domination.
The subsequently formed Union of Burma, headed by the first prime minister, U Nu, after Aung San was assassinated by a rival in 1947, was designed to be a federation of peoples led by the Bamar. The union was challenged from the beginning by sectarian political movements and uneasy ethnic groups anxious about the Bamar leadership. The Burmese Constitution guaranteed to the ethnic minority states the right to secede after a period of 10 years, but U Nu did not make good on this promise. This led to rebellions, violent skirmishes and attacks on various sides, and the destabilization of the union, which was already fragile due to the personal and political rivalries within.
On March 2, 1962, Ne Win staged a coup d’état and arrested U Nu and several others. This “caretaker government” forced the minority states to bow to the Bamar. A number of protests followed the coup, and initially the government response was restrained. But on July 7, 100 students were killed when the military put down a peaceful protest at Rangoon University. The following day, they dynamited the Students’ Union Building, leveling it. Thus began the decades-long dictatorship of the military junta led by Ne Win and his successors, one dedicated to the enrichment of the military elite, their total control over Burmese society, and the disempowerment of all non-Bamar ethnicities.
“Successive Bamar dominant regimes in Myanmar have sought to homogenize the country’s population, increasingly excluding those communities living in the country’s peripheral areas who do not conform to the Bamar-Buddhist nationalist state-building project,” said Alicia de la Cour Venning, who works with the International State Crime Initiative on research projects about state-perpetrated human rights violations.
Venning spoke to Tricycle from Yangon, where she had traveled to study Bamar relations with the Kachin people. “Communities living in Myanmar’s border areas, which embody a variety of cultural, religious, and linguistic practices, have been persecuted for decades on the basis of their refusal to participate in their own identity destruction by accepting this process of ‘Bamarization,’” she said.
The Bamar supremacism of the ruling elite is fed by the mythology that the Bamar are the “true Burmans” and guardians of Burmese Buddhist culture, a narrative that the average Bamar accepts along with the belief that Bamar culture is being threatened on all sides by “foreign influences.” This narrative ignores the fact that all of the ethnicities in Myanmar come from elsewhere. As U Kyaw Win is fond of pointing out, Burmese culture is a pastiche of Indian, Chinese, and multifarious local ethnic influences.
“Before there were people on earth there was earth; before the people who now inhabit Burma, there was nothing but land!” says Win. “All of them came from somewhere else or descended from people who came from somewhere else. All of the people who claim to be the ‘true Burmese,’ well, they’re all correct for different times and different places.”
The historical record bears him out, telling a story of how the various peoples of modern Myanmar have arrived in the region during the last 1,500 years from other places. The current government attempts to alter the past with simplistic narratives that obscure its true complexity. The Rohingya, for example, were present by the thousands in the western Arakan Kingdom, now Rakhine state, since the 15th century, and more were later encouraged by the British to settle there in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But governments since the country’s independence have refuted these historical claims and refused to recognize the Rohingya as one of the country’s official ethnic groups. Instead, many in Myanmar today regard them as itinerant workers from Bangladesh who never went home. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate once lauded as the hope of Myanmar, refuses to call them “Rohingya” and has requested members of the UN to follow suit.
Other ethnicities in Myanmar face similar, if less extreme, campaigns of disempowerment and human rights violations from the ruling Bamar. The Shan people, who account for 9 percent of the country’s population, once had an autonomous region in Burma; the military responded to their resistance to Bamar domination with anti-insurgency campaigns that over decades have resulted in large numbers of internally displaced persons and the flight of refugees to Thailand and other nearby countries.
In 1996 the Tatmadaw forcibly relocated many of the Shan, targeting 1,400 villages in Shan State. Over 300,000 people were driven from their homes, and hundreds of villagers were tortured, killed, and raped in a pattern familiar to observers of what the Rohingya have recently suffered. As a result of this and other campaigns of disempowerment inflicted upon them, many Shan refugees have been living in dependence on humanitarian aid in temporary camps for decades.
The largely Christian Kachin, who live in the northernmost region of Myanmar, have been waging a civil war against the central government of the Bamar since the 1962 coup. Estimates of the numbers of internally displaced persons among the Kachin since a 17-year ceasefire between the government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) broke down in 2011 are as high as 150,000. More than 4,000 Kachin have recently been displaced by fighting, joining 15,000 more who have fled since the beginning of the year. Violence has escalated since January as the Tatmadaw, seeking both profit and the disempowerment of the KIA, are fighting for control over lucrative resources in the gold and mining region currently controlled by the rebel army.
Suu Kyi has claimed that she will pursue peace with Myanmar’s recognized ethnic groups, but the Tatmadaw by constitutional right still hold enough seats in parliament to obstruct any bill, giving it the power to obstruct any peace process spearheaded by Suu Kyi, should she seriously pursue one.
The solution must start with the Bamar, but it must not stop there. It is an open question whether the Kachin or Karen would behave better if they were in power. U Kyaw Win warns that the problem may lie more deeply in a “tribalism” that pervades the region and leads to fear and violence. “The Burmans are racist,” he said. “All of the ethnicities are racists. We call this tribalism. This is the whole crux of the thing!”
The solution to Burma’s problems, then, may be found not in the disempowerment or reform of the Bamar alone but rather in education for all the peoples of Myanmar toward a truly multiethnic vision of the country. “I would say to all parties, get out of your boxes and see what is in the other box,” U Kyaw Win proposes. “Burmans, learn about the Karens! Karens, learn about the Shan! Invite them to your festivals; teach them. Just because you are right, doesn’t mean the other person is wrong.”
There are signs of intertribal cooperation among non-Bamar minorities. Venning pointed out that a combination of military and political collaboration exists between the Kachin and other ethnic groups. One coalition, The Northern Alliance, formed in 2016, calls for an end to conflict through genuine political dialogue, aimed at establishing equal political rights, including a constitutional guarantee of a degree of autonomy for non-Burman ethnic peoples. Another alliance, the Federal Political Negotiating and Consultative Committee, calls for negotiation with the government as a block, rather than as individual members.
The seeds of a hope for a true federalism in Myanmar may be planted in such coalitions. Yet it is currently the Bamar who hold the reins of power, and it is they who must lead the way beyond the interethnic civil war that has plagued Myanmar for six decades.
In February 2018, Rainer Schulze, a professor emeritus of modern European history and founding editor of the journal The Holocaust in History and Memory (2008–2014), spoke at the Berlin Conference on Myanmar Genocide. His statement that genocidal violence is always rooted in a desire to make society homogenous, based on the false belief that in homogeneity lies strength, was striking. “Diversity and inclusion are not threatening,” he said. “They are enriching. The Holocaust led to terrible gaps in German culture; every genocide does the same. Many understand this with regard to the German example of the past but do not understand it in society today.”
Schulze argued that the most effective genocide prevention lies in the way children are educated. “Genocide prevention has to start much earlier than belated political efforts,” he said. “Diversity and inclusivity must become as firmly embedded in the curriculums of the world as spelling and arithmetic.”
Ironically enough, a powerful resource for moving beyond toxic forms of identification and demonization of the other, with the attendant grasping, fear, and anger, exists in the very cultural treasure that the Bamar claim to be defending: Buddhism. Yet at the moment, Buddhism is being weaponized in the service of the very diseases it was created to cure.
Hope for Myanmar, if it lies anywhere, will be in the new generation of Burmese who learn from the past and build a different future from the ground up. Asked by the man sitting across from him how he will defend Buddhism from the Muslims in My Buddha Is Punk, Kyaw Kyaw responds: “We don’t need to do anything!” Then he asks a question of his own: “What is the meaning of Buddhism to you?”
“All these Muslims must be put back into their place,” the man presses.
“Do you think then Buddhism will flourish?” Kyaw Kyaw asks.
“I don’t just think that. I am sure about it!” the man insists.
“To develop Buddhism, you don’t need to drive out or kill the Muslims,” Kyaw Kyaw says, pointing to the man’s chest. “You just need to change your heart.”
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