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British aid for Myanmar ethnic cleansing

President U Thein Sein meets former British PM, Speaker of House of
Common (photo President Website)
July 19, 2013
LONDON – Britain, the largest donor country and former colonizer of
Myanmar, is effectively aiding and abetting the unfolding “ethnic
cleansing” of Muslim Rohingya by helping to finance the country’s
controversial 2014 national census. 
Ex-general and head of Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government Thein Sein
made an official visit to Britain this week, during which his hosts announced a
new 30 million-pound (US$45.6 million) development assistance package and
resumption of arms sales. One third of that amount is earmarked to bankroll the
former colony’s census, “which is essential to make sure support is
getting to those who need it more”, according to an official British
government statement.
Because Thein Sein’s government is forcing the Rohingya people to
register as “Bengali”, a continuation of a decades-old policy of
stripping the Rohingya of both their citizenship and ethnic identity, Britain’s
financial support for this process is troubling. The coming census will no
doubt be used to reinforce this racist policy and practice of forcibly
registering the self-referenced Rohingya and erasing the fact that the Rohingya
as an ethnic nationality group ever existed in Myanmar.
During a question and answer session following his beautifully written,
liberal sounding speech at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, or
Chatham House, Thein Sein was emphatic about his government’s policy towards
the estimated 800,000 to one million Rohingya whose cultural, economic and
historical roots can be found on both sides of the once East Bengal and former
Arakan State.
He stated that “to use the term Rohingya, in our ethnic history we
do not have the term Rohingya”. This official denial and the racist
policies that perpetuate the marginalization of the Rohingya is tantamount to
ethnocide, a blatant erasure of a verifiable fact that a distinct ethnic
community, with all its typical sociological fluidity, exists in Myanmar.
Gregory Stanton of George Mason University, who is president of Genocide
Watch and a world renowned scholar in genocide studies, sees in Myanmar’s mistreatment
of the Rohingya a Nazi-like “us versus them” classification in which
the dominant group and its political state dish out discrimination,
mistreatment and eventually “final solutions”.
In his influential essay entitled “The Eight Stages of Genocide”,
Stanton writes: “We treat different categories of people differently.
Racial and ethnic classifications may be defined by absurdly detailed laws –
the Nazi Nuremberg laws, the “one (African blood) drop” laws of
segregation in America, or apartheid racial classification laws in South
Classification is universal across all cultures and political systems.
However, when it is carried out in a militaristic state with a deeply
Islamophobic “Buddhist” society such as the present-day Myanmar,
there is only a short jump between the deliberate act of mis-classifying the
Rohingya as “illegal Bengali” or “Bengalis” and being
dehumanized as “viruses”, “ogres” or the local language
equivalent of “niggers”. The next stage is mass violence with state
impunity against a given dehumanized community.
That is precisely what has happened to the Rohingyas of western Myanmar
since 1978. In February that year, the Burma Socialist Programme Party-led
government, a one-party, one-man dictatorship under General Ne Win, launched
the country’s first large-scale ethnic cleansing operation. Known as the
Na-Ga-Min, or King of the Snakes, operation, inter-ministerial and inter-agency
units from police, customs, immigration, army, navy, intelligence, civil
administration and the home ministry’s religious affairs department were
mobilized against the Rohingya.
Even the government’s conservative estimate put the number of Rohingya
who fled to neighboring, newly independent Bangladesh at 150,000; other
independent sources put the figure much higher. Since then the Rohingya have
been living in security grids where virtually every aspect of their lives is
severely restricted and monitored as a matter of policy.
A cursory glance at doctor-patient ratios, adult illiteracy and mortality
rates among children under five speaks volume about the policy-induced dire
conditions under which the Rohingya are forced to live. The doctor-patient
ratio for the Rohingya in northern Rakhine State is 1:83,000, adult illiteracy
is over 90%, and the mortality rate for under-five children is twice as high as
Myanmar’s already very high national average.
No longer able to endure decades of a myriad forms of sexual violence,
summary execution, forced labor, extortions, and other means of abuse, many Rohingya
families – including women, children and the elderly – have attempted to flee
the country, willingly risking their lives in rickety boats on the Andaman Sea
and facing an uncertain future as stateless people in countries as varied as
Canada, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia and neighboring Bangladesh.
Unconscionable policy
Ethnocide may sound like esoteric academic jargon but its consequences
are grave and of growing international concern. A policy of ethnocide sets the
ideological and social-psychological stage for an otherwise peaceful people to
carry out unspeakable and unconscionable atrocities against those whom they
have been trained to consider an existential threat.
The military-controlled state in Myanmar – now headed by ex-general
Thein Sein and his quasi-civilian government in Naypyidaw – has both paved the
way for and carried out ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. Ethnocide of the
Rohingya has empowered the racist, ultra-nationalists among the local Buddhist
Rakhine, national leaders and Buddhist society at large to dehumanize the
The fact that Thein Sein felt comfortable enough to repeat his
government’s ethnocidal stance on the Rohingya at the prestigious Chatham House
should ring alarm bells among the British public. His speech spoke volumes
about the extent to which Myanmar’s former colonial master has become
officially complicit in the atrocities against the Rohingya, London’s expressed
“human rights concerns” notwithstanding.
Apparently designed to hit Britain’s subliminal colonial guilt, Thein
Sein framed the Rohingya as a problem which the former British colony inherited
from the Raj upon achieving independence in 1948. In Thein Sein’s words:
“During the colonial administration there was a migration of economic migrants
from other countries into the Rakhine State (formerly known as Arakan) to work
on the lands… So they grew their crops and then they did the harvest and then
they went back home. But later on they decided to settle in the region. During
the colonial administration there were 50,000 Muslims in that region… Now we
have 800,000 Muslim population in the region. That of course caused a lot of
Colonial-era statistics have proven more often than not unreliable and
the racial conceptualizations and classifications on which these demographic
data rest were often full of racist and pseudo-scientific methodologies that
were part and parcel of colonial rule. In 1824, the year of the British
annexation of the Arakan, itself a pre-British feudal colony that was
depopulated by both Buddhists and Muslims by repressive military conquest,
around one-third of the population of Arakan was Muslim, according to colonial
Today, out of the estimated three million who live in Rakhine State,
around a third are Muslim. This is hardly a demographic threat to the local
Rakhines and certainly not a national threat to the predominantly Buddhist
country of 50-plus million people. Beyond the numbers’ games, there are other
people-centered – as opposed to nation state-centric – perspectives that are
far more convincing and far closer to Arakan’s historical realities than is
Thein Sein’s dubious explanation.
In a public seminar on the Rohingya held at Columbia University in
September last year, Amartya Sen, the world renowned Bengali philosopher and
economist and Harvard University professor, perceptively observed: “The
Rohingya did not come to Burma. But Burma came to the Rohingya.”
Like other borderland ethno-cultural communities, the Rohingya as a
people can be found on both sides of the borders of modern nation states,
namely the former Burma, which since 1989 has been known as Myanmar, and former
East Pakistan, which since 1971 has been known as Bangladesh. The boundaries of
once boundary-less feudal kingdoms, many characterized by fluctuating
territorial control and administrative powers, were abruptly locked and divided
into post-colonial nation states.
In fact, there is nothing strange or persecution-worthy about numerous
ethno-cultural and linguistic communities being split and scattered across
these manufactured borders as nation states emerged out of wars, conflicts and
other processes of exploitation. Even in the case of Myanmar, there are other
groups such as the Chin, Kachin, Karenni, Mon, Shan, Tai, and, yes, even the
Buddhist Rakhine, who also belong to different neighboring nation states.
Notably, none of these communities are facing ethnocide or genocide by
Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, India or China.
Twisted history
The truth is that the Rohingya were not always denied their existence by
the Myanmar state. In contrast to Thein Sein’s ethnocidal perspective, and in
spite of the contemporary debates as to whether the Rohingya are historical or
ancestral “children of the land”, four successive Myanmar governments
– the parliamentary democracy government of prime minister U Nu (1948-58), the
caretaker government of General Ne Win (1958-60), the Union Government of
premier U Nu (1960-62) and General Ne Win’s early military government, namely
the Revolutionary Council (1962-74) – had all officially recognized the
Rohingya as a distinct ethno-cultural community.
The Rohingya had their own national ethnic language program based at the
state’s sole national broadcasting service (Burma Broadcasting Service, or BBS)
alongside other national ethnic language programs such as Shan, Lahu, Bama and
others. The official social studies textbooks described them as Myanmar’s
Rohingya ethnic nationality and placed them on the ethnic map of the country.
The household lists and national identification cards bore the word
“Rohingya” for those who self-identified as such. All cabinet offices
of these aforementioned governments used the word “Rohingya” in their
official dispatches and records, while senior military generals in the ministry
of defense addressed the Rohingya community and its religious leaders as
‘esteemed Rohingya leaders’ in the former’s public remarks and speeches. The government’s
official Burmese Encyclopedia (published in 1964, two years after the military
government came to power) had a specific section on the Rohingyas of northern
districts of the country.
Since the first genocidal operation against the Rohingya in February
1978, successive military leaderships have been relentless in their drive to
cleanse western Myanmar of the ethnic group – whom they now derisively and
officially insist on calling “Bengali” – both from state discourse
and from the land. Ethnocide began under Ne Win’s whimsical dictatorship, which
was steeped in nationalist and anti-colonial ideologies that justified
draconian policies towards the Rohingya. As a result, Myanmar now has an
apartheid system for the Rohingya, who have survived various waves of ethnic
cleansing since 1978.
Instead of confronting Thein Sein over his past and present role in the
ethnocide and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, the British government instead
gave 10 million pounds for his government’s 2014 census, a project that will
almost surely drive the final nail into the coffin of the Rohingyas’ existence
in Myanmar.
This also puts Britain’s plan to involve the British Ministry of Defense
in training Myanmar’s armed forces in the areas of human rights and
civil-military relations in a new light. For while British officials talk of
human rights and accountability in military classrooms, they will
simultaneously be financing a census that will be used to facilitate ethnic
cleansing with British tax-payers’ money.
For those familiar with Britain’s international trajectory, its decision
to help fund Myanmar’s ethnocidal census, which in turn will be technically
assisted by the United Nations Population Fund, should not come as a surprise.
Nor should the British government’s decision to reward Thein Sein with the
export of made-in-UK arms worth $5 million. Foreign Office spin-masters will,
one can be sure, soon be justifying this questionable arms deal as one to help
end the country’s ethnic conflicts.
On July 19, 1947, made-in-England bullets killed independence hero Aung
San and a group of the country’s co-founders in a British-assisted but locally
carried out assassination. Aung San, a staunch anti-imperialist nationalist,
was then seen as an obstacle to the unfettered pursuit of Britain’s
post-colonial, post-World War II commercial and strategic interests in Myanmar.
Sixty years on, the resumption of export of made-in-UK arms to Thein
Sein’s military-backed, genocidal regime sends an ominous signal to those
ethnic and religious minorities who may not be as open to British official and
corporate interests as the ethnic Burman military generals and their cronies.
In pursuit of its own hidden and not-so-hidden strategic and corporate
interests, Britain is simply repeating the old colonial policy of ethnic divide
and exploit. In the days of the British Raj of the 19th and early 20th
centuries, the British pursued their imperialist aims and interests through the
use of the country’s non-Buddhist ethnic minorities along the country’s
borderlands, then referred to as the “frontier peoples”.
In 2013, Britain’s new design in Myanmar is about pursuing British
interests through the dominant “Buddhist” generals and their
repressive state while looking the other way when their colonial era ethnic
instruments, namely the frontier or borderland ethnic peoples of the Rohingya,
Karen, Kachin, and others are being further marginalized, militarily
overwhelmed or ethnically cleansed.
Maung Zarni ( is a Burmese dissident blogger and a
Visiting Fellow at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit at the
London School of Economics.