Tragedy of the Rohingya: The Burmese crisis and the nation-state

Where did the human rights disaster in Myanmar come from? Believe it or not, the Catalan situation is related

Published November 5, 2017 8:00AM (EST)

Rohingya refugees at border. (Getty/Dominique Faget)
Rohingya refugees at border. (Getty/Dominique Faget)

A number of readers wrote last week, either via the comment thread or email to my website, in response to a column on the crisis in Catalonia. One reader asked, “What about the Basques?” Another complained, “I guess because the writer specializes in Europe he omitted mention of Canada, where Quebec, a quarter of the country, voted 49.95 percent in favor of separation 22 years ago.” Still another reader wondered, “Why can’t these places have an amicable splitting up like the Czechs and Slovaks did?”

Got it. All good. I thank readers who take the time to remark on the columns, especially those with astute observations to add. But if we are decently up to speed on the Spanish crisis and its implications for the nation-state, as readers’ comments suggest, Catalonia is not the end of the thinking we need to do. The Spanish crisis unfolds in a Western context. There is also the non–West to consider. Most immediately, the fate of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) unfolds as we speak.

The dreadful plight of the Rohingya seems to be a very different story than the Catalan, Basque, or Québécois stories in just about every way one can think of. This is so, but not completely. At bottom the disaster in Myanmar is another nation-state story, in my read. So it is well worth putting Myanmar and its Rohingya, strange as this may seem, alongside Spain and its Catalans. Then we will understand what we should about the prevalent and profound problems raised by “nation” and “nationality” in the 21st century.

Brace yourself. Catalonia, for all its complications, is a postcard-simple scene next to Rakhine, the Burmese state where the Rohingya population is centered.  

Like almost everyone else, we will call the 1 million or more Muslims who have dwelt in Rakhine state “Rohingya,” but not even the nomenclature is immune from contention. The name was first taken up in the 1950s by Muslim intellectuals of Bengali background, the thought being that it was time to declare a distinct identity: They descended from émigrés who left what is now Bangladesh in the first half of the 19th century. This was the largest of four migrations from East Bengal to Rakhine, the earliest of which scholars date to a pre-colonial monarchic period that endured 350 years, until 1784. These migrations comprise the Rohingya’s origin story.

If most scholars accept these dates, or some variant of Rohingya history, the Myanmar government cavalierly cast all such accounts aside long ago. It considers the Rohingya to be Bengali arrivistes from either the late-colonial era or the years after East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971. They deserve no name. The Burmese did not invent the practice of erasure in the name of nation; the Chinese have a long record in this line, the Israelis a briefer one, and many others theirs. But it is hard to come by a clearer case of attempted obliteration — of history, of a people’s identity, and lately of a people themselves — at the hands of a national government.

Apart from the Rohingya’s early years, they seem rarely to have been allowed to be at home when at home. Persecution dates to the 18th century. The British, in standard divide-and-rule fashion, did their part once they colonized Burma in 1824. In certain ways they favored the Muslim minority over the Buddhist majority. During World War II the British recruited Rohingya to fight the Japanese, while Buddhists sided against the colonial occupier. That left lasting scars. At Myanmar’s independence in 1948, the constitution recognized the Rohingya as full citizens, but this did not last. Discrimination went from social to political to institutional — a matter of law.

In 1961 the Rohingya were given administrative autonomy in Rakhine state, but the Burmese dictator Ne Win brought that to an end when he came to power a year later, intent on building a coherent identity in a nation of 135 ethnicities. “Burmanization” — assimilation into “Burmese culture” — was the new theme. In the Rohingya case, Ne Win seems to have understood that what is in people’s minds and memories cannot always be erased: He early required the Rohingya to carry FRCs, Foreign Registration Cards. They were again reclassified in 1978, this time not just as foreign immigrants, but as illegals.

Communal violence is nothing new and nothing surprising, given the picture just sketched. But it has worsened since the military started to relinquish power in Myanmar seven years ago. Militant Rohingya — also nothing surprising — have grown more assertive in the past couple of years. The current surge of violence began a year ago, when nine police officers were murdered. Worse has followed: Systematic destruction of communities; burned villages; civilian casualties; mines along the border with Bangladesh, where refugees have fled. Refugees and the displaced number in the hundreds of thousands. Bangladesh is now building the world’s largest refugee camp. Many call the escalation that began in August ethnic cleansing; some call it genocide.

What are we watching? In the name of what, this state savagery?

As already suggested, my answer to these questions lies in the nation-state.

*  *  *

Here is the first thing to note on our way to understanding Myanmar and the Rohingya crisis: The modern nation is an altogether Western concept. Historians date its genesis to 1648, when the European sovereigns signed treaties known together as the Peace of Westphalia. Westphalia established a new political order based on mutually recognized borders, and so arose the nation-state. It had nothing to do with the kinds of people who lived within its borders: It was lines on maps drawn by diplomats and monarchs. And when it was exported eastward and southward during the colonial era — no surprise here — the nation-state arrived as a peculiar technology, as strange to non–Westerners as steam engines, telegraphs and starched collars. In my experience, the non–West has never been entirely at ease with this invention other people sent from somewhere else.

An awkward exercise ensued, sometimes destructively, sometimes very violently. The idea of a modern nation may have been a poor fit, but they had to be built anyway, because — as the prevailing assumption held until recently — to modernize meant to Westernize. This required creating not less than “a people” — an identity the rest of the world could look to and say, “They are Nigerian” or “They are Burmese,” just as one could say, “They are French” or “They are British.” The French and British had certain things that seemed essential to the project: They had long, neatly told histories full of unity and destiny. They had Christianity and the Bible — a common religion and a sacred book wherein everything that fundamentally mattered to anyone who was French or British could be read.

Myanmar’s leaders since independence have taken emulation of the West as their only alternative. This is not reductionist or too much to say. The magnificent diversity of 135 ethnic groups must be overcome, not celebrated, via the coerced assimilation that began in the 1960s. Buddhism, a religion long honored for its openness to all, its indifference to grandeur and its ease of interpretation, had to be remade with the rigor, the monuments, the fence posts — the intolerance, we can even say — of Christianity (and of Islam, a point I will return to). U Nu, who preceded Ne Win, declared Buddhism Burma’s state religion in 1961. Although Ne Win repealed the statute, the sentiment remains prevalent. Aung San Suu Kyi, we may as well note here, is a devout Buddhist and appears to subscribe to what I will call the neo–Buddhism just described.

Myanmar’s problem is one of identity — What does it mean to be Burmese? — and the inherited ideology of the nation-state lies at the root of it, I hope it is now clear. The Rohingya in Rakhine state have brought this problem to a crisis. The crisis has now turned into a humanitarian tragedy, and it is not Myanmar’s alone. We have seen this before in the non–West. Think about India and Sri Lanka. The former now has a prime minister committed to Hindutva, the radical, violence-prone ideology that declares India a Hindu state with no place for its considerable Muslim minority. In Sri Lanka, the same: There is the Sinhalese majority, which is Buddhist, and the Tamil minority, which is Hindu. To be Sri Lankan, the former declares, one must be Sinhalese and Buddhist and speak Sinhalese. The others are … well, Other, with no more place in Sri Lanka than the Rohingya have in Myanmar.

*  *  *

Every case mentioned here is distinctive. But I put India and Sri Lanka next to Myanmar for a purpose. They have things in common I think worth noting. Here are three. I read them as indicators that help define what we witness now as Myanmar ethnic-cleanses Rakhine state of its Muslim population. These indicators seem to have something horrific to say: If the past is any guide, there is probably little anyone can do to remedy the tragedy of the Rohingya, which is also Myanmar’s tragedy and, at the horizon, humanity’s. The violence will eventually stop, but the underlying animosities will remain:  

  • In all three cases, those who have descended into communal violence previously lived more or less in harmony. The point of transformation was colonial occupation and the export of the nation-state at independence. Divide-and-rule is rarely understood for its legacy of monumental destruction and suffering. India was for many centuries a place of glorious syncretism. I have long considered it singularly rich in this respect. Partition in 1947 was appalling enough — the single worst decision Britain took as it decolonized. Now Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalists, reflexively anti–Muslim, stand against the single most admirable feature of modern India — its infinite diversity, its long history of multiplicity and inclusion.

Why? Because the Hindu majority has long nursed feelings of inferiority next to the Muslim minority. During the colonial period Muslims were cast as strong and resolute, Hindus weak, a bit celestial. Muslims, like Christians, have a God, a book, and a sacred place — definition — while Hindus have no book, no Mecca or Vatican, hundreds of thousands of gods, and no practices or laws. Muslims were known as brave and manly warriors, while Hindus, in the traditional imagery, were retiring and a touch effeminate. Traditional Hinduism, I have long thought, possesses a certain greatness because it makes no claim to greatness. This thought is lost on the followers of Hindutva, who are many now. They desire the clear, severe, sharp-edged greatness other nations boast. The project becomes one of extravagant erasure and invention.

Ditto, in one way or another but with no exactitude in the detail, in Myanmar and Sri Lanka: The ambition is to put on a nationality as if it were a suit of clothes, and it must be a neat suit others will admire. A “we” and a “they” must be constructed.  

  • Religion is consistently the ground on which communal wars are waged. This seems to account for the insoluble irrationality one always finds at their core. I have known many Hindus and Sinhalese whose sophistication and worldliness go straight off the rails when the superiority of their religion and culture enter into the conversation. After that it is all “Self and Other.” We must consider Aung San Suu Kyi in this context. The Muslim Rohingya are the only minority in Myanmar with a history of discrimination and persecution. The Nobel Peace Prize winner's silence and acquiescence in the face of its recent escalation stuns most of us, naturally. To say and do nothing, we must accept, is sometimes to say and do a great deal. We now know who Aung San Suu Kyi is and where she fits in the story.  
  • There is the use of fire: It is always the preferred method of destruction in these cases of communal violence. This bears interpretation, I concluded some years ago. Modi was chief minister in Gujarat when that state went up in flames during a pogrom-like period of sheer anti–Muslim terror in 2002. In 1981, a frenzied mob of Sinhalese torched the library in Tamil-majority Jaffna, without question among the world’s greatest repositories of rare books, manuscripts and historical records. What was this if not an attempt to annihilate Sri Lankan history itself? And now in Myanmar, more fires, more burning.

Fire: I once asked a Sri Lankan judge why it so commonly features in communal violence. “Because it obliterates completely,” he replied. “Its destruction is final. Nothing remains. All that burns is eternally erased.”

*  *  *

In Europe, we find many Catalans, Basques, Scots, and others who want to leave their nations and begin again on a foundation that is all at once new (post-nation-state) and old (language, common custom, communal belonging). The motion is toward the exit. It is to put the traditional nation-state into the past and advance beyond it.

In the East, this is upside-down. The nation-state remains the highest prize, the grail to be possessed, the site where identity is not erased but most honorably expressed. Animosity, often violence, and Self-and-Other narratives are all about the same things as in the West: language or religion or custom or histories that are sometimes subject to imaginative rewrites. But the motion is to exclude, to push out others who wish to belong but fail to fit the settled-upon story. Catalans and Rohingya are mirrors of each other, then, reverse images.

What are we to make of this? I can float a theory, nothing more, in response to this question.   

“Nation” and “nationality,” as I argued in last week’s column on the Spanish crisis, face an uncertain future. Spain and Myanmar tell us something about these things. Not tomorrow, but in decades to come, we will have to make nations less brittle and more flexible if we are to make the 21st century more peaceable and orderly than it has so far turned out. West and non–West say the same thing in perfectly opposite ways.

It is a question of confidence, in my view. Those whose civilizations gave rise to the nation-state are certain enough of themselves to challenge it. If we invented it, we can change it: This is the unconscious assumption. Those who received the nation-state as a technology of governance imported from elsewhere have no such certainty. Modern history has conspired to inflict upon them a prevalent assumption of inferiority in the face of the West and all it has sent them. The impulse to measure up, while now questioned, nonetheless persists. But the non–West’s point is the same, it seems to me: The nation does not work for us. They say it in deeds, not words, and they mean the opposite, given they continue to hold it high. So it takes effort to interpret this. But it comes to the same thing. In the name of “nation,” an imagined “Myanmar” is destroying Myanmar.

By Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is an essayist, critic, editor and contributing writer at The Nation. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century”. Follow him on Twitter. Support him at His web site is

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