Sectarian Violence Involving Rohingya in Myanmar: Historical Roots and Modern Triggers

By Eliane Coates | Senior Analyst - Centre of Excellence for National Security (RSIS) - Singapore | Aug 04, 2014
Sectarian Violence Involving Rohingya in Myanmar: Historical Roots and Modern Triggers
Rohingya refugees

Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could be done to avert sectarian violence, to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and to promote reconciliation?

The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...

This article provides an analysis of the recent sectarian violence involving the minority Rohingya Muslim group in Myanmar (Burma) since June 2012. By first shedding light on the historical origins of the conflict, this piece outlines the key triggers and social and political contexts in which inter-religious violence involving the Rohingya has occurred. Rising Burman-Buddhist ethno-nationalism, represented by Buddhist monks, has played a key role in the recent waves of inter-religious violence. Furthermore, the government’s tacit approval of policies that discriminate against the Rohingya, coupled with the role of social media in propagating hate speech, have fostered an enabling environment that has prolonged the sectarian violence.

Rohingya and Rakhine: An Old Conflict

The historical origins of Rohingya Muslims in Northern Rakhine State are as tangled and complex as the history of Myanmar itself. While Rohingya leaders claim to be the descendants of the precolonial Muslim community of Rakhine State, the term Rohingya only appeared in 1799 in an article on the comparative vocabulary in the Burma Empire to describe the indigenous people of Rakhine State.[1]

However, the composition of the Rohingya community, which makes up about 5 percent of the population of approximately 60 million, is intricately linked to Burma’s colonial past.[2] After the first of three Anglo-Burmese wars ended in 1826, Rakhine State was brought under British colonial administration, which had an open immigration policy that allowed an influx of Bengali Muslims into the newly colonized territory.[3] The British also welcomed wealthy money lenders (chettyars) from South India to help administer colonial Burma. In his book on integration and secession in Western Myanmar, Moshe Yegar noted that “the Burmese (Buddhist) peasants became landless because the chettyars took control of much of the Burmese lands,”[4] especially during the great depression in 1929.

Racial riots ensued during the 1930s between the majority Burman Buddhist ethnic group and Muslim migrants of Indian descent, ultimately leading to the nationalist Doh Bama (We Burma) movement. This pivotal event subsequently saw the beginnings of Burman-Buddhist ethno-nationalism and the start of nationwide anti-Indian sentiment, which later evolved into anti-Muslim attitudes. Indeed, the perception that foreigners ran much of Burma’s finance and commerce was seen as unacceptable. Anti-Indian and anti-Muslim attitudes were compounded during both the Japanese occupation of Burma (1942–1945)—when Muslims in British Burma, going against the leanings of the Burmese Independence Movement, sided with the colonial British[5]—and the subsequent Rohingya Mujahideen Rebellion (1948–1961), in which the Rohingya waged an unsuccessful secessionist campaign to create a separate Islamic State that would eventually join East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).[6]

Prolonged periods of repression were accompanied by cycles of Rohingya migration from Rakhine State to bordering Bangladesh. The Burma Citizenship Law was enacted in 1982.[7] The law did not recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group of Myanmar, stating that any ethnic group that settled in Myanmar after 1823 (the beginning of the First Anglo-Burmese War) was not entitled to citizenship. This act essentially legitimized discrimination against the Rohingya, which continues today.

Modern Triggers

While the tangled roots of the Rohingya have played a critical role in the recent inter-religious violence between Rohingya and Buddhists, so too has the rise of Burman-Buddhist ethno-nationalism.

Today, a segment of Burman Buddhist monks represented by Ashin Wirathu is re-igniting sentiments of intolerance and flaming lingering resentment toward Rohingya, preaching hateful rhetoric and sowing fear in the local Buddhist population in an attempt to change the ethnic demographics of Rakhine State. Ongoing repression of Rohingya is driven by Burman Buddhist fear of Islamic encroachment into Myanmar, as well as an ongoing belief that the Rohingya could potentially threaten Burmese sovereignty by further segregating Rakhine State. While the recent inter-religious violence begun in mid-2012 with the rape and murder of a twenty-seven-year-old Buddhist seamstress Ma Thida Htwe—which sparked an eruption of Muslim-Buddhist tension and the displacement of 70,000 Rohingya[8]—Buddhist-Muslim violence has since spread beyond Rakhine State to Central and Northern Myanmar in the cities of Meiktila and Lashio. To date, Buddhist mobs have killed more than 200 Muslims, the majority of whom are Rohingya, and caused the displacement of more than 140,000.[9]

Ashin Wirathu, a senior abbot in the Masoeyein Mandalay Buddhist monastery, is the face of the “969” economic-nationalist campaign, which encourages Buddhists to boycott Muslim-owned businesses. The name 969 is a numerological reference to the Buddha, his teachings, and his religious community. On the official 969 website, Ashin Wirathu calls for Buddhists to “prominently display 969 stickers, posters, flags and other items at their home and businesses” prompting further religious divisions within Burmese society.[10] The 969 movement has gained many followers by labeling itself as a “protector” of Buddhism from “aliens” or non-native persons. The organized movement has enlisted monasteries across Myanmar to spread radical anti-Muslim messages “through Sunday schools, and by handing out stickers and distributing pamphlets and DVDs.”[11] As David Steinberg of Georgetown University highlights, “the significance of Buddhist monks leading this campaign cannot be underestimated, as few, if any, in the Burman community can publicly dispute a monk’s announcement on an ostensibly religious issue.”[12] Indeed, monks wield the highest level of moral authority in Myanmar and can thus pursue an ethno-nationalist agenda without hindrance.

Two Narratives

There are two salient narratives driving anti-Rohingya/anti-Muslim sentiments. The first is constructed around a fear of Islamic encroachment into Myanmar and demographic besiegement by Muslims—an idea that runs deep in Burman Buddhist society. Ashin Wirathu argues that Muslim extremists are plotting to transform Myanmar into an Islamic country.[13] Even though Buddhists form the majority of the population, and there is no solid evidence Myanmar is facing an Islamist military threat, the narrative has gained traction amongst many Buddhists fearing that Islam will disrupt Myanmar’s Buddhist identity and potentially wipe out Buddhism in Myanmar altogether. A Rakhine state government spokesperson says the Rohingya “are trying to Islamise [Buddhists] through their terrible birth rate,” citing that Rohingya population growth is 10 times that of local Buddhists.[14] However, while new census results are to be released in 2014, estimates indicate that roughly 89 percent of Myanmar’s population is Buddhist, and only 4 percent is Muslim.[15]

As a consequence of this fear, discriminatory policies toward the Rohingya have been imposed. Rohingya couples in the Rakhine State townships of Maungdaw ad Buthidaung can legally have only two children, in what the state government says is an “effort to reduce overpopulation and inter-communal tensions.”[16] While this policy is not officially sanctioned by the government, it has received tacit approval. There also exists draft legislation that, if passed, would limit interfaith marriages in an attempt to prevent Buddhist women from converting to Islam.[17] Rohingya must also seek official authorization to marry and to cross township borders, and they are barred from many areas of employment, including government jobs.[18]

The narrative of demographic besiegement is also fuelled by the fact that many Rohingya fail to assimilate to Burmese local customs and way of life. The Inquiry Commission into sectarian violence in Rakhine State released in 2013 found that Rohingya living in rural areas “could not speak any indigenous languages of Myanmar well . . . [nor] could [they] write or read the official Bamar language used in government communications.”[19] Indeed, the majority of Rohingya speak a dialect similar to Bengali, and many can read and write in Urdu.

The second narrative espoused in the growing Burman-Buddhist nationalist movement is that “the Rohingya started it.” That is, Rohingya throughout history have rarely followed Burmese national interests, instead several times having threatened Myanmar’s newfound sovereignty. From 1948 to 1961, the Rohingya Mujahideen fought to create a separate Islamic State. Again in 1971, a group of Rohingya pushed to join Bangladesh during its fight for independence from East Pakistan. The segregation these actions caused between local Buddhist and Muslim communities continues to foment distrust and lingering resentment amongst local Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya. During the Inquiry Commission,[20] some Rakhine Buddhists stated that they feared Rohingya could “revive the same violent agenda as previous Mujahid rebels in Rakhine State.”[21]

Enabling Environment

While the rise of 969 and Burman-Buddhist nationalism sparked the beginning of the recent inter-religious clashes, the violence has been prolonged by an enabling environment. Since the opening of Myanmar in 2011, President Thein Sein has pursued broad economic and political reforms of policies created by former military leaders. This has resulted in significant transformations in areas such as censorship, whereby efforts by Buddhist monks to propagate anti-Muslim narratives are now facilitated by Myanmar’s reforms. As I have noted in another article, “whereas during the period of the military junta ethnic tensions and separatism were held at bay by . . . strict military rule, new found freedom of speech permits Buddhist monks, such as U [Ashin] Wirathu, to spread ideas of religious intolerance and fan the flames of Islamaphobia.”[22] Indeed, while the 969 movement has been denied the official status of a religious organization, Buddhist monks are able to freely travel the country preaching “the protection of their religion and race” without government intervention.

Looser censorship has also correlated with the increasing penetration of social media into Burmese society. New media, such as Facebook, have facilitated the rapid spread of accusations, often inflaming already volatile situations. Due to decades of heavy censorship, Myanmar continues to have a hyperactive rumor mill in which information from fellow community members—be it online of face-to-face—is given preferential treatment to news originating from official media outlets.[23]

Political reforms in Myanmar have also led to looser military control and, in some cases, a complete breakdown of law and order. During the riots in Meiktila in March 2013, Burmese police did little, if anything, to contain the situation. Human Rights Watch found that rather than protecting civilians at risk, Burmese police either stood by or actively engaged in and contributed to the unfolding violence.[24] In Rakhine State, many of the police are selected from the Rakhine Buddhist community and often do not remain impartial when violence erupts between Buddhists and Muslims.[25] Many Rohingya have reported cases of “physical abuse, rape, destruction of property and unlawful killings carried out by both Rakhine Buddhists and security forces,” and Amnesty International has found that most arrests appear to have been arbitrary and discriminatory.[26] Moreover, authorities do not sanction the police for their wrongdoings. Indeed, the Inquiry Commission found that the authorities have been “inconsistent” in applying and following the rule of law.[27]


The root causes of the recent waves of inter-religious violence involving Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine State are deep, complex and date back many centuries. Rising Buddhist-Burman ethno-nationalism, fanned by the 969 movement led by Buddhist monks, has resulted in the rapid dissemination of hate speech and reignited lingering resentment between communities. While peace building is possible, many challenges remain. The tacit approval by the government of discriminatory policies toward Rohingya—and the widespread impunity for most perpetrators of violence, including the authorities—remain a key concern in Myanmar’s transformation from a military dictatorship into a democracy.

[1] Francis Buchanan, “A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire,” Asiatic Researchers, Vol. 5 (1799), 237,

[2] “Fear of New Religious Strife,” The Economist (27 July 2013),

[3] Jacques P. Leider, “‘Rohingya,’ Rakhaing and the Recent Outbreak of Violence—A Note,” Bulletin of the Burma Studies Group, 16 (2012), 8,

[4] Moshe Yegar, Between Integration and Secession: The Muslim Communities of the Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, and Western Burma/Myanmar (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2002), 103.

[5] Imtiaz Ahmed, The Plight of the Stateless Rohingyas (Bangladesh: The University Press Limited, 2010).

[6] Yegar, Between Integration and Secession – The Muslim Communities of the Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, and Western Burma/ Myanmar (Maryland: Lexington Books, 2002), 37.

[7] Burma Citizenship Law, 15 October 1982, The United Nations Refugee Agency,

[8] Micha’el Tanchum, “The Buddhist-Muslim Violence in Myanmar: A Threat to Southeast Asia,” The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, BESA Center Perspectives Paper, No. 188 (28 November, 2012), 2.

[9] Jane Perlez, “Rise in Bigotry Fuels Massacre Inside Myanmar,” New York Times (2 March 2014),

[11] Jamie Pinnock, “Burma: Buddhism and the Rise of Burmese Militant Nationalism,” The Foreign Report (1 July 2013),

[12] David Steinberg, “Laws Enforce Discrimination in Myanmar,” Asia Times Online (18 March 2014),

[13] Zarni Mann, “Islamic Extremists Want My Downfall, That’s Why They Put Me On The Cover,” The Irrawaddy (24 June 2013).

[14] “Unforgiving History,” The Economist (3 November 2012),

[15] Jane Perlez, “Rise in Bigotry Fuels Massacre Inside Myanmar,” International New York Times (1 March, 2014).

[16] “Reform Fails to Help Myanmar’s Rohingya,” IISS Strategic Comments, Vol. 19, Issue 10 (2013), 1.

[17] “Myanmar Considers Law Restricting Inter-Faith Marriage” Australia Network News (1 March 2014),; and Tin Maung Maung Than, “Myanmar in 2013: At the Halfway Mark,” Asian Survey, Vol. 54, No. 1 (January/ February 2014), 28.

[18] “Policies of Persecution – Ending Abusive State Policies Against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar,” Fortify Rights (25 February 2014),

[19] Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Final Report of Inquiry Commission on Sectarian Violence in Rakhine State (8 July 2013), 62,

[20] The Rakhine Commission of Inquiry was established by Executive Order on 17 August 2012. For a description of the Commission’s composition, mandate, and methodology, see Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Final Report of Inquiry Commission on Sectarian Violence in Rakhine State (8 July 2013), i-ii, .

[21] Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Final Report of Inquiry Commission on Sectarian Violence in Rakhine State (8 July 2013), 16,

[22] Eliane Coates, “Buddhist Monks in Myanmar: Driving Religious Intolerance and Hindering Reform,” RSIS Commentaries No. 221/2013 (3 December 2013),

[23] See Kyaw San Wai, “Western Myanmar Unrest: Partisan Portrayals Risk Extremist Implications,” RSIS Commentaries 131/2012,

[24] Human Rights Watch, “All You Can Do is Pray: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State” (2013),

[25] Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Final Report of Inquiry Commission on Sectarian Violence in Rakhine State (8 July 2013), 47,

[26] “Abuse Against Myanmar’s Rohingya Erodes Recent Progress,” Amnesty International, (19 July 2012),

[27] Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Final Report of Inquiry Commission on Sectarian Violence in Rakhine State (8 July 2013), 48,


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