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 Essay series

Nationalism and Violence in Rhakine State

01 August 2018

Daniela Bücheler-Scott


This is an edited version of a Monash University assignment for Anthropology of Human Rights from 19 October 2017


"It is impossible to make peace with the Rohingya Muslims. They want the right for their ethnic group to be full citizens. They want the right to join the army; to reach the level of president. That is impossible."

U Rarzar – Ma Ba Tha Leader,

The Guardian video

Photo used with permission by: Nasty Politics

“Ethnic cleansing is not what is happening, it’s too strong a word.”

Aung Sung Suu Kyi,

BBC Interview


Raised an Austrian National, at the age of eighteen I worked as administrator in a local ski school. I still remember to this day, when, after watching me interact in an equally friendly manner with local and foreign ski instructors, my manager said to me: “Make sure to treat the locals better than the foreigners.” It was at this point that I decided, inwardly, I would do no such thing; that every person, regardless of background, age, sex or religion should naturally be treated equally. An ideology and a need to play some part in contributing to make people aware of and combat discrimination, racism, inequality and injustice was born.


And so, a desire to deeply understand the human condition in all its manifestations, and conversely a desire to deconstruct the reasons why this “othering” of people or groups in society develops, a passion for social and cultural anthropology emerged. Anthropology is, after all, “philosophy with the people in” (Ingold, 2007). Ingold (2007:69) says the “objective of anthropology is to seek a generous, comparative, but nevertheless critical understanding of human being and knowing in the world we all inhabit.” 

One of the ultimate and most extreme forms of “othering”, which prior to taking this Anthropology of Human Rights unit has utterly escaped my comprehension, is that of genocide. How can people act so inhumanely towards their fellow human beings?


In this essay I look at theories of genocide in general and hope to develop a deeper understanding of this contemporary phenomenon by investigating the current situation of the Rohingya people of Myanmar. My aim is to answer whether the concept of nationalism has adversely affected the Myanmar Rohingyas and resulted in political and structural violence, leading to outright physical violence in the form of genocide. In particular, I look at why the Rohingyas are denied citizenship and will try and prove my hypothesis that nationalism and violence are invariably linked.

Nationalism developed in both France and Germany around the time of the French Revolution and German Romanticism (Eriksen, 2001:275). Nationalism is a product of modernity and holds that “cultural boundaries should correspond to political boundaries” (Eriksen, 2001:275). Former kinship ideology was sufficient to organise people and groups on a small-scale. However, as people disengaged from ‘primordial ties’ to kin, religion and local communities, and as a response to industrialisation, nationalism emerged as a more efficient and cohesive ideology to deal with social systems of enormous scale (Eriksen, 2001:276-7). The main difference to kinship ideology – and I argue this is where it can fall apart - is that nationalism “postulates the existence of an abstract/imagined community” (Eriksen, 2001:277). 

Of course, the concept nationalism and nation-state has many benefits to the government and its people – such as creating loyalty, offering a feeling of security and cultural identity, and offering socialisation and career opportunities (Eriksen, 2001:278). Although when nationalism is politicized it can become very dangerous, when, as Mann (2005:3) says, “it represents the perversion of modern aspirations to democracy in the nation-state.”


He explains that in modern times, democracy has come to mean two things: (a) rule by the ordinary people, the masses (the word for people in Greek is demos); and (b) nation or ethnic group (from the Greek term ethnos), a people that shares a common culture and sense of heritage, distinct from other peoples (Mann, 2005:3). 

It is said that extreme violence in the form of genocide is mostly a modern phenomenon, which has mainly arisen due to the concept of nationalism. Although mass murder and atrocity is certainly not new to human history, the idea of wiping out entire civilian populations is linked to modern concepts of what it means to ‘belong’ (and should therefore be included) or ‘not belong’ to a certain nation (and should therefore be excluded).


Hinton (2002) says genocide, as we know it today, did not exist before the 20th Century. In the past, “conquerors normally wanted people to rule over; they wanted to subordinate and enslave them, not remove them” (Mann, 2005:34). Before nationalism, when most big societies were class-divided, and where aristocracies or small oligarchies dominated - rarely sharing a common culture or ethnic identity with lower classes - class trumped ethnicity, which is why ethnic cleansing was rare. “Ethnic hostility rises when ethnicity trumps class as the main form of social stratification” (Mann, 2005:5). 

So, what is genocide and is this what is currently taking shape in Myanmar?

The term ‘genocide’ was coined in 1944 by Polish jurist Raphäel Lemkin, using the Greek words genos (race or tribe) and cide (killing of), (Hinton, 2002:3). Fein (in Hinton, 2002:4) defines genocide as the:

Sustained purposeful action by a perpetrator to physically destroy a collectivity directly or indirectly, through interdiction of the biological and social reproduction of group members, sustained regardless of the surrender or lack of threat offered by the victim.Some of the common themes of genocide are exercises of power, distancing and dehumanization (Alvarez, 2001:14).


This explains why rape is often used during genocide - to dehumanize ‘the other’. By taking the human aspect out of crime it becomes an exercise in simply annihilating members of a category (Alvarez, 2001:19). Alvarez says, “Victims of genocide are killed, not for what they have done, but for who they are” (Alvarez, 2001:18). During the Holocaust, Jews were criminal by definition and the same can be said about the Rohingyas. They are criminal because they are Muslims and because their mere existence is seen as a threat to Buddhism.

Not only do Buddhists face an existential fear of having their religion and culture diluted and eventually becoming the minority, they also fear their physical extinction. Blomquist (2016:94-96) reports that Rohingya Muslims have a young population, rapid population growth and high fertility rates. They are growing at a rate 1.5 times faster than that of Myanmar as a whole and of the total population of Rakhine State, whereas both the Rakhine and Rohingya communities grew at similar rates in the first eighty years of British rule (Blomquist, 2016:96). One can argue this is due to being locked up in internal ‘detention’ camps (effectively apartheid conditions) and being refused work and education outside of these confines.


Although, Kyaw (2015:57) argues the Buddhist community believe the polygamous Rohingya purposely marry Buddhist women and convert them to Islam. Furthermore, their perception is that, in the market, Muslims are alleged to only transact with Muslims or buy from Muslim-owned shops, which makes Muslims become better-off and more able to lure Buddhist women of lower socio-economic backgrounds, who then marry Muslim men and be converted to Islam and raise their children as Muslims (Kyaw, 2015:57).

The government of Myanmar has so far refused to label the violence against the Rohingyas as genocide or ethnic cleansing. Straus, (2011:20) says, “Ethnic cleansing differs from genocide most explicitly in the purpose of the violence, which is group removal in the former and group destruction in the latter.” Myanmar State Counsellor Aung Sung Suu Kyi has simply said in a recent 2017 interview with the BBC: “Ethnic cleansing is not what is happening in Rakhine State; that is too strong a word.”


It may well be too early to label the reasons why Rohingyas have had to seek refuge due to killings, rapes and other forms of direct violence, but one can certainly call what has been ‘happening’ in the past few decades, forms of structural and political violence. 

Before looking at examples of these forms of violence, a brief history of Rakhine State and its Muslim inhabitants, the Rohingyas, is in order. The self-identifying Rohingya Muslims are a linguistically, religiously, and culturally distinct group. The Myanmar government refuses to accept the name ‘Rohingya’ and has given specific instructions to the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State not to use the name in their report “Towards a Peaceful, Fair and Prosperous Future for the People of Rakhine” (2017). Leider (2013:219) provides an excellent scientific linguistic demonstration on the legitimacy of the ethnonym ‘Rohingya’, which is unfortunately beyond the scope of this paper at this time.

The Rohingya represent 2 per cent of Myanmar’s population and mainly live in the northern part of Rakhine State, formerly known as Arakan State before 1989. According to Ibrahim (2016:5-6), a group of Indo-Aryan language people from the Gages Valley migrated from northern India to Arakan in 3000BC – this group can be identified with the modern-day Rohingyas. By 1000AD they largely adopted Islam and their language absorbed other influences from their trading across the Bay of Bengal.


Because of the difficult terrain due to high coastal mountains, overland interaction with the rest of Burma was more difficult, so it was easier to forge links across the Bay of Bengal. In 1300AD Arakan split from Burma and it was a multi-confessional, multi-ethnic state (Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism).

Ibrahim (2016:6) claims there is substantial evidence that an ethnic group, now known as the Rohingyas, lived in Arakan before the Burmese invasion of 1784. Leider (2013:222) assures there is no doubt about the existence of urban and rural Muslim communities who were living inside the kingdom that became part of Myanmar in 1785, as Buchanan has shown in his 1799 report.


Francis Buchanan, a Scottish physician and probably the most qualified Western person to have knowledge on Rakhine-related issues (Leider, 2013:221) published a report (similar to an ethnography) after spending 15 years in the region (Mahmood et al, 2017: 1841). Buchanan documented that Arakan was also known as “Rovingaw”, and the locals called themselves “Rooinga”, or natives of Arakan.


Mahmood and colleagues further assert, the term Rohingya is both recognised and used by the UN, US Congress, European Parliament, and humanitarian agencies including Physicians for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and Médecins Sans Frontières. 

The argument that Rohingya is not a true ethnic identity because it is ‘only a political construct’ is incorrect in so far as - borrowing Saha’s words - “there is no ethnic identity that is not also, in part, a political construction” (2017). Saha claims, that “anti-colonial nationalism and decolonization have made the political import of ethnicity greater.” It is not only Rohingya ethnicity that is a political construct, so too is Bengali, so too is Rakhine, so too is Burma. 

Rohingya Muslims are increasingly perceived not just as foreign but a security threat. In a 2017 Guardian video interview (@14.15mins) U Rarzar, one of the leaders of Ma Ba Tha, a Buddhist Nationalist group, declared:

I don’t discriminate, but everyone should be in their right place…It is impossible to make peace with Rohingya Muslims. They want the right for their ethnic group to be full citizens and they want the right to join the army, to reach the level of president-that is impossible.

This outwardly ethnocentric view reflects the nature of the conflict between the Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists as ‘ethno-demographic’ (Blomquist, 2016:94). As Blomquist (2016:94) says, “The close proximity of two ethnic groups competing for limited resources aggravates fear, which results in Rohingya being seen as an ‘out-group’ in direct competition for already scarce resources.” 

The Rohingyas suffer structural violence in the form of acute malnutrition, high mortality rates and low birthweight in children in Rohingya-predominant northern regions of Rakhine State compared to non-Rohingya-predominant regions (Mahmood et al, 2017:1846). Extreme poverty and lack of freedom of movement are also forms of structural violence the Rohingyas have suffered for decades. Galtung (1969) defines structural violence as "avoidable impairment of fundamental human needs”. The Rohingya have been called ‘the world’s most persecuted minority’ by the United Nations and human rights advocates, with living conditions in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps described as those “worse than animals” (Kingston, 2015:1163). 
Nagengast (in Hinton, 2002:6) defines political violence as:

Covert or overt state-sponsored or tolerated violence that may include actions taken or not taken by the state or its agents with the express intent of realizing certain social, ethnic, economic, and political goals in the realm of public affairs, especially affairs of the state or even of social life in general. 

It could be argued, any of the above-mentioned examples of structural violence are political violence as well, seeing the Myanmar government is tolerating the conditions under which the Rohingyas are living. The Rohingyas suffer political violence in the form of exclusion from the census, refusal to be recognized as taingyintha (national race), and - as a result of that - denial of citizenship. As a stateless minority group, the Rohingya are denied a range of human rights protections available to citizens, including economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR), such as the rights to a basic education and employment (Kingston, 2015). Reports by the Irish Center for Human Rights and Amnesty International identify governmental policies as key contributor to human rights abuses (Blomquist, 2016:98).

Ferguson (2015:5) argues there has not been an ‘accurate’ census since the British colonial census of 1931. One of the reasons is the mystery of how the Myanmar government has arrived at the number 135 for its number of ethnic sub-groups. Some informants say the number was made up by Senior General Saw Maung (founder of State Law and Order Restoration Council), yet another arbitrary suggestion is that General Ne Win’s favourite number is 9 – 135, 1+3+5 (Ferguson, 2015:15). Khin Maung Cho in Cheesman (2017:469) argues that taxonomy used in deciding the number of races, particularly since it was done without public explanation, recommends itself for “translating a political idea like national races into a truth regime for differentiation, domination and exclusion of populations.” 

But by far the most disturbing factor of the Myanmar census is the way in which it is politicized. Despite the fact the 2014 census has a category called ‘Other’, enumerators in Rakhine State were not allowing respondents to claim Rohingya ethnicity, and instead forced them to claim Bengali (Ferguson, 2015:21). Presidential spokesperson Ye Htut said this about the census: “If we ask a family about their ethnicity and they say ‘Rohingya’, we will not carry out or accept it” (Ferguson:21) - this type of coercive practice is supported by the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party general secretary Oo Hla Saw (Ferguson, 2015:21).


A comment by city elder from Sittwe, Than Htun: “If we accept the use of ‘Rohingya’ in the census, then Myanmar will become the destination country for all Bengalis migrating around the world who call themselves ‘Rohingya’ (Ferguson:21). The UNFPA (United Nations Populations Fund) is deeply concerned about this departure from international census standards, Human Rights principles and agreed procedures (Ferguson:22).

Cheesman (2017:476) goes even further by claiming that ‘national races’ or taingyintha surpass citizenship. He equates the question of Rohingya identity to the citizenship crisis in that it is “a feature of the surpassing political force of the national-race idea.” He says taingyintha has animated brutal conflict over who or what is ‘Rohingya’ as well as communal violence that human rights researchers and advocates have variously characterised as a crime against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide (Cheesman, 2017:461).


Before the emergence of nationalism in Myanmar in 1920s, the word taingyintha was associated with native culture such as handicrafts, medicines and trades and vernacular language use. After 1920s the term gained political significance as it was weaved into explicit nationalist narratives involving elision and domination (Cheesman, 2017:463-464).


In a 1948 radio address Prime Minister U Nu insisted everyone was duty-bound to work for the solidarity of taingyintha. From 1964, after General Ne Win seized power for the second time he wielded the concept of taingyintha with unprecedented enthusiasm, urging in the Union Day address:


… every taingyintha inhabiting the Union of Burma needs to be resolved to stick together for life, through weal and woe. Only then will taingyintha be able to join hands with each other and work trustingly for the good of the Union and the good of all its inhabitant races (Ne Win 1965 in Cheesman:465).

In this paper, I have aimed to show how the concept of nationalism is linked with violence in the case of the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar. The Myanmar government refuses to accept evidence that the Rohingya belong to their nation. Instances of structural, political and direct violence abound, which I argue are tolerated precisely because the Rohingya - with their distinctively different culture to the main culture - are excluded from the Myanmar nationalist ideal. Cheesman (2017:476) claims that because ‘national races’ or taingyintha surpass citizenship, citizenship will remain in crisis if Myanamar doesn’t deal with the ‘national races’ problem first.


I question whether granting the Rohingyas citizenship would solve the discrimination towards them? I echo Leider (2013:208) when he says, recommendation of simply granting the Rohingya citizenship “often given in absence of calls for communal dialogue and putting burden on shoulders of government alone is not the answer and lacks a deeper sensitivity.” This is also echoed in Kofi Anan’s Advisory Commission report recommendations (2017), which besides creating a path to citizenship, recommends socio-economic development, enhanced freedom of movement, a calibrated approach to security, and dialogue between communities. 




Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. (2017) Towards a Peaceful, Fair and Prosperous Future for the People of Rakhine: Final Report. Accessed 14 Oct 2017. Available from:

Alvarez, A. (2001). Governments, Citizens, and Genocide: A Comparative and Interdisciplinary Approach. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

BBC News. (2017). Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi exclusive interview, online video, viewed 15 Oct 2017. Available from:

Blomquist, R. (2016). Ethno-Demographic Dynamics of the Rohingya-Buddhist Conflict. Georgetown Journal of Asian Affairs, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, Fall 2016.

Cheesman, N. (2017). How in Myanmar National Races Came to Surpass Citizenship and Exclude Rohingya.  Journal of Contemporary Asia, 47 (3), 461-483
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Eriksen, T.H. (2001). Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology. 2nd edn. London: Pluto Press.

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Kyaw, N.N. (2015). Alienation, Discrimination, and Securitization: Legal Personhood and Cultural Personhood of Muslims in Myanmar. The Review of Faith & International Affairs, 13(4), 50-59.
doi: 10.1080/15570274.2015.1104971

Leider, J.P. (2013). Rohingya: the name, the movement and the quest for identity. In Nation Building in Myanmar, pp 204-255. Yangon: Myanmar EGRESS/Myanmar Peace Center.

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