Challenging Hannah Beech: The Strangulation of the Rohingyas, 1948-2019

Gerald Peiris, … responding to Note at head of References

The section of the Bangladesh frontier in the south-east runs adjacent to the northern Arakan states of Myanmar (formerly, Burma) —a politically turbulent area which has, at least from the late 1940s, been featured by spells of high intensity conflict between the government of Myanmar and the Arakanese Muslims, the ‘Rohingya.’ The length of time over which the Rohingya have coexisted in this hilly area with the numerically larger ‘Rakhine’ — a predominantly Buddhist ethnic group— is not known with certainty. The Rohingya claim in this regard is that their roots could be traced back to the 10th century Muslim migrations into Burma, and that, in the northern Arakan, they constituted an independent principality for more than three centuries from 1430 to 1784.[i]  This has been disputed.  The official stand of the government of Myanmar (which has, in fact, been corroborated in certain scholarly writings) is that the Rohingya community consists largely of Bengali Muslims who migrated into this area after the annexation of Arakan by the British in 1843.

Pics from 2017 selected by Thuppahi from

Regardless of the validity of one or the other of the foregoing assertions, there is hardly any doubt that, under British rule, the Rohingya links with Islamic Bengal remained more tangible than their links with the core areas of Buddhist Burma in the Irrawaddy valley.  For instance, in the period leading to the withdrawal of the British from South Asia, there was a demand for an independent political entity for the Arakanese Muslims.  During this time, the leaders of this community also probed the possibility of incorporation with Pakistan to which the Muslim League gave nominal support.[ii] In the wake of Myanmar’s independence, the demand for an autonomous Muslim state in the Arakan took the form of an insurrection led by the Mujahiden—a rebel group committed to a ‘holy war’— which was brought under a measure of control by the Myanmar government only in 1955.  It has been claimed[iii] that atrocities committed by the Mujahiden on the Arakanese Buddhists during this time resulted in a large-scale exodus of the latter group, and that the land thus left vacant attracted a considerable number of new Muslim migrants into this area from the adjacent parts of East Pakistan.

The suppression of the Mujahiden insurrection did not result in the complete elimination of Muslim militancy in northern Arakan.  The so-called ‘Rohingya Patriotic Front’ —an umbrella organisation for small Muslim guerrilla groups that had at least nominal links with similar militant groups among other ethnic minorities in the peripheral areas of Myanmar— persisted with a ‘resistance movement’ against alleged discrimination and harassment by the government.[iv]  The situation deteriorated further after the overthrow of civilian rule in Myanmar in 1962.  The emphasis placed by the new military regime on national integration meant that the restrictions placed upon the minority communities of the country became more stringent, and the strategies pursued in the maintenance of law and order more oppressive.

A critical stage in the escalating conflict in northern Arakan was reached in 1978 when the Ne Win government launched the so-called “Nagomin Programme” which has been variously described as “a census operation,”[v] “a campaign against illegal immigrants,”[vi] and “an attempt at national consolidation through forced eviction of the Muslims from Myanmar.”[vii]  The writings available on this campaign suggest that it had all these elements, and that, as it gathered momentum, the Muslims living in northern Arakan were made the victims of extreme forms of hardship, brutality and terror. If, indeed, driving out the Muslims was one of its aims, the campaign achieved a high degree of success as evidenced by the fact that, by May 1978, an estimated 200,000 Rohingya had fled across the border to Bangladesh.[viii]

The Dhaka government, though reluctantly accommodating the refugees in camps located in proximity to the Myanmar border, categorically refuted the notion that the refugees were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh evicted from Myanmar.  The magnitude of the crisis attracted the attention of international organisations such as the United Nations Commission for Refugees and other human rights NGOs which, while engaging in relief operations (the scope of which remained subject to stringent restrictions imposed by the governments of both Bangladesh and Myanmar), insisted on the principle that there should be no forced repatriation of political refugees across international frontiers. The Myanmar government, on the one hand, failed to restore conditions in the Arakan area which could facilitate the voluntary return of the refugees. It denied the Bangladeshi figures relating to refugee numbers. In official communiqués, it referred to the refugees as “armed bandits from Bengal,” “rampaging Bengali mobs,” and “wild Muslim extremists.”[ix] It also charged that the refugee camps located adjacent to the frontier were been used as guerrilla bases. On the other hand, the Bangladesh government, overburdened with its own problems, is also reported to have employed various coercive methods such as intimidation and physical harassment, and frugal rationing of food and other essentials, for inducing the refugees to return to Myanmar. There is lack of clarity on the eventual outcome of these counteracting attempts. According to certain observers,[x] by the early 1980s, the large majority of refugees had returned to Myanmar. Others[xi] have maintained that large numbers of Rohingya have continued to linger in refugee camps.

The conditions which those among the refugees who returned to Myanmar encountered were only marginally better than they were before the “Nagomin Programme,” the improvement being largely confined to the reduced military presence in northern Arakan. This area, however, continued to suffer neglect and, as reported by several UN agencies,[xii] living conditions in the predominantly Rohingya districts, as reflected in basic demographic and welfare indicators, were the worst in the country. The persistence of ethnic tension in the area was also evidenced by outbursts of Muslim-Buddhist clashes.[xiii]

In 1990, the Arakanese Muslims became the target of a second wave of military oppression which, according to Lintner, was a “diversionary tactic” of the Myanmar government taken in the face of mounting popular pressures towards democratisation.  The offensive was justified by the authorities with reference to an alleged resurgence of insurrectionary activities of the “Muslim extremists” in the north Arakan area.  Its outcome was another large-scale out-flow of refugees to Bangladesh which, by March 1992, is reported to have aggregated to an estimated 270,000.[xiv] The government denied the alleged scale of the exodus, insisting that no more than a few thousands had fled the country, and also charged that the Bangladeshi government was providing covert support to armed insurgent groups especially by way of permitting both guerrilla attacks on Myanmar from Bangladeshi territory as well as recruitment of youth to guerrilla cadres in the refugee camps.

The intense hostility between Bangladesh and Myanmar featured by sabre-rattling from both sides of the frontier which prevailed during this period began to ease only in 1994 when bilateral negotiations lead to a phased-out return of the refugees to Myanmar, paralleled by measures adopted by the Dhaka government to curb the Rohingya rebel operations in the border areas of Bangladesh.  Though an estimated 190,000 refugees are said to have returned to northern Arakan by the end of 1995, more recent reports indicate that the Bangladesh-Myanmar border zone has continued to remain an arena of tension and unrest.[xv]

While blatant discrimination especially in the provision of ‘basic needs’, and sporadic sledgehammer military responses to even localized conflagrations perpetrated by Rohingya militants, are said to have been initiated by the Myanmar government in 2012. According to reports compiled by both UN agencies  as well as INGO-sponsored groups engaged in relief operations, these operations resulted in large-scale massacre of thousands of civilians, a cross-border  exodus of  many thousands of refugees (several reports placed the number at about 200,000, and about 150,000 being herded into refugee camps located close to several towns in southern Mynamar.

Despite the claimed trend towards ‘democratisation’ of the Myanmar polity from about the early years of the 21st century, several critics have referred to an intensification of the various forms of persecution of Rohingya people, especially evident since about 2012. According to recent claims by the Bangladesh government, the number of Rohingya residing in refugee camps has risen to about 800,000. Note also that the Rohingya, officially classified as “stateless”, are granted citizenship in Myanmar only on submission of evidence of their ancestors had entered and were living in Burma before 1948.


[i].   Mathews (1995): 279

[ii] .   Maung (1992): 60

[iii] .   Maung (1992): 29

[iv] .   Smith (1991): 240; O’Donnell (1984): 216-217

[v] .   Smith (1991): 241

[vi] .   Steinberg (1984): 68

[vii] .   HRWA (1996): 8; Maniruzzaman (1982): 216

[viii] .   Sobhan (1993): 80-83

[ix] .   Smith (1991): 241

[x] . Steinberg (1984) 72; Smith (1991):77

[xi]. HRWA (1984): 8-9

[xii] . HRWA (1984): 11

[xiii] . Steinberg (1984): 68

[xiv] . Lintner (1993): 5-6; Makeig (1989: 241


I have prepared on the Rohingya so that those who could claim to have even a modicum of familiarity with the socioeconomic and political conditions here in Sri Lanka might realise how absurd it is to draw parallels between Sri Lanka and Myanmar in respect of Buddhist-Muslim relations. The first part of the ‘Note’ is an extract from a long article I wrote for the Ethnic Studies Report (Vol XVI (1): 1-72. I have updated that analysis with my readings on this topic after my erstwhile friend John Holt published his absurd presentation at an ICES conference in 2014.  The ‘Note’ is still in very rough form…. Within the first year of the paper being carried by ‘Researchgate’ (i.e. 2014) it had more than 4,000 ‘hits’ – the majority from Bangladesh, but also from several other countries including US and Australia, and some very rewarding responses.


Mathews, Bruce (1995) ‘Religious Minorities in Myanmar: Hints and Shadows’, Contemporary South Asia, 3(4).

Maung, Shew Lu (1992) Nationalism and Ideology, Dhaka: Dhaka University Press.

Smith, Martin (1991) Burma: Insurgency and Politics of Ethnicity, London: Zed Books.

Steinberg, David I. (1984) ‘Constitutional and Political Bases of Minority Insurrections in Burma’, in Lim Joo-Jok & S. Vani (eds.) Armed Separatism in South Asia, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

HRWA/Human Rights Watch/Asia (1996) Burma: The Rohingya Muslims: Ending a Cycle of Exodus, 8(9).

Lintner B. (1993) ‘Democracy, Ethnicity and Development: The Burmese Experience’, Conference on Democracy, Ethnicity and Development in South and Southeast Asia, Kandy: International Centre for Ethnic Studies (mimeographed).

Makeig, Douglas C. (1989) ‘National Security’, in Bangladesh: A Country Study, Washington DC: Library of Congress.

Sobhan, Rehman (1993) Bangladesh: Problems of Governance, New Delhi: Konark Publishers: 80-93.

Maniruzzaman, Talukdar (1982) Group Interests and Political Change in Bangladesh and Pakistan, New Delhi: South Asian Publishers.

O’Donnell, Charles Peter (1984) Bangladesh: A Biography of a Muslim Nation, Coulder, Col.: Westview Press.

Note: There are many writings on the current state of the Rohingya published in the Internet. Two such sources are referred to below……  Source:

BBC News Broadcast (2018) Myanmar Rohingya: What You Need to Know About the Crisis’, 24 April 2018

BBC News Broadcast (2019) ‘Bangladesh will No Longer Take Myanmar Refugees’, 1 March 2019

Addendum:Sitagu Sayadaw’s Mahavamsa Sermon’   $$ 

This is a Burmese transcription and English translation of a sermon given by Sitagu Sayadaw, a revered Burmese Buddhist teacher, on 30 October 2017.

It has received a lot of attention due to its use of a notorious section of an ancient Buddhist text, the Mahavamsa. I have written about the context of the sermon in an my essay ‘Sitagu Sayadaw and justifiable evils in Buddhism’.

English Translation
10-30-17 14: 42:19:00 TO 14: 54: 26:25

00:00-00:25 During Burma’s fight for independence, under the leadership of General Aung San, almost every one of the prominent warriors in the Burmese Army took shelter at the Buddhist monasteries in the rural villages, all over the country. We have learnt and read about that in history books. Buddhist monks and [Burmese] soldiers are inseparable.
00:26- 00:45 King Duttagamani accepted a flying alms-bowl. Not only was there food for himself, but his horse and the soldiers were also fed, as it was full of food. After they had had the food, they washed it [the bowl] and the empty alms-bowl was sent flying back. This was called the “flying alms-bowl”.
00:46-01:20 King Duttagamani had won the battle triumphantly. Millions of Tamils (Damilas) had died in the battle. After the battle, King Damainla, King Kyae were killed. King Duttagamani managed to unite the divided island of Lanka. Did you know that the island of Sri Lanka was separated into two sides? One side was Tamil (Damila) and the other was Buddhist. So who managed to combine the two separated parts into one country? King Duttagamani.
01:21-01:40 After the battle, the King was too exhausted to fall asleep. He couldn’t fall asleep and stayed awake in the middle of the night. What was happening to him was that he was being overtaken by remorse. What is that called? (to the audience)
– “remorse” (The audience answers)
01:41-02:05 We are talking about the powers of the Dhamma. The victory of this battle is due to the power/quality of the Dhamma over King Duttagamani. The battle was won because of the effects of the power of the Dhamma. And as a result of the unity of the monks in fighting the battle together, the battle was over. That was how they had a landslide victory in beating the invaders.
02:06-02:21 It’s about unity, right? There must be unity between the King (leadership) and its people as well as the unity between the Army and Sangha (the Monks). The Four of them also have to be united. It’s like the four legs of a chair. They all have to support the country.
02:22-03:02 The King was unable to sleep until midnight because he was thinking about those millions of opposing Tamil soldiers, whom he had killed in the battle. He feared he would go to four hell realms due to the his unwholesome actions (B. arkhutho. P. akusala-kamma) he committed by killing millions of human beings. He was mentally exhausted because of fighting in the battle; the worries of having to rebuild the country again; the worries of resisting and defending the country against the Tamils; the worries about the unwholesome actions he committed. All these worries accumulated because of the millions of lives lost in battle.
03:00-03:30 The Arahants residing in the countryside become aware of the remorse of the King [through their ‘spiritual powers’, abhiññā].
-Who are they? (He asked the audience)
-The Arahants. (The audience answered)
You all need to understand that these arahants are always taking care of the King.
The King receives metta [loving-kindness] from the arahants, which is well received.
03:31- 03:50 As soon as they were aware of the King’s remorse, eight of these arahants arrived in the middle of the night. They asked the guard to open the palace gate. The guard informed the King and he let the Arahants go in to see the King.
They asked the King why he isn’t sleeping well.
The King said he was remorseful.
03:51-04:02 He said he had remorse about the unwholesome actions he had committed and that he will go to hell for those actions.
The eight Arahants said “Do not be worried at all, your Majesty. It was only a tiny bit of unwholesome action that you have committed”
04:03-04:42 “Why only a tiny bit”, the King asked.
The Arahants answered that “even though millions of beings had been destroyed, there was only one and a half human beings who is a genuine being. There was only one and a half beings who can be regarded as a human being. Out of these Tamil invaders, there was only one who had adopted the five precepts, and one who had adopted the five precepts and taken the three refuges in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. Therefore, there was only one and a half human beings.
The arahants have the ‘spiritual power’ (abhiññā) to see this.
So, even the person who practices the five precepts is not a complete being. He is half a human being.
04:43-05:20 “The one who adopts the five precepts together with the three refuges in Buddha, Dhamma and Sanga, is a complete (full) human being. Among the millions of beings who he killed by shooting, hitting & chopping, there was only one whom can be called a human being and one whom can be called half a being. Thus, there’s only one and a half human beings in total. Please do not be worried, your Majesty”
We did not say it. Who said it? (He asked the audience)
He answered to his own question – The Arahants said it.
The King then had peace of mind.
05:21-06:49 [Then Sitagu Sayadaw recites a sermon/Sutta, with interpolations]: “Laypeople lead by their leader and members of Sangha lead by the Venerable monks shall be mutually dependent and support each other. After having totally freed from 62 years of being a slave’s life, our native land shall be built again. Our country, our land, our inheritance shall be established and prospered. Don’t let it falter.”
06:50-07:20 Land, water, sky [alluding to the three parts of the military: Army, Navy and Air Force]. There was that monk who saw the Tipiṭaka books being buried inside the meditation compound. So that counts as “Land”- your infantry Army, “water”- your navy, “sky” –that means your Air Force, right?
07:21-07:40 The monks see that. They have a big heart for the country. Land, water and sky. One should not lack anything, no omissions. Our Land should be protected. Our water should be protected thoroughly including the Straits. Don’t take anything for granted.
07:41-07:43 Do not worry. No matter how much you have to fight, how much you have to shoot them, just remember what was being said earlier. There are only one and a half beings that can be regarded as human beings. The persons who cannot be called human beings are not important.
07:44-08:30 All three of them – land, water, sky, should not lack in any protection and should be safeguarded by the Army. So, this is to the officers in the Army here – land, water, sky – should not lack anything. What does it mean? Safeguarded by the assembly of troops, during the military parades ceremony, on the Armed Forces Day, the chief of the military parade offered all the troops to the Chief of Defence. Doesn’t he use this particular term while doing so? It was the same term written 80 years ago by Gadaryone Sayadaw called “tut paung” (assembly of troops).
08:31-08:55 This term was already written 80 years ago by Gadaryone Sayadaw. Land, water and sky should be safeguarded by the assembly of troops. Like King Duttagamani and King Ajātasattu, they not only fight for the country, but they also fight for the Buddha sāsana. This should be the way.
08:56-09:54 If you want to hear, just listen to this. King Duttagamani made a solemn vow before he marched towards the battle [solemn vow recited in Pali.] This was King Duttagamani’s solemn vow, meaning “the reason I fight for this battle is not to sustain the luxury of being a King. The reason I am fighting Kyay Kalars (the Damilas, Tamils) is to preserve Buddha’s sāsana for as long as possible on this island of Sri Lanka. This was King Duttagamani’s solemn vow. He did not fight to preserve the luxury of being in the palace. Why did he fight? He fought to preserve Buddha’s sāsana for as long as possible.
09:55-10:35 The London Pali text society wrote this in English: [not clear where this is from, it is quoted by Sitagu Sayadaw in English], “My battles are not only to the secure kingship, but also for the future security long establishment of Buddhism.” [Then he explains this quote in Burmese]: In order to have a safe and secure Buddha sāsana and to preserve and sustain Buddhism in this country and in the future, I fought this battle” Who made this solemn vow? King Duttagamani and King Ajātasattu.
10:36-10:49 Similarly, our soldiers should take this example of King Duttagamani and King Ajātasattu in your heart. Thus, I would like to conclude this ceremony by encouraging you undertake this military responsibility of serving for the country and sāsana.
10:50-12:07 [Then Sitagu Sayadaw repeats the sermon/Sutta that he gave earlier]: “Laypeople lead by their leader and the members of Sangha lead by the Venerable monks shall be mutually dependent and support each other. After having totally freed from 62 years of being a slave’s life, our native land shall be built again. Our country, our land, our inheritance shall be established and prospered. Don’t let it falter.”
Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu.

  $$ = Source: paulfullerbuddhist

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