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Myanmar’s military and Aung San Suu Kyi stoke racist attacks on Rohingya Muslims

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Issue 2570
A refugee camp for Rohingya people displaced by previous violence
A refugee camp for Rohingya people displaced by previous violence (Pic: Sara Perria/IRIN)

Thousands of Rohingya minority Muslims have been forced to flee their homes in western Myanmar in the last week.

It is part of a crackdown against “insurgents” by the military in the Rakhine region of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

At least a dozen bodies of Rohingya people have washed up on a Bangladeshi riverbank. They are believed to have drowned trying to escape the violence.

The US-based campaign Human Rights Watch said satellite images appear to show whole villages burning. The military and politicians blamed Rohingya fighters for setting fire to them.

This follows a similar crackdown last year when the military burned villages to the ground. It tortured and murdered people under the guise of attacking the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

The ARSA is the latest in a series of armed groups that have fought for independence from Myanmar since 1947. It launched a series of successful attacks on security forces last week.

The racism against the Rohingya Muslims has been sponsored by the military dictatorship that’s ruled Myanmar since 1962.

The military regime is pursuing a sham “reform process” that’s seen long-time opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi become prime minister under its supervision.

Myanmar is a patchwork of over 100 different languages and ethnicities, but the government does not recognise Rohingya Muslims as indigenous.


A racist law passed in 1982 excludes them from citizenship, making them a stateless people without rights to travel.

The roots of this racism go back to when Myanmar was ruled by British Empire.

Fearing a united revolt the colonial authorities divided people along ethnic and religious lines—professions and whole towns were segregated.

The politics of divide and rule have shaped Myanmar’s nationalist movement that fought against British imperialism.

The main nationalist movement, known as the Thakins, was formed in 1930 out of race riots between Indian dockworkers and Burmese scabs in the city of Rangoon.

The British had drafted in Burmese workers as scabs to break a dock strike.

The nationalist movement’s politics excluded non-Buddhists, particularly Muslims.

Nationalist leader Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, said, “Only Burmans and Shans could really be considered as having a nation”.

This means practically all Myanmese politicians are united in supporting the military against the Rohingya. Prime minister Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy plays to nationalist politics.

The liberal icon backed the military’s repression last week—and showed herself to be a vicious racist. Describing the Rohingya as “Bengalis”, Aung San Suu Kyi claimed that they “set fire to their own properties”.

Ending repression of the Rohingya and uniting workers means confronting this racism.

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