“No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish” … Rohingya and Racism in Modern Myanmar

I’ve mentioned in other posts that for all the talk of how wonderful, warm, open and friendly the people of Myanmar are (I hate this kind of generalisation) there is a strong and deep strain of racism really very close to the surface and easily uncovered if you just ask the right questions. Even of your friends.

Most societies have some group or other derided and detested as unclean, unwelcome, unlike us and subject to a racism and prejudice, based – as ever – on ignorance and a malelovant propaganda.

Right now if you live in Europe it’s most likely the Roma. Would you want them moving in next door?

In Myanmar it’s the Rohingya.

The Rohingya, Indo-Aryan Muslims, have been in Arakan, what’s now Rakhaine state, since the 1400s. Three hundred years before the Burmese got there.

My friend’s Rakhaine grandfather told him in the seventies that the Rohingya had arrived to live on a piece of land ‘the size of the skin of a dog’ and had just kept on coming and taking more land until now there are a million of them. Or more.

A 1982 law denied them citizenship. Bangladesh – where many of them live in refugee camps – does not want them either. Nor does Thailand where there are more in more camps on the border. The rest live a poor, much-restricted life in northern Rakhaine, ‘one of the most persecuted minorities in the world’ (UN), involved or frightened by in inter-communal, inter-religious violence that this year has resulted in the closure of almost all of the state to tourists (meaning I cannot go to Mrauk U which I’d been hoping to do on this trip, but nevermind about that).

Ask very many people – those lovely, peaceable, wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly Buddhists (and Christians) – about the Rohingya and not all will say that they are not Myanmar, that they are not welcome here and that they should ‘go back’. They have a name for them. Kalar. Translated it starts with N.

But many will.

A tour guide, a cosmetics seller, a doctor working for ‘capacity-building’ (yuk!) NGO, a monk.

Smart people. Friends of mine.

Some of my friends are racist (even if they know they shouldn’t be).

Racist not just specifically about the Rohingya; there is a more general anti-Muslim, the strongest strand of an anti ‘Indian’ racism at large, Islam in the main being an Indian import, Muslims making up maybe 5% of the population.

Historian Thant Myint-U writes: “At the beginning of the 20th century, Indians were arriving in Burma at the rate of no less than a quarter million per year. The numbers rose steadily until the peak year of 1927, immigration reached 480,000 people, with Rangoon exceeding New York City as the greatest immigration port in the world. This was out of a total population of only 13 million; it was equivalent to the United Kingdom today taking 2 million people a year.” By then, in most of the largest cities in Burma, Yangon, Sittwe, Pathein, Mawlemyine, the Indian immigrants formed a majority of the population. The Burmese under the British rule felt helpless, and reacted with a “racism that combined feelings of superiority and fear.

These days that sense of superiority and indeed fear is acted out in mainstream society by many Bamar, Rakhaine and other Sino-Tibetan people avoiding the use of Muslim-owned shops and restaurants, despite most having friends and work colleagues who are Muslim.

It’s a classic old-school racism that in many societies we are lucky to be moving beyond. A racism that I think is reflected in the persistence of some in sticking to the use of Burma instead of Myanmar and in being slow to speak up for the Rohingya in their current very real and dangerous plight.

Included in those ‘some’ is Aung San Suu Kyi (perhaps no Mandela figure at all) who is a Bamar, Buddhist populist who looks wary of looking out for the welfare of Muslims when to do so may risk Buddhist votes in what may turn out to be a fiercely fought General Election in 2015.

All this of course in a society that was closed-off from the outside world for pretty much most of the time when the rest of the world started to see itself and each other on TV, when many more traveled overseas than ever before, when new bonds were forged and old local enmities evaporated (who could imagine a war between France and Germany today?).

Myanmar in 1995, the first time I came, felt a very separate place. By 2002 the explosion of the Chinese economy just next door and the advent of satellite TV (and with it, and I think especially, the coming of the Premier League) things were starting to change.

But even now, a certain naivety abounds. The Nazi swastika has been for a while and remains (though less so) a not-recognised-for-what-it-is fashion statement replaced in its ubiquity by (in what I’ll call part an Olympic legacy) the very common sight of the British Union Flag on clothes and other items.

Though the best use of this is also somewhat misunderstood.


I agree with those who tell me that tell me that to progress Myanmar faces two issues; democratic reform and national reconciliation, meaning the resolution of border conflicts and ethnic-separatist instincts (of which more another day maybe).

In conversation about all this I put to people my view that there are only two options regarding the Rohingya situation.

Either a resource-rich Myanmar (rice exports just exceeded a million tonnes a year again) of 60 million people can accept and even welcome the 1 million – or more – Rohingya who are already here (whatever is to be settled about future potential immigration) or they can seek to push them out with no other country willing to accept them.

That choice, if tricky for the politicians facing it, seems pretty simple to me.

On the wider subject of the wider issue regarding Buddhist and Christian antagonism with Islam I like to talk about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Taukkyan on the outskirts or Yangon; it contains the graves of over 6000 Allied soldiers and there is a memorial inscribed with the names of almost 27,000 soldiers who have no grave.

Very many of the names on the memorial reflect the majority nature of the ‘British’ army that fought here liberating – re-occupying if you like – Myanmar from the Japanese.

They are the Muslim names of young men from India and West Africa who died to free a country that even almost 70 years later is yet to come to respect their sacrifice, yet to overcome the nonsense of faith-and-ethnicity-based racism.

Whatever it says on the t-shirt.






No-one knows accurately how many people live in Myanmar. the last official census said 35 million. the next, in 2014, will most likely say 60 million. Or more.


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