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  • Maria Johnsonbough

Colonization and Ethnic Violence - What Happens When the West Leaves

On January 4, 1948, while most of the world was reeling from the beyond devastating impacts of one of the largest wars in history, World War II, a new dawn appeared to descend on the people of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). After centuries of both informal and formal - and brutal - occupation by an infamous colonial superpower, Great Britain, Myanmar had finally shaken off the reigns of colonization and oppression, and declared itself a sovereign country. Britain, still overwhelmed with the costs of reconstruction from over five years of deadly conflict, permitted this with little argument. And so, from here, the future looked bright for the people of Myanmar.

Flash forward to August 2017: the Rakhine State. After decades of conflict, Myanmar’s military embarks on a bloody campaign against an ethnic minority, the Rohingya. Thousands of members of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority are killed, as many more flee their homes, families, and livelihoods to escape the violent state-sponsored persecution. As victims retreat to nearby countries, like Bangladesh, for safety, they face further violence, as sources report land mines placed on borders and security forces allegedly firing on unarmed civilians. Regardless of the border threats, by 2020, over 900,000 of the Rohingya are living as refugees in Bangladesh, and countless more throughout Southeast Asia.

The open violence against the Rohingya has drawn international concern, with a UN agency accusing the Myanmar government of “genocidal intent” against the Rohingya. Moreover, the UN panel reported clear patterns of abuse by the Myanmar military, including sexual assault, targeting of civilians, and promoting active discriminatory rhetoric towards this population. While the violence in August 2017 was the largest physical attack on the Rohingya population as of now, ethnic persecution has been characteristic of Myanmar since independence. However, this ongoing humanitarian crisis has been brewing under the surface for centuries, particularly during British colonial rule.

Colonial rule disrupts the social and cultural fabric of an existing territory, acting as a breeding ground for exacerbating ethnic conflict, not to mention a literal breeding ground for deadly disease. Quite clearly, human rights violations are most often characteristic of colonization (after all, we almost never hear about nations peacefully inviting other countries in to subject them to colonial rule) during colonization, but as we’ve seen with Myanmar, the effects of colonialism continue to propagate even decades, centuries after independence. How can we draw a connection between conquest centuries ago by a Western power to practically genocide in the 21st century, violence against a people by their own state?

The answer lies in part with the structure of English governance in colonial Myanmar, which only acted to emphasize existing ethnic divisions. After a series of humiliating defeats to the British in the early nineteenth century (that was not to say there was not any resistance, but it was quickly and violently suppressed by the British), the territory that is now modern-day Myanmar officially became a British colony in 1886. For ease of governance, the British split Myanmar into two administrative regions - “Ministerial Proper,” indicating mostly oversight by British governors, and “Frontier Areas,” which were mostly left to their own rule. Interestingly enough, the “Ministerial Proper” mostly governed the ethnic Buddhist majority, the Burmese, while the “Frontier Areas” pertained to the ethnic minorities.

While some, especially ethnic minorities in Myanmar, celebrated the changes evoked by English rule, the majority resented them. Under British rule, the monarchy, a point of nationalistic pride for the Burmese, was eradicated in 1885 and instead replaced with English colonial rule, which was often brutal. Traditional religious practices of the majority Burmese population were significantly restricted, if not forbidden, by law. For instance, prior to the arrival of the British, most education for young men had taken place within Buddhist communities called Sangha, whereby the majority would go onto become monks. Sangha was critical for maintaining the social fabric and peace, and as such, the arrival of British colonial policy undermined this system, directly contributing to social conflict. It shook the traditional social system where religious leaders were the heads of authority, and granted ethnic minorities, who were more accepting to Christian missionaries, unprecedented access to power.

Further ethnic struggle continued beyond the religious realm and into the economy. Throughout the nineteenth century, greater economic opportunities were offered to non-majority groups and immigrants, particularly those from India, in urban districts, while the Burmese majority struggled with rapid urbanization and open discrimination in the workplace. This only acted to exacerbate already existing tensions and competition between ethnic groups, in which individuals began to be categorized as “Burmese” and “non-Burmese,” the latter including all immigrants and ethnic minorities. As such, nationalist tendencies had begun to emerge by the end of the nineteenth century-early twentieth century amongst the Burmese majority, which was majorly sparked by the resistance efforts of Buddhists monks.

By the end of World War II and British colonial rule, the groundwork had been laid for significant ethnic conflict. Throughout the War, the British had maintained their strategy of promoting minorities and foreign immigrants over the majority in military positions, which added to resentment against these groups. When the new Burmese constitution was drawn up in February 1947, it was done so without the input of many minority groups, such as the Rohingya, and several provisions consolidated power into the hands of the majority. Given these foundations, the human rights crisis in Myanmar is an anticipated tragedy. Indeed, the world has seen many catastrophic conflicts in the modern era erupt over the disparity in treatment during colonial rule. Take, for instance, the Rwandan Genocide in the 1990s, a deadly ethnic cleansing campaign against the Tutsi minority in retribution for their preferential treatment during Dutch colonial rule.

Undoubtedly, it is possible that different ethnic groups can live in harmony with one another, despite challenging histories. However, relative political, social, and economic stability is imperative for soothing ethnic tensions, which does not seem to be in the cards for Myanmar, given the resumption of brutal military rule in 2021. As such, the resolution of violence against the Rohingya without external intervention (and perhaps in spite of) is, unfortunately, unlikely to come to fruition anytime soon.


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