As Rohingya villages in Myanmar’s Rakhine State were set alight last month, the military and civilians lined up to shoot, hack and beat defenceless villagers to death as they tried to escape. In the last few weeks, a mass exodus of more than a quarter of a million Rohingya, terrorised and starving, have fled towards the Bangladeshi border – a frontier that the Burmese military, known as the Tatmadaw, have booby trapped with land mines. This unfolding tragedy is a reminder that some people are considered superfluous. It’s a reminder that some lives matter less than others and that some people are sacrificed to serve the political and economic ends of others.

For years, human rights organisations have been warning that the Rohingya, routinely labeled ‘the world’s most persecuted people,’ are facing an impending genocide. When I was last there in 2014 I was aghast at how ingrained anti-Muslim sentiment had become in Burmese culture, and how it was manifesting in everyday life. At Bogyoke Aung San Market in Yangon, Muslim traders spoke of increased discrimination and told me how they’d lost their livelihoods because many Burmese Buddhists had boycotted their businesses.

Everywhere I went, people – usually unprompted – wanted to share their own version of the myth of the marauding Muslim masses; it was obvious, even then, that a dangerous mix of racism and conspiratorial thinking had taken root in the country. If something wasn’t done to stop the Muslims, a Burmese Buddhist told me as we stood at the entrance to Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar would become like Pakistan. Pakistan, he said, once had a thriving Buddhist population, until the Muslims came along and killed, converted and drove them from the country. I heard several different accounts of Muslims taking Buddhist brides as a tactic for spreading their faith (‘love jihad’). There were also the predictable tales of rape and murder; inevitably, these isolated incidents were widely reported in the media and formed the basis of many sweeping generalisations.

The thing that was most disquieting though, was that overwhelmingly, the racism wasn’t characterised by hatred but by a far more destructive force: fear. Many spoke vaguely of an inevitable, impending conflict. But when proffering a kind of preordained justification for whatever was to ensue, their accounts took on a degree of consistency that suggested they’d all imbibed the same propaganda: Buddhists were a non-violent, peace-loving, compassionate people pitched against inherently violent, immoral Muslims. In a country where Muslims make up only around four per cent of the population, Buddhists routinely explained to me how Islam posed an existential threat to their faith and nation.

Since his release from prison in 2012, Wirathu, the monk famously dubbed ‘The Face of Buddhist Terror’ by Time magazine, has lead the anti-Muslim movement in Myanmar. He has long called for the Rohingya to be expelled from the country and wants laws prohibiting marriage between Buddhists and Muslims. At mass rallies attended by thousands, he holds court, leading anti-Muslim chants and delivering sermons inciting genocide. In a country where monks are revered, this saffron-robed Buddhist supremacist provides the moral legitimacy to those who are now slaughtering the Rohingya.

The government continues to let Wirathu deliver his hate speeches, Aung San Suu Kyi tacitly endorses his message, and the Rohingya go on being murdered and driven from the country. But none of this is happening in a vacuum; when, the other day, Suu Kyi referred to the ‘terrorists’ spreading misinformation, she was just doing what other governments have done to justify their extrajudicial persecution of Muslims (think, for example, of the United States’ drone assassination program; or China’s persecution of Uyghurs; or Russia’s campaign against Chechens; or, indeed, Australia’s treatment of refugees).

What’s happening now in Rakhine State hasn’t come out of the blue. The Rohingya have long been the targets of a murderous campaign to cleanse Burmese lands of their presence. This is a program that has been in place for years. It’s a program that has wide support in both the military and government now, just as it did last year when the United States lifted sanctions and celebrated Myanmar’s ‘transition to democracy’.

The Tatmadaw are ethnic cleansers, but much of the world is complicit. Despite a long and well-documented record of war crimes and crimes against humanity, Australia provides them with defence training and support. Moreover, governments that have used Islam opportunistically to serve their own political ends have played a role in the unfolding tragedy too. Those who’ve uncritically showered praise of Aung San Suu Kyi and her government while she’s refused to even say the word ‘Rohingya’ (a dog whistle to Buddhist supremacists who refer to the ethnic minority derogatively as ‘Bengalis’) have wilfully ignored the simmering tension and impending violence.

‘Never Again’ is the empty platitude adorning memorials at Auschwitz, Srebrenica and Kigali. But governments sit on their hands and remain silent as other nations make preparations for genocide. Now, with the killing underway, they line up to express their ‘concern’. But now it’s too late.


Image: Aung San Suu Kyi – Comune Parma / wikimedia

Tim Robertson

Tim Roberson is an independent journalist and writer. He tweets @timrobertson12.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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    1. martin, thanks for pointing this out – an oversight on my part.

      there is footage circulating, though, that purports to show wirathu speaking in karen state on 9th september, in which he compares the rohingya to animals. i can’t independently verify it at this stage (and, hence, didn’t link to it or quote it in the piece), but i’m trying to get some more information about it and will update here if i find out any more.

  1. Hi Tim. So, if the footage you mention were verified, would that confirm the government and ASSK endorsed it? (Btw, I am not an apologist for either, and five years ago thought Wirathu should be disrobed.)

  2. No, I’ve no doubt he would’ve been acting on his own accord.

    But I think the government and ASSK have been reluctant to speak out against him because he is so popular and they don’t want to risk losing the support of the Bamar majority.

  3. So, given that Wirathu has been officially silenced by the national religious body that acts in both Buddhist and Bamar interests, is it true to say that the government and ASSK being “reluctant to speak out against him” is equivalent to the claims that “The government continues to let Wirathu deliver his hate speeches, Aung San Suu Kyi tacitly endorses his message”? I express the concern because both claims are serious as well as defamatory and appear to be unfounded. A good recent article is here:

  4. As I said above, I accept that the first part of that statement (‘The government continues to let Wirathu deliver his hate speeches…’) is wrong.

    But I think the other statements you allude to (that the government and ASSK have been ‘reluctant to speak out against him’ and that ‘ASSK tacitly endorses his message’) have been shown to be true. While ASSK has chosen her words very carefully, those around her have been more candid, like her spokesman, U Zaw Htay, who’s said of the Rohingya: ‘If they are going to harm you, you can shoot them.’ ( That seems the most obvious example of the tacit endorsement I was referring to, since it’s his job to speak on behalf of the government. But I would go further and argue that one can’t be impartial on this issue and ASSK’s refusal to condemn the actions of the Tatmadaw in the Rakhine also amounts to tacit endorsement.

    I don’t assert that Wirathu and ASSK are like-for-like or that Wirathu and his message are reflective of Burmese Buddhism, more broadly. But I don’t think the institutions and individuals – Ma Ha Na and ASSK, for example – who have enormous moral authority in the country have done enough to speak out against the underlying anti-Muslim sentiment. It’s unimaginable, for example, that they would say what the Dalai Lama said the other day: ‘If Buddha happened, he certainly would protect those Muslim brothers and sisters.’ Would this have made a difference? I don’t know, but I still think it’s important.

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