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Myanmar's Enemy Within

Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim “Other”

By Francis Wade
16-minute read
Audio available
Myanmar's Enemy Within by Francis Wade

Myanmar’s Enemy Within (2017) examines a shocking outburst of violence against an ethnic minority – the Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar. Beginning with an account of the events of 2012 and 2013, these blinks work their way back to explain the historical context of anti-Muslim resentment in the country. Along the way, they explore the legacies of British colonialism, the rise of nationalism, and the country’s troubled transition to democracy.

  • History buffs 
  • News addicts who want to dig deeper 
  • Anyone interested in contemporary Asian politics

Francis Wade is a British journalist best known for his reporting on Myanmar and Southeast Asia. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Al Jazeera, Asia Times Online, Foreign Policy, and the LA Review of Books. He was previously an editor and reporter for the Democratic Voice of Burma, a news organization founded by exiled dissidents from Myanmar. 

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Myanmar's Enemy Within

Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim “Other”

By Francis Wade
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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Myanmar's Enemy Within by Francis Wade
Synopsis

Myanmar’s Enemy Within (2017) examines a shocking outburst of violence against an ethnic minority – the Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar. Beginning with an account of the events of 2012 and 2013, these blinks work their way back to explain the historical context of anti-Muslim resentment in the country. Along the way, they explore the legacies of British colonialism, the rise of nationalism, and the country’s troubled transition to democracy.

Key idea 1 of 10

The transition from dictatorship to democracy was a cause of anti-Muslim violence in the summer of 2012.

Rakhine State is Myanmar’s westernmost region. Much longer than it is wide, the state’s coastline begins at the Bangladesh border in the north and runs south along the Bay of Bengal for some 300 miles.

Sittwe, the state’s capital, is a fishing town. For many years, its Muslim and Buddhist inhabitants lived together in relative harmony. In neighborhoods like Nasi, they didn’t just work and trade together – they sent their kids to the same schools and often intermarried. 

In the summer of 2012, that changed. After months of rumors that Muslims were attacking Buddhists, busses full of armed vigilantes began appearing in Sittwe. On June 12, they moved into Nasi, where they spent the day burning down Muslim-owned houses and driving their residents into displacement camps. It was the first of many similar incidents. 

The key message in this blink is: The transition from dictatorship to democracy was a cause of anti-Muslim violence in the summer of 2012. 

The targets of this violence were Muslims known as Rohingya, an ethnic minority in Rakhine State. 

The Rohingya see themselves as Myanmar, but Rakhine Buddhists deny their claims to common citizenship. As they see it, the Rohingya aren’t from Myanmar at all. Instead, they’re the descendants of Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh and India, who crossed the border and settled on land that rightfully belongs to the Rakhine Buddhist majority. 

Losing their land isn’t the only thing Rakhine Buddhists fear. Like many nationalists in Myanmar, they call the nation’s border with Bangladesh the “Western Gate.” This is the final frontier between the Muslim world to the east and the Buddhist world to the west, and it is all that stands between them and “Islamization.” As one Rakhine Buddhist told the author, “If I don’t protect my race, then it will disappear.” 

Why, after years of peaceful coexistence, did so many Rakhine Buddhists suddenly feel that they were under attack? One answer is that the campaign against the Rohingya coincided with another development in Myanmar: the shift from dictatorship to democracy. 

Between 2011 and 2015, Myanmar – which had been ruled by a military dictatorship since 1962 – adopted a more democratic system. During the years of dictatorial rule, the country’s army had suppressed the political movements of ethnic minorities. Now that the military wasn’t in charge, though, groups like the Rohingya might start asserting their rights. And that, Rakhine Buddhists feared, would erode their rights.

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