Rohingya Crisis: Focus on 'Intolerant Religion' Disregards Complex Moral and Policy Challenges

Identifying religious difference, and discrimination as the main culprit in the Rohingya crisis masks the economic and political interests that are profiting from their subordination and repression. It deflects attention away from state-sponsored violence, political and economic ambitions of the governing elite, and the anti-immigrant and xenophobic basis of the discrimination.

The United Nations (UN) recently described the humanitarian situation for the Rohingya in northern Rakhine, in Myanmar, as catastrophic (BBC 2017). The situation is worsening by the day, as humanitarian aid agencies and organisations are banned from the area by the Burmese government in an attempt to control events on the ground and stymie efforts to provide aid to the Rohingya. For decades the Rohingya have been denied citizenship by the Burmese state, classified as Bengali immigrants, and subject to virulent forms of discrimination. Today they are being subjected to what Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, has described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” (Sullivan 2017).

The situation is increasingly desperate. Macarena Aguilar Rodriguez, a UNICEF spokesperson quoted in the Guardian, said:

“For the time being we are unable to reach the 28,000 children who were receiving psychosocial care, as well as the almost 6,500 children under five who were being treated for severe acute malnutrition treatment in northern Rakhine. We are no longer able to provide the almost 2,000 caregivers with access to infant and young child feeding counselling, and our water and sanitation interventions, which have been reaching some 25,000 people only this year, are also no longer operative.” (Stoakes 2017)

The story of the Rohingya’s persecution is long and complex. A population of roughly 8,00,000 people living in northwestern Burma bordering Bangladesh, the Rohingya claim Burmese citizenship but have been subjected to persecution, discrimination, intrusive restriction on their rights to marry and have families and, most recently, violence and massacre, as their villages are being burned to the ground by the Burmese army. This is despite the fact that many have lived in Rakhine state for generations. As Kate Hodal (2012) explains, “A document on Burmese languages dating to 1799 refers to ‘Rooinga’ as ‘natives of Arakan [Rakhine],’ but it is widely believed that most Rohingya came over from Bangladesh around 1821, when Britain annexed Myanmar as a province of British India and brought over migrant Muslim labourers.”

Religious Difference as Culprit

Many cite religious difference as the culprit in the current crisis: specifically, the fact that most Rohingya are Muslim in a Buddhist-majority country. It is the case that many prominent Burmese monks have turned against them, blocking humanitarian assistance and calling for their social and political exclusion along the lines of what some compare to apartheid in South Africa or segregation in the southern United States (Head 2013). Leading the charge against the Rohingya is a Buddhist activist group composed of monks and laity called “969.” Its spokesperson, a Mandalay-based monk named U Wirathu, has long called for the Rohingya to be driven out of Burma. A representative of the Burmese Muslim Association has compared “969” to the Ku Klux Klan.

The idea of an intractable Buddhist-Muslim axis of difference as the source of tension and violence is appealing because it is easy to follow, and taps into a long history of portraying non-white peoples as less civilised and less developed. Much of the international media has bought into this story, describing the Rohingya as a Muslim minority suffering from religious persecution at the hands of an intolerant Buddhist majority. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom identified the Rohingya as persecuted Muslims. Myanmar is incompletely secularised, such accounts imply, with intolerant forms of religion stubbornly persisting in public life. Protections for religious minorities and a stringent regime of secularisation appear as plausible solutions. Between the lines, one might infer that the incompletely civilised Burmese people and their “backward” religion should be brought into line with international norms of religious freedom.

Economic and State Interests

This misses the real story. There are strong economic and state interests that are benefiting richly from the Rohingyas’ expulsion from their land. It is not only monks that oppose the Rohingya (Sassen 2017). Claiming to work on behalf of the “religious rights and freedoms” of the majority Buddhist population of Myanmar, 969 reportedly enjoys the support of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the governing party of Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Another “969” affiliate, the Organisation for the Protection of Nation, Race and Religion—or, in the Burmese acronym, Ma Ba Tha– is oriented around pro-Buddhist and pro-Burman activism. Religion and nationalism cannot be disentangled here.

If policymakers depict the Rohingya’s plight as a problem of religious persecution and respond to the crisis armed with that understanding, they misconstrue the situation, overlook the real culprits, and may exacerbate the violence. To focus on intolerant religion as the problem, and religious freedom or coexistence as the solution, blinds us to a more complex and daunting set of moral and policy challenges. An informed response requires that the international community reckon with a much bigger picture, and contend with a less easy-to-demonise list of those responsible for the horrific violence—including the current Burmese government. Understanding the plight of the Rohingya requires a more encompassing analytical field that includes, but is not reduced to, religious difference.

Three factors are crucial to understanding the context in which the escalating crisis is unfolding: first, the legacy of Burma’s “divide and rule” colonial history, second, the social perils of rapid economic liberalisation including the rise of a rapacious transnational business elite, and third, the slow but steady cultivation of a violent and exclusionary Burmese nationalism that posits the Rohingya as scapegoat in the midst of tumultuous economic change and massive social disruption.

Rakhine state, where many Rohingya live, was independent from Rangoon and Mandalay until the Burman conquest in 1785, and a strong sense of territorial identity distinguishing the region from the rest of Burma persists. Muslim-Buddhist “divide and rule” policy in the area dates to the British colonial era (1824–1948) and was exacerbated throughout the 20th century into the present. During the Japanese occupation, which began with the Imperial Army’s invasion in 1942, the British armed Rohingya “Force V” militias while the Japanese armed a variety of Buddhist-led groups, with the two sides pitted against each other in a proxy struggle. In 1962, the Burmese military seized power and sought to impose ethnic purity by marginalising minorities and non-Buddhists, again increasing tensions (Zaw 2017). This legacy of hostility and marginalisation lingers in the present.

The dramatic impact of economic (neo)-liberalisation on centre-periphery relations is a second key factor. The rise of economic competition due to the relaxation of military rule and the heightened competition for jobs and scarce natural resources has translated into an increasingly precarious status for the Rohingya and other vulnerable populations in Myanmar. They are easily scapegoated as illegal immigrants and as potential threats to job or rent seekers. An intensification of state control of border areas related to Burma’s economic opening has exacerbated these tensions. With large-scale energy, trade, and infrastructure projects under development in ethnic minority borderlands, analysts foresee increased state securitisation and rising tensions between center and periphery (Smith 2011).

An example is a new multibillion-dollar China-Burma oil and gas pipeline that stretches over 1500 miles from the Indian Ocean through Burma to the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, with security overseen by the Burmese government. The new pipeline, which brings gas from the Shwe fields off the coast of Arakan state, allows China to bypass the Malacca Strait, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

With many other large-scale energy, trade, and infrastructure projects under development located in what are known as “ethnic minority borderlands,” as Martin Smith observes, “Myanmar could be moving toward economic restructuring where the geopolitical consequences will have an epoch-shaping impact on internal affairs” (Smith 2011). After decades of conflict, Smith foresees a heightened securitisation of Myanmar’s border areas as its neighbours seek trade and other economic opportunities that will require “constructive engagement” and “borderland stability.” He cites as precedents efforts in 2009 to tighten security on the Chinese, Bangladeshi, and Indian borders, “with the Indian authorities especially concerned that insurgent groups from northeast India were using borderline sanctuaries to continue their struggles.”

A third crucial factor in the violence is the rise of a virulent form of Burmese ethno-nationalism in which the Rohingya literally have no place in an idealised, “purified” Burmese state and society. This has involved a slow and steady process of dehumanisation of the Rohingya. It also has entailed significant linguistic violence: for example, while the name “Rooinga” had been recognised as early as 1799, and was recognised by the Burmese state on several previous occasions, today security forces compel Rohingya to refer to themselves as Bengalis. A 2013 government report refers to the Rohingya as “Bengalis,” emphasising their status as outsiders. The politics of rejection and refusal extends beyond government circles. Again, according to Smith, “while most borderland opposition groups recognise the rights of Muslim communities in the northern Rakhine state, some do not accept ‘Rohingya’ as a term of identity—a position also taken by the (regime’s) State Peace and Development Council (SLORC-SPDC), known formerly as the State Law and Order Restoration Council.”

The words of former prisoner Fious Ahmad speak eloquently to this dehumanisation. As he stated to a correspondent from the Christian Science Monitor in an interview outside Nga Pon Shay’s mosque, “I don’t know why the police seized me. The police said to me, ‘Say you’re Bengali.’ I told them, ‘Yes, I’m Bengali.’ But the police beat me anyway” (Ferrie 2013).

A Toxic Cocktail

The Rohingya are being excluded from Burmese society not only with religious slurs but with a range of dehumanising terms. They are suspended in and suffering from a vast web of discriminatory forces. Discrimination against them is ethnic, racial, economic, political, linguistic, postcolonial, and statist. All of these dimensions of the crisis—and in particular the state’s role in their persecution by actively abetting and even initiating the violence—demand the international community’s attention.

Identifying religious difference and discrimination as the culprit masks the economic and political interests that are profiting from their subordination and repression. It deflects attention away from state-sponsored violence, political and economic ambitions of the governing elite, the anti-immigrant and xenophobic basis of the discrimination, and the economic insecurities and regional power dynamics that are accompanying Burma’s tentative opening to global trade and foreign investment.

But the problem runs deeper. Characterising the violence against the Rohingya as fundamentally religious in character not only absolves the governing elite from their complicity but also actively reinforces the dangerous, and now quite powerful, narrative that religious difference is the real driver of this crisis.

Let us look at this claim more closely. The emphasis on religious politics reinforces over and again the notion that what really matters in this crisis is religion: or, more specifically, the public significance and political salience of Buddhist-Muslim difference. Crucially, rather than defanging “969” and its allies, the identification of religious violence as the culprit serves to reinforce these constructed religious divides while deferring and subduing the potential of alternative, crosscutting movements that might challenge those who stand to profit from the Rohingya’s exclusion or extinction. This exclusionary nationalism relies on a toxic cocktail combining very specific constructions of majoritarian Buddhism, racial hierarchies, and Burmese national identity. The specificities of this formation are crucial. Entangled hierarchies of difference and discrimination invoking race, religion, economic class and interest, and national belonging are all bound up together. The result is that the Rohingya are being successfully depicted in Myanmar as non-Burmese, even as sub-human.

In the words of Elliot Prasse-Freeman, in a tragically prescient piece written in 2013 for Anthropology Today, “those who are killed are arguably not even killed as an identity group, but rather as so much detritus falling outside of a group, and hence outside of the political community entirely.”

To insist on the Rohingya’s status as a minority while ignoring other aspects of their violent ejection from Burmese state and society cements the Rohingya’s status as religious and political outsiders while feeding exclusionary forms of both politics and religion. Are the Rohingya being persecuted because they are Muslim, immigrants, threatening to the former junta, or to national, regional or international corporate interests? Or all of the above? In Myanmar as elsewhere, many factors lead to discrimination and violence: local histories, class disparities, environmental factors, immigration status, urban-rural tensions, family grievances, oppressive governance, outside interventions, colonial legacies, land disputes, tensions surrounding gender and sexuality, economic rivalries. Reducing violence to a problem of religious intolerance obscures the complex tapestry of human sociality, rendering the problems faced by vulnerable groups more rather than less intractable. Framing conflict or coexistence through the prism of religious difference often exacerbates the social tensions such frames are intended to manage or transcend (Schonthal 2016).

Faced with the tragedy in Myanmar, decision-makers should avoid locking into a narrative that protects religion in law and posits it as a coherent category of state policy and international intervention. As I argue in Beyond Religious Freedom, governing through religious rights marks religious difference as an exceptionally threatening form of social difference that must be kept in check by the authorities. It renders religious difference more politically salient, eclipsing other axes of being and belonging. It bestows political authenticity and agency on groups defined, often in law, as “religions,” conjuring fixed and stable categories of affiliation and granting them social and legal currency and authenticity.

This may appeal to powerbrokers like Modi, Netanyahu, or Trump, who can then gleefully identify the violence undertaken on behalf of the Rohingya as “Islamist terrorism,” consign it to the realm of “religion,” and depoliticise and demonise it. But rarely does it serve the interests of the people who must live under those designations. Such labels not only obscure the diverse causes of discrimination and violence but also diminish the prospects for crosscutting, nonsectarian forms of solidarity. That is what the Rohingya need most. As they lose their homes and face statelessness, at best, or annihilation, at worst, it is imperative that the international community cultivate multiple modes of solidarity, from local to global, in the service of the Rohingya not only as Muslims but as fellow human beings.

This post is adapted from Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd. © 2015 Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.


BBC News (2017): “Rohingyas Facing ‘Catastrophic’ Situation,” 14 September. 

Ferrie, Jared (2013) “Why Myanmar’s Rohingya Are Forced to Say They Are Bengali.” Christian Science Monitor, 2 June.

Head, Jonathan (2013) “Burma’s Unwanted People,” BBC News, 1 July, 

Hodal, Kate (2012) “Trapped inside Burma’s Refugee Camps, the Rohingya People Call for Recognition,” The Guardian, 20 December,

Sassen, Saskia (2017) “Is Rohingya Persecution Caused by Business Interests Rather than Religion?” The Guardian, 4 January 4,

Stoakes, Emanuel (2017) “‘Humanitarian Catastrophe’ Unfolding as Myanmar Takes over Aid Efforts in Rakhine State,” The Guardian, 15 September,

Sullivan, Michael (2017): “Bangladesh Copes With Chaos: Rohingya Refugees Are ‘Coming And Coming,’” NPR.Org 18 September,

Smith, Martin (2011) “Ethnic Politics in Myanmar: A Year of Tension and Anticipation.” Southeast Asian Affairs 2010, Vol 1, pp 214–34.

Schonthal, Benjamin (2016) “Buddhism Politics and Limits Law Pyrrhic Constitutionalism Sri Lanka | Constitutional and Administrative Law.” Cambridge University Press.

Zaw, Aung (2017) “Will Hatred Kill the Dream of a Peaceful, Democratic Myanmar?” The New York Times.

Image Courtesy: Representational. Accessed from Public Domain files. 

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