Publication Date

June 25, 2018

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Summer Columns



While traveling around Yangon, Myanmar, this April at higher speeds than I liked, my taxi popped a tire. My guide assured me that there was no need to worry and took me to a nearby open-air flower shop while our driver dutifully opened the trunk and made use of one of the many spare tires he had ready for this occasion. As we perused the shop, my guide turned to me and assured me very casually, “Normally this doesn’t happen, but he is Muslim, so . . . .” 

The anti-Muslim riots of 1938 started with a gathering at Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon (present-day Yangon).

The anti-Muslim riots of 1938 started with a gathering at Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon (present-day Yangon).

Yangon is a wonderful city, full of hardworking people, shining pagodas, and a thriving culture. It is easy to fall in love with. This comment was the first time I caught a hint of why I had come: to research the historical causes of Burmese Islamophobia and the current military crackdown against the Rohingya people that the United Nations has described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” My guide quickly played off his comment as a joke, but its casualness evoked historical precedent on how easily racist ideas manifest into discrimination, oppression, and even genocide.

In many ways, Burmese Islamophobia is almost indistinguishable from Western forms of Islamophobia. The Myanmar military uses Rohingya resistance to paint them as jihadist extremists, providing a ready-made excuse for its actions in that it is merely pursuing the “Global War on Terror.” Burmese Islamophobia, however, is unique because it relies on the nationalist and Buddhist extremist insistence that the Rohingya are “Bengali invaders.” Through this distinctive belief, Burmese Islamophobia can be traced to the religious radicalization of Burmese nationalism during the Great Depression, when Myanmar was still under British colonial rule (1826–1948). This radicalization led ultimately to the first anti-Muslim riots in the country’s history, which permeated all of Myanmar from late July to December in 1938.

The riots of 1938 began with a massive gathering of disenfranchised, impoverished Burmese at Shwedagon Pagoda in the center of Rangoon (present-day Yangon). Radical Buddhist monks fired up a rally into an angry mob, and subsequently led the mob throughout the city, abusing, raping, and murdering any Muslims they could find. They burned down Muslim homes, businesses, and mosques. The riots, which began in late July, percolated rapidly through the rest of the country and the British-Indian army was unable to regain country-wide stability until late December. The rioters ultimately left 204 dead, 1,000 injured, and caused property damage in excess of two million British Indian rupees (£150,000 in 1938 or £9.6 million today). These events bear harrowing similarities to the violence against the Rohingya in 2012, especially in that the 2012 riots mainly consisted of Buddhist mobs led by radical monks attacking Rohingya homes and businesses.

The Indian Quarter to the left of Maha Bandula Street, the main street of downtown Yangon, has existed since the 1910s.

The most immediate cause of the 1938 riots was the publication of a pro-Islamic book critical of Buddhism, The Abode of the Nats. A Burmese Muslim man named Maung Shwe Hpi wrote the book in response to the refrain common among Burmese Buddhists at the time that Islam was an inferior and “worldly” religion compared to Buddhism. The book consisted of a fictional debate between a Muslim imam and the Thathanabaing (the head of the Burmese Buddhist monastic order), in which the imam pointed out the contradictions of Theravada Buddhism and mocked its local accretions (especially the nats, animist spirits unique to Myanmar). The Burmese nationalist press immediately seized on the publication of the book, vastly increasing its exposure and sensationalizing its implications; the Rangoon-based newspaper The New Light of Burma framed the book as “an insult . . . to the Burmese nation as a whole” while the Myochit (Nationalist) Party’s official newspaper, The Sun, called for action in large, bold letters, “BUDDHISM HAS BEEN INSULTED. TAKE IMMEDIATE STEPS.”

The Abode of the Nats, however, was only an excuse for the riots. In 1939, the bewildered British government of Burma commissioned a report to examine the riots, to explain what caused them, and to make recommendations for preventing future violence. The report, The Final Report of the Riot Enquiry Committee, found that anti-immigrant prejudice and nativist discourse had been a central feature of the Burmese nationalist movement as a whole since its inception just after World War I. The British had rapidly set up an industrial capitalist economy in Burma, but had taken no steps to train the Burmese in skilled labor; most Burmese remained in the agricultural sector. The British instead staffed the modern economy with imported Indian labor: over one million Indians migrated to Burma between 1826 and 1940, half of whom were Muslim. As a result, Burmese nationalists fixated on nativist nationalism in order to combat the perceived threat of Indian invasion, popularizing the slogan “Burma for the Burmans.”

Crucially, this nativist movement was closely tied to a rise in Buddhist fundamentalism, which feared not only that the Bamar ethnic group would be replaced by Indians in Burma but also that Buddhism would be replaced by Islam. (Buddhist fundamentalists considered Islam to be more threatening than Hinduism, the other major religion of the Indian population, mainly due to Islam’s more prominent proselytizing.) The 1938 riots were, thus, the culmination of years of nationalist rhetoric. This was the original utility of Islamophobia in Myanmar: for the Buddhist-Bamars to “take back their country” from the Muslim-Indians.

This original purpose for Burmese Islamophobia still forms the core belief behind the current oppression of the Rohingya: that they are, in fact, illegal Indian immigrants from the British colonial period. Indeed, Burmese-Buddhist nationalists in the 1930s racialized all Muslims as “Indian invaders,” even if they were ethnically Burmese or had lived in the country since before British colonization. After being attacked along with Indians in the 1938 riots, the Rohingya asserted that they had lived in Myanmar’s Arakan region for over a thousand years, and were therefore Burmese. But the racist narrative persisted. Most notably, in 1982, the military junta passed a citizenship law that left the Rohingya out of the 135 “national races” of the country and even refused to use the term “Rohingya” at all. Today, the Burmese government officially censors the term “Rohingya” and refers to the group as “Bengalis.”

The comment of my guide in the flower shop, “Normally this doesn’t happen, but he is Muslim” points to the assumptions that underlie Burmese Islamophobia: that Muslims are not “normal” and do not belong in Myanmar. The recent crisis in Myanmar retains the traces of the original purpose for Islamophobia from the 1930s: to drive out the Muslim-Indian invader. Burmese Islamophobia has since augmented itself with contemporary stereotypes, most effectively the Western perception of all Muslims as “terrorists.” Historical perspectives can help undermine these racist assumptions. In my second post, I will examine the deeper, more structural causes of the 1938 riots and the current Rohingya crisis from a world-historical perspective.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

Matthew Bowser is winner of the 2018 AHA Summer Blog Contest. Originally hailing from Scranton, Pennsylvania, Bowser graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a BPhil in history and classics in 2013. He is currently a PhD candidate in world history at Northeastern University, and is interested in studying the roles of nationalism and socioeconomic stratification in the origins and maintenance of race and racism. As a specialist of the British Empire and the Indian Ocean world, his dissertation focuses on the origins of Islamophobia in colonial Myanmar during the Great Depression.

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