The Socioeconomic Roots of Burmese Islamophobia
To many people, “extremist Buddhist” seems to be an oxymoron; indeed, Western stereotypes often paint Buddhism as uniquely immune to corruption of its peaceful message in the same way that they paint Islam as uniquely corruptible. Yet, in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, extremist Buddhist monks have been firing up and leading angry mobs to attack and drive out the Muslim Rohingya minority since 2012. This is not new. The British government of Myanmar’s account of the start of anti-Muslim riots in 1938 bears an uncanny resemblance to very similar reports on the Rohingya crisis in the present day:
“We are told that the meeting [in Yangon on July 26th] was attended by no less than ten thousand people of whom fifteen hundred were pongyis [Buddhist monks]. . . . The tone of the meeting developed in a crescendo of vituperation and abuse against Muslims in general. . . . The audience were impatient to set out and started descending the platform of the Pagoda shouting – ‘Kala-Kala : yaik-yaik’ [‘Assault the blacks’].”[i]
In both the past and in the present, extremist, ultranationalist Buddhist monks encouraged anti-Muslim prejudice, instigated violence, and led angry mobs in carrying out the violence. But racism alone cannot explain the 1938 riots or the current Rohingya crisis; both occurred under political upheaval and economic duress that caused the nationalistic radicalization of an otherwise peaceful religion. In my previous post, I established how Islamophobia in Myanmar resulted from a long history of fervent nationalism centering on the idea that the Bamar race and the Buddhist religion held a sole claim to Myanmar. I showed how, beginning in the 1930s, Burmese nationalists created a racial ideology that perceived all Muslims in Myanmar as foreign, Indian invaders—a perception that still holds today.
Economic stress and political upheaval were, however, the underlying causes of racial violence against Muslims in Myanmar in both 1938 and 2018. In each instance, racial ideology that blamed the other offered Buddhist nationalists an easy solution to Myanmar’s complex economic and social problems. And in both cases, the powers that be (the British colonial government in 1938 and the Myanmar military that continues its de facto rule in 2018) were complicit in the violence because it benefitted them. By redirecting popular anger against a minority, the system avoids critique and meaningful reform.
In 1938, the average Burman farmer (and by far a majority were farmers) was in a dire condition. When the British first conquered the Irrawaddy delta (Lower Burma) in 1852, they immediately imposed private property laws in the hopes of turning a subsistence rice-producing region into a major cash crop-exporting empire. Overnight, the laws turned Burmese farmers who had lived on family farming plots for generations into squatters. The Lower Burma Land and Revenue Act, passed by the British colonial government of Burma in 1876, hoped to rectify this issue by offering Burmese farmers the title to their land if they worked it and paid taxes on it for 12 consecutive years. The amount of rice needed to produce to pay taxes and survive, however, meant that most Burmese farmers incurred significant debt, usually to Indian Chettiar moneylenders, who had come from Madras to fill the subprime lending market.
When the rice market collapsed due to the Great Depression in 1929, Burmese farmers defaulted en masse and their land was foreclosed to lenders. In the 1920s, the Chettiars owned 25 percent of all cultivatable land in Lower Burma; in 1931, they owned almost 50 percent. Meanwhile, British capitalists controlling the milling, processing, and shipping of the rice industry formed the “Bullinger Pool,” an agreement to buy rice at the same deflated price. As a result, the majority of Burmese farmers became little more than indentured laborers while the enormous profits from the Burmese rice industry went directly into the pockets of British or Indian shareholders.
The British colonial government was aware of this problem. As early as 1906, the lieutenant governor himself, Sir Herbert Thirkell White, called for a Land Alienation Bill that would delay land foreclosures, especially to foreign lenders. The bill failed to pass because the Burma Chamber of Commerce convincingly argued that the policy would hurt lenders, business owners, and most importantly, the overall profit margin of the Burmese rice industry. Burmese nationalists in the 1930s were aware that these economic problems were the main cause of Burmese suffering. After sustained, sometimes violent, political agitation and civil disobedience, the nationalists won the separation of Burma from India and Burma’s own elected legislature in 1937. This legislature proceeded to immediately propose land alienation bills, tenant protection bills, anti-trust bills, and lending regulations, but almost all of them were shot down by British collaborators in the legislature or by the veto power of the British governor of Burma.
It was in this context that segments of Burmese nationalists turned toward anti-immigrant, anti-Indian, and anti-Muslim rhetoric in order to try to drive all Indians out of Burma. The riots of 1938 and the ensuing chaos derailed any legitimate attempts to reform the colonial government. The British riot report acknowledged the economic problems underpinning the outburst of racial aggression, but did not include any solutions for them in its recommendations. Instead, it suggested strengthening the police. Therefore, while the British colonial government disapproved of the riots and fought to suppress them, the redirection of nationalist anger onto the Muslim minority served the interests of the British state well. Actual solutions to Burmese problems that would have hurt British power and profits, such as regulating unchecked capitalism and achieving executive independence, fell by the wayside while innocent Muslims suffered for the crimes of the ruling class.
The Rohingya crisis of the present day has many parallels with the violence in the 1930s. Radical Buddhist nationalists in Rakhine have long held racial hatred against the Rohingya, but only turned to violence when the democratization of the Burmese government in 2011 failed to improve the economic situation in Rakhine, which decades of military rule and Cyclone Nargis in 2008 had left in shambles. Again, the government has much to gain from violence against the Muslim minority. Like the British colonial government, the military uses the violence to deflect reform of the government’s economic policies and to prevent further democratization of the former junta by arguing that the Burmese people need the military’s protection.
It is this reality that makes it so important that Aung San Suu Kyi, as the democratically elected leader of the National League for Democracy, the so-called opposition party of the military, condemn the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people and redirect attention to the real issues underlying the violence: poverty and inequality. She has refused to do this thus far, likely because of the detrimental effect it would have on her own power. The history of the 1938 riots has shown that it is far more beneficial for people to fight for better conditions for themselves rather than directing their anger to other oppressed peoples. The latter does nothing but create more suffering.
[i] Government of Burma, Final Report of the Riot Inquiry (Braund) Committee (Rangoon: Superintendent, Government Printing and Stationery, 1939), 1-8. IOR/V/26/262/16. India Office Records, British Library, London UK. 23 August 2017.
Matthew Bowser is a 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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