Understanding Western Complicity in the Rohingya Crisis

understanding western complicity in the rohingya centre for feminist foreign policy Mary Marston

Transnational human rights groups have condemned violence against the Rohingya and their removal from the Rakhine State of Myanmar as ethnic cleansing. Many have looked to Aung San Suu Kyi to publicly denounce this violence in hopes that her influence would halt it. Many hold her singularly accountable for a failure to end brutality against Rohingya. However, they fail to realize that she constitutionally has no control of the military. Furthermore, focusing efforts on pressuring Aung San Suu Kyi neglects the active role that the colonial powers have played in the crisis through the promotion of Buddhist nationalism to counter the rise of communism in Southeast Asia.

Dr. Lynn Kuok tied the Rohingya crisis to British colonial rule in 2014 in her article, “Myanmar Violence: The Roots of Buddhist Nationalism.” Kuok asserted that anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar stretches back to the 19th century when the country was occupied by the British Empire and considered part of colonial India. During this period, many Indians of Muslim descent were brought to present-day Myanmar to work in commerce or money-lending. Anti-Indian rioting became prominent during the 1930s as a result of economic and ethnic tensions between Myanmar locals and the Indian migrants.

After the country became independent of British rule, the Burmese government required that those living within its borders who were not part of one of the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups show proof of settlement before 1948 for citizenship. Many Rohingya, who lived in the Rakhine state, were unable to prove this due to shifting colonial borders and were denied citizenship. This led to many Buddhist and Christian Myanmar people to term Rohingya illegal Bengali settlers, and has given space for the 969 Movement to utilize Western Islamophobia to promote the goals of Buddhist nationalism through measures such as population control of Rohingya.

Focusing blame on a single politician for the Rohingya crisis will not absolve the West of its complicity.

The latter, although unknown to many, is covered by many media outlets in the West as a means of contextualizing the Rohingya crisis. What is often ignored is how the United States used Buddhism as a means of countering communist influence. Joe Freeman recently wrote in Politico Magazine about how the United States utilized the promotion of Buddhist nationalism in Burma in likeness to how it used Christian nationalism as a means to defeat communism. He found that the project of modern Buddhist nationalism began in the during the Cold War. In 1951, the CIA released a memo noting how communist control of Burma would not only be advantageous to China and the USSR, but it would also enable further communist penetration into Southeast Asia.

President Truman had great success in weaponizing Christianity as a means of fighting communism by making being a "good Christian" an act of patriotism through propaganda and even adding “under God” to the pledge of allegiance the Eisenhower administration.  Vice President Richard Nixon took a page from his book and sought to launch a “Spiritual Counteroffensive in Southeast Asia” through the Foundation for Religious Action. By working with and providing financial support for the World Fellowship of Buddhists, the Committee for a Free Asia (now the Asia Foundation), and other organizations, the U.S. hoped to counter the prominent anti-religious sentiments of the communist bloc by “... pointing out to a greater extent the inconsistencies between communism and freedom of religion among all religious faiths.”  Although the 1962 Burmese coup d'état derailed the aforementioned form of soft power diplomacy, the 8888 Movement re-opened these doors, and led Aung San Suu Kyi to become the face of Asian civil resistance. It made her the international symbol of the moral compass for the nation.

Although various Western institutions have sought to clear their conscience of the Rohingya crisis by calling for Aung San Suu Kyi to be stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize and the removal of her portrait from her college at Oxford University, focusing blame on a single politician for the Rohingya crisis will not absolve the West of its complicity in perpetuating Islamophobia and Buddhist extremism that has resulted in a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.  Israel has continued to fund the Burmese military and the Shell Oil Company and Saudi Arabian and Chinese oil companies have invested in oil reserves around and in the Rakhine State. Equally shocking is the fact that Western Islamophobia has influenced non-peer reviewed news to proliferate in Myanmar, claiming the Rohingya are part of a Bengali terrorist group, thereby increasing populist sentiment that the Rohingya are a threat to Myanmar, and that the Rohingya pose a direct threat to the creation of a Burma for Burmans.


Mary Marston is a woman of color who wants to decolonize U.S. Foreign Policy and various legal systems.