Western Myanmar as a Genocide Triangle: The Military-Controlled State, Separatist Buddhist Rakhine Nationalists and Rohingya Genocide Victims – Part I
September 28, 2022

Maung Zarni || 29 September 2022


This week the Rakhine journalist Kyaw San Hlaing – widely seen as an unofficial advocate for the secessionist Arakan Army – claimed that the Rakhine nationalists have gained a notch in their strategic goal of independence from the military-dominated Union of Myanmar, in his op-ed Fighting in Maungdaw: A Strategic Turning Point in Western Myanmar? (The Diplomat, 21 September Fighting in Maungdaw: A Strategic Turning Point in Western Myanmar? – The Diplomat)In his words, “the Myanmar military is currently fighting a multifront war with the rest of the country ‘s resistance forces, creating an opportunity for the Arakan Army to establish its unchallenged control over Maungdaw – and notch a significant milestone on its path toward independence.”

On its part, the Arakan Army leadership, representing, in effect, the interests of the predominantly Buddhist Rakhine population in this Western Myanmar state, adjacent to Bangladesh and across the Bay of Bengal from the eastern shores of India, has openly presented itself  to the relevant external actors – such as Bangladesh, India, the UN agencies and so on – as a benevolent alternative to Myanmar military regime, the main architect and perpetrators of the slow-burning genocide of Rohingyas since the late 1970’s.

The Rohingya refugees and campaigners are said to be weary of being used as political pawns by these warring parties – Buddhist Rakhine nationalists in general and Myanmar militarists in power – who only 5-years ago joined forces to wage an atrocious wave of genocidal destruction of Rohingya communities in Western Myanmar.  (The Rohingyas are also painfully aware of the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy party was also a genocide collaborator, with Ms Suu Kyi’s infamous defence, not of the genocide victims’ human or citizenship rights, but of their main perpetrators, the Burmese military, at the International Court of Justice in December 2019 Aung San Suu Kyi defends Myanmar against genocide allegations | Rohingya News | Al Jazeera .  The NLD’s post-coup offshoot National Unity Government (in exile) retains ex-genocide deniers in key positions. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/analysis/opinion-purge-genocide-culprits-from-democratic-leadership-myanmar/2233808   But this is beyond the purview of this essay.)

While the universally opposed military coup of February 2021 has triggered the nation-wide revolt, both peaceful and armed, with virtually segments and ethnic groups across Myanmar Arakan Army (or AA) had effectively assumed strategic neutrality for months.  [https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/11/myanmar-junta-removes-rakhine-rebels-from-terrorist-list ]  The political and military leaders of the AA had exhorted their Rakhine base to stay focused on their sole mission of regional autonomy, first, and ultimately a complete secession from Myanmar, as an independent sovereign country. Rakhine nationalists rightly see Myanmar as a colonizing central state, which violently ended Rakhine’s kingdom in 1784.

Recent weeks have seen the resurgence of fierce fighting between Myanmar military regime and the Arakan Army in along Bangladesh-Myanmar, which has had spill-over impact in the neighboring Bangladesh. A number of Rohingya refugees on the Bangladeshi soil were killed or injured in the cross-fire between the AA and Myanmar troops. Bangladesh has officially lodged repeated protests against Myanmar’s breach of its land and airspace and the destabilizing developments stemming from the intensifying civil war across the borders in Western Myanmar state of Rakhine. Bangladesh should revisit its Myanmar policy: Daily Star contributor | The Straits Times Meanwhile, the Arakan Army and its nemesis Myanmar military are playing the blame games over the border intrusion and the civilian casualties.   https://www.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/diplomacy/news/myanmar-envoy-bangladesh-blames-arakan-army-tensions-border-3122341

The Bengali print version of the earlier essay by Maung Zarni entitled “Tun Mrat Naing attempts to erase Rohingya identity and history,” Prothom Alo, 9 January 2022.

In light of the emerging official demand for recognition and acceptance of the Arakan Army (and its political wing United League of Arakan) as the main actor – vis-à-vis Myanmar military –  Arakan Army seeks an internationally recognized government » Myanmar Peace Monitor (mmpeacemonitor.org) in the (unlikely) repatriation of 1 million Rohingya genocide survivors who have been languishing in extra-legal and sub-human conditions in refugee camps along the Bangladeshi-Myanmar borders [‘We can’t keep the Rohingya crisis together in the way it’s currently being managed’: MSF Director (tbsnews.net)] it is crucial to scrutinize closely the nationalist Rakhines’ public stance on Rohingya, the predominantly Muslim community in Western Myanmar whose ethnic identity and whose right to self-identity Arakan Army refuse to recognize. The Arakan Army’s official statements identify  the state’s 2/3 majority Buddhist Rakhines by their chosen ethnic name – as Rakhine – while it continue to call Rohingyas as simply “Muslims”, to the chagrin of Rohingyas worldwide.


Continuing Erasure of Rohingya Ethnic Identity

The AA commander and most influential Rakhine leader’s 9 January 2022 interview is a good starting point to assess whether Rakhine leadership respect Rohingya’s right to self-identity and accept the empirical evidence of the group’s historical presence in their shared ancestral birth region.

Rakhine Nationalist Tun Mrat Naing’s carefully worded recognition of Rohingya human and citizenship rights fails to conceal his attempt to erase Rohingya group identity and history, angering the survivors and worrying genocide scholars

Prothom Alo’s interview with Tun Mrat Naing,[1] the commander-in-chief of the Arakan Army which spearheads Buddhist Rakhine population’s openly pro-independence movement, comes across as strategically thought-through, determined and sensitive to the discourse of human rights.

But there are some disturbing elements the interview contains which must not go unnoticed. I am writing this paper in the 1st person narrative as my activism and scholarship are deeply intertwined with my own personal and family ties with the military-controlled state in Myanmar.

Therefore, I am writing it not simply as a professional scholar of Burmese politics who has studied the country’s affairs – including inter-ethnic relations and liberation struggles, over the last 30-odd years, but also, importantly, as a Burmese from the dominant ethnic group who unequivocally supports independence aspirations of the internally colonised non-Bama and non-Buddhist ethnic communities, including both Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. No ethnic community, Rohingyas or Rakhine, should be held in bondage by any other dominant group, against their will.


My Ties With Myanmar Military

In terms of my own personal and family ties with the repressive military regime, the three generations of my own extended military family, both male and female, have, with pride and pratiotism – perhaps misguidedly, in retrospect – served in this national and nationalistic institution since its inception in 1942. One younger brother of my maternal grandfather[2] was a close friend and colonial Rangoon University classmate of the founder of the Burmese military and the architect of Burma’s independence, the late Aung San, while the second younger brother[3] was the 1st commanding officer of retired dictator Senior General Than Shwe who created the post-General Ne Win quasi-democratic politics that has now run aground. My own mother’s younger brother, Air Force Major Phone Maung, was a VIP pilot who flew General Ne Win’s plane for a quarter of a century since the mid-1970’s until the old dictator was placed under house arrest by Senior General Than Shwe. My late uncle was 15 years senior at the Defence Services Academy to the current Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing.[4]

The military was originally founded under the patronage of the WWII Japan’s fascist military as a key instrument of liberation struggle against the British colonial rule, which lasted over 120 years. However, the successive post-independence generations of military leaderships[5] have succeeded in repurposing the national military and the state as the instruments of control, repression, and exploitation for the exclusive benefit of the military as a ruling class, at great costs to the entire society of multi-ethnic peoples, including the Burmese Buddhist majority.

I will not comment on the Arakan Army chief’s strategic and tactical choices with respect to Rakhine people’s armed struggle to restore the sovereignty lost nearly 250 years ago.

I confine my responses to what I see as factual historical mistakes and omissions, and the unmistakably colonialist orientation – with specific respect to Rohingya people – which I detect in the Rakhine general’s comments.


[1] Tun Mrat Naing Interview.

[2] Wunna Kyaw Htin Zan Yin was his name, with Wunna Kyaw Htin being the highest state honour for civil servants, the (neo-feudal) tradition of which began during the first parliamentary democratic rule of Prime Minister U Nu (1948-62) .   Before his retirement in the late 1970’s Zan Yin was a member of the elite Burma Civil Service, and held the post of the Commissioner of Sagging Division, on the west bank of the Irrawaddy River across from Mandalay.

[3] Zeya Kyaw Htin Lt.-Colonel Ant Kyaw was his name, with Zeya Kyaw Htin being again a neo-feudal title awarded to senior ranking commanders.  He was originally with the Burma Rifle Brigade #1, and rose through the ranks to become the deputy commander of All Rakhine Command in 1959, and was one of the 100 senior commanders who endorsed General Ne Win’s coup of 1962, which ended the parliamentary democracy and instituted the military dictatorship. Than Shwe served as a young officer in his Burma Rifles Brigade Number One in the early 1950’s. He

[4] My late uncle was Major Hpone Maung was the only Defence Service Academy graduate from the In-take-6, graduating class of 1963 (out of the total of 30 officers)., who was “wing-ed” in the Burma Air Force in 1964  In addition to General Ne Win’s VIP pilot, he also served as a General Staff Grade – 3 officer at the Directorate of Military Training, who drew up the blue print for the new officer cadet school named “Officers Training Corp”. The current Deputy Commander-in-Chief (Air Force) Lt-General Maung Maung Kyaw is an early graduate of this program, and so is the highestranking hand-picked Member of the Parliament, a Brigadier, at Myanmar national Parliament where the military was allotted 25% constitutionally guaranteed seats vis-à-vis open civilian electoral process.

[5] The late General Ne Win had the longest reign as the official and later un-official Number One (General) since he replaced the Sandhurst-trained professional solider General Smith Dunn in February 1949 in the midst of the Karen National Defence Organization’s insurrections against the Prime Minister U Nu’s multi-ethnic government. Of the 26 Burmese nationalists patronized and trained by Japan’s Fascist military, as the nucleus of the Burma Independence Army with Aung San as its head, Ne Win was one of the 3, that were given special training at the Nakano Academy of Military Intelligence. This school was known as Kempeitai School, was Japan’s hybrid between Nazi SS and Gestapo, and dismantled after Japan’s unconditional surrender in August 1945. General Ne Win’s command of the Burmese armed forces was unchallenged and unchallengeable and effectively lasted from February 1949 till he resigned in July 1988. He single-handedly moulded the ideological orientation of the Burmese armed forces along the neo-Fascist, Kempeitai model – as opposed to the militaries in democratic systems. For the first-person detailed accounts of the so-called Thirty Comrades – the nucleus of the Burma Army – their training by Fascist Japan’s Imperial Military and the power struggles within the post-independence Burma Armed Forces, see (Retired) Brigadier Kyaw Zaw (2007) My Memoirs: From Hsai Su to Meng Hai, (Hyattsville, MD:  USA).

Dr Maung Zarni is a UK-based fellow of the (Genocide) Documentation Center-Cambodia and co-founder of FORSEA, a Southeast Asian activist organisation. He is also the Burmese coordinator of the Free Rohingya Coalition. He has 30 years of engagement in activism, scholarship, politics and media. As a student in USA, he co-founded the Free Burma Coalition in 1995, and was widely recognised as a pioneering activist who effectively used the emerging Internet for human rights activism.

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