Chapter III. Lessons for and from Myanmar (Burma)[1]

In 1942–43, the Japanese constructed the Burma–Thailand railway, also known as the Burma–Siam railway. The Japanese army forced approximately 60,000 Allied prisoners of war—including 13,000 Australians, many Dutch, and roughly 200,000 civilians (mostly Burmese and Malayans)—to work on the railway’s construction. Many died as a result of disease and arduous conditions. In the photograph: Burma–Siam ‘Death Railway’ sign, Myanmar (Burma).
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

1. Burma and Myanmar are used interchangeably in this text

1. Background and context

Basic facts about the modern history of Myanmar and the main cases of mass violence

In 1948, Burma (now Myanmar) gained its independence from British colonial rule and sought to establish a federal democracy. The nation lived under military rule and isolation for nearly half a century, until international sanctions were lifted in 2011. Its story is one of a highly diverse nation that moved from the colonial era, through the Japanese occupation, the Cold War, self-isolation and semi-democratisation, to a military coup in 2021.

In short, Myanmar faces challenges such as:

  • political divisions between its military and the opposition
  • armed conflict between groups that possess different historical identities and differing views of the past; a fragile state (national) identity
  • nationalist tendencies and religious tensions between Buddhists and Muslims, including hate speech and genocidal violence against the predominantly Muslim Rohingya community; the presence of perpetrators of past human rights abuses in government structures.

The period of the military regime, the Tatmadaw (the armed forces of Myanmar) and isolation was accompanied by violations of human rights. In 1988, antigovernment protests were violently dispersed by the army. At least 3,000 people lost their lives and many were arrested. The newly established State Law and Order Council declared martial law and banned all political activity. In 1990, the National League for Democracy won an election, but the State Law and Order Council refused to hand over power. In 2007, mass protests were organised in the country. Many, including Buddhist monks, protested against the military government’s decision to raise oil and gas prices, and asserted prodemocracy demands; the military, in turn, dispersed the demonstrations and organised repressions against the protesters. These events have come to be known as the ‘Saffron Revolution’ (named after the traditional colour of monks’ robes).

In 2017, a massive wave of attacks was orchestrated by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya population. Thousands of Rohingya were killed and more than 700,000 refugees fled abroad—the majority to Bangladesh. In 2020, the International Court of Justice ordered Myanmar to prevent genocidal violence against its Rohingya minority and to preserve evidence of past attacks.

A new wave of violence occurred in February 2021, when the armed forces refused to acknowledge the electoral victory of the National League for Democracy and seized power in a coup.

Myanmar is one of the world’s most diverse countries, with as many as 135 ethnic and religious minority groups and subgroups including the Karen, the Shan, the Rakhine, the Mon, the Chin, and the Kachin. Minorities constitute 40% of Myanmar’s population, and most are represented by Buddhist Burmans. Armed conflict continues between the central Burmese government and the largest ethnic groups, who fight for autonomy and self-determination. This has occurred in Arakan (Rahkine) State, Chin State, Karenni (Kayah) State, Karen State, Mon State, Kachin State and Shan State.

Information about historiography: the main themes, the key elements of memorialisation

The history of Myanmar is riddled with tragic events that can be memorialised.
Nongovernmental initiatives include documenting the stories of survivors and witnesses of past violence, as well as calling for justice. Organisations such as ‘88 Generation Peace and Open Society hold annual commemorations of the violence and student protests in 1988, which centre around Burma Human Rights Day (13 March)—the date of the death of a young protester.

In recent years, Rohingya groups and their allies worldwide have organised commemorations of the Rohingya genocide. They declared 25 August to be Rohingya Genocide Remembrance Day; on the same day in 2017, the Myanmar army commenced a brutal crackdown against Rohingya civilians, forcing more than 750,000 people to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh in the space of a few days.

The Myanmar Jewish community also organises initiatives to commemorate the Holocaust.

Questions for Critical Thinking:

  • Under what conditions can diversity be a source of conflict? Under what conditions can it be a source of prosperity and peaceful progress?
  • How can faith leaders (e.g. Buddhist monks) contribute positively to social change and democratisation?
  • Why is religion so often cited as a reason for intercommunal tensions and violence (e.g. the violence against the Rohingya community committed by Buddhists)? Can religious differences be reconciled through a shared commitment to peaceful coexistence?

The role of the country in the Second World War; memorialisation of the Second World War—does it exist? In what forms?

From 1942 to 1945, Burma was occupied by the Empire of Japan, Hitler’s ally. Burma became one of the most violent theatres of the conflict. The Burmese civilian population, including its minorities, suffered atrocities and economic disaster.

Yet at the beginning of the war, the Bamar majority and the Burma Independence Army, under the guidance of general Aung San, supported the Japanese, who had trained them; for some Burmese activists, this presented an opportunity to gain independence from the British.

They later realised that this was not the case, and began to fight against the Japanese. General Aung San formed and led the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, an underground resistance movement in 1944.

During the war, the ethnic minorities generally fought on the Allied side. Burma remained a British colony until 1948. British colonists favoured minorities for various positions, and this created tensions between the Bamar majority and minorities in the following years. Uniquely for Southeast Asia, Burma also had its own well-established Jewish population. The Japanese declined to adopt an overtly racist, antisemitic approach towards the Jews who lived in the country; regardless, they treated them as those who were loyal to the British. As a result, many Jews left the country (see our subchapter on Jews in Myanmar).

Currently, memorialisation of the Second World War on the territory of Myanmar focuses primarily on British military history at the expense of local Burmese experiences. Memories of the Second World War differ between the ethnic majority and minorities such as the Karen, who commemorate the war as a point of reference to current conflicts. The subject is not widely discussed and has not been presented at the National Museum in Yangon.

The events of the Second World War in Myanmar might facilitate an interesting connection to the Holocaust in Europe.

The Burma Star memorial. The Burma Star Association was formed in 1951 for Burma campaign veterans of the Second World War.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Burma-Thailand railway

In 1942–43, the Japanese constructed the Burma–Thailand railway, also known as the Burma–Siam railway. Its strategic aim was to supply the Japanese forces in Burma while avoiding sea routes. The Japanese army forced approximately 60,000 Allied prisoners of war—including 13,000 Australians, many Dutch, and roughly 200,000 civilians (mostly Burmese and Malayans)—to work on the railway’s construction. Many died as a result of disease and arduous conditions[2]. Memorialisation mostly focuses on Australian and Dutch prisoners of war due to the interest of their governments and families; the fate of Asian prisoners remains much less researched and known.

The tiny Jewish Community of Myanmar commemorates the Holocaust and its victims in Yangon. Anne Frank’s Diary has been translated and published in the Burmese language. In the past, Anne Frank House in cooperation with U Thant House—a leading centre for learning and dialogue in Yangon—has focused on the key challenges facing Myanmar today, in addition to organising workshops for young people in Yangon. The Burmese government, the United Nations, and Yad Vashem once co-organised a Holocaust commemoration programme. It included seminars on the Holocaust for young people in Yangon.

Questions for Critical Thinking:

  • How can common memory of the Second World War contribute to the construction of a unifying national identity in Myanmar?
  • Can historical memory contribute to a better understanding of postcolonial conflicts in Myanmar?
  • What forms of memorialisation of the Second World War as a global conflict might be valuable for Myanmar’s democratic culture today?
2 Defining Moments: Burma–Thailand Railway, National Museum of Australia, Assessed on 3 January 2022

The Burma–Siam ‘Death Railway’, Myanmar (Burma)
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Taukkyan War Cemetery is a cemetery for Allied soldiers from the British Commonwealh who died in battle in Burma during the Second World War. The cemetery is in the village of Taukkyan, about 25 kilometres north of Yangon.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

2. Existing types of Holocaust and genocide denial and distortion

The existing culture of denial around the Rohingya people and denial of atrocities against the Rohingya

Rohingya‘ is an ethno-religious term that describes the predominantly Muslim minority whose ancestral home is the province of Arakan. Under the 1974 Emergency Immigration Act, and later under the Citizen Act of 1982, the Rohingya were denied citizenship of Myanmar. The Rohingya as a group have been denied their historical existence and incorrectly labelled as Bengali (Bangladeshi).

Some academics have played crucial roles in the forming of this culture of denial. For example, Dr Aye Chan at Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba City, Japan, has repeatedly denied the Rohingya of separate historical roots and claims that there is no known reference to the ethnicity before the 1950s. The authorities and large sections of the Myanmar political spectrum deny the facts of the atrocities and the genocidal attacks committed against the Rohingya in recent years.

Nazi symbols

The swastika has been used in Buddhist tradition for centuries; its use in a predominantly Buddhist country is unsurprising and, in that context, bears no relation to Nazi ideology. In some cases, however, the swastika and other problematic symbols appear in contexts that are unrelated to the old Buddhist symbolism. Despite the devastating impact of the Second World War on Burma, the existence of a historical Jewish community, and nongovernmental and governmental initiatives to teach and commemorate the Holocaust, Nazi symbols continue be used publicly. For example, a Burmese version of Hitler’s Mein Kampf without any contemporary commentary has been published, and it it possible to buy t-shirts and other merchandise adorned with swastikas in local shops. As suggested by Dr Verita Sriratana, the presence of Nazi symbolism in popular culture relates to the popularity of authoritarian military leaders in Southeast Asia.

Nazi symbols have also made appearances in youth subculture—a phenomenon that has also been observed in the West. Young people have worn the symbols, not knowing about the Holocaust or the true history behind them. A leading punk rock band from Myanmar, Rebel Riot, has repeatedly spoken out against the use of Nazi symbolism and the culture of genocide denial.

Genocide—a song by a punk band from Yangon Rebel Riot

Yangon Rebel Riot.

A poster prepared by Burmese human rights activists and distributed online.

The Burmese version of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
(Credit: Maung Zarni)

Sittwe’s Jama Mosque, built in the nineteenth century, is a powerful symbol of long-term and legitimate Rohingya residency, but access has been blocked by the authorities since 2012.
(Credit: Archive of Ronan Lee)

Kutupalong and nearby refugee camps, close to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, are now home to more than one million Rohingya refugees.
(Credit: Archive of Ronan Lee)

In Sittwe, a few hundred metres from the Rohingya ghetto, empty former Rohingya stores were defaced with anti-Rohingya graffiti, reminiscent of Nazi vandalism of Jewish businesses.
(Credit: Archive of Ronan Lee)

Humanitarian groups struggled to deal with the scale of the displacement of Rohingya from Myanmar during 2017.
(Credit: Archive of Ronan Lee)

3. What themes from contemporary history are relevant to our work against Holocaust and genocide denial and distortion?

Myanmar can be proud of its historical diversity, including its Jewish legacy and the locals’ resistance to violence.

Jews as part of a pluralist society in Myanmar

Jews represent the smallest religious minority in Myanmar today—comprising only twenty local people in a nation of 52 million. Burma once had the largest Jewish population in Southeast Asia; at its peak, up to 3,000 Jews lived in the country.

Watch Sammy Samuels’ presentation about the Jewish community in Myanmar at the symposium, Identifying and countering Holocaust distortion: Lessons for and from Southeast Asia, 25 November 2021:

Movement of Jews to and from Burma in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (Credit:

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue is one of 188 sites on the list of Yangon Heritage Buildings
(Credit: Sammy Samuels; NEVER AGAIN)

Who were the first Jews in Burma?

The first recorded Jew in the country was Solomon Gabirol, who served as a commander in the army of King Alaungpaya in the eighteenth century. He was a descendent of the Bene Israel, a group of Indian Jews. Later, the bulk of the Jewish community in Burma descended from Iraqi Jews. Links to Galicia (Eastern Europe; presently in Poland) and Romania also existed. A Romanian–Jewish merchant, Goldenberg also visited Burma. Solomon Reineman of Galicia arrived in Rangoon in 1851 as a supplier to the British army and opened stores in various places. His ‘Masot Shelomo’ (‘Solomon’s Travels’) of 1884 contains chapters on Burma (the first Hebrew account of the country), as well as China and India.

The majority of Jews in Burma travelled from Baghdad to Rangoon/Yangon. Burma at that time was an attractive destination for them due to the economic opportunities it offered. Some merchants from Calcutta travelled, but did not settle. Settlement increased after 1824, when Burma became a British colony. The Burmese people proved to be warm hosts for the Jews at that time; the nation was highly tolerant for more than 150 years. No caste system existed as in India, and a more favourable climate for business had been cultivated.One more synagogue was built in the 1930s.

Yangon Jewish Cemetery has more than 700 tombs.
(Credit: Sammy Samuels)

Who were the Baghdadi Jews?

The Baghdadi Jews were Sephardic—a small minority in Southeast Asia. Most of them arrived from Baghdad or Basra, but many had ancestors from the Iberian Peninsula who had been persecuted and expelled from Spain during the Middle Ages. Many settled in the Ottoman empire, including in Iraq and in Southeast Europe.

The earliest Baghdadi settlement in Burma probably dates back to 1841.

When Jews arrived in a new place, they always built a cemetery, a mikveh (a ritual bath), and a synagogue (a place of Jewish prayer, study and education). Burmese Jews lived mostly in Rangoon (Yangon), and in other places, such as Mandalay. The first synagogue was established in Rangoon in 1857, and was named Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue (Hebrew: ‘brings forth salvation’). The synagogue was initially wooden before being rebuilt from stone.

What was the position of Jews in Burmese society during the British rule?

In her book, Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma, Dr Ruth Fredman Cernea wrote that in the hierarchy of colonial society, Jews were considered above the Burmese, but never equal to the Christians (the British).

The Jewish community was diverse:

  • The Jewish identity was complex. It incorporated their Baghdadi heritage, new Burmese influences, being British subjects, and speaking various languages. A small number of Indian Jews, the Bene Israel, were literate in English and worked for the British in Rangoon and in Mandalay.
  • The community once had 126 Sifrei Torah, a Talmud Torah, a Zionist group, and numerous charitable and communal organisations.
  • Jews were involved in fields such as trade, textiles and administration. They held a designated seat on the Rangoon Municipal Committee. The community once had a Jewish school, which, at its peak in 1910, taught 200 students. Two cities had Jewish mayors: Mr Raphael in Bassein, and David Sophaer in Rangoon during the 1930s.

The Sofaers were one of the leading Jewish families in British Burma. David Sofaer served briefly as mayor and the stunning Sofaer building still stands on the corner of Pansodan (Phayre Street) and Merchant Street. This photograph is of an early Sofaer business along Merchant Street.
(Credit: Archive of Sammy Samuels)

The Jewish community donated generously to local schools, libraries and hospitals, and helped the Burmese in a variety of ways. The Baghdadi Jews in Burma lived in a highly diverse, cosmopolitan climate of Burman, Armenian, Indian and Chinese neighbours.

First Coca-Cola shop in Rangoon by Solomon’s limited (Credit: Archive of Sammy Samuels)

R.A. Raphael (John), Jewish Mayor of Bassein (Pathein), 1930–37. (Credit: Archive of Sammy Samuels)

What happened during the Second World War?

As a result of the Japanese occupation of 1942–1945, many Jews had to leave Burma as British subjects. Some of them, perhaps 500, returned after the war to discover that their homes had been occupied and looted by the Burmese. In some places, including Mandalay, the Jewish community ceased to exist.

Those who stayed or returned assisted in the establishment of Israeli–Burmese relations, including in Burma becoming the first country in Asia to recognise the newly independent State of Israel in 1949. In 1955, Burmese prime minister, U Nu became the first foreign head of state to visit Israel. In 1961, Israeli prime minister, David Ben Gurion spent two weeks in Burma. Israeli leaders, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres also visited the country. However, many Jews were forced to leave again after 1962 following a military coup, when Buddhist nationalism was on the rise and the position of minorities in Burma worsened alongside the nation’s economy. Most Jews left for Israel, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Presently, the descendants of Burmese Jews have a unique Baghdadi–Burmese–Jewish identity beyond Myanmar—a subject that is worthy of further study.

Prime Minister U Nu of Burma rides down Allenby Road in
Tel-Aviv, 29 May 1995. (Credit: Archive of Sammy Samuels)

Prime Minister of Burma U-Nu, is greeted by Prime Minister Moshe
Sharret at Lod Airport, 29 May 1955. (Credit: Archive of Sammy Samuels)

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion dressed in Burmese national
costume during his visit to Rangoon as guest of Prime Minister U Nu
in Burma, 1 May 1961. (Credit: Archive of Sammy Samuels)

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda.
(Credit: Archive of Sammy Samuels)

The Samuels Family

The Samuels are one of many historically renowned Jewish families in Burma. Moses Samuels became the leader of the Jewish community in 1978. With his wife, two daughters and one son, he oversaw the Musmeah Yeshua synagogue and the Jewish cemetery, which contains more than 600 gravestones. The synagogue remains open to some families that continue to live in Yangon, Jewish tourists from abroad, diplomats, and foreigners living in Myanmar. It is almost impossible to achieve minyan (a group of ten Jewish male adults that is needed to conduct some religious practices) for daily service; the synagogue nevertheless continues to exist as a symbol of Jewish identity and as a site of multicultural events.

After Moses Samuels died in 2015, his son Sammy Samuels became the leader of the community. He studied at a yeshiva while living in New York, but returned to Myanmar to continue the Jewish tradition. For this purpose, he established a travel agency, Shalom, in 2006 to promote Jewish life in Myanmar. Thanks to Sammy and other Jews, the community has aroused international interest in recent years. The Myanmar Jewish community is part of Euro–Asian Jewish Congress and other Jewish organisations.

Myanmar is likely the only Southeast Asian country where information about the Holocaust has been mentioned in the school curriculum; knowledge about the Holocaust, however, remains low. That is why the Jewish community has been engaged in promoting the historical and contemporary diversity of Myanmar among Burmese people and in organising commemorative and educational events on the Holocaust for students.

Sammy Samuels, the leader of the Jewish Community
in Myanmar. (Credit: Archive of Sammy Samuels)

Burmese Jewish family.
(Credit: Archive of Sammy Samuels)

Interfaith Ceremony at State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi Residence.
(Credit: Archive of Sammy Samuels)

“Every year, we organise events for Holocaust Remembrance Day, 27 January for students from Yangon University and other universities, with 300–400 participants. We show them the synagogue, tell them about Judaism, and then we may take them to the church, the monastery and the nearby mosque, and many of them are for the first time there”

Sammy Samuels, the leader of the Jewish Community

Visitors at Yangon Synagogue. (Credit: Archive of Sammy Samuels)

Visitors at Yangon Synagogue. (Credit: Archive of Sammy Samuels)

Sammy Samuels meeting with Pope Francis during
his visit to Myanmar in 2017.
(Credit: Archive of Sammy Samuels)

“The We Remember Campaign, which we organise annually, is not only about the Holocaust, but also about the present; we draw attention to current atrocities, to other persecuted ethnic minorities in Burma. We are speaking up for them”

Sammy Samuels, the leader of the Jewish Community

Questions for Critical Thinking:

  1. What is missing from current knowledge and public discourse on minorities in Myanmar?
  2. How can we use the Jewish legacy to create a pluralist, open-minded and tolerant society in Myanmar?
  3. How can Holocaust education be relevant in teaching about the atrocities against the Rohingya in Myanmar?

Local resistance

The White Rose campaign aimed to spread interfaith harmony and peace in Myanmar, and to show solidarity with Muslim minorities—including the Rohingya. White roses were distributed by Buddhists to Muslims near mosques after the Muslims’ prayers. Interfaith activists launched the White Rose campaign shortly after Muslims’ temporary prayer sites were forced to close by nationalist Buddhist monks, who led supporters into three Muslim areas of the South Dagon township in Yangon on the nights of 14 and 15 May, 2019. The White Rose campaign was initiated by a Buddhist monk, Venerable Ashin Seindita and other faith leaders. It started in Yangon before quickly spreading to other cities: Sagaing, Mawlamyine, Mandalay, Bago, Naypyitaw and Pyay.

Watch Thet Swe Win, an interfaith activist and the founder and executive director of Synergy Social Harmony Organization, who tells us about the campaign. 

The contemporary White Rose campaign in Myanmar was inspired by the symbolism of the anti-Nazi student opposition group, White Rose, which was formed in 1942. The underground movement promoted nonviolent resistance as a means of opposing the Nazi regime in Germany.

The White Rose campaign in Yangon and other citiesin Myanmar.
(Credit: Archive of Thet Swe Win)

The German White Rose group:

  • produced leaflets encouraging Germans to join them in resisting the Nazi regime
  • disseminated the leaflets to addresses selected randomly from telephone books, at universities, and other places
  • scrawled the words, ‘Down with Hitler’ and ‘Freedom’ on walls across Munich.

This story can serve as an interesting starting point for teaching the Holocaust with contemporary references to Myanmar and Southeast Asia.
Learn more about the White Rose anti-Nazi student opposition movement:

Ali Al-Nasani, director of Heinrich Boell Stiftung Cambodia, sharing the story of the White Rose movement with Cambodians, 2019.

(Credit: NEVER AGAIN Associaion)

NEVER AGAIN’s Rafal Pankowski wearing a t-shirt of the Myanmar White Rose campaign with Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh, November 2019.
(Credit: NEVER AGAIN Association)

Questions for Critical Thinking:

  • What methods and tools can be used to oppose violence and hatred against minorities today?
  • How can the White Rose resistance group from Germany be a role model for youth in Myanmar and in other countries today?

Thank you for taking the time to give us feedback on this online exhibition. Please share your thoughts, reflections and comments on this. We appreciate your cooperation.

Recommended Literature


  • Campagnac-Carney, Sandra. (2014). Burma Memories WWII.
  • Cernea, Ruth. (2007). Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma. Lanham: Lexington Books
  • Charney, Michael W. (2015). A History of Modern Burma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Charmaine, Craig. (2017). Miss Burma. New York: Grove Press LINK  – Inspired by the remarkable true story of Craig’s mother, whose father was Indian Jewish and whose mother was from the Karen minority in southern Burma, this novel deftly mixes fact and fiction. It relates the story of Craig’s mother from her childhood and time as a 1950s beauty queen and film star, up to the point where she renounced her glamorous Rangoon life to become a commander in a guerrilla army fighting for an independent Karen state (Guardian)
  • Lee, Ronan. (2021). Myanmar’s Rohingya Genocide: Identity, History and Hate Speech. London: I.B. Tauris
  • Ibrahim, Azeem. (2018). The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Frank, Ben G. (2012). Scattered Tribe. Travelling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti&Beyond. Globe Pequot Press — a guide for the Jew­ish trav­el­er to Rus­sia (includ­ing Siberia), Tahi­ti, Viet­nam, Bur­ma-Myan­mar, India, Moroc­co (and Alge­ria, albeit briefly), Cuba, and Israel
  • Thant, Myint-U. (2020). The Hidden History of Burma. Race, Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century. London: Atlantic Books
  • Zarni, Maung, Brinham, Natalie. (2019). Essays on Myanmar’s Genocide of Rohingyas (2012-2018). Dhaka: Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit

Journal Articles

  • Kozłowska, Magdalena, Lubina, Michał. “The Burmese road to Israeli-style cooperative settlements: The Namsang project, 1956–63” in Journal in Southeast Asian Studies, Cambridge University Press, Volume 52 , Issue 4 , December 2021 , pp. 701 – 725

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