Identifying and Countering Holocaust Distortion: Lessons for and from Southeast Asia

Myanmar (Burma) *

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 subgroupsincluding 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. 

* Burma and Myanmar are used interchangeably in this text.

Questions for Critical Thinking:

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

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.  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 Burma–Siam 'Death Railway', Myanmar (Burma). (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.

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

One more synagogue was built in the 1930s. 

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. 

Questions for Critical Thinking:

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