The Legacy of Colonialism in Myanmar

Sydney Schacter

How would you feel if your country was still operating under colonial- style rule?

Myanmar’s human rights violations date back to colonial structures. In 1948, the nation-state Myanmar, formally known as Burma, was established after being a British colony since 1824. Although Myanmar is living in a post colonial state, some things are still the same as they were when the British were in control. The military maintained a one party control over the country for many years and any opposing election results were simply ignored. Several years of democratic movements led to partly free elections in 2012 and the National League for Democracy was swept into power. Myanmar governments have a long-standing history of discrimination against the Rohingya people, a minority Muslim ethnic group that lives in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, including when they were denied citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law. The persecution of the Rohingya can be traced back to the oppression of colonialism, which has continued for the Muslim Rohingya, who make up only 2% of the predominantly Buddhist nation. 

    (Council on Foreign Relations, 2020)

This has resulted in the Rohingya people being one of the largest stateless groups in the world. Many Rohingya people have fled Myanmar and immigrated into neighbouring countries and elsewhere. While a regional conflict, the effects are felt in other South and Southeast Asia states. A 2017 military campaign forced 700,000 Rohingyas to flee. It is estimated that over one million Rohingya are living in the largest refugee camp in Bangladesh. The biggest issue with Rohingya people going to Bangladesh is climate change and the rising sea levels. For example, it is believed that “climate change is disrupting traditional rain patterns – droughts in some areas, unexpected deluges in others – and boosting slit-heavy runoff from glaciers in the Himalaya Mountains upstream, leading to an increase in flooding and riverbank erosion” (McDonnell, 2019). Many Bangladeshis are equipped to survive severe rainfall and flooding, but rising sea levels have created a whole new challenge. The number of Bangladeshis displaced by climate impacts is only expected to continue to rise, it “could reach 13.3 million by 2050” (McDonnell, 2019). 

The Rohingya are fleeing a potential genocide and desperately seeking a better life free from persection. While evading persecution, they are all but prisoners living in harsh conditions in a foreign country, often subjected to sexual assault and with limited access to health care, education, and adequate food. They are clinging to the hope that they will one day be able to live free.  Although there are still Rohingya people living in Myanmar, their freedom and lives are at risk on a daily basis.  

The military has often been used as an oppressive force in Myanmar. The Burmese military junta is notorious for their rampant use of sexual violance as an instrument of control, including allegation of systemic rapes and taking of sex slaves. In 1962, the first military coup installed a military junta, which ruled in various iterations up until 2011. Many people were fed up with how the military was running the country and in 2016 the first credibly-elected civilian government came into place. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party rose to the occasion after they were elected. However, It is no secret that there were problems, human rights violations and discrimination while Suu Kyi was in charge. This past year, in 2020 there was another election due to Suu Kyi’s four year term being up. Aung San Suu Kyi ran again and won. The military did not like that they lost and decided to stage a coup and take over.

With this coup, they have ignored the democratic rights because they did not win the majority vote. They have declared a 12 month stage of emergency and have announced there will not be a new election, taken Suu Kyi into a secret location and are holding secret trials. The military coup has visibly upset many people. In retaliation the citizens have decided to participate in over a month long protest. The symbol of the protest is a three finger salute, which originated in the Hunger Games film series, and has been adopted as a symbol of resistance and solidarity in various democracy movements across south-east Asia.  

  (Hikun Lat/Getty Images, retrieved from Foreign Policy, 2021) 
    (NDTV, 2021)

The Myanmar protests include constant marches throughout the streets. Doctors are striking against their government run hospitals and opening up clinics to help the wounded protestors. The military has cracked down on the democracy seeking protesters. They have issued an internet blackout, conducted night raids arresting citizen leaders, closed airports even for cargo, closed universities, shot tear gas, rubber bullets, actual bullets, arrested hundreds of protestors, injured multiple people, and have killed an unknown number. Just this past Wednesday, March 4th 2021 at least 38 people were killed by the Myanmar security forces after they opened fire. At least 4 of the 38 killed were children. Myanmar is currently being described as “a war zone” (Dewan, Regan and Roth, 2021). Thinzar Shunlei Yi, an activist, says “it’s horrific, it’s a massacre. No words can describe the situation and our feelings” (Dewan, Regan and Roth, 2021). 

The Myanmar protests have had a global effect. Most democracies have condemned the coup and associated atrocities, while others are staying quiet. People living outside of Myanmar are frustrated with the current crisis, which has led to small protests around the world. Canada, Britain and the United States have publicly condemned the coup and are freezing economic assistance and have enacted various sanctions. 

When the coup eventually does abate, one question will persist: will there ever be freedom for all of Myanmar, including the Rohingya people?

Works Cited 

18 Killed In Myanmar On Bloodiest Day Of Protests Against Coup. (2021, March 1). In NDTV. Retrieved from Can Myanmar‚ Protesters Succeed?    

Albert, E., & Maizland, L. (2020, January 23). The Rohingya Crisis. In Council on Foreign Relations . Retrieved from    

CNA Insider. (2021, February 16). Myanmar Coup: The End Of Myanmar’s Fragile Democracy? | Insight. In YouTube . Retrieved from    

Dewan, A., Regan, H., & Roth, R. (2021, March 4). Myanmar a ‘war zone’ as security forces open fire on peaceful protesters, killing 38. In CNN. Retrieved from    

Is the Myanmar coup a turning point for the Rohingya?. (n.d.). In Alajazeera. Retrieved from    

Mcdonnell, T. (2019, January 24). Climate change creates a new migration crisis for Bangladesh. In National Geographic . Retrieved from    

PBS NewsHour. (2021, February 7). Protests grow in Myanmar despite internet restrictions and police crackdowns. In YouTube . Retrieved from    

Rohingya . (n.d.). In Human Rights Watch . Retrieved from    

Staff Reuters. (2021, March 3). At least 38 dead as Myanmar forces open fire on anti-coup protesters. In Global News . Retrieved from    

Wittekind, C. T. (2021, February 10). Can Myanmar Protesters Succeed?. In Foreign Policy . Retrieved from    

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