Tomas Munita/The New York Times

David Ludden, a professor of history at NYU, discussed the ongoing oppression of Rohingya Muslims and other minority groups in Myanmar during an April 27 lecture.

May 2, 2023

NYU Professor Decries Violence Against Rohingya in Myanmar at Einaudi Center Lecture

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The ongoing political and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar — formerly known as Burma — was the topic of discussion in an April 27 lecture titled “The Rohingya Crisis and the Violence of National Territory” given by New York University history professor David Ludden.

Ludden is an expert in South Asian studies and a 1990 recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies sponsored the lecture.

The crisis in Myanmar is considered to be one of the most complex and multifaceted crises in recent history, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Since the 1960s, the country has been under military rule, with the Tatmadaw — the Burmese military — committing numerous human rights violations against ethnic minorities, including massacres and acts of sexual violence.

In 2011, a semi-civilian government was established, but the military regained control of the country in a 2021 coup. The conflict between democracy and military rule has been at the forefront of the political crisis. Many ethnic groups within Myanmar have protested the regime, demanding democracy. However, in response, the military government has resorted to violence, exacerbating the already deep-rooted oppression of ethnic minorities.

In the lecture, Ludden explained that during the period of civilian government rule from 2011 to 2021, Myanmar drew significant foreign investment and monetary support. According to Ludden, the nation’s new, democratic regime was considered significantly more trustworthy by other nations compared to its previous authoritarian military government.

“The Chinese, the Indians, various different companies, local Australian companies [and] American companies started investing much more in Myanmar because it was recognized as a democratic country on the rise and its developmental system was really working,” Ludden said. “And so, the question was, how is the military going to deal with it?”

According to Ludden, all these foreign investments and support paved the road for the military coup of 2021. He stated that the military launched its coup in response to a perceived threat by the civilian government to take away its power following the military’s failure to control the economy.

Ludden said this period of foreign support in Myanmar explains why he labels the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar as “Violence of National Territory,” as the Tatmadaw has accused protestors of siding with foreign countries and has used this as justification for violence against ethnic minorities.

“The idea that there’s a foreign connection to the internal resistance to the government becomes one of the government’s justifications for the war itself.” Ludden said. “The Chinese activity in the northern borders of Burma had been there for quite a long time. So, the idea [is] that the Chinese were somehow involved in preventing the Burmese government. It’s a very complicated story.”

According to Ludden, the Chinese government is not the only foreign power invested in the area. He said Myanmar constitutes a great importance for many South Asian countries in the same geography, pointing to the example of Arakan, which is a state of Myanmar that bears a great importance for many countries — and their businesses — in the region due to its geographical location as a major connection point for trade between the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal.

Ludden also argued that the Rohingya Crisis is an example of ethnic discrimination and violence in Myanmar. The Rohingya — a Muslim minority in a predominantly Buddhist country — have been subjected to discrimination, hate crimes and violence by the government for decades. This long-standing issue escalated in 2017 when the military government launched a campaign of violence and sexual assault against the Rohingya. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were forced to flee the country, and those who remained faced oppressive control by the state.

Although the Rohingya crisis may have been perceived as a case of religious discrimination, Ludden highlighted that the military government’s violence is not just limited to Rohingyas, as it also extends to multiple other marginalized communities within the country, indicating that religion is not the only driving factor behind the crisis.

“Five years ago, it looked like religion was a driving force behind the [Rohingya crisis],” Ludden said. “The monks were all over the place. Theravāda Buddhist monks in Thailand, in Sri Lanka and Myanmar [have] historically [been] very politically active, a very important part of the state infrastructure. [They have been] very much a part of the political framework of the state.”

Ludden supported his argument by giving the example of violence against Buddhist minority groups, saying that if Buddhists were fighting other Buddhists, the conflicts were not religious in nature, but rather the Burmese military fighting against minority groups in general.

The plight of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar has been exacerbated by the practice of land grabbing by the state, according to Ludden. The Myanmar military government’s practices of land grabbing have become a pressing issue, particularly in regions adjacent to foreign countries such as Kachin, Shan States and Mon States

According to Ludden, the Myanmar military’s land grabbing in Arakan is an attempt to gain control over an area that is rich in resources. However, this practice has resulted in the displacement of native ethnic minorities and has caused immense suffering.

“Mobile connectivity of Arakan becomes one of the basis for its value and the Myanmar military wants to take control of that area.” Ludden said. “It became a kind of a land grab from the point of view of trying to get control and resources in that particular area.”

In his concluding remarks, Ludder emphasized once again that the violence committed by the state against the Rohingya minority cannot be attributed solely to religious differences. He highlighted that the issue is far more complex and deeply ingrained in the military’s use of violence to suppress dissent.

“For the Rohingya case, religion is important, there is no doubt about it, but it explains only a very small part of what is going on,” Ludden said. “A lot of it has to do with the overall violence of the national territorial integration that is actually part of the regime.”

Aslı Cihangir ’26 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].