Fascist assemblages in Cambodia and Myanmar


Khmer Souvanapoum ​ (the golden land of the Khmer) is the facebook profile of a Khmer nationalist – one of thousands, who is active on facebook. On a daily basis, he produces racist tirades aimed at the Vietnamese, and especially the Vietnamese living in Cambodia. He has called for a boycott of Vietnamese food, he produces racist memes of various varieties all aimed at the Vietnamese (which often get thousands of likes) and he personally attacked well known political analyst Ou Virak via facebook, when Virak publicly stated that anti-Vietnamese sentiment in the country was a major concern. His posts, and those of his followers and other nationalists (not to mention prominent opposition party members), often take on an element of absurdity. Like any fascist imaginings, they are quick to jump into the realm of conspiracy – Khmer Souvanapoum has often for instance suggested that the Vietnamese are trying to overrun Cambodia by setting up coffee stalls and noodle shops. It would suffice to leave his ranting’s at the level of absurdity if it wasn’t for the history of Khmer led Vietnamese massacres, or the fact that on more than one occasion in the last few years, the Vietnamese have been savagely killed by mob attacks, or that last year’s garment protests ended in mob directed destruction of Vietnamese businesses.

In Myanmar, countless Burmese nationalists regularly pollute facebook and twitter with anti-Muslim vitriol. So too, ultra nationalist Buddhist organisations like ‘969’ and Ma Ba Tha have been active in pushing Buddho-fascism to the centre of Myanmar politics. Last week, for instance Ma Ba Tha protested outside the Yangon court on two occasions – one to push for a harsher sentence for New Zealand owner of Gastro Bar and his two Burmese managers for posting a facebook image of the Buddha wearing headphones (they all got 2.5 years of hard labour), and on the second occasion to support the passing of the ‘Race and Religion Protection Bills’, which Ma Ba Tha played a large role in conceiving, and which would limit the right of women in certain areas to have children (i.e Rohingya women in Rakhine state) and limit the right of Buddhist women to marry non-Buddhists. With the recent violence in Rakhine state, not to mention the history of mob violence against Muslims and Indians in Myanmar, the events of last week are extremely concerning.

But are these manifestations of fascism any different from what has occurred in Australia? Australia has its own long history of ‘race riots’, and within the last few years anti- Muslim sentiment has been on the rise – the ‘reclaim Australia’ rallies scheduled for next month, for instance, are overtly opposed to Islam and have thousands of signed up attendees.

Here I want to briefly consider this question by looking at fascism as an assemblage of desire, discourse and state power, and argue that there is nothing particularly unique about fascism – but rather that it is a particular configuration of desire and power – or a ‘diagram of power’ that is manifested or actualised according to particular trajectories of nationalism, racism and state interests.

Understanding Fascism

When looking at Cambodia and Myanmar, and recent incidents of ‘communal violence’ or ethnic and religious discrimination, there is a tendency to over emphasise local political, cultural and historic factors. In Cambodia, analysts have often fallen back on the ‘violent orientalism’ thesis (Springer, 2009) – that beneath the smiles and politeness of Khmer society there are hidden violent tendencies which manifest themselves in periods of political turmoil. So too for Myanmar there is a long history of scholars associating political violence with some notion of ‘Burmese ways’[i]. But rather than looking at fascism as purely an endogenous phenomena that can only be understood by a detailed analysis of the factors internal to a particular country, taking a lead from French philosopher Deleuze, I want to consider fascism as an assemblage.

Most important for Deleuze (and Guattari) (Deleuze & Guattari, 2009), fascism, or any assemblage for that matter, cannot be understood as operating within a closed-off entity. An assemblage, unlike classical conceptions of bodies, organisms and subjects are not individuated – there is no whole that can be easily delineated from the outside. Just as a human body is an assemblage of organs, blood and tissue, where flows of oxygen, carbon-dioxide, bacteria, nutrients and water sustain a bodies coherency, so too within a state, certain configurations of violence, capital, bureaucracy, discipline and desire maintain the coherency of a state. Also important is the ontological difference between ‘the event’, the virtual and actuality. The event is the messy reality of different overlapping power relations and bodies. The eruption of violence in Rakhine state in Myanmar for instance is the event – the manifestation of a long and complex history that cannot be reduced down to a single factor. Violence in Rakhine state is the messy result of: the colonial use of Rohingya in the post Japanese V-force, Rakhine resentment of the Burmese state, India-cum-East Pakistan-cum Bangladesh’s own conflicts and persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya, post-independence Rohingya rebellion, Rakine Buddho-fascism, and political exploitation of Rakhine the issue by national politicians garnering anti-Muslim sentiment.

The virtual is a potential for a particular relation of power and is always future orientated and typically unrealisable. Burmese Buddhist-nationalism for instance as an imagined community of ‘traditional’ Buddhists is primarily concerned with a particular future configuration – the dampening of Muslim influence and the establishment of laws and restrictions to ensure a population of ‘proper’ Buddhists. So too in Cambodia the Buddhist nationalist project reactively seeks to limit ‘outside’ influences on the nation in order to restore a proper Khmer-Buddhist constituency.

Actuality is where the virtual is actualised within a particular body – when a body is disciplined, or performs as a ‘Khmer’, ‘Burmese’ or ‘Australian’. But importantly, a body can never be entirely determined by a particular configuration of power – thus one is a father and a Buddhist and a Cambodian, depending on the particular set of relations one finds one in at any given moment.

Fascism is both virtual and actual. At the level of the virtual it is nearly always concerned with ‘the proper’- an imagining of a proper community, united together by sacrifice and obligation, that is constantly attempting to pre-emptively destroy or counter any outside influences which may challenge the coherency of the community (Esposito & Hanafi, 2013) . The Vietnamese in Cambodia or the Muslims/ Indians/ Rohingya in Myanmar and their minority religions, languages and cultures are often imagined as being a threat to ‘proper’ Cambodian/Rakhine/Burmese communities – a contaminant which can potentially destroy the homogeneity of the imagined community. On a micro-level, the common and violent mob attacks against small scale thieves in Cambodia is evidence of the spontaneous violence people are willing to engage in order to protect against threats to the community. Apart from Muslims, Rakhine mobs have also attacked aid workers in Rakhine state for ‘undermining the community’ by supposedly focusing aid resources on Rohingya groups. Fascism is thus always reactive, and based around policing the borders of a ‘proper’ community.

Colonialism and Fascism in Cambodia and Myanmar

Fascism in its virtual state travels – and this is where the similarities across different countries can be best seen. In form at least, fascism in Australia is little different to fascism in Myanmar – both espouse similar fears, anxieties and desires – to protect the community from contaminating Islam. In many cases fascist movements borrow from one another; U Wirathu (AKA ‘the face of Buddhist terror’), spokesman of Myanmar’s 969 movement openly admires the British Defence League, and Khmer Souvanpoum holds as his icon Otto von Bismark and supports Israeli ultra-nationalism. But on a much deeper level, fascism in Myanmar and Cambodia remains highly indebted to colonial legacies. The obsession of British and French colonial administers with managing discrete ethnic populations within fixed territories has endured into the 21st century. Contemporary nationalists take for granted ethnic categories and differences established through early governmental interventions such as population surveys, education policies and migration policies (the actualisation of colonial nationalisms). Similarly, pre-independence colonial territorial maps have become the ultimate symbol of modern nationalisms, to which all border changes following independence have been marked with great suspicion (i.e. Khmer nationalists who bemoan the loss of koh Trahl to Vietnam, but conveniently stay silent on the large swaths of land ceded from the Lao Champasak King to Cambodia in 1901).

However, unlike colonial administrators, contemporary nationalists want to reverse the flows of bodies established under British and French rule. Just as the Vietnamese fulfilled nearly all positions in the Cambodian bureaucracy in the early 20th century (Ovesen & Trankell, 2010), so too South Indians almost exclusively dominated the early Burmese bureaucracy and army (Callahan, 2004). Just as early 20th century Rangoon had the highest immigration rate of any comparable city at the time(Myint-U, 2007), so too, within Phnom Penh the Khmer represented only one third of the population (Vietnamese and Chinese accounting for the other two thirds) (Osbourne, 2008). With the emergence of an urban Khmer and Burmese middle class, early colonial state backed nationalist projects began to morph into nationalist movements. In an attempt to protect their own class and economic interests, and position themselves as inheritors of the colonial state system, the middle class latched onto nationalist discourses which were attractive as they could legitimise themselves as the ‘proper’ subjects of the emerging nation state system.

French efforts to distinguish Cambodian Buddhism from Thai through the establishment of the Buddhist institute and cultivate a Cambodian identity through nationalist icons such as Angkor Watt (which have appeared on every flag since independence) gained momentum in the pre-war years and became attractive to the Khmer middle class (Edwards, 2007). In Burma, one of the first mass organisations, the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) was also cultivated by the state (most of its members being lower level government officials and clerks) and formed the basis for most early nationalist political parties (Taylor, 2009). Interestingly, it was from both the YMBA and from members of the Cambodia Buddhist institute, where anti-Indian and anti- Vietnamese nationalist sentiment began to arise (along with nationalist newspapers such as Nagaravatta in Cambodia, and the magazines of DoBama Asiayone in Burma). State efforts to insulate the population from peasant revolts (eg the Si Votha revolts in southern Cambodia in the 1880’s and the Saya San rebellion in 1930-32 in Burma) through cultivating a conservative Buddhist nationalism, largely backfired. Here certain sects of Buddhism became a vehicle for nationalist sentiment.

For Deleuze, the most important thing about fascism is that it always takes a molecular or populist form. It is cancerous, in that it replicates and grows beyond what states are able to regulate. It is an investment of desire into nationalist/ethnic/religious identities that goes well beyond state led nationalist projects. This is what differentiates fascism from authoritarianism – it is a movement away from orderly, state discipline and passivity, towards a radical, yet reactive nationalism. For Deleuze it is a jumbling of the state coding machines – where individuals become policeman, judge and juror all–in-one. As Deleuze is at pains to point out, the rise of fascism is never wholly determined by economic or class interests as it is primarily an investment of desire – to love ones country/religion/community and be willing to kill/die to protect it. In many cases those swept up in fascist movements have gone directly against their own class and economic interests.

Early Cambodian and Burmese nationalists were initially drawn to Japanese fascism at the onset of WWII. Both Aung San and Son Ngoc Thanh made trips to Japan in the early 40’s and established themselves as local leaders during the Japanese occupation. As nationalism began to rise and the middle class became more confident about impending independence, hatred and violence towards ‘outsiders’ began to become a part of nationalist movements. Already in 1930, Burma had had a major fascist event – the massacre of 200 Indians in Rangoon by Burmese, which started as a conflict over Indian strikers at the Rangoon port. The British authorities had to employ a ‘shoot on site’ strategy in order to quell th riots. In Cambodia Sihanouk throughout the 1960’s undoubtedly cultivated a form of Khmer fascism, although his authoritarianism kept it in check. But it wasn’t until the Lon Nol coup in 1970 that the first major Cambodian fascist event was unleashed– the massacre of over 800 Vietnamese by voluntary Khmer militia in 1960. No doubt the difference in mortality rates between these two events was due to the fact that the British authorities actively suppressed the Indian massacre, while the Lon Nol regime actively encouraged the Vietnamese massacre.

Here, there is another important aspect of fascism; that for a fascist event to occur, there needs to be a great deal of resources mobilised, and existing power structures need to give at least tacit support to the movement. While fascist molecular movements are often beyond state control, there have always been historical moments when states have attempted to re-territorialise fascism and channel it for their own political benefits- although this can be extremely dangerous as colonial regimes discovered. Ne Win in 1960s Burma cultivated a particular variant of Burmese Buddhist chauvinism and set in place many of the structures which have played a role in giving rise to the current plight of the Rohingya, as well as anti-Islam and anti-Indian sentiment (i.e expelling Indo Burmese and restricting citizenship to some groups). In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, at least initially, could be considered a fascist movement, but which by 1975 had transformed itself into a genocidal authoritarian state. In Both Burma and Cambodia, the tumultuous cold war period which saw civil conflict and the rise of authoritarianism, essentially thwarted any fascist movements.

Contemporary Fascisms

Jumping back to contemporary Cambodia and Myanmar, fascist movements have been on the rise – although for different reasons. In Cambodia, anti-government protest and the increasing confidence at which the populace can display discontent with the government has gone hand in hand with anti-Vietnamese fascism. The historical cultivation of anti-Vietnamese sentiment has largely been supressed by the Hun Sen regime due to the historic ties and economic interests of the ruling elite with the Vietnamese government. This is however rapidly changing at Cambodia aligns its economic and political interest with China. Anti-government protests including garment strikes, and even land conflict protests have been a medium through which long held anti-Vietnamese sentiments can be expressed. Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha of the opposition party have also unashamedly stoked anti-Vietnamese sentiment for short term political gain – especially in Phnom Penh were such sentiments are amongst the strongest.

In Myanmar, anti-Muslim fascism is also on the rise. Yet in Yangon itself, the situation is more complicated. The historic mistrust of central authorities has meant state backed efforts at provoking anti- Islam movements have been viewed suspiciously. No doubt, contemporary Yangon has come a long way from 1930s Rangoon. South Indian and Islamic Burmese have long established ties and links to the city and are an accepted part of the city’s social fabric – after all south Indian cultural import such as betel nut chewing, longyi wearing and south Indian food, are ubiquitous across Myanmar. In Mingala township, one of the biggest Muslim areas of Yangon, people I talked to said they saw government policies creating tensions more than any intra communal issues. Registration card difficulties in particular were a salient issue. However, with the rise of militant Buddhism as espoused by the 969 movement and Ma Ba Tha, anti-Islam and anti-Indian fascism is on the rise. In key places such as Mandalay and Rakhine state, such fascist movements are starting to gain a foothold.

Possibly the key difference to Cambodia is that there is increasing evidence that the current Myanmar regime is tacitly allowing these movements to grow, while in Cambodia, anti –Vietnamese rhetoric is largely monopolised by the opposition party. In Myanmar, there is mounting evidence that state forces were aware of mob violence, but failed to intervene during the 2012 Rohingya massacre. The 2014 anti-Islam Mandalay riots were also largely ignored by state forces and said to have been perpetuated by ‘suspicious outsiders’. Also, both U Wirathu and Ma Tha Ba have high level political supporters, which make them politically a powerful force for both the USDP and the NLD. However, of most concern are the fascist molecular movements which such political interventions set free – and are subsequently unable to be controlled as in the case of the 2012 Rakhine riots.  As nationalism fuels the rise of opposition parties and democracy politics, discontent with the dire situation most Cambodian’s and Myanmarese find themselves in, is being re-territorialised into fascist politics. Extreme Buddhism and ethno-nationalisms have in particular become important vehicles through which to actualise fascism. If the state continues to cultivate these fascisms – as in the case in Myanmar, and could potentially be the case in Cambodia if the opposition party were to gain power, previous fascist events such as Vietnamese, Indian and Muslim massacres, will no doubt occur again.

Tim Frewer is a PhD candidate at Sydney University


Callahan, M. P. (2004). Making enemies: War and state building in Burma: NUS Press.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (2009). Anti-Oedipus. New York: Penguin.

Edwards, P. (2007). Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation 1860-1945. Hawaií: University of Hawaii Press.

Esposito, R., & Hanafi, Z. (2013). Community, Immunity, Biopolitics. Angelaki, 18(3), 83-90. doi: 10.1080/0969725x.2013.834666

Myint-U, T. (2007). The river of lost footsteps: histories of Burma: Macmillan.

Osbourne, M. (2008). Phnom Penh – a Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ovesen, J., & Trankell, I.-B. (2010). Cambodian’s and Their Doctors – A medical Anthropology of Colonial and Post colonial Cambodia. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

Springer, S. (2009). Culture of violence or violent Orientalism? Neoliberalisation and imagining the ‘savage other’in post‐transitional Cambodia. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 34(3), 305-319.

Taylor, R. H. (2009). The state in Myanmar: NUS Press.


[i] For instance after the Saya Sun Rebellion in 1932 the British reported that the rebellion occurred primarily because ‘the Burman is by nature restless and excitable’. In Making Enemies (2003) Mary Callahan considers a wide rang of other authors who promote cultural explanations to Burma’s problems such as Lucien Pye, John Furnivall and Michael Gravers.