This was first published at the National.
The Rohingya Muslims are currently the world’s most persecuted minority. Since last year at least 625,000, over half the total population, have fled slaughter in Myanmar (also known as Burma). This is only the latest wave in a series of killings and expulsions starting in 1978. The UN calls it a ‘textbook example’ of ethnic cleansing.
Two recently-published books provide necessary background to the Rohingya tragedy. Francis Wade’s “Myanmar’s Enemy Within: the Making of a Muslim Other” contextualises events politically and historically. Azeem Ibrahim’s “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” covers similar ground while, as the title suggests, convincingly arguing that Myanmar “stands on the brink” of genocide, a crime defined by the UN as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
The Rohingyas have been designated as ‘Foreigners’ since 1978. The Myanmar state today describes them either as Indians imported by the British or as recent illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Both books dispute this revisionism. Ibrahim begins Rohingya history as far back as 3,000BCE, when Indo-Aryan people arrived in what is now Arakan (or Rakhine province), while Wade presents evidence of an 11th Century CE Muslim community composed of stranded Indian, Arab and Perisan sailors.
Ibrahim’s account of ancient and colonial history is the most detailed. Rohingyas lived alongside Rakhine people who were connected linguistically and religiously to the Burman, the dominant ethnicity in today’s Myanmar. Though Arakan was influenced by the ancient Burmese kingdom, it wasn’t conquered until 1784. Over the next four decades 30,000 Muslims fled Burmese-Buddhist rule, until the British annexed Arakan in 1826. Burma – with Arakan and its Rohingyas attached – won its independence in 1948.
The Rohingyas entered the new state at a disadvantage. Their loyalty to the British during the 1942 Japanese invasion had sparked conflict with the Rakhine. Nevertheless they participated in national life. Some joined the army and others served in parliament. They were included as an ethnic group in the 1961 census.
In 1962 Myanmar’s military seized power. At this point Wade’s book takes the lead in describing the rage for national homogeneity motivating these Burman generals, in a country where minority groups make forty percent of the population. The army waged wars to subdue the Shan, Kachin and Karen peoples, amongst others. In the 1960s, it expelled Indian and Chinese residents.
It also sought legitimacy as guardian of the Theravada version of Buddhism, especially when it needed to deflect attention from the so-called Burmese Road to Socialism’s economic disasters. The military spent less than three percent of the national budget on health and education, but devoted great energy and resources to converting the animist and Christian populations. Wade describes state-run mass-conversion ceremonies in which the profession of Buddhism is rewarded by rice and a National Registration card.
The Rohingyas, marked as ‘other’ by darker skin as much as by religious difference, were steadily deprived of all civil rights. Paradoxically this process only worsened after the partial return to democracy in 2010.
The first reason for this, as Ibrahim points out, is that the military still governs remotely – either in parliament through its Union Solidarity Development Party, or on the street by backing MaBaTha, an organisation of hate-preaching monks which orchestrates boycotts of Muslim businesses as well as anti-Muslim violence.
But Wade explores a more disturbing issue – how populist hyper-nationalism may transform democracy into a ‘tyranny of the majority’. “Should the forces that inevitably result from liberalisation,” he asks, referencing the extremist monks, “and which can aid the opening of a country as much as they can imperil it, be constrained, or should they be allowed to run free?” After decades of propaganda, most people in Myanmar genuinely fear and resent Rohingyas, believing these poverty-stricken farmers and fishermen to be jihadists in disguise, bent on the destruction of Buddhism.
Wade and Ibrahim recount the sorry results. During the 2012 and 2013 anti-Rohingya pogroms, police and soldiers watched as mobs burnt homes, raped women, and beat children to death. Thereafter Rohingya were driven from urban areas and segregated in camps. Regional and national political parties either tacitly encouraged the violence or – like the National League for Democracy, which would win the 2015 elections by a landslide – ignored it. Much more was expected of the NLD, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who had spent over twenty years under house arrest. But the NLD’s base is the ethnic Burman elite. Driven either ideologically or by a pragmatic unwillingness to rock the boat, Suu Kyi refuses even to acknowledge that the Rohingya community exists.
All this contradicts the West’s stereotype of Buddhism as a religion of peace, tolerance and non-violence. Certainly these principles were important to the Buddha himself, but when Buddhism – or any other religion – is tied to a modern state-building project, morality rapidly takes second place to a furiously exclusionary identity politics. Ibrahim argues that Theravada Buddhism is made particularly vulnerable to such deformation by its notion that the religion’s strength depends on a state committed to its protection, and to the suppression of other faiths.
Wade considers how another set of Western stereotypes – those associated with the Islamophobic ‘War on Terror’ narrative – have served Myanmar’s fascists very well, recasting their slaughter of Rohingyas as self-defence. In reality, Rohingyas, unlike other oppressed groups in Myanmar, have historically been passive in the face of violence.
But we have seen this movie before, not only in Syria. Very often an oppressive state’s terror scare becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Right on cue, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army appeared in 2016, launching scattered attacks on police stations. This provided the pretext for the most recent cleansing of Rohingyas, which in turn has attracted the attention of international ‘jihadists’ of the al-Qaida or ISIS variety. This vicious circle can spin much deeper.
So what can be done – beyond charity work – to help the Rohingyas? Refugees ask for the right to return home, citizenship, and freedom of movement. But the first condition is meaningless without the others. In current circumstances they will return, at best, to unbearable oppression.
Because it desires arms sales and economic investment, Myanmar’s behaviour could be modified by international pressure – this at least is Ibrahim’s argument. China and Russia recently vetoed a UN resolution calling Myanmar to account. It is to be hoped that Myanmar’s fellow ASEAN countries, the EU, and Muslim states do better.
Ordinary people can also educate themselves on the issue, and these complementary books should be read together. Wade is stronger on Myanmar’s inflammatory media, for instance, and the apartheid system of “racialised health care, purposeful and carefully designed.” Ibrahim focuses more on what happens to Rohingya refugees, including their frequent subjection to slavery. (Thailand has an estimated 500,000 slaves, most refugees from Myanmar.) Ibrahim’s energised polemic is certainly informative, but Wade’s is more discursive, often quoting personal testimonies, and makes more engaging reading.
In the foreword to Ibrahim’s book, Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus takes the liberal (and for many states – including perhaps Donald Trump’s America – seemingly heretical) position that “a government must in the end be judged” not by its enforcement of ‘identity’ nor by the size of its nuclear button but “by how it protects the most vulnerable people in its society.”