The United Nations, in a rare moment of lucidity, has called them the most persecuted minority in the world. And with good reason. Cooped up in Rakhine state in the western corner of Burma, the Muslim Rohingya constitute the largest body of stateless people in the world. Deprived of any rights, constitutional or otherwise, they have been mercilessly harassed, brutalised and killed. Hated by the local Rakhine people as well as the Burmese, unwelcome in Bangladesh, where many of their families originally came from, all too often they are forced to take to the sea. In recent years tens of thousands of Rohingya have paid people smugglers to help them escape Burma on board flimsy, stinking old rust buckets in the hope of starting a new life in Indonesia or Malaysia. Hundreds have died trying.
However, at least the Rohingya’s plight as the world’s latest ‘boat people’ means that the persecution of them is not quite as hidden as it once was, notwithstanding the title of Azeem Ibrahim’s book. Last summer the fleeing Rohingya filled the nightly news bulletins in Asia, eventually shaming regional governments into being marginally more helpful towards them. The problem of the Rohingya has also assumed a new importance in Burma itself. They are now the focus of intense scrutiny by the UN and the scores of well-meaning Western agencies that have poured into the country since the government began its reform programme in 2011. Burma, however, is these days supposed to be a ‘good news story’, following the establishment of a civilian government for the first time in over fifty years, led to all intents and purposes by Aung San Suu Kyi. The troubles of the Rohingya, by contrast, have worsened considerably since 2011. The disconnect between the experiences of the Rohingya and the country as a whole throws their suffering into stark relief.
The other standout word in Ibrahim’s title, ‘genocide’, is more justified. The 1951 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide states that genocide includes the ‘intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’. This is clearly what has been happening to the Rohingya since the 1940s, as they have been gradually but systematically marginalised, stigmatised, persecuted and stripped of all their rights. Regarded as interlopers – ‘Bengali immigrants’ – by the Buddhist Rakhine, the Rohingya have suffered waves of mass expulsions by the army since the 1990s. Worse, in 2012 the Rohingya were ethnically cleansed from Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, and surrounding villages in several bouts of organised savagery. Hundreds were killed. About 100,000 Rohingya were subsequently herded into refugee camps on the fringes of the city, where they largely remain to this day, cut off from any interaction with the Rakhine, deprived of the freedom to travel, to earn a living, to go to hospitals or to send their children to the schools that they used to attend. This amounts to a concerted attempt to end their way of life. The Rakhine are quite happy if the Rohingya take to the seas, and certainly don’t care if they die doing so.
Ibrahim dwells on the history of the Rohingya in order to give an account of how and why they have come to arouse such fear and loathing. The Rakhine and Burmese argue that the Rohingya only came into Rakhine state (formerly the independent kingdom of Arakan) after the British conquered the region in the 1820s. However, contrary to several other scholars, Ibrahim shows that the Rohingya had a significant presence in Arakan well before the British arrived, so the claim that they are all just relatively recent immigrants seems to be bogus.
But it is also true that hundreds of thousands of Bengalis did immigrate into Arakan on the coat-tails of the British during the 19th century, looking for better jobs in what was then a very prosperous British colony, and that this exacerbated tensions between the indigenous Rakhine and the newcomers. This history is vital to understanding the dynamics of conflict in Rakhine state. Whereas the Rohingya are clearly now victims of Rakhine prejudice, the Rakhine regard themselves as victims too, several times over: of the Burmans, who conquered their Arakan kingdom in 1784; of the British, who invaded; and finally of the people they still call ‘Bengalis’, who ‘swamped’ their land after that. The Rakhine are thus impervious to charges of genocide or ethnic cleansing levelled against them; in their own minds they are merely trying to reclaim what was once theirs.
Unfortunately, Ibrahim is probably right to argue that even with the onset of the new democratic government things are unlikely to get any better for the Rohingya. Suu Kyi’s ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is as riddled with Islamophobia as the old military government, partly a consequence of the form of Buddhism practised in Burma. The NLD, he explains, ‘calculates that there is no political benefit to standing up for the Rohingyas’. He is also rightly critical of Suu Kyi on this point: ‘her silence over the persecution of the Rohingyas is not just a reflection of the pressures she faces, but an indication that there is at least some ambiguity in her position over the right of the Rohingyas to live in Myanmar.’
For the most part Ibrahim’s analysis is excellent, but the book has two notable defects. First, the author barely mentions the very positive benefits of the reforms in Burma of recent years, including the release of thousands of political prisoners, the introduction of fair elections, the end of censorship and more. Ibrahim berates foreign powers for not applying enough pressure on the Burmese government over the Rohingya without allowing for the fact that Western support for these reforms has yielded lengthy strides forward for millions of the country’s inhabitants. In terms of helping the Rohingya, the judgements that outside powers have to make are much more nuanced than Ibrahim can countenance.
Secondly, he fails to mention all the other wars that the Burmese army has fought against the country’s ethnic minorities, including the Kachin, the Mon and the Karen, since independence. This is essential context here. Unlike the Rohingya, these minorities are officially recognised as citizens of the country, yet it has done them little good: they have also suffered decades of oppression, discrimination and killing, which they too argue has often amounted to genocide. Granting the Rohingya citizenship, which Ibrahim argues for, is therefore not the silver bullet that many crave. It would be a nice step, but what the country really needs is a profound revolution in the Burmese majority’s relationship with all the ethnic minorities in the country, going beyond the mere apportionment of citizenship. The Rohingya must be part of that revolution.