March 17, 2018

Book Review: “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide”

Usman Butt

March 14th, 2018

There are many groups who can claim the dubious honor of being the world’s forgotten people, but Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya population is arguably the current front-runner for the label. Over the last several years, the plight of the Rohingya has occasionally made it into the international news. But, the global community has done little to intervene in the ongoing genocide.

For the most part, there has been confusion about who the Rohingya are and why they are being targeted by the Myanmar regime. Azeem Ibrahim, an international research fellow affiliated with Harvard, Yale, and the U.S. Army War College, argues that the persecution of the Rohingya is historically rooted in the situation of postcolonial Myanmar and the normalized “otherness” of the Rohingya people within the country’s culture. Ibrahim’s new book The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide traces this troubling history of persecution and explains its origins.

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As the book recounts, there is a popular belief in Myanmar that the Rohingya are Bengalis who came to Arakan province (also known as Rakhine province) in western Myanmar after the British annexed the region in 1824, and that they displaced the local Buddhist population. In addition to being a so-called alien population, it is frequently assumed that the Rohingya are dangerous and a vehicle for Islamist extremism. These prejudices have been encouraged by Myanmar’s ruling military and political elite through the media and education system.

Ibrahim argues that popular beliefs about the Rohingya are incorrect and that their history in the Arakan region dates back to migration from India to Arakan 3,000 years ago. The Rohingya became the region’s majority group, coexisting with other populations, including Buddhists. After Islam arrived in India, it quickly came to Arakan, which was an important trading region. Arakan had been a largely independent region and only became part of Myanmar when the Kingdom of Burma (a precursor to the Myanmar state) expanded and took the area in 1784.

After the British annexed the region in 1826 and the rest of Burma in the following decades, they ruled over an ethnically and religiously diverse Burma. Over time, British rule would divide Burmese society. Some groups favored British rule, while others did not. This division sharpened when the British brought in Indians, some of whom were Muslim, to work in the local administration and run rice fields. Even though the Rohingya never joined the British administration en masse, the rest of Burmese society conflated foreign Muslims with local ones, a phenomenon that likely played a role in contemporary discourse on the Rohingya in Myanmar.

The Second World War worsened relations between the country’s ethnic communities, as different groups choose between the British and the Japanese, who were competing for control of the region. Hoping to rid themselves of the British, many Burmese sided with the Japanese. The Rohingya, however, decided to remain loyal to the British, which caused friction between them and the Rakhine (Burmese Buddhists), who were committed to the nationalist cause of liberating Burma from British rule. Siding with the British was not an ideological commitment to empire, but rather came naturally as the Rohingya had gotten accustomed to the British during their long-time rule. By the end of World War II, a new nationalist elite had formed in Burma and eventually forced theBritish out. The formation had been gradual and included different factions and elements from left to right-wing groups. Some within these movements were aided with a British education, which was meant to train them to be administrators, but like elsewhere in the British Empire, local elite formed to oppose the empire.

After Burma became an independent country in 1948 (and changed its name to Mynamar in 1989, allegedly to be more ‘inclusive’ of the countries minorities), ethnic diversity and fears about holding the country together accelerated the search for a common identity. As Ibrahim argues, because of the country’s Buddhist majority, Buddhism quickly became an important marker of belonging in Myanmar. Still, debates over whether the country should be a secular or Buddhist state raged until the 1960s, when the military took full control of the government and promoted Theravada Buddhism, whose followers claim to be strict adheres to Buddha’s teachings. It is a fundamentalist movement with an emphasis on purity. while it generally abhors violence, its strict and reductive ideas appeal to nationalists trying to nation build. Notwithstanding these debates, throughout the history of post-independence Myanmar, from civilian to military control, communism to democracy, one thing remained constant: the Rohingya were marginalized and oppressed, to varying degrees, by all the country’s ruling regimes.

Ibrahim argues that one of the key motivating factors for targeting the Rohingya was failing economic and political policies under Myanmar’s successive governments. These failures sparked hostile government rhetoric against the Rohinghya, with the intent of distracting the rest of the population from the government’s shortcomings. The Rohingya were an easy target for such scapegoating, as they were known not to actively resist or oppose their persecution.

Recent attempts to wipe out the Rohingya demonstrates how successful this targeting has been, Ibrahim argues. Whether through propaganda, emphasis on ‘officially’ approved history (which casts Rohingyas as dangerous foreigners), or the use of war-on-terror rhetoric that portrays the Rohingyas as Jihadists, while banning the Rohingyas from voting in elections, state sponsored marginalization has come full circle with recent events.

Ibrahim’s book is a welcome contribution to our understanding of the ethnic cleansing taking place in Myanmar. Accessible and requiring no prior knowledge, it is required reading for anyone who wants to learn more about the plight of the Rohingya

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