Review – The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide by Azeem Ibrahim
This book was published more than a year ago, but it is only now that its true relevance has been demonstrated in the face of world events.
When I briefly met and spoke to Azeem Ibrahim, the author of The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, in mid-2016, he was confident of two things. The first was that a real crisis was coming for Burma’s Rohingya people, a Muslim minority in the majority Buddhist state; and the second was that Aung San Suu Kyi was not the near-saintly figure she had been portrayed as by many the world over, and particularly in the West.
Both of his assertions seemed less than certain when we met. But now they are not only more widely held; they are approaching orthodoxy.
Repression of the Rohingya, coupled with atrocities committed by Burma’s still-powerful military, has forced many to flee to neighbouring states, presaging a refugee crisis, which has demanded and received much global attention.
And Ibrahim’s assessment of Suu Kyi’s international reputation holds. A recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her leadership of the National League for Democracy (NLD), and despite suffering political repression and enduring house arrest, Suu Kyi now faces international calls for her titles and honours to be rescinded.
Though she is not allowed to be president of Burma – officially named Myanmar – Suu Kyi is the de facto head of government after large electoral victories for her party, the NLD, most notably in the 2015 general election. The military remains powerful, but Suu Kyi bears responsibility both for the conduct of the Burmese state and herself as an international figure of real stature.
And her conduct has been sorely deficient.
Suu Kyi maintains that there has been no sustained violence against the Rohingya, a demonstrable untruth; she dismisses the suggestion that there have been mass rapes of Rohingya women; she refuses interviews and stonewalls when asked hard questions.
This past half-decade has seen significant mass movements of desperate people, often fleeing war and persecution. The Rohingya case is little different. But what is different, as Ibrahim notes, is the situation – long-established – that the Rohingyas faced in Myanmar, and the extent to which, unlike in countries where official resistance to democracy caused repression and mass migration, the democratic reforms of the past few years actually deepened the plight of the Rohingya.
Ibrahim noted in 2016 that Rohingyas were ‘detained in what are now permanent internal refugee camps’. This diagnosis leads to a stark prediction, which events have borne out. Ibrahim argued ‘we will see a repeat of the now familiar refugee crises, as the Rohingyas flee oppression’. How prescient he was in this, which adds credence to his general diagnosis of the situation.
Ibrahim provides a deft and accessible look at Myanmar’s history, from its early societies to independence in 1948, taking in the extended period of British colonial rule.
For many years, Burmese nationalists have suggested Rohingyas were ethnic Bengalis, and that they had no place in Burma through much of its history. Ibrahim comprehensively and thoroughly assesses these claims, and finds them to be distortions. Though the modern Burmese state is a construction of several pre-colonial societies, the Rohingya have never been interlopers.
They are as Burmese as any other group – and should be afforded the same protection and rights under Myanmar and international laws and global norms, as any other group and anyone else.
At the heart of the modern campaign against the Rohingya lies Buddhist chauvinism. One of the most important extremist Buddhist organisations is BaMaTha (the Patriotic Association of Myanmar), which was founded in 2014 with tacit support from the military.
The military plays an essential role in the creation and continuation of prejudice against the Rohingya. And this has been the case for a long time. As Ibrahim notes, the germ of the present state of affairs dates back to the military seizure of power. When the generals took power in 1962, they sought to propagate an idea of an ethnically pure, Buddhist Burma.
This served as a unifying idea, around which the non-ethnic minority population could coalesce. Persecution did not begin in earnest until 1965. The 1974 Constitution of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma meant, in effect, that Rohingya could not be full citizens of the nation.
To this end, the military government eventually had Rohingya register as ‘foreigners’ in their own country. This perversity shocks even now. And it laid the foundations for much future persecution.
In many ways, the progression of anti-Rohingya laws follows an iron law of nationalism: that those in pursuit of a strong nation through an idealised cultural identity end up seeking someone to blame. The bitter corollary of all this is that such people attempt to victimise the recipients of that blame unless their nationalism or power are checked.
One of the most depressing aspects of Ibrahim’s narrative is the sense that the democracy movement, as popularly conceived, did not help the Rohingya. In fact, as he convincingly documents, conditions for the Rohingya did not improve after the 2015 election which brought Suu Kyi sweeping electoral gains and paved the way to her assuming power.
After 2015, conditions for the Rohingya deteriorated, as they were disenfranchised en masse. All this happened on the world’s watch, and despite Myanmar’s broader turn in the direction of democracy.
Ibrahim’s book is a salutary one for that reason. Through his cool, considered arguments, accessible narrative of Burmese history, and sense ultimately of what is right, the author successfully makes the case that the treatment of the Rohingya by the Burmese state should be considered genocide.
All this provides a necessary and sad backdrop to the current crisis. Ibrahim should be commended for his prescience, while the wider world is damned for its indifference.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.