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A Durable Solution to the Rohingya Crisis

Strengthening ‘Alternative Voices’

K Yhome (khriezo@gmail.com) is a senior fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide by Azeem Ibrahim, New Delhi: Speaking Tiger, South Asian Edition, 2017; pp xx + 235, ₹ 599.

 

Who are Rohingyas? Why are they persecuted in Myanmar? These questions have come to the fore in international media in recent years. The horrific accounts of Rohingya survivors detailing stories of mass murders, rapes, and arson perpetrated by the Myanmar military and ultra-nationalist Buddhist forces continue to emerge from different agencies, including the United Nations, as new investigations are conducted into the latest bout of violence in the northern Rakhine state of Myanmar. Known increasingly to the world only recently, the plight of the Rohingya Muslim minority community in a country they called home is as old as the emergence of the modern nation state of Myanmar.

Delving into these issues with the objective of shaking the conscience of humanity to the unfolding tragedy of the Rohingyas in Myanmar, Azeem Ibrahim’s book explores uncharted roads on their history and the factors behind their discrimination. The book makes a strong case that for decades the Myanmar ruling elite adopted “state propaganda designed to ensure that most Burmese now regard [the Rohingyas] as foreigners and as a threat to Buddhist culture” [p 10]. The hazy interpretations of the Rohingyas’ history in Myanmar have acquired deeper meaning as political forces redefine the nation’s identity in the context of a complex political transition to democracy after decades of military rule.

The book provides alternative perspectives to understanding contemporary Myanmar by challenging popular narratives of the country. In constructing a counter-narrative, the author analyses Myanmar through the lens of Rohingyas and examines the relationship between the state and minority communities, between the Burman Buddhist majority and the ethnic and religious minorities, between the state and religion, and between Islam and Buddhism from a historical perspective.

Systemic Targeting

The first edition of the book was published in early 2016 before the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police outposts in the northern Rakhine state of Myanmar in August 2017 that triggered a bloody military operation pushing out over 7,00,000 Rohingya refugees into neighbouring Bangladesh. The book had warned the international community of a large-scale genocide that was a trigger away. The book also warned that the increasingly desperate conditions of the Rohingyas might push them to become vulnerable to exploitation by global terror groups and/or take up arms. With the events of August 2017 and subsequent developments, it may not be wrong to say that Ibrahim did foretell what was coming.

Ibrahim discusses several instances of past genocides across continents to emphasise the significant role, or the lack thereof, of the international community to argue that ignoring the signs of slow and systematic discrimination and violence against minority communities creates the perfect ground for large-scale genocide. The book identifies two critical factors as to why large-scale genocide occurs: the first is the lack of international pressure on the perpetrators, and the second, the existence of a trigger. The continued lacklustre approach of the international community towards the Myanmar government over human rights atrocities against the Rohingyas fulfilled the first requirement. Then, the ARSA’s militant attacks of 2017 provided the trigger for a large-scale genocide.

The international community did little since the outbreak of the latest round of violence that started in 2012, and the new government lead by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi did “nothing” to address the persecution of Rohingyas. This reaffirmed Ibrahim’s conviction in the revised edition that the absence of external pressure on Myanmar over the “unstable situation escalate[d] into the ethnic cleaning of an entire community—or, to give it its proper name genocide” (p xviii).

One of the key arguments in the book is that the Rohingyas are “a target of choice” of the Myanmar ruling elite and their discrimination and exclusion is “no accident,” but has been “deliberately manufactured.” Explicating the reasons behind “why Rohingyas are targeted in this way,” Ibrahim points to two factors that he believes are at the root of the problem. First, for the Myanmar military (that ruled for over four decades since the country’s independence in 1948), the Rohingya card comes handy for its survival when faced with internal opposition, to divert attention from its failures. The Rohingyas are an easy target as they pose minimum threat in the absence of an armed resistance group like other ethnic minorities of Myanmar, such as Kachin, Shan, Karen or Chin.

Second, the Theravada Buddhist tradition followed by the Burman majority emphasises the role of the state in protecting and supporting Buddhist institutions. This meant that a narrative of creating the “Other” was necessary where the Rohingyas become the key target for the Myanmar political elite to exploit racial and religious differences. Historical events also reinforced the Myanmar ruling elite’s animosity and suspicion towards the Rohingyas. For instance, during World WarII, the Rohingyas remained loyal to the British colonial rulers as leaders of the Burman majority joined the Japanese forces with the aim to drive out the British colonisers.

The core issue around which the Rohingya question is centred in Myanmar today relates to the recognition of the term “Rohingya” as one of the ethnic groups of the country and the issue of citizenship. The book provides a detailed historical account to counter the claim that the Rohingyas are “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. Using “archaeological evidences” and colonial records, the author argues that the Rohingyas were among the early settlers in the Arakan/Rakhine region before other ethnic communities arrived there. Though this claim would remain contested, it does contribute to deepening the understanding on the subject. On the citizenship question in Myanmar with regard to the Rohingyas, the book counters the claim of the Myanmar government and Buddhist ultra-nationalists on the historical cut-off year of 1824–26 for people to be granted citizenship. Ibrahim asserts that both claims are “nonsense” under international law, and historically “inaccurate.” The book argues that the Rohingyas are entitled to citizenship not only because they are “indigenous” to the land of Arakan/Rakhine, but also because “[t]he Rohingyas are Burmese by birth and according to international law” (p 33).

Need for Alternative Voices

On the question of finding a “possible solution,” the author identifies three key actors: the international community, the International Criminal Court, and civil society groups inside Myanmar. The author focuses on international pressure and the threat of legal action. While the significance of the external pressure in inducing behavioural change cannot be denied, for a long-term solution, counter-narrative from within Myanmar is critical. The author’s assertion that the Myanmar government is not immune to international pressure may not be incorrect, but external pressure has its limits. Myanmar is a classic example where an international divide has served the military regime to sustain its rule. While the international community’s role is important, it may also be pointed out that hoping to bring about change only through external pressure may not be enough. Rather, the international community should find ways to strengthen those voices inside Myanmar that are challenging the dominant anti-Rohingya Muslim narrative.

It is indeed unfortunate that today the world knows more about Buddhist extremist groups such as Ba Ma Tha and the 969 Movement, than those civil society groups, individuals, and monks from within the Buddhist community who put their own lives at risk to counter the Buddhist extremists. Highlighting the counter-narrative inside Myanmar, however small that may be, is clearly a strength of this book because the long-term answer to the issue lies in these “alternative voices.”

The title,The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, captures the thrust of the book, that is, to draw the international community’s attention to the gravity of the crisis. However, it may be wrong to view the book as an account aimed only to vilify the Myanmar government and the Burman majority community, as it provides insights into the country’s contemporary politics that might be useful for the Myanmar political elites to reflect upon in taking forward the ongoing political transition.

A clear instance of this is the effort to underscore the existence of counter-voices inside Myanmar into the conversation. Political parties and politicians who are trying to build a nation different from the exclusivist narrative of the Buddhist nationalists would find the counter-narrative a stepping stone for creating a political constituency. Furthermore, the author strongly suggests that the separation of the Rohingyas and Rakhine ethnic groups (as Rohingyas are confined to displaced camps) would only reinforce prejudices towards each other and in no way help the cause. The book also provides insights on the internal political dynamics among different regional political parties in Rakhine state that is essential to understand for any external actor to play a role in this complex political issue. The book discusses important internal and external dimensions of the Rohingya crisis.

One aspect the author could have discussed in more detail is the issue of the political significance of the meaning of the Rohingya identity over the years. As the author rightly argues that in the years soon after independence, the term “Rohingya” as an ethnic identity found space in government official documents. Under the military rule since the 1960s, discrimination against the Rohingyas grew, suggesting a clear correlation between the military’s narrow nation-building project and the Rohingyas’ recognition that they needed a political identity to fight discrimination. Had Myanmar’s polity evolved into an inclusive and democratic system without military rule, would the Rohingyas have needed to transform their ethnic identity into a political identity?

Having said that, the book undoubtedly is one of the most comprehensive works on the Rohingyas and, perhaps, the most forceful counter-narrative on the popular understanding of contemporary Myanmar. Ibrahim’s book is a necessary read for policymakers and scholars to understand why genocides occur and, according to this book, Myanmar may have added itself in the list of countries that has perpetrated genocides on its minority communities.

 

Updated On : 4th Jan, 2019

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