The Rohingya Muslims are the world's most persecuted minority. Since last year at least 625,000 of them – more than half the population – have fled slaughter in Myanmar. This is only the latest wave in a series of killings and expulsions that started in 1978. The United Nations calls the situation a "textbook example" of ethnic cleansing.
Two recently-published books provide required background to the Rohingya tragedy. Francis Wade's Myanmar's Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim 'Other' gives the political and historical context to events. Azeem Ibrahim's The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar's Hidden Genocide covers similar ground and, as the title suggests, convincingly argues 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. Myanmar 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 3,000BC, when Indo-Aryan people arrived in what is now Arakan – or Rakhine province – while Wade presents evidence of an 11th century AD Muslim community composed of stranded Indian, Arab and Perisan sailors.
Ibrahim’s account of ancient and colonial history is the most detailed. Rohingya lived alongside Rakhine people who were connected linguistically and religiously to the Burman, the dominant ethnicity in today’s Myanmar.
Although 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 joining the army and others serving 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 that motivated Burmese generals, in a country where minority groups make up 40 per cent of the population. The army waged wars to subdue the Shan, Kachin and Karen peoples, among others. In the 1960s, they expelled Indian and Chinese residents.
The state also sought legitimacy as guardian of the Theravada version of Buddhism, especially when it tried to deflect attention from the so-called Burmese Road to Socialism's economic disasters. The military spent less than 3 per cent of the national budget on health and education, but devoted 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 – in parliament through its Union Solidarity and Development Party, or on the streets by backing Ma Ba Tha, an organisation of hate-preaching monks which orchestrates boycotts of Muslim businesses and 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 fear and resent Rohingya, believing these farmers and fishermen to be extremists, 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 National League, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who had spent more than 20 years under house arrest. But the National League's base is the ethnic Burman elite. Driven either ideologically or by a pragmatic unwillingness to rock the boat, Suu Kyi refuses to acknowledge the Rohingya community exists.
All of this contradicts the western stereotype of Buddhism as a religion of peace, tolerance and non-violence. These principles were important to Buddha himself, but when Buddhism – or any religion – is tied to a state-building project, morality rapidly takes second place to exclusionary identity politics. Ibrahim argues that Theravada Buddhism is 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, recasting their slaughter of Rohingya as self-defence. In reality, Rohingya, unlike other oppressed groups in Myanmar, have been passive in the face of violence.
We have seen this before, not only in Syria. Very often an oppressive state's terrorist scare becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Right on cue, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army appeared in 2016, launching attacks on police stations. This provided the pretext for the most recent cleansing of Rohingya, which has attracted the attention of extremists of the Al Qaeda or ISIL strain. This vicious circle can spin much deeper. So what can be done – beyond charity work – to help the Rohingya? Refugees ask for the right to return home, citizenship and freedom of movement. But the first condition is meaningless without the others. Currently they will return, at best, to unbearable oppression.
Myanmar – desiring arms sales and economic investment – could modify its behaviour under international pressure – this is Ibrahim's argument. China and Russia 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.
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 subjection to slavery. Thailand has 500,000 slaves, most of whom are refugees from Myanmar. Ibrahim's energised polemic isnformative, but Wade's is more discursive, quoting personal testimonies, creating engaging reading.
In the foreword to Ibrahim’s book, Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus takes the liberal (and for many states – including perhaps United States president 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”.