The plight of the Rohingya refugees and the horrors they are suffering at the hands of Myanmar’s military regime has dominated headlines due to recent events, and almost overnight, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), has gone from being a hero on the international stage to a silent observer of genocide.
Azeem Ibrahim’s book, The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, first published in June 2016, will tell you this state of events was a long time coming.
Why the Rohingya?
Ibrahim’s book starts off with a concise and easily accessible history of the region, stressing the important role the Buddhist identity plays in nation-building in Myanmar, to the point that it is now almost impossible to separate Buddhism from Myanmar’s national identity.
While there are many ethnic groups in Myanmar, the Rohingya seem to have been singled out from the 1960s for a number of reasons – their historical relationship with the colonial powers, the relative poverty of Arakan (now Rakhine) state, their lack of any armed resistance and the local political dynamics that have strengthened ethnic Rakhine political parties and created an “us or them” mentality.
In the book, Ibrahim sets out to make clear that the treatment of the Rohingya population by Myanmar – forced migration, internment in refugee camps within Myanmar, cancellation of their citizenship, restrictions on marriage and procreation, exclusion from basic services like education and healthcare and their complete exclusion from social and civil life – are all not only violations of human rights but preconditions of genocide.
While he emphasises that the historical location of an ethnic group cannot have any bearings on their current citizenship, he goes into great detail to explain how the Rohingya have historically been part of the region that is now Myanmar. This part can be repetitive at times but it is easy to see why it is necessary – even today, Myanmar’s authorities and a majority of the Burmese population deny the persecution of Rohingyas and claim they are Bangladeshi migrants instead.
The preconditions of genocide
While a large section of the book puts forward evidence to show readers that the preconditions of genocide are currently in place in Myanmar, the remainder of it gives very interesting insight into the political events that have led to this status quo in the country.
On the international platform, especially when viewed through the lenses of Western media, the NLD has brought great changes, and the recent elections was a triumph of democracy. However, Ibrahim challenges this conception with an overview of the party’s ties with the military elite, as well as their dependence on extremist monks to gain popular support.
He also briefly dwells on other factors that affect the Rohingya refugees and their exodus – the proliferation of extreme Buddhist ideologies in public life, the military’s need to create conflict to sustain their role of power, slavery in the Thai fishing industry and its dependence on refugees for forced labour, a US-China power struggle using Myanmar as the battle ground and more.
What is disturbing about this book is how accurately it describes this year’s refugee crisis. The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide makes many references to the 2015 massacre of the Rohingyas, which did not capture the international media’s imagination in the same way as this year’s atrocities did. However, the conditions that led to the unrest and the resultant exodus is eerily similar.
Throughout the book, what is clear is that whatever the regime in Myanmar, without international pressure, there will be very little internal impetus to speak out for the rights of the Rohingyas and history will continue to repeat itself.