The Rohingyas

Issue section: 

The Muslim Rohingya people have lived in Rakhine state, Myanmar, for centuries. As a result of their persecution by the majority Buddhist Burman ethnic group, 300,000 Rohingya had crossed to Bangladesh and were living in refugee camps prior to the first publication of this book in 2016.

Rohingya have suffered persecution for decades. But following the move to democracy in 2012, and after a series of massacres, a further 700,000 have been forced to leave since August 2017. They are confined to townships and camps, denied food, work, medicine, ID papers and education. Villages are burned down; sexual assault and rape by soldiers are routine. People are trafficked across the Bay of Bengal, where thousands either die in the Andaman Sea or end up as slaves in the Thai prawn industry.

Ibrahim gives a detailed history of the Rohingyas. The mountainous Rakhine region did not form part of the central Burmese area until the conquest by Britain. It eventually came to be administered as part of the British colonial state and remained part of Burma upon independence in 1948. The legacy of British rule led quickly to conflict between ethnic groups.

The fact that the Rohingya are seen as outsiders had been used to justify the removal of their citizenship since 1982. However, Ibrahim challenges this and, as well as recognising that they are entitled citizenship in their place of birth under international law, he cites anthropological evidence that descendants have lived in the area since 3,000 BCE.

He describes the current political situation and the increasing rise in the violent Theravada Buddhist nationalist sentiment widely held by all political parties. This includes both the military-controlled USDP which continues to hold economic power and the ruling NLD party headed by de facto president, Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, which maintains its base through the work done by Buddhist monks.

The regional Rakhine parties, which are specifically anti-Rohingya, initiate many of the pogroms against them, usually backed by the military.

However, he fails to look in any detail at the living conditions of the Buddhist Rakhine people, who often feel forgotten by the central government. They live in poverty amid widespread drug and alcohol abuse, and are driven to work elsewhere — reinforcing the feelings that they will be “swamped” by Muslims.

Ibrahim briefly explores the reasons why Aung San Suu Kyi has failed to speak out against the treatment of the Rohingya in spite of international pressure, and why she has stated that their name must not be used.

He claims that she feels she needs to go very slowly so as not to risk the small democratic gains that have been made. However, her liberal writings suggest she believes the role of a leader is to influence the ideas of the people in order to bring about a just society. It would seem that the desire for power and to secure the presidency also seem to be key factors.

This is a well-researched book which provides a good historic overview and up to date perspective on the current Rohingya crisis.