The plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar has been covered considerably – denied citizenship and reviled by the country’s majority, the stateless Muslim minority are persecuted, raped, killed and dehumanised, all because of their ethnicity and religion. Since August 2016, some 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh and thousands more have sought refuge in neighbouring South East Asian nations.
What is less known is how the Rohingya became targets of such great hate and violence. Who are they exactly? Where do they come from? What forces are fuelling such slaughter? When did their position in the country become contentious? Why have they been targeted by Buddhist monks, hitherto considered proponents of peace and pacifism? These are questions that journalist Francis Wade attempts to answer in Myanmar’s Enemy Within, a timely book which presents the myths and falsehoods that are key to understanding why this Muslim group is facing the threat of genocide.
I read this book alongside Azeem Ibrahim’s offering on the same subject: The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide. Upon finishing Ibrahim’s book I realised how thoughtful and important Wade’s take is on the crisis. Both books wrestle with the history of the community in Rakhine state, and the controversies surrounding their identity and status. Both present the devastating abuses and violence perpetrated against the Muslim minority in Myanmar. Ibrahim ploughs through page after page debunking claims that the Rohingya are mere recent additions to the Rakhine state, but even he acknowledges that history is irrelevant to their entitlement to citizenship in Myanmar today. At some point it all feels somewhat immaterial, with the hatred and turmoil seemingly impenetrable.
Azeem Ibrahim, The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, Hurst, London, 2018.
Crucially, it is Wade, a seasoned journalist, who presents the eye-opening and chilling views of Burmese Buddhists, revealing their cold dismissal of the Rohingya as ‘Bengali immigrants’. He conveys Rakhine perspectives as significant and vital to understanding how things have deteriorated so gravely.
Deep resentment towards the minority group has existed for generations. Wade says some responsibility for the stark racial divide lies with the British, who ruled from 1824 and brought with them their obsession with racial classification. To compound matters they encouraged immigration to Myanmar from India and Bangladesh, a source of great rancour. Ethnic tensions were present but, generally, both communities continued to co-exist peacefully. Official documents throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s referenced the Rohingya as inhabitants of the northern Rakhine state and permitted the community to organise politically. Members stood as politicians, formed student associations and ran a Rohingya-language radio broadcast.
Wade’s book details the way in which the status of the Rohingya grew increasingly precarious as the military regime sought to promote an exclusive Buddhist identity in the 1980s. It played up the majority’s fears about their dominant position, especially in areas such as north of Rakhine state, where Buddhists are a minority. Under General Ne Win’s citizenship criteria detailed in the 1982 Citizenship Law, an ethnic group must have had a presence in Myanmar prior to British rule in 1824. This should have covered the Rohingya, but due to its absence from British records, the regime had a pretext to exclude the entire group as it pursued an ethno-religiously ‘pure’ Myanmar. The ‘Rakhine Muslim’ category was removed from the 135-strong index of ethnic groups created by Ne Win. This compelled the Muslims of the state to cling more tightly to another label – Rohingya, ‘one that had a history in Myanmar going back to at least the eighteenth century, and one that, at least initially, the government recognised,’ writes Wade.
According to Ibrahim, the Rohingya were in the state before 1784, linking them to Indo-Aryan groups who arrived from the Ganges Valley as early as 3000 BC. But Wade explains that public opinion is completely against the notion that anyone within the Rohingya group might have had such longstanding presence in the Rakhine state. ‘(Rohingya) is a “new” label, and therefore its members must be new. Opponents of the label claim it gained traction in the 1950s as part of a fib by Bengalis who crossed over the border and settled on the land to support the separatists’ ambitions of the Mujahids,’ Wade writes.
Illegal immigration from Bangladesh had indeed taken place throughout military rule, exacerbating the siege mentality felt by Rakhine Buddhists, who came to perceive all who identified as Rohingya as interlopers. The Rohingya label was a lie, it was asserted, and the people who identified with it were there to support the campaign for a separate Muslim state.
Wade dismantles these fallacies, and addresses preconceptions about Buddhism in Myanmar. He shows not only how Buddhist extremist groups like Ma Ba Tha fomented fear and hate towards Muslims, but how its adherents justify violence and murder. Wade is careful to question how Ma Ba Tha came to be so influential. He acknowledges they could only reach such heights with the backing of elements within the state, but says the connections are unclear and there is much speculation in the absence of facts. One theory, he notes, is that hardliner factions within the military and political elite wanted the Buddhist group to warn about the dangers of a democratic opening led by the National League for Democracy.
The stories told by Wade are incisive and intriguing. He describes the way in which two artful non-Buddhists infiltrated the ranks by lying about their ethnicity; a young monk who marched in the Saffron Revolution but remained sceptical of the goals of his colleagues, saying they did not really understand democracy; an interview with monk U Parmoukkha, who seemed to suggest ‘an on-off switch available to Buddhists’ so they could step outside their faith when committing a violent act in service of the group. Wade says we are guilty of simplifying and essentialising belief systems, and coming to the conclusion that people have just broken with their teachings. ‘But Buddhist history carries the same tales of blood-soaked conquest as do all other religions, from the Zen masters of Japan to the Sangha in Myanmar today. … Like all other religions, when Buddhism deploys violence it does so with a powerful sense of righteousness, of a “just” battle being fought to ensure its longevity.’
He paints a depressing picture when it comes to showing just how Buddhist extremist elements have inflamed fears about Muslims trying to ‘purify the land’ or build ‘the (Islamic) bridge between Bangladesh and Malaysia via Burma and Thailand’. On 8 June 2012, mobs of Rohingya attacked Rakhine houses in retaliation for a bus attack five days earlier, during which ten Muslims were beaten to death by Buddhist mobs avenging the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, Ma Thida Htwe. Chaos and violence ensued between the two communities, and a popular Bamar journal, Weekly Eleven, sensationally reported that these were ‘Rohingya terrorist attacks.’ Later, the same publication stoked fears of ethnic cleansing or genocide perpetuated by the Rohingya in an attempt to eliminate the Rakhine.
After these attacks, things got exceedingly worse – anti-Rohingya material produced by local political parties, community groups and monk organisations was distributed in greater frequency. Since late 2011, a plethora of seminars, leaflets and other materials casting the Rohingya in a sinister and subhuman light proliferated.
There was no condemnation by the government over such demonisation, and the denigration of the community was becoming normalised, even outside the Rakhine state. A popular Burmese comedian, Min Maw Kun, called the Rohingya ‘black-skinned, big belly, and hairy kalar who marry many Burmese women’ in a sitcom directed by one of the country’s best-known directors Maung Myo Min. Wade describes the force of propaganda to mobilise the Rakhine against the Rohingya as being so great that this transformed ‘a floating sense of fear and resentment … into something more concrete and deserving of action’. There was no mental space left, Wade writes, to consider the Rohingya as anything but menacing. Sympathisers and moderates were now regarded as traitors and would need to be weeded out: a National League for Democracy (NLD) officer was arrested for ‘outraging religious feelings’ for speaking out against the fusion of violent nationalism and Buddhism; a Rakhine man was beaten to death for selling rice to a Muslim customer.
Against this backdrop, both Wade and Ibrahim juxtapose the expectations of Aung San Suu Kyi and her party as the just and democratising force in Myanmar. Prior to the 2012 violence, Suu Kyi and the NLD’s position was sacrosanct, writes Wade, that criticism of them felt treacherous, even for foreign journalists writing on the country. Suu Kyi’s reluctance to condemn the racism and violence against the Rohingya has been disappointing and deeply problematic, but it seems she is far from the only one who may harbour less than friendly views towards the community. Wade gives the example of Ko Ko Gyi, a leading opposition figure who is revered in Myanmar and spent seventeen years behind bars for opposing the junta. He has said the Rohingya were ‘absolutely not an ethnic race of Burma’ and that ‘if powerful countries are to keep pressuring us, then us, the democratic forces of Burma, will view this as a national affair and will resolve this issue by joining hands with the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar army)’. Wade says that Suu Kyi’s silence also hides a more significant problem – that the plight of the Rohingya had never featured in calls for equality between ethnicities in a post-junta Myanmar, and this looked like a certain continuity. ‘They had no voice, and no presence. It seemed as if they were ghosts – people who lived in Myanmar, but who didn’t quite exist. I grew to wonder after 2012 whether, if left long enough, these prejudices could grow even more entrenched, particularly given the absence of any countervailing narratives that might de-stigmatise the identity of the Rohingya.’
The country may be undergoing changes under Suu Kyi and the NLD, but no one was willing or able to rein in the vicious hatred directed at the community. Wade acknowledges that if she were to condemn the Buddhist movements, she would be depicted as pro-Muslim and lose support. He cites a campaign of vilification conducted against Suu Kyi in the lead up to the 2015 polls, where doctored photos of her in a hijab were circulated, and accusations were made that the NLD was focusing too strongly on universal human rights and too weakly on protecting Buddhism. Her refusal to use the name Rohingya in public, however, preferring to use ‘Muslims of Rakhine’ is a serious and significant form of persecution. It not only rejects their identity, writes Wade, it places them outside the purview of the state and the security it is obliged to offer. This legitimises the violence against the group by the Rakhine, who ‘interpret the continued subordination of the group as indicative of the subhuman nature of its members.’
This means Suu Kyi and the NLD helped strengthen what Ne Win began by creating the ‘national races’ index and the tiers of belonging – the equating of foreignness with threat, whether in appearance, belief or practice. According to Wade the NLD could have cultivated a nationalism based on civil values rather than exclusionary ideologies, and this could have strengthened their ability to govern effectively. Instead it has chosen to go with this toxic ‘us’ and ‘them’ trajectory, leaving the military’s blueprint for society unchallenged. Perhaps this was unsurprising, Wade says, considering the NLD’s ranks are mainly Bamar, a privileged group in the country’s ethnic make-up. Improving livelihoods for both the Rakhine and Rohingya by developing infrastructure in the state is often argued as a solution to the ongoing unease. Wade argues this can only go so far in defusing tensions. ‘Without any effort to de-stigmatise and depoliticise the Rohingya identity, and to make clear that identity should not provide a basis for discrimination by the state, these cycles of violence risk repeating themselves.’
Wade interviews both communities, and in descriptive and depressing scenes notes how the separation of the two peoples has proved calamitous. Pre-existing divisions become entrenched, both cliques withdraw further, and rumours of attacks whirl and gather more force and venom without any counteracting information to correct them. There is little chance at reconciliation or peace when both communities are torn apart and segregated. ‘Friends quickly became enemies because the actions of a few were portrayed as indicative of the intentions of many, and so the measures needed to address them were rolled out to all. As the communities grew further apart, there was nothing to correct these thought patterns, and they had a circular effect: the security measures could be read as evidence that Muslims had been allowed to roam free for too long, that they were always threatening, and that action was finally being taken to remedy that threat.’ While Ibrahim makes his arguments forcefully – that the violence against the Rohingya is not a predictable side-effect of Myanmar’s move to liberalism, and that global indifference supports the regime and is leading to genocide –Wade gives us pause to consider how the situation looks like for the ordinary man and woman on the ground.
Perhaps the most horrifying of all the accounts Wade relates is the story of Aarif and his family. Images conjured up by the description stay with you because it deals not with mobs and machetes, but how basic lifesaving services can be so cruelly and coldly denied. It is at once completely relatable and devastatingly unimaginable. In 2012, Aarif’s wife developed complications during the labour of their fourth child in Kyauktaw – the baby was breech and required an operation. Unable to go to the hospital they usually went to, they were directed to another one, a three-hour drive in the opposite direction. Five minutes after finally arriving, they were told to leave. The doctor said it was too late – the baby would die and so would Aarif’s wife. They were separated and police ordered Aarif back to the ambulance, which drove him to his village without his wife. He never knew what happened to her, except that she had died. He is not granted permission to travel for her funeral in another state. He is unable to visit her grave site. Through these stories Wade illustrates what it really means to be stateless – to be one who exists outside the law and all it entitles, with no recourse to legal action and no avenue to air any grievance. It is important to remember that it was not always like this.
Ibrahim says the military and notional opposition must be challenged, or the world will one day wake up to outright genocide. But Wade suggests that without addressing the longstanding prejudice in the country itself, there is little hope for any improvement to this complex crisis. So is there any chance of an end to the suffering? There are moments, brief flashes of optimism in Wade’s book. He gives examples of the brave activists who are working against all odds to bring people together. A gathering to watch football. A simple meeting attended by different ethnicities to discuss the administrative affairs for a local community. Ibrahim reminds us that orchestrating a genocide is not easy. For the situation in Rakhine to now resemble, ‘almost a text-book case of pre-genocide’, he writes, different forms of repression have to have occurred. Myanmar has experienced the usual precursors, he argues: the creation of a racist culture that rationalises or encourages discrimination, systemic legal discrimination, and abuse of the historical record to construct a narrative in which mass murder becomes desirable or even imperative. He surmises that only a final trigger – arising from conflict, economic crisis, natural disaster or political events – is missing now before full-blown genocide takes place. Reading Ibrahim’s take on things leaves one feeling helpless – that genocide is imminent. We can only stop things if we put international pressure on its government and Suu Kyi, but after everything that has happened and as both authors have shown, this seems hardly enough in the face of such deep animosity and resentment.
The two books are worth reading together to get a sense of how dire the crisis really is, and what needs to happen for any hope of improvement. Ibrahim’s firm focus on the possibility of outright genocide is understandable. But are his suggestions realistic? Wade’s demonstration of how entrenched the feelings and fears are within the communities and groups on the ground shows that this is problematic and inadequate. Unless something extraordinary happens, should the focus now be on the Rohingya’s fate outside of Myanmar? And if the focus must be on its leadership, then could the observations in Wade’s book prove useful in forming a more persuasive approach? Whatever prejudices towards non-Buddhists are held by figures within the NLD and the democratic movement more broadly, he says, there still remains the fact that harmony between the country’s many different communities is politically beneficial for a civilian government, while violence will eat away at its legitimacy. ‘If the primary goal of the party is civilian governance, then its interests will not be served by the kind of divisions that its silence has encouraged.’