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New Left Review 104, March-April 2017


Carlos Sardiña Galache

ARAKAN DIVIDED

The ruling authorities in Burma (Myanmar since 1989) have long promoted a rigid, racialized conception of ethnicity and sought to cultivate a permanent sense of danger threatening to engulf the country’s so-called ‘national races’. [1] Azeem Ibrahim, The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, Hurst: London 2016, £12.99, paperback, 235 pp, 978 1 84904 623 7; and Khin Maung Saw, Behind the Mask: The Truth Behind the Name ‘Rohingya’, Taunggyi Publishing House: Yangon 2016, £9, paperback, 198 pp. Ever since General Ne Win seized power in a 1962 coup, the state machine has arrogated to itself the role of regulator and enforcer of collective identities: the id card that all Burmese citizens must carry states both their ethnicity and their religion (two interlinked concepts in this Buddhist-majority state). Ethnic identity determines to a large degree who belongs to the Burmese polity, and the place in it of those who do; some groups are de facto relegated to subordinate positions in a hierarchy dominated by the Bamar majority. But the Rohingya are excluded altogether. This Muslim minority—approximately one million strong and mostly resident in Arakan, an isolated and impoverished region on the western border—is presented by government officials as a grave threat to the Burmese nation; they typically refer to the Rohingya as ‘Bengalis’, implying that they are illegal immigrants from what is now Bangladesh. Since the late seventies, the government’s policy has been one of containment. The vast majority of Rohingya were rendered stateless decades ago, and have since lived under an apartheid regime, confined to areas where they cannot move freely and subjected to major human-rights violations.

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