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’.footnote1 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.
The plight of the Rohingya has begun to receive more international attention in recent years after successive waves of inter-communal violence pitting them against Arakan’s Buddhist Rakhine majority—the latter often aided by the official security forces—swept through the state in 2012. In the wake of that eruption, as many as 120,000 people have been confined to veritable concentration camps, with freedom of movement even more restricted than before for the community as a whole. These violent episodes came just as the country was opening up after a half-century of dictatorship. In November 2015, Myanmar held its first credible election for decades, with the opposition National League for Democracy (nld)—the spearhead of resistance to the military regime since 1988, led by the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi—securing a decisive victory. The 2015 election was the culmination of the transition to a ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’ (in official jargon) carefully managed by the Burmese army. However, the Rohingya can expect little from such democracy: they were barred from voting in 2015, for the first time in the country’s history, and have found themselves increasingly marginalized during the period of democratic reform.
Although there have certainly been tensions between the nld and the army, the transition has proved to be relatively smooth thus far, with the two longstanding rivals for power ironing out some of their differences to work together in a fragile dyarchic government. The army remains largely free of civilian oversight, and controls three key ministries. On some important issues, it has become clear that the two sides have more in common than was previously thought: in particular, their ideas concerning national identity—and the foreignness of the Rohingya—appear indistinguishable. That consensus has been highlighted once again in recent months, with the beginning of a small-scale Rohingya insurgency. In October 2016, hundreds of Rohingya militants attacked police bases in northern Arakan, killing nine policemen and making off with a cache of weapons. The surrounding area was sealed off by the army, which set about a brutal counter-insurgency campaign that has made no distinction between insurgents and civilians. The government’s civilian wing has closed ranks with the army, denying the allegations of grave human-rights abuses and publishing articles in official newspapers with barely veiled genocidal imprecations directed towards the Rohingya.
The Rohingya are persecuted by the Burmese government and reviled by the country’s population because they are seen as foreigners. The debate on their status has often focused on whether they should be recognized as indigenous inhabitants of Burma or not. This is arguably a consequence of the Citizenship Law passed by Ne Win’s regime in 1982, which established three layers of Burmese citizenship, reserving full status for the so-called ‘national races’, defined as those already settled within the state in 1823—the year before the first Anglo-Burmese war and the beginning of the period in which Burma formed part of the British Empire. The current list of 135 ‘national races’ was adopted by the military junta a few years later and excluded the Rohingya, along with the descendants of Indians, Chinese or Nepalese who had arrived during the colonial era and live scattered throughout the country. The most puzzling aspect of this notion of ‘national races’ is that Burma as we know it now had never existed before 1823; at that time, the territory was divided into different polities with fluid boundaries that barely resembled a modern nation-state. Opposing views on the question of Rohingya ethnicity can be found in two books published in 2016. The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide is the work of British author Azeem Ibrahim and was brought out by a prominent London-based publishing house; it is on sale in international bookshops, but not in Burma itself. In contrast, Behind the Mask: The Truth Behind the Name ‘Rohingya’, written by the Rakhine historian Khin Maung Saw, is only available in Burma.
The aim of Ibrahim’s book is to denounce the plight of the Rohingya and publicize it for an international audience. The author begins with an overview of Burmese history from the pre-colonial period to the present day, before describing the current state of play and the ambiguous results of ‘transition’. Historically, Arakan has been a frontier area between the Burmese and Bengali worlds. The region is isolated from central Burma by a mountain range that is difficult to traverse, while there is no geographical barrier with Bengal. From the 8th to the 10th century, the dominant power was the Kingdom of Vesali, a Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist polity whose surviving records show that the court language was Indo-Aryan. That kingdom collapsed, and a new polity slowly emerged, culminating in the Mrauk-U Dynasty, which practiced Theravada Buddhism and used a language akin to Burmese.