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’. 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.

The core of the modern state, in the basin of the Irrawaddy River, was ruled by Burmese kings who lacked authority over most of the outlying, mountainous areas; the latter were inhabited by a complex array of ethno-linguistic groups, often organized in tribal units without the trappings of a state. Power in the core was based on control over human beings, not over territory, as mainland Southeast Asia was not densely populated and the kings needed a large labour force for their mega-projects; the Burmese kings were thus not choosy about the ‘ethnicity’ or ‘race’ of their subjects. The Arakanese rulers for their part did not attempt to establish a ‘Buddhist kingdom’ or to centralize the Sangha, as their Burmese counterparts did, working rather through localized clientelist networks and trying to present themselves as the patrons of whatever religion was practised at a regional level, be it Buddhism, Islam or even Catholicism in some of the Portuguese coastal enclaves. The British historian Michael Charney has argued that this obstructed the formation of communal identities based on religious beliefs, whether Buddhist or Muslim, for centuries; such identities did not begin to emerge until the late 18th century, and even then only under the weight of external influences. Arakan was conquered by the Burmese in 1784, having been an independent kingdom for most of its history, and then fell under British rule from 1826 onwards, later to be joined by the rest of modern-day Burma after two subsequent Anglo-Burmese wars; the conquest was finally completed in 1886. British colonial policies solidified ethno-racial boundaries in Burma and turned ethnicity into an overwhelming social reality that permeated all aspects of life. The British classified the populations over which they ruled into different ‘nations’, ‘tribes’ or ‘races’, mostly on the basis of language, customs or physical traits. These racial taxonomies were not merely descriptive and were actively enforced for administrative purposes, separating ‘races’ that had mixed freely in the past, favouring certain ‘hill tribes’ such as the Chin or the Kachin for recruitment to the army, and at times even discouraging economic relations between different groups.

The first fourteen years of Burmese independence were a failed attempt at democracy, and at unifying a country comprised of different peoples who had never been gathered under a single authority before. It was a daunting task, made more difficult by the insistence of the country’s first Prime Minister, U Nu, on declaring Buddhism the state religion, as he did in 1961. But his government also recognized the Rohingya as citizens of Burma, and as one of the country’s indigenous groups. Ne Win seized power in 1962, claiming that the Burmese state was on the verge of disintegration. The military ruler was at first secular-minded, but he was also a xenophobe who worked tirelessly to reduce the power of Indian and other ‘foreign’ communities, and to isolate the country from any external influence. It was only in the last years of Ne Win’s rule that he entrenched the link between the Buddhist religion and Bamar identity, a policy that was carried to its logical conclusion by the military junta that replaced his regime in 1988. It was only then that the 1982 Citizenship Law was enforced in Arakan. The latter stemmed from what we might call the ‘national races ideology’, but the same ideology could also be deployed to justify breaking the law derived from it. The measure had granted citizenship to those who were already recognized as such by legislation from 1948, in which ethnicity and indigeneity were criteria, but by no means the only ones. However, in the early nineties, the regime revoked the identity cards of thousands of Rohingya, only to give them ‘Temporary Registration Cards’, not regarded as proof of citizenship. This was meant to be a step in a process of national verification, but that process was never completed; most Rohingya were never given any other document. In 2015, they were stripped even of these cards ahead of the national election.