A meticulous, fact-based and historical approach to the ongoing Rohingya genocide
From 25 August 2017, as the horror of the brutal ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s long-persecuted Rohingya Muslims unfolded, I found myself immersed in Al Jazeera’s coverage of the news while working there. Within a few weeks from that fateful day up to 680,000 Rohingya people took shelter in neighbouring Bangladesh, leaving behind their homes in Rakhine State and carrying with them the harrowing stories of death, destruction, rape and other forms of barbarity committed by the Myanmar army and chauvinist Buddhists. Sadly, the crisis didn’t begin on that terrible day. Al-Jazeera had been diligently covering the Rohingya plight since 2012.
The Myanmar government has been deploying the infamous post-9/11 rhetoric – the “global war on terror” – to justify its actions, using the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) as an excuse to destroy the whole population. ARSA, a small rag tag group with no support from the Rohingya, first emerged in October 2016 when they killed nine police officers in northern Rakhine. This resulted in the systematic attacks on the Rohingya. An adviser to the European Center for the Study of Extremism, Maung Zarni, told Al Jazeera that “this is not a terrorist group aimed at striking at the heart of Myanmar society as the government claims it is, they’re a group of hopeless men who decided to form some kind of self-defence group and protect their people who are living in conditions akin to a Nazi concentration camp.”
The Rohingya, a minority ethnic Muslim group numbering between 1.6 to 1.8 million, have been living in Myanmar’s western coastal state of Rakhine, with connections to the land since the 8th century. However, they are not considered by the regime as one of 135 official ethnic groups and were stripped of citizenship rights from 1982, after facing a series of vicious evictions since 1978.
The media and human rights groups have reported on the intense human rights violations carried out by the Myanmar military since the October 2016 ARSA attacks. In late November, Human Rights Watch released satellite images which showed that about 1,250 Rohingya houses in five villages had been burned down by the security forces. Many Rohingya have fled Myanmar as refugees to take shelter in nearby Bangladesh, particularly in the coastal town of Cox’s Bazaar. Since 2017 there has been an influx of 919,000 refugees who have been displaced from their villages in Rakhine state. Most have joined the 300,000 Rohingya already residing in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazaar following their displacement in previous years.
I first came across the Rohingya crisis in 2013 when I watched a documentary called The Hidden Genocide. It was a testimony of a people fleeing the land where they were born and had lived for generations. But what informed me more about the Rohingya is Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari’s book The Rohingya Crisis: A People Facing Extinction published in May 2018. In it, in a concise yet detailed way, he brings to light the scale and barbarity of their suffering, especially since the military takeover of Myanmar in 1962.
Dr Bari provides a commentary on the history and the current predicament of the Rohingya people. His book, which takes a meticulous evidence-based approach, provides a denunciation of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing campaign. He proves, from expert opinions, that what the Rohingya are going through is nothing less than genocide and argues that the international community, through the UN, must ensure their full repatriation to their homeland with full citizen rights. Myanmar refuses to acknowledge the status of the Rohingya as a people with a history in Rakhine State, instead insisting that they are Bangladeshi immigrants who should return to Bangladesh. The government has gone so far as to refuse to use the word Rohingya to describe them, using “Bengali” instead.
The nine chapters in Dr Bari’s book cover the origin of the Arakanese (now called Rakhine) Muslims, how Arakan thrived before colonialism, the period of colonisation and its aftermath, Myanmar’s actions against the Rohingya, and rape and crimes against women and children. It also includes the definition of genocide, how the Rohingya persecution has fit this definition, how geopolitical and other factors have so far failed to help the Rohingya in their plight, and lastly but perhaps most importantly, what should be done.
The writer draws a historical picture to verify the longstanding connection between the Rohingya and Rakhine State, dating back to the 8th century when Arab Muslim traders first traded in the area. Notably, in the early 15th century, with the patronage of the Sultan of Bengal, Jalal-ud-din Mohamed Shah, the Arakanese King, Min Saw-Mun, won his throne back and took in a large contingent of Bengal Muslims to Arakan in 1430. In subsequent centuries, even though the Arakan kings were Buddhist, Muslims became part and parcel of Arakan and contributed heavily in statecraft, business, culture and commerce.
Dr Bari highlights the humanity shown by Bangladesh to the Rohingya refugees. However, he criticises the two regional powers, China and India, for their failure to put pressure on Myanmar to solve the crisis and their focus instead on their own economic and political interests. He mentions the less-than satisfactory role of Myanmar’s former colonial power, Britain, as well as the UN impotence in bringing Myanmar to task and facilitating the repatriation of the Rohingya with their citizenship rights. He also emphasises the lack of leadership and embarrassing unwillingness of Myanmar’s civil leader, the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, to intervene.
Dr Bari quotes Professor Gregory Stanton’s definition of Genocide which consists of eight phases: classification, symbolisation, dehumanisation, organisation, polarisation preparation, extermination and a denial of a people. He echoes with some prominent individuals that the depth and breadth of persecution of the Rohingya is nothing less than genocide.
It will soon be 25 years since the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia took place, yet the term “never again” that was promised after the Holocaust is becoming hollow as the world refuses to learn from the mistakes of the past. Dr Bari’s book is a plea to action to the international community, politicians, advocacy groups and civic leaders. His book serves as an excellent resource and facts-based deposition that I would recommend for anyone who wants to know more about the history of the Rohingya, the current situation and what should be done. It is a book that should be read by all, and particularly those interested in human rights and justice, and those who want to prevent the atrocities of the past being committed again.
The Rohingya Crisis: A People Facing Extinction by Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is available for purchase from Kube Publishing.