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Robin Yassin-Kassab

Posts Tagged ‘Francis Wade

Militant Buddhist-Nationalism and the Rohingya Tragedy

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This was first published at the National.

rohingya refugees1The Rohingya Muslims are currently the world’s most persecuted minority. Since last year at least 625,000, over half the total population, have fled slaughter in Myanmar (also known as Burma). This is only the latest wave in a series of killings and expulsions starting in 1978. The UN calls it a ‘textbook example’ of ethnic cleansing.

Two recently-published books provide necessary background to the Rohingya tragedy. Francis Wade’s “Myanmar’s Enemy Within: the Making of a Muslim Other” contextualises events politically and historically. Azeem Ibrahim’s “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” covers similar ground while, as the title suggests, convincingly arguing that Myanmar “stands on the brink” of genocide,  a crime defined by the UN as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

The Rohingyas have been designated as ‘Foreigners’ since 1978. The Myanmar state today describes them either as Indians imported by the British or as recent illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Both books dispute this revisionism. Ibrahim begins Rohingya history as far back as 3,000BCE, when Indo-Aryan people arrived in what is now Arakan (or Rakhine province), while Wade presents evidence of an 11th Century CE Muslim community composed of stranded Indian, Arab and Perisan sailors.

Ibrahim’s account of ancient and colonial history is the most detailed. Rohingyas lived alongside Rakhine people who were connected linguistically and religiously to the Burman, the dominant ethnicity in today’s Myanmar. Though Arakan was influenced by the ancient Burmese kingdom, it wasn’t conquered until 1784. Over the next four decades 30,000 Muslims fled Burmese-Buddhist rule, until the British annexed Arakan in 1826. Burma – with Arakan and its Rohingyas attached – won its independence in 1948.

The Rohingyas entered the new state at a disadvantage. Their loyalty to the British during the 1942 Japanese invasion had sparked conflict with the Rakhine. Nevertheless they participated in national life. Some joined the army and others served in parliament. They were included as an ethnic group in the 1961 census.

In 1962 Myanmar’s military seized power. At this point Wade’s book takes the lead in describing the rage for national homogeneity motivating these Burman generals, in a country where minority groups make forty percent of the population. The army waged wars to subdue the Shan, Kachin and Karen peoples, amongst others. In the 1960s, it expelled Indian and Chinese residents.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 6, 2018 at 10:40 am

Posted in Myanmar/ Burma

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The Rohingya and Other Outsiders

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This was first published at the New Arab.

rohingyaI recently had my DNA analysed to illuminate my geographical ancestry. My mother is English and my father Syrian, so you’d expect at least two locations to show. As it happens, I contain Western European, Caucasian, Southern European, Middle Eastern, Irish and Iberian, with small amounts of Scandinavian, North African and South Asian. This demonstrates not only that I am a mixture, but that my parents are too, that everyone is. It reminds us that ethnic distinctions are accidents of cultural history rather than markers of race or even of family purity. It means very similarly mixed blood flows in the veins of those who consider themselves in nationalist terms, for instance, as distinct Arabs, Kurds or Turks.

Ethnicities are fluid, yet European empires and post-colonial states sought to name and thus delimit them from historical flux. When the British arrived in the state called Burma or Myanmar after the Bamar, the dominant group, they set about categorising cultures and races, considering the two categories to be almost interchangeable. In the 1931 census the British named 139 ethnic groups. By 1982, independent Burma’s military junta had reduced this to 135 ‘national races’ qualifying for citizenship.

The Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine state are not included, though they are the descendants of Indian and Persian traders who first arrived here over a thousand years ago. Their numbers increased when early Burmese kings raided Bengal for slaves, and during British rule when workers came from India. Today the Burmese state denies their existence as a community, considering them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. In recent weeks at least 620,000 Rohingya have been driven from their homes. Villages have been torched, women gang-raped, untold numbers have been hacked or burnt to death. A United Nations official called it a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 20, 2017 at 4:41 pm

Posted in Myanmar/ Burma

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