Book Review – The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide

The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden GenocideBy Azeem Ibrahim. 235 pages. C. Hurst & Company, 2016. $23.50.

The rejection of citizenship rights for Rohingyas, denial of freedom of movement, eviction campaigns, violence against Rohingya women, forced labour, expulsion from their lands and property, violence and torture have made Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingyas the most persecuted minority in the world. I humbly add my voice to the simple demand of the Rohingya people: that their rights as our fellow human beings be respected, that they be granted the right to live peacefully and without fear in the land of their parents, and without persecution on grounds of their ethnicity or their form or worship.


Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, Foreword

In a few words, Muhammad Yunus encapsulates the plight of the Rohingyas and the essence of Azeem Ibrahim’s The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide (hereinafter “The Rohingyas”).  Citizenship, or the lack of it, is at the center of all that troubles the Rohingyas in the northern Rakhine State (“nRS”) of Myanmar. The discrimination and persecution they have endured over the decades in no small measure is due to the question of their origin. Where are they from? When did they arrive in Myanmar? How did they arrive in Arakan (Rakhine)? Are they indigenous or recent transplants?  How far back must their existence in Arakan be established before they can be viewed and accepted as citizens of Myanmar?

Theories abound.  So what?

It matters not when the Rohingyas arrived in Myanmar (pre- or post-1826), on their own around the 9th century, or by the British, as it was their habit to import labor (and discriminatory practices) into their colonized areas. The Rohingyas are entitled to Myanmar citizenship, having lived for generations in Myanmar.1 Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says “[e]veryone has the right to a nationality” and that “[n]o one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.” See also e.g., A/71/361, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, 29 August 2016, para. 17, noting that “[i]t is also crucial to bring the Citizenship Law of 1982 into line with international standards, particularly by revising discriminatory provisions that provide for the granting of citizenship on the basis of ethnicity or race.” Officially being disenfranchised by recent constitutional changes, the Rohingyas are stateless; a people without country, without rights, without protection. Add to the narrative the false notion that their presence in the nRS poses a threat to Buddhism and you have sufficient preconditions for ethnic cleansing and more – as recent events revealed.

The Rohingyas is timely and topical.  Ibrahim gets many things right, especially his thesis on who may be responsible for the current state of affairs, and why.  Nothing revolutionary or astonishing; just connecting the dots based on self-evident facts with a dose of logic and common sense. Exposing the root of the problem the Rohingyas are facing (and those responsible), he alludes to where solutions may lie, though his suggestion for a “de facto partition of Rakhine, with the northern region created as a semi-autonomous region with its own governance,”2 Azeem Ibrahim, The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide 130 (Hurst 2016) (“The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide”), citing an interview with elders in Sittwe Internally Displaced Persons camp, 24 October 2015. seems untenable – even if reasonable and humane heads were to prevail. Hard to imagine that the (Buddhist) Burman military and political elite would opt for the Balkanization of Myanmar in solving the Rohingyas’ dilemma in the nRS. Granting the ethnic minorities, including the Rohingyas, self-governing regional autonomy, (semi or otherwise), seems prudent when considering the possible consequences of doing anything less, but in the context of Myanmar’s political and economic affairs since its independence, it seems unrealistic.

A word about the title

Before I get to Ibrahim’s thesis, a word about the subpart of his title – Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide. It is misleading.  Ibrahim neither proves nor promotes the notion that there is, in fact, an ongoing hidden genocide in Myanmar.  Perhaps it was the editor’s idea to add “genocide” to the subtitle to make the book more alluring to the buyer (I initially was reluctant to read, let alone purchase, the book because of the claim of a hidden genocide). I find it dangerous and irresponsible to carelessly (or ignorantly, as is often the case) characterize crimes or events as genocide, when, at least from a legal perspective, the specific elements of the crime of genocide are noticeably absent.

Happily, Ibrahim is more reserved in his conclusions. Alluding to Myanmar being on the cusp of a genocide, he does not go so far as to claim that the Rohingyas are victims of an ongoing genocide. For some this may be insufficient or overly nuanced – an absurd legal technicality offered to camouflage inaction and indifference.  Not so.

Ibrahim’s conclusion is ominously noteworthy, even if his claim on “genocide” is approximate:

Myanmar now stands on the edge of genocide.  The Rohingyas have nothing left, most live in internal refugee camps and they are denied basic health care and the ability to work.  Due to these deliberate pressures they look to flee; and many in the regime, of the regional Rakhine establishment and among the Buddhist extremists are keen to encourage them to do so – so keen that the use of violence to trigger a final exodus cannot be ruled out.  This is genocide: it is the deliberate destruction of an identified ethnic group. International indifference only encourages the regime to believe it can get away with it.3 The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, p. 16, footnotes omitted.

What Ibrahim recounts is classic ethnic cleansing.  However, assuming the Rohingyas are driven out of the nRs and in fleeing they disperse to neighboring countries and beyond, a legitimate argument can be made that unless the Rohingyas of the nRS – as an identifiable group – can return and be reconstituted as a group, the targeting of them “as such” with the design to destroy them in whole or in part, arguably could lead to a claim of genocide.4 In Prosecutor v. Blagojević, the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia reversed Blagojević’s conviction for complicity in genocide. The Appeals Chamber disagreed with the Trial Chamber’s reasoning that the forcible transfer operation alone or coupled with the murders and mistreatment would suffice to demonstrate the principal perpetrators’ intent to “destroy” the protected group. The Appeals Chamber held that forcible transfer does not constitute in and of itself a genocidal act, but is simply a relevant consideration as part of the overall factual assessment. See Prosecutor v. Blagojević, IT-02-60-A, Judgement, 9 May 2007, paras. 123-24 (internal citations omitted). The Appeals Chamber emphasized that “displacement is not equivalent to destruction.” Id., para. 123, n. 336.

The current attacks on the Rohingyas may, as I have suggested, come close to “acts of genocide” (borrowing a Clintonian phrase) since the crimes against them are being carried out because of who they are and because of their religion – Islam. Considering the recent reports from the likes of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights,5 See Report of OHCHR mission to Bangladesh, Interviews with Rohingyas fleeing from Myanmar since 9 October 2016, 3 February 2017. the International Crisis Group,6 See International Crisis Group, Asia Report N°283, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, 15 December 2016. Amnesty International,7 See Amnesty International, ASA 16/5362/2016, “We Are At Breaking Point” Rohingyas: Persecuted In Myanmar, Neglected In Bangladesh, 19 December 2016. and Human Rights Watch,8 See Human Rights Watch, Burma: Military Burned Villages in Rakhine State: Witnesses and Satellite Imagery Reveal Pattern of Burnings, 13 December 2016. Ibrahim’s general assessment on where the situation in the nRS is, and where it headed, is reasonably sound:

In Myanmar the preconditions for genocide are now firmly in place. Racism has been normalized among the ethnically Burman population and the Rohingyas have already been subject to communal violence, state oppression and have been forced into both internal and external exile. Anti-Rohingya sentiment has been deliberately stoked up by a series of regimes since Burma gained independence.  And most of the waves of anti-Rohingya violence have either been orchestrated by the state or have seen the officials of the state acting in close cooperation with other ethnic or religious groups.9 The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, p. 113.

The chapter on Genocide and International Law is wanting

Where I find Ibrahim striving and straining to the point of detraction from the general quality of his scholarship is in his chapter on Genocide and International Law. It is wanting, overly speculative, and somewhat simplistic.  He would have been well advised to consult a legal specialist, and, for the better part of the rest of the book, more meticulous peer reviewers.  He has a penchant for offering the haystack as opposed to the needle when it comes to supporting his assertions with authority.  Infuriating for anyone wishing to check the soundness of the assertion or the credence of the referenced source.

Ibrahim’s reliance on Barbara Harff’s seven characteristics that supposedly determine “if a given instance of ethnic tensions is likely to turn into an act of genocide”10 Id., p. 101, citing Barbara Harff, Assessing Risks of Genocide and Politicide, in Peace and Conflict (Marshall, M. G. & Gurr, T. R. eds, College Park, MD: Center for International Development and Conflict Management 2005). lures him to interpret facts and events from a result-determinative perspective.  While the list may be useful in a general sense and for a variety of reasons (not necessarily in the context of Myanmar), it is nebulously relevant in promoting the thesis that ethnic tensions in Myanmar are likely to turn into genocide. There are other more credible indicators, as can be gleaned from ongoing events in situ. The use of Harff’s list seems forced, as if necessary to lend credence and erudition.  At least Ibrahim does not indulge in the hackneyed use of “paradigm” to lend credence to his (and by extension Harff’s) theoretical construct.

Ibrahim’s claim that the seven characteristics identified by Harff apply to Rakhine is unconvincing.  They are:

  • Previous instances of severe ethnic tension;
  • Political upheaval;
  • The governing elite is drawn overwhelmingly or entirely from a particular ethnic group;
  • The elite has an ideology that believes it is right to persecute a particular ethnic group;
  • The regime is autocratic;
  • The regime is closed to wider international order; and
  • A minority is targeted for severe political or economic discrimination.11 Id.

While some of these characteristics may exist, it is an oversimplification to claim that they all apply in Rakhine or nRS – even if the circumstantial evidence may lean in that direction.

Ibrahim claims that “[t]he usual precursor [to genocide] is the creation of a racist culture that rationalizes or encourages discrimination, systematic legal discrimination, and abuse of the historical record to construct a narrative in which mass murder becomes desirable or even imperative.”12 Id., (emphasis added). Sound in the abstract, certainly worth pondering, but not evidenced by the facts.  As an article of faith – which is how Ibrahim presents this claim – it is a distracting overstretch. Here, his analysis is less than objective – though for the most part he seems to get the facts right – even though his factual assertions border on the anecdotal because they are insufficiently supported with adequate and verifiable sources; a major peeve for someone like me who enjoys reading the footnotes, even drilling down into some of the sources.

It is presumptuous and imprudent for Ibrahim to insinuate (he leaves little wiggle room for doubt), without accounting for other plausible historical narratives or allowing for the possibility of alternative plausible explanations, that the Myanmar government is may be executing a plan – a final solution, to be crude – against the Rohingyas.13 Id. See also pp. 113-114.

Adopting a flawed constitutional clause on citizenship or implementing poorly conceived policies (and plenty of them have been poorly conceived and implemented) is one thing. It is quite another thing to suggest that these policies evidence a conclusion that the highest commanders of the armed forces and security services, along with the highest members of the executive branch, inclusive of which is Aung San Suu Kyi (the insinuation cannot be ignored), are encouraging and facilitating mass murder as a desirable or imperative means of dealing with the Rohingyas.14 Id., p. 101.

The fact that crimes have been and are being committed against the Rohingyas, for which those responsible must account, does not translate into an intended genocidal joint criminal enterprise conceived and executed by Myanmar’s military and political elite. Consequences should not be confused with intent; nor should intent be divined by viewing consequences in the absence of all facts and circumstances. Unintended consequences are not without blame or account. But in ascribing intent in fixing responsibility and culpability, it is important to avoid result-determinative conclusions and convenient generalizations in lieu of credible evidence.  A brush too broad.

Aside from the occasional overreach and the lack of adequate sourcing (making a factual assertion based on secondary authority, or a single source or even a verbal source), Ibrahim advances an acceptably sound – though blemished – thesis on contemporary politics. He also offers a well-reasoned historical narrative on the origins of the Rohingyas in Arakan, modern day Rakhine. He percussively deflates the current narrative that the Rohingyas are recent Bengali interlopers and thus not entitled to citizenship rights in Myanmar.

Ibrahim advances a compelling narrative on the origins of the Rohingyas in Chapter 1, A short history of Burma to 1948. Drawing on credible historical sources, he persuasively shows that the Rohingyas most likely arrived in the modern-day Rakhine area sometime in the 9th century.  Ibrahim walks the reader through the British colonial period and on to today, demonstrating that as time has progressed, the Rohingyas have slowly but ever so steadily been discriminated against – leading to their current disenfranchisement.

Ibrahim does however falter at times in some of his analysis and conclusions.

From the very start sets out to debunk what he claims is a “common narrative” about Myanmar: first, that it was a closed country with little direct engagement in in the outside world; second, that the leader of the National League for Democracy (“NLD”), Aung San Suu Kyi, is “fully committed to a democratic future for all of Myanmar’s ethnic and religious groups;”15 Id., p. 1. and, third, that occasional inter-ethnic or inter-confessional violence is to be expected considering that Myanmar is a country in political transition from an authoritarian military dictatorship to a democracy. Ibrahim finds all three beliefs to be false.

I share Ibrahim’s view of the “common narrative” save for the notion that Myanmar had little direct interest in the outside world (I have seen no evidence of this over the past 25 years while working and traveling in Asia). I do not, however, share his assessment.  Nor does he convincingly prove the second and third beliefs to this “common narrative.”

There is no evidence that Aung San Suu Kyi is uncommitted to the democratic ideal that all those residing in Myanmar irrespective of ethnicity or religion should enjoy equal rights.  Granted, she has yet to robustly denounce the atrocities committed against and inhumane conditions endured by the Rohingyas. More (much more) has been expected.  Her tepid refrains, if not thundering silence, have been disappointing to say the least.  She, in my opinion, cannot escape being held to account for her actions and inactions.  However, playing it safe as Myanmar inches ahead towards democratic reforms and systemic constitutional changes – which is what Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be doing by “opt[ing] to avoid direct comment when the question of the systematic persecution of the Rohingyas is raises”16 Id., p. 2. – as unsatisfactory it may be, is not proof that she is not fully committed to a democratic future for all of Myanmar’s ethnic and religious groups.

Likewise, I take exception with Ibrahim’s claim that the inter-ethnic or inter-confessional violence – at least to some degree – is not part and parcel of Myanmar’s ongoing efforts to transform itself from an authoritarian military dictatorship to democracy.17 Id., pp. 2-3. Yes, there is evidence that there are radical Buddhist elements that are directly involved in attacking the Rohingyas, and yes, the Buddhist hierarchy may perceive that its religious status within Myanmar (or at least in the nRS) is vulnerable, but these ethnic and religious tensions are also endemic in multi-ethnic and multi-confessional states that are in political or institutional transition. It is what Michael Mann calls the dark side of democracy: “democracy has always carried with it the possibility that the majority might tyrannize minorities, and this possibility carries more ominous consequences in certain types of multiethnic environments.”18 Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing 2 (Cambridge University Press 2006). According to Mann, the dark side of democracy (rule by people) comes out when the two notions of democracy (demos – the people/the masses, and ethnos – the ethnic group/nation) fall into conflict.  If the people are to rule their own state, and if “the people” are defined in the ethnic terms (especially when one ethnic group forms a majority), then ethnic unity outweights diversity as a democratic value. In other words, replacing demos with ethnos (or other majority group) perverts the ideal of democracy and creates pressure to cleanse other “out-groups”.  Demos and ethnos are more likely to entwine in “regimes newly embarked upon democratization…, [w]hen authoritarian regimes weaken in multiethnic envionments[.]”19Id., pp. 1-2.

Ibrahim does advance a convincing narrative on contemporary politics that helps explain why the Rohingyas are in dire straits:20 The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, pp. 10-11. For a fuller analysis of Ibrahim’s points, see generally Chapters 2, 3, 4, and Conclusion.

•The military remains in control;21, pp. 50-53.

•The Buddhist monks have significant clout through three groups: the 969 Movement, the MaBaTha, and a small group of older clerics who reject anti-Islamic rhetoric;22, pp. 63-72.

•The two main political parties – the military-aligned United Solidarity and Development Party (“USDP”) and Aung San Suu Kyi’s / Burman elitist NLD – rely heavily on and are politically indebted to the Buddhist monks and Buddhist groups in shoring up and enlarging their political (voter) base – there is no political profit in promoting citizenship and constitutional rights for the Muslim Rohingyas;23 Id., pp. 40, 56-63.

•While ethnicities such as the Shan, Karen, and Rakhine have developed regional parties to advance their own interests, the Rohingyas have been totally disenfranchised, and thus are utterly vulnerable.24 Id., p. 41. For more on this point, see generally Chapters 2 and 4.

While no doubt alternative historical and political narratives exist, Ibrahim’s are sufficiently sound to give pause and to cause one to ponder why it is not possible for the military and political elite to meaningfully address the Rohingyas’ citizenship issue.  Turning a blind eye or waiting for fairer weather before tackling this most pressing human rights issue has the potential to spiral out of control into a genocide. This being the undertow of Ibrahim’s The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, makes it an important and timely read – despite its shortcomings.

Azeem Ibrahim, PhD

Finally, I want to note that the author, Azeem Ibrahim, BSc. MSc (Econ). MBA. MPhil. FRSA. FRGS. PhD., is a pretty interesting guy. The son of a grocer, he grew up one of six children in a council house in Glasgow, Scotland. Just in his 40s, he is a self-made multi-millionaire, who founded his own private foundation, the Ibrahim Foundation, which funds innovative community projects around the globe. Dr. Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy, and Adjunct Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He received his PhD from the University of Cambridge and has previously been appointed an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a World Fellow at Yale University. Outside academia, Dr Ibrahim has been a reservist in the IV Battalion Parachute Regiment (UK’s elite airborne infantry reserve) and a multi-award winning entrepreneur. He was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

I highly recommend The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide to anyone wishing to better understand the current state of affairs in the nRS and Myanmar in general.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including, pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

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