• The Disappearing Rohingyas

    Azeem Ibrahim

    June 25, 2018

    First published in 2016, Azeem Ibrahim’s revised edition of the book, The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, documents the slow genocide of Rohingyas, who are now the single largest stateless community in the world. The following excerpt is from the chapter Genocide.


    Image Courtesy: goodreads

    In Myanmar the preconditions for genocide are now firmly in place. Racism has been normalised 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.

    A powerless minority is the victim of effective ethnic cleansing, in an environment where they are hated by their neighbours and actively discriminated against by state authorities. The situation is stark. Rohingya human rights activist Tun Khin has said, ‘We fear we will be wiped out’. Given the importance of preparing the ground for genocide, in terms of creating a particular set of social attitudes, his conclusion should be a warning to the world: ‘in the case of inhumanity and injustice, no one should be silent. What’s happening to us requires a serious kind of humanity—this is a very important moment for Rohingya’1.

    There has been no improvement since 2004 when Barbara Harff argued that Myanmar was the state in the world most at risk of genocide2. Indeed, with the recent waves of violence, the situation has palpably worsened. According to United to End Genocide, ‘nowhere in the world are there more known precursors to genocide than in Burma today’3. The Early Warning Project identified Myanmar in 2015 as the state in the world most at risk4, above countries such as Sudan, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which all receive more international attention.

    The attitude of the Myanmar state towards its Rohingya minority has already crossed many of the lines from ethnic conflict towards genocide. The way the state thinks about this minority is also fundamentally racist, and more than that, the Rohingyas are now seen to be an existential threat to the chosen religious identity of the state.


    The situation could escalate for any number of reasons, some even apparently unrelated. One could be an unexpected natural disaster, leaving the regime under pressure and desperate to find a scapegoat. Equally, there will be repeats of the 2015 exodus by sea of both willing refugees and those forced to flee. It is not impossible that neighbouring states could close their borders,5 partly in an attempt to force Myanmar to face up to its responsibilities towards its own population. The situation for the Rohingyas is now so bad that anything from natural disaster to loss of food supplies to the regime lashing out at external pressure could set off a genocide.


    The lead up to the 2015 elections was marked by an escalation of the exclusion of the Rohingyas. As a group, they have been left with no place in civic Myanmar, many have been forced into internal camps, their last vestige of official documentation has been stripped away and there were, for the first time ever, almost no Muslim candidates from any ethnic group,6 including those outside Rakhine, standing for parliament in 2015.7

    A key step in bringing this situation about was the census conducted in 2014, when the Rohingya ethnic group was not included, and was expected to self-identify as foreigners. David Mathieson of Human Rights Watch has expressed severe concerns not just about the conduct of the census but also the complicity of the UN and other donors:

    The exclusion of the Rohingya from the census was a betrayal of the very principles and purpose of conducting the census, and the international donors and UN agencies who were involved are complicit in this exclusion. The Rohingya have the right to self-identify and should be accorded the rights of citizens. The census [in] refusing to do so doesn’t solve the problem of stateless Rohingya, it exacerbates it and the government shouldn’t be caving to extremists and their racist agendas.8

    The 2014 census9 saw the deliberate exclusion of the Rohingyas, as they were forced to choose to register either as ‘Bengalis’ or be excluded. Even the official version of the census report shows the reality in Rakhine. One third of the population were declared as ‘not enumerated’ and nowhere in the glossy state publications can the casual reader find an explanation for this remarkable outcome.


    The Rohingyas were removed from the electoral register whether they accepted the state-imposed designation of ‘Bengali’ or refused to answer.10 Accepting the state designation as ‘Bengali’ was tantamount to accepting the loss of any right to live in the country of their birth. Refusing to accept this designation meant the regime confiscated any remaining identity cards and tried to force all those who now lack identification into the internal refugee camps.

    A recent report has noted that this has ‘led many Rohingya to believe that there is little hope for their future in Myanmar’.11 An ASEAN report12 believes that this complete exclusion from the civic life of their own country has led many Rohingyas to conclude they are being forced out of Myanmar. Naturally, a government spokesman managed to justify this exclusion: ‘They are holding household cards stating that they are Bengali even though they self-identified themselves to be Rohingya, which is not allowed, so we did not accept that and instead classified them as “unidentified”’.13

    However, the destruction of the last vestiges of their participation in civil life has not just been a product of the census. The persecution of the Rohingyas continues to be a factor in the interaction between the USDP, the NLD and the extremist Buddhist organisations. For example, in late 2013 the USDP had supported the idea that the holders of so-called ‘white cards’ (that is, Rohingyas who lack normal citizenship) would be able to vote on consti-tutional reforms, but Buddhist nationalists immediately protested the move and the USDP was forced to back down. Thein Sein later declared that all white cards would expire in March 2015 and armed groups of security personnel carried out the removal of the last official documents from the possession of the Rohingyas. The loss of the last identity documents is critical as it means the Rohingyas are no longer entitled to travel or work outside the designated refugee camps.

    In addition, Muslims in general have been removed from the electoral process by a re-interpretation of electoral law. In particular, the MaBaTha and 969 Movement have forced the regime to pass further discriminatory laws about citizenship and civil rights, for example restricting marriage between Buddhists and other religious groups.14 Not only do the new laws add to the wider repression of the Rohingyas but, under pressure, the government has removed more than 100 possible Muslim candidates15 from the electoral list. Among them was Shwe Maung, on the grounds that his parents were not citizens. This effectively eliminated the last Rohingya voice in parliament. Tun Min Soe, who was planning to run for the NLD, has also been rejected, a decision that provoked a mild rebuke from the NLD, with their spokesman Nyan Win stating, ‘the rejection of candidates based on the citizenship of their parents is in my opinion an infringement upon the equal rights of citizens’.16

    However, the electoral commission has cited two related laws in justification of its decisions: one barring people from running for office if their parents were not Myanmar citizens at the time of their birth; and another requiring candidates to have lived in the country for the past ten consecutive years.17

    Of course, the NLD’s protests would carry more weight if Aung San Suu Kyi could bring herself to speak out. Even in late June 2015, she was still ducking this issue, arguing that ‘the protection of rights of minorities is an issue which should be addressed very, very carefully and as quickly and effectively as possible, and I’m not sure the government is doing enough about it’.18 In some ways, that may count as progress, given her previous statements, but it treats the situation of the Rohingyas as if it were a technical academic exercise, a problem of the same type as that created by their exclusion from the designated list of ethnic groups in the 1947 Constitution. Furthermore, the electoral commission is not just removing Rohingyas from the list but any Muslim candidates regardless of their ethnicity. The 2015 elections were unique in Burma’s post-colonial history. For the first time, there were no Rohingya candidates and no Rohingya members of parliament, and very few Muslims from other ethnic groups. Even under the worst of the military rule this did not happen.

    The forced displacement of the Rohingyas into internal camps, and the removal of their last vestige of democratic rights19 has led some observers to call Myanmar an ‘apartheid state’.20 In consequence, the Rohingyas are now excluded both as electors and in terms of representation21 and they are an easy (and shared) target for all the represented political camps. The implication is clear: failure to gain any political voice to speak for their interests in the 2015 elections means that, as a Rohingya activist put it, ‘the whole Rohingya will be a sort of degraded or persecuted community, and that cannot continue for long’.22 The inevitable result is that ‘the Rohingyas will disappear from Rakhine State. It is sure Rohingya will disappear’.23


    1. Khin, T. 2015. ‘Risk of Mass Atrocities and Policies of Persecution in Burma’.
    2. Harff, B. 2005. ‘Assessing Risks of Genocide and Politicide’.
    3. Andrews, T. & Sullivan, D. 2014. ‘Marching to Genocide in Burma’.
    4. Early Warning Project. 2015. ‘Myanmar’.
    5. Mathies, C. E. 2013. ‘Managing Peace and Security in Southeast Asia: Does ASEAN
    have the Political Will?’
    6. Myintzu, S. Y., Ei, K. K., Thu, K. & Kyaw, N. R. 2015. ‘Myanmar Election Body
    Rejects Muslim Parliamentary Candidates’ [Online]. Radio Free Asia. Available:
    candidates-09012015161036.html [Accessed 22 September 2015].

    7. Burma Times. 2015. ‘In Burma’s historic elections, a Muslim minority is banned
    from voting but still the focus of the campaign’ [Online]. Rangoon: Burma Times.
    Available: http://burmatimes.net/in-burmas-historic-elections-a-muslim-minority-
    is-banned-from-voting-but-still-the-focus-of-the-campaign/ [Accessed 19 October
    2015]; Mepham, D. 2015. ‘What Burma’s Elections Mean for the Rohingyas’.
    8. Philip Heijmans, The Diplomat, Sept 2014, ‘Myanmar’s Controversial Census’,
    http://thediplomat.com/2014/09/myanmars-controversial-census/ [Accessed
    20 November 2015]
    9. Republic of the Union of Myanmar 2014. ‘The Population and Housing Census
    of Myanmar 2014’. Yangon: Department of Population.
    10. Human Rights Watch. 2014b. ‘Burma: Government Plan Would Segregate
    11. UCANEWS. 2015. ‘Refugee boats set sail as monsoon season ends’ [Online].
    UCANEWS. Available: http://www.ucanews.com/news/refugee-boats-set-sailas-
    monsoon-season-ends/74455 [Accessed 21 October 2015].
    12. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights 2015. ‘Disenfranchisement and
    Desperation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State: Drivers of a Regional Crisis’. APHR.
    13. Heijmans, P. 2014. ‘Myanmar’s Controversial Census’[Online]. The Diplomat.
    Available: http://thediplomat.com/2014/09/myanmars-controversial-census/
    [Accessed 20 February 2015].
    14. Hindstrom, H. 2015. ‘In Myanmar, Muslim minority is targeted for hate, not for
    votes’ [Online]. Al Jazeera, America. Available: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/
    2015/9/20/muslim-minority-cut-out-of-myanmar-vote.html [Accessed
    22 September 2015].
    15. Myintzu, S. Y., Ei, K. K., Thu, K. & Kyaw, N. R. 2015. ‘Myanmar Election Body
    Rejects Muslim Parliamentary Candidates’.
    16. Ibid.
    17. Ibid.
    18. Caralucci, T. 2015. ‘Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi Dodging or Driving the
    Rohingyas Crisis?’ [Online]. New Eastern Outlook. Available: http://journalneo.
    [Accessed 22 September 2015].
    19. Human Rights Watch. 2014a. ‘Burma: Communal Violence Undercuts Rights
    Gains’; Human Rights Watch. 2014b. ‘Burma: Government Plan Would Segregate
    20. Sheridan, M. 2015. ‘Myanmar ‘effectively a state of apartheid’ for Muslims’
    [Online]. The Australian. Available: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/
    7537589783 [Accessed 22 September 2015].
    21. Heijmans, P. 2014. ‘Myanmar’s Controversial Census’.
    22. Interview with U Kyaw Min, Yangon, 30 June 2015.
    23. Interview with Rohingya politician, then sitting in parliament, 2015 (left anonymous
    for safety).


    'The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar's Hidden Genocide' was first published in 2016 by Hurst & Co. and a revised edition was published by Speaking Tiger in 2017. This extract has been republished here with permission from Speaking Tiger.

    Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.

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