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From Nobel Peace Prize winner to genocide enabler?

The town of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh was once a popular trading post, named for Captain Hiram Cox of the East India Company in the early days of the British Raj, sited on a coast which boasts the longest stretch of sandy beach on the planet. The district was a violently contested no man’s land between the Sultanate of Bengal (most of which was in present-day Bangladesh) and the Principality of Arakan (a part of today’s Myanmar), where Portuguese pirates set up base until Cox took control. In happier times it became known as a pleasant resort. It is now best known for the largest refugee camp the world has ever seen, housing over seven hundred thousand of the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority in a largely Buddhist part of the world.

About 200,000 Rohingya fled from attacks by the Tatmadaw (Burmese army) into Bengal (then East Pakistan) in 1962, but were mostly repatriated, and a similar number fled into Bengal (by then independent Bangladesh) in 1991, but again repatriation was negotiated. In 2012 some elements of the Tatmadaw began burning villages and terrorizing those who resisted, with the apparent intention of driving Rohingya out for good, at least from border areas. Rohingya activists attempted to draw the world’s attention to their plight through social media, but Facebook kept taking down the gruesome pictures and finally banned all their groups. In autumn 2016 the poorly armed Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army managed to kill about a dozen soldiers in a series of attacks with knives and slingshots, enraging the Tatmadaw which now appears unified in a policy of chasing them all out.

Last November the Republic of the Gambia, on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, filed a case at the International Court of Justice at The Hague, alleging violation of the Genocide Convention. The court issued a preliminary injunction on January 23, warning the Tatmadaw in general terms to refrain from killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, or deliberately imposing conditions meant to bring about the destruction of the Rohingya population.

The Rohingya are the very easternmost tip of the Indo-European language family, speaking a dialect of the Chittagonian language of the Bengali group (that is, Rohingya is mutually comprehensible with Chittagonian, though not with standard Bengali). They used to live mostly in Bengal but stretched into Arakan. Their rivals the Rakhine, who live mostly in Arakan but stretching into Bengal, are from the Tibeto-Burman language family, which is as divergent as the Indo-European, despite much smaller geographic size: that is, Tibetan is as far from Burmese as English is from Bengali, with only basic words showing vague resemblance (compare English two, Bengali dvi, Tibetan gnyis, Burmese hneap).


This divergence arose from the tendency in mountain terrains for isolated communities to regard their neighbors with suspicion and hostility (we see this in the Caucasus also), but when the Burmese started moving south into more open country about 3,000 years ago, they still brought the habit of tribal fragmentation. All Burmese states from the Pagan dynasty of medieval times to the Konbaung dynasty (1752-1885) constantly fought brutal wars on every border trying to unify the country. As in Tibet, the project of unifying the culture and language was entrusted to schools run by the Buddhist monasteries. These schools teach a liturgical language frozen long ago like Church Latin, but still used for formal writing and even newspapers, and a spoken form which has diverged only a little by region. This is why Rohingya are considered an obstacle to the national project: they are on a religious as well as linguistic border, Muslims where the Rakhine are Buddhists.

The name of the standard Central Burmese language was pronounced, and is still spelled in their script, Mran-mar, but some dialects merge initial “m” with “b” giving Bram-mar, hence English “Burma,” while the prestige dialect of the Irrawady Valley now merges most “r” with “y” to give Myan-mar. A census in the 1880s found about 65 percent literacy, which the British colonial regime thought unusually high for such a “heathen” country; not by coincidence a census in the 1980s found that about 65 percent now speak Myanmar as their first language, and another 10 percent as a second language, though not around the edges of the country. Rakhine is not very different from Myanmar but stubbornly retains the “r” sound.

The military junta called SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Committee), ruling 1988-2015, made linguistic usage a test of political loyalty. The traditional capital of “Rangoon” must now be called “Yangon” (pronouncing it with the old “r” sound is a sign of treason). Foreigners were told to stop saying “Burma” and start saying “Myanmar” if they wanted friendly relations. Some diplomats who did not recognize the SLORC therefore deliberately said “Burma” to indicate solidarity with the democratic resistance led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who now says she doesn’t care which name English speakers use (relieving those who find “Burma” easier to say). However, she continues to insist that “Rohingya” is a recently made up word, and that they are just “Bengalis” who are only pretending to be a distinctive ethnic group. Simply saying “Rohingya” is enough to offend the Burmese government.

This is a fictionalized history. Burma invaded Arakan in 1406 and was driven out with assistance from Bengal in 1430, but Arakan rejected Bengal’s assertion of overlordship in a 1459 war, conquering the whole district of Chittagong and taking the title of Sultan to assert equal rank. Their coins featured Arabic script on one side and Burmese script on the other, and their court showed a mixture of Muslim and Buddhist custom. The Mughals took over Bengal in 1576 and conquered Chittagong in 1666, largely depopulating the area where Cox’s Bazar now is. Burma conquered Arakan in 1785 with massive slaughters and deportations. British traveler Francis Buchanan-Hamilton recorded in 1799 that the Muslim minority in Arakan called themselves “Rooinga” which meant “from Arakan.” The SLORC changed the name of Arakan province to “Rakhine” to emphasize that the Rakhine are the only people who belong there.

And this is the sad irony. The names Rohingya, Rakhine, and Arakan (evidently from a now-extinct Tibeto-Burman speech that did not allow “r” in initial position) are all divergent pronunciations of the same root, probably from some lost tongue from the Mon-Khmer language family that preceded them all in the area (compare Viet ru’ng “forest”). They moved back and forth and intermixed in past centuries, and are genetically pretty much the same people. Antagonism emerged during the anti-colonial struggle, when the Muslims felt safer under the Raj. When the Japanese landed in 1942, Rohingya fought for the British while Rakhine fought for Japan, and then for the nationalist leader Aung San after he turned against Japan (“the British sucked our blood but the Japanese crush our bones”). Aung San accepted the premiership of the British colonial government in preparation for independence but did not trust those who were prematurely pro-British during the war.

Rohingya fighters fled to Chittagong after the war, but agitated for the Boundary Commission preparing the partition of the British Raj to include the northern half of Arakan province in the Muslim state of Pakistan so they could go home safely. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Pakistan movement for religious partition, vetoed this idea: he didn’t really want East Bengal, geographically separated from West Pakistan, as part of the country, and certainly did not want it to have disputed borders. Some Rohingya started a Mojahid movement to take the land anyway.

The Partition was an infamously bloody mess. Aung San and Mahatma Gandhi were assassinated by extremists from their own sides. Jinnah’s nervous habit of three packs of cigarettes a day plus Cuban cigars killed him within a year. Millions of Hindus and Muslims sought, or were forced to seek, new homes on the “right” side of the line. Border ethnic groups of Burma, including Mon, Karen, Shan, Chin, and Lahu (long stories all) as well as the Rakhine, distrusted the new central government and launched rebellions lasting until a 2015 cease fire. Since East Pakistan was flooded with refugees, and Arakan still sparsely inhabited after all the wars of past centuries and not under government control, most Rohingya from Chittagong moved east. Here is where the Rohingya side falsifies the history. Burma says none of them used to live in the country, while they say all of them did, and neither of those is true. This is important because they are on a border between legal systems too: Burma grants citizenship by jus sanguinis (“law of blood”) if ancestors were in the country at the time of independence, but Bangladesh by jus solis (“law of soil”) if one is born there. Rohingya born on the east side of the border but from families which lived west of the border not so long ago are stateless. Those who were born in Bengal are mostly old now and can’t prove it. Those whose families were in Arakan in earlier times would have to prove they did not flee in the 1940s for being on the wrong side of the independence struggle. Those who manage to acquire national ID cards had them all taken away in 1978.

The legal language obscures the basic points: Burma does not want any more people who are not part of their in-group, while Bangladesh does not want any more people of any kind. Bangladesh is losing capacity even as its population rises. The rivers that empty into the ocean there have always flooded seasonally, adding silt to the soil, but when 25 percent of the country flooded three years in a row 1954-56, that was considered disastrous. Now 20 percent of the country floods in an average year, in a bad year 75 percent, so villagers raise their houses on stilts. Bangladesh would like to shed people, rather. A flood-control dam in the Chittagong Hills drowned the homes of the Chamka, whose language is a mashup of Indic and Tibeto-Burman from mixed refugees of the Arakan wars of long ago. The government of Narendra Modi in India now offers citizenship to them or anyone else persecuted for being Buddhist, Sikh, or Jain as well as Hindu: Muslims, of course, need not apply. The Rakhine who live in Chittagong are called by the derogatory name Mog “pirates” by the locals, because they sided with the pirates 200 years ago, but call themselves Mamar, their version of Myanmar, and name their subclans after the towns in Arakan their ancestors came from (not all of which even still exist). In September 2012, a Mamar named Uttam Barua argued with a Muslim on Facebook, who trolled him by tagging him with a picture of a Qur’an in a toilet. This was sufficient excuse for mobs to loot Buddhist shrines and Mamar homes, and Barua had to go into hiding while pleading that he was not responsible for the posting.

The Mamar accused local officials of organizing the mobs in an effort to drive them out, while the national government was embarrassed and helped with rebuilding.

It is unclear whether this was in response to the chauvinist attacks on Muslim morality by Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk released in 2012 after nine years in prison for inciting anti-Muslim hatred. His time in prison hardened his outlook and gave him some contacts. A Rakhine girl was gang-raped by some Rohingya men, sadly not an uncommon event among any ethnicities in that part of the world, but Wirathu used it as a launch pad for vitriolic sermons about how Muslims are all “snakes” and “dogs” and the Rohingya in particular like the African catfish, an invasive species which wipes out the whole ecosystem where they get in.

He circulated these sermons in printed leaflets and cassette tapes, which were becoming a major medium in this mostly unelectrified country because battery-operated cassette players were being abandoned in the rest of the world, and could be obtained for next to nothing and smuggled in through the porous borders. It was one more hole in SLORC’s failed effort to clamp down internal communications since the fiasco (from their point of view) of the 1990 election, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 80 percent of the vote despite her being in detention and news not allowed to report even who the NLD candidates were. They set aside that vote and tried to gain legitimacy some way.

Buddhist monks had been refusing to take food offerings from soldiers (a rebuke like excommunication) since the “Four Eights” (August 8, 1988 when thousands of protestors were shot down). So SLORC negotiated lavish atonement offerings with some of the more venal clerics, replacing the gold on the ancient Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, and building a full replica of Shwedagon, with rich endowment for the new monastery, in the brand new capital city. Nyipidaw was built by General Aung San’s home base, in a vain effort to snatch the legacy of the martyred father of the country away from his captive daughter, whom they dared not touch, especially after the Nobel Committee gave her a Peace Prize for nonviolent resistance, and the US Congress awarded her a Medal of Honor. Nothing helped. They still had to arrest political active monks, and even shoot a few in 2007 when a public assembly defying a ban marched from Shwedagon to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house.

So, when political-prisoner monks were released en masse, this was to prepare for allowing her to go, and to run for Parliament along with a few from her party, and to take trips to Oslo and Washington to collect her awards, and to schmooze Obama into making a visit in turn to Myanmar (as he made sure to call it). No one was thinking in particular about Ashin Wirathu, or what conflagration he might set off. He was proud when his sermons set off riots, and as the conflict escalated, started to think he was somebody. He was not from a lineage of respected teachers, the usual way to become a respected teacher oneself, but he had a following the newfangled way, and many senior clerics were in some disrepute as collaborators anyhow. He made the mistake of calling Aung San Suu Kyi a “British whore” (she married a foreigner) and was charged with sedition, but an insincere apology got him out.

By 2015 after freer elections, Aung San Suu Kyi was named State Counselor. Rohingya, shoved by boat from Burma to Bangladesh and from Bangladesh back to Burma, were making desperate attempts to get to Malaysia or Indonesia, where there was no place for them either. The Dalai Lama urged Aung San Suu Kyi to denounce hateful Buddhists like Wirathu, and to do something for the suffering, but she was noncommital. Wirathu started to think he was of global influence, and urged Germany to dump Merkel and America to elect Trump.

As the Rohingya expulsion accelerated in 2017, some hoped Aung San Suu Kyi would finally feel secure enough in her position to challenge her military. Instead, last month at the Hague she defended the Tatmadaw full-throatedly. Abuses had been alleged, but investigation had determined the reports were unfounded. If anybody knew of any real evidence, not politically motivated smears, they should tell her. Even if some abuses did really happen, inferring genocidal intent “cannot be the only option.” The nation was merely telling intruders, quite legitimately, that they need to leave.

Unfortunately, they have nowhere to go.

— Robert Eckert

Robert Eckert is a longtime member of the Underground Bunker community and author of the historical novel The Year of Five Emperors.

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