First off, I’m not going to pretend to an expert, or even particularly knowledgeable about Myanmar and the Rohingya. Before the crisis of the last couple of weeks, I could have told you exactly three things about that group: they were Muslim, they were frequently the victims of persecution by the Burmese government, and they were essentially stateless. But if pressed, I don’t think I could have given you the details.
That said, it is a humanitarian crisis that has now come to the world’s attention, partly because the sainted Ayn Sung Suu Kyi seems to be, at the very least, complicit in the ongoing ethnic cleansing (if not outright genocide) of a long-persecuted people.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing state-sanction violence, the latest in the ongoing Burmese campaign against the Rohingya. Who are they? I’ll leave that work to this easy al-Jazeera explainer.
The Rohingya speak Rohingya or Ruaingga, a dialect that is distinct to others spoken in Rakhine State and throughout Myanmar. They are not considered one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups and have been denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982, which has effectively rendered them stateless.
OK, but…why? Well, even though many historians agree that Muslims have been living in that area since the 12th-century, the Buddhist-majority post-independence government of Burma/Myanmar disagreed. They considered them recent interlopers, because a lot more Muslims had come to the area from Bangladesh. To the government, they are officially Bengali.
OK, so then…why aren’t they refugees? A delightful quirk of history!
During the more than 100 years of British rule (1824-1948), there was a significant amount of migration of labourers to what is now known as Myanmar from today’s India and Bangladesh. Because the British administered Myanmar as a province of India, such migration was considered internal, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Because the British colonized both “India” (which also became Pakistan after independence, and then Bangladesh after the 1971 war which killed at least a million), as well as Burma, where Orwell shot an elephant, these are not refugees. But they also aren’t recognized. So they have no rights, and are denied basic services. That’s a neat trick!
Not everyone thinks so. When you have displaced and persecuted Muslims, that becomes a breeding ground for radicalization. Not necessarily of the Rohingya (I haven’t seen much about radical tendencies in that population), but for al-Qaeda, ISIS, and regional offshoots/independent groups.
This is quickly becoming a major cause for transnational Islamist groups. As The Soufan Group points out, “An example of how the situation can easily get worse and morph into a larger issue came in a September 12 statement by al-Qaeda The terrorist group called for all Muslims to come to the defense of the Rohingya; a call to jihad similar to that of the Afghan War with the then-Soviet Union that set al-Qaeda’s foundation. Now three decades later, al-Qaeda is calling for more of the same in Burma. The statement derides the ‘fight against terrorism’ and calls for ‘all mujahid brothers from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines to set out for Burma…to secure their [the Rohingya] rights, which will only be returned to them by force.’”
This is like Bosnia, Chechnya, Yemen, Algeria: a place for jihadis around the world to flock to, to train, and to use for recruitment purposes. It is also a boon for regional groups, as Eurasia Review points out, with the charismatic Masood Azhar, leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, calling for much the same.
JeM is a Deobandi Sunni group, which is similar to Salafism, but has its roots in South Asia and the Subcontinent. It has largely been active in Kashmir, and its primary goal is to bring Kashmir back to Pakistan. Its relationship with the Pakistani government is officially complicated.
Actually, this is all really complicated. What, one might reasonably ask, does JeM really have to do with this? Is it just opportunism? And same with al-Qaeda. They’ve never shown a deep interest in Burma before (little need for aftershave)(sorry). So what is this all about?
For one thing, it is partially opportunism. Groups like Qaeda see a void in the state that leaves Muslims vulnerable and in danger, and they step up to be the protector. We’ll see of course if this translates into any action, but that’s almost beside the point. They are positioning themselves as champions of any Muslims, when the state can’t, and won’t protect them.
This is where this gets very dangerous. As we saw with the brief history above, the Rohingya are victims of history and geography; like Iran, their legacy rests on the perversions of colonialism and nationalism. The problem is that their land is in one of the soft spots of the state system, where maps were fluid and borders were permeable until, suddenly and horribly, they weren’t.
Whenever I had thought of the Rohingya before, skimmed a headline that talked about tens of thousands in misery or whatever, my mental map had people feeling in an Asian jungle, akin to Laos or Cambodia. That’s where I saw them going.
But that’s not really the case, as everyone now knows. They are inextricably linked to the bitter and violent history of the sub-Continent and the legacy of colonialism. Take a look at this map.
Look at the way India pushes through the top of Bangladesh, encircling it save for the tiniest border with Myanmar. And think how irrelevant these borders really are to the historic lived experience of these people. You don’t have “Indians” on the east of Bangladesh as something ethnically dissimilar. There is mixing and blending, right through to Myanmar.
This is where the ridiculousness of the state system makes itself known. This is where the bitter fruits of “partition and parturition”, in Christopher Hitchen’s memorable phrase, fall to the ground, overripe and rotting. And this is what groups like al-Qaeda (and especially al-Qaeda) are so skilled at manipulating.
Al-Qaeda is both pre-and-post state. They reject borders and want to move the world to how they felt it was before: huge rolling Eurasian landscapes united by Islam. It was never that neat, of course, but the vision is nearer to the truth. These borders, which divide groups, and render the same people stateless or stated depending on the accident of migration and the whims of Westminster, are ridiculous, and al-Qaeda knows that.
They exist to exploit the crumbling and ahistorical state system that exists on the Eurasian heartland (and that isn’t doing too terribly well in Europe, either). They are wrong to think that a continental centralized caliphate is in line with history; things were always more subtle and local and free-wheeling and interesting than that.
But they know that the modern system, a legacy of the West trying to impose itself over the long-held order of the East, a paternalism imposed upon highly-developed cultures, couldn’t last. The contradictions and conquests of the 20th century are breaking up the order of the world, and groups like al-Qaeda know how to exploit that. Until we understand what is actually happening here, we’re powerless against groups that actually do.