Dr Azeem Ibrahim
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy, and Adj 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 as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a World Fellow at Yale University. He has also advised many leading public figures in Britain and abroad. He has also researched and written a book looking at the plight of the Rohingyas, a persecuted minority in Myanmar.
Why did you write a book about a little known people in a far off land?
There are two main reasons – one very specific to the Rohingya but also that their plight exemplifies wider problems about entitlement to citizenship and the rights of the refugees across the world.
Many other persecuted groups have some external support. This can be a sympathetic state (so Iran will speak up for the Shi’a in the Persian Gulf states). Others have a rich diaspora that can provide financial support and also ensure they are not completely voiceless. The Rohingya have neither. No state indentifies with them (and Bangladesh has treated Rohingya refugees with considerable cruelty) and most who have fled Myanmar/Burma remain exceptionally poor (and are often unfortunately treated as little better than slaves). Their plight is often ignored or seen simply as part of the problems of a state moving from military rule to some form of democracy.
The second reason is that their plight says much about the unravelling of the post-WW2 laws on citizenship and the rights of refugees.
In Europe after WW1 many found themselves either stateless or holding a passport from a state that no longer existed (such as Tsarist Russia or the Austro-Hungarian Empire). In a Europe of new borders they found themselves trapped and the new League of Nations invented the Nansen Passport. This gave no right to residence but provided the means to at least cross inter-state borders. After the horrors of WW2 it was clear that more robust laws were needed to stop states removing citizenship from those seen as not belonging … and to improve our treatment of refugees.
Burma since its inception has been in violation of the UN laws on citizenship and, unfortunately, we are seeing more and more states trying to remove citizenship from those deemed unacceptable (on grounds of ethnicity, religion, politics or class). This is deeply disturbing and the plight of the Rohingya reminds us of the consequences. Equally their treatment when they do flee is shameful. Some states refuse to accept them (both India and Bangladesh will not grant them refugee status), in Thailand they often end up trapped as slave workers (and I use the term deliberately) in the fishing or agricultural sectors.
Did the genocide against the Rohingya follow the same pattern as other genocides like that in Rwanda?
So far the situation in Myanmar has not become a genocide, but as I argued in my book all the conditions have been met … in effect a single incident could trigger mass murder.
Each of the main instances in the twentieth century (the Ottoman genocide against the Armenians, the Nazi holocaust against the Jews and in Rwanda) have points in common. Key is that none started as mass murder – it took the Nazis from 1933 to 1942 to move from active persecution of the Jews (with many killings) to genocide. States and/or political movements have to prepare their own population to make the leap from hating or despising another group to tolerating mass murder. Unfortunately, everything that has happened to the Rohingya in Myanmar since the early 1970s has followed this pattern of first denial of basic rights, then separating the Rohingya from the rest of the population and normalising hatred of the Rohingya among many Burmese Buddhists.
On the other hand, there have also been important differences. There is a case to make that the Nazis moved to open mass murder once the USA entered WW2. Up to then, the Nazi leadership often referred to the Jews as ‘hostages’ and hoped this would deter American entry into war. By early 1942, there were no remaining international constraints on the Nazis. The Ottoman massacre of the Armenians in 1915 took place in the context of the Russians invading eastern Turkey in the early stages of WW1. In Rwanda there had been a long running civil war between the Hutus and Tutsis with this recently ending in what seemed to be a successful transition to a peaceful regime.
If there is one issue in common it is the importance of international pressure. States can be restrained from genocide by international pressure – and this is one reason why it is important to keep up pressure on the new Myanmar government until they end the persecution of the Rohingya.
Your book is about a disturbing subject and is written for an adult audience. Do you think that young people could benefit from reading it or learning about the issues you raise?
I think so. When researching the book I saw the situation that the Rohingya lived in and read many reports of human rights abuses. In the book, there is little detailed discussion about this, in part as there are other reports that provide substantial details and these are referenced in the book. I think we can become aware of how terrible a situation is without reading the details of torture and persecution and that is the approach I tried to take in the book.
So it matters how the material is presented and taught. If the focus is on the abuse of other human beings then I think that is wrong for a younger audience (and am not convinced this is how to report to any audience), but if the focus is on why this is happening then yes it is appropriate.
Why do you think that young people should learn about genocide?
Depressingly it is part of human history and if we understand how it occurs we have more chance of preventing it happening again. As I mentioned above, genocide is never the first act of systemic persecution of a group. That starts from stripping away economic and legal rights, with the creation of popular attitudes about the group and the state either engaging in violence (or standing by while others do so) against the group. This pattern is repeated every time and we have to be aware of the dynamics so we can recognise it when it starts today.
Do you think that learning about the genocide against the Rohingya and other atrocities currently occurring around the world should be compulsory in our schools?
Yes,but with a caveat. What matters is the context in which these things occur – both the elements that repeat across each instance and what is unique to a particular situation. Placed into this context, then people can learn why it happened (it is very easy to believe that we as individuals could never act ‘that way’), why it is always a threat and what we can do as active concerned citizens.