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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 11, New Delhi February 29, 2020

Timely Account of a Heinous Genocide

Sunday 1 March 2020

BOOK REVIEW

by Mohammad Chingiz Khan

First, They Erased Our Name: A Rohingya Speaks by Habiburahman with Sophie Ansel translated by Andrea Reece; pp. 1 to 246; New Delhi: Penguin Viking; 2019; Rs. 499.

The erudite biographical memoir of one of the victims of state-sponsored oppression, Habiburahman’s

First, They Erased Our Name: A Rohingya Speaks (with Sophie Ansel)—translated by Andrea Reece and published by Penguin Viking, New Delhi—is a narrative of the unbea-rable, insufferable and intolerable experience that he faced during the selective ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims by the Burmese Army. The task of state-sponsored genocide and selective ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims had been started for various reasons like the attempt to turn Myanmar into a Buddhist state based on the framework of one state, one language and one religion. Rohingya Muslims had been facing the state’s atrocity since the mid-twentieth century on the ground that they settled illegally in Myanmar and the Myanmar government wanted to explore and export the natural gas reserves of the Rakhine State apart from being a strategic location between China and India, and due to the natural resources of the place.

Habiburahman notes that the mass killing of Rohingya people by the Army and Rakhines was allegedly triggered by the rape and murder of one Rakhine woman by three young Rohingya Muslim men. He points out that the term Rohingya is a prohibited term in Myanmar now. He faced lots of problems during his childhood days on account of being a Rohingya. He discloses that his family was staying near the shores of the Kaladan river in the border between the Arakan State and Chin state. There were pangs of separation from his mother as his mother was away for four years due to the genocidal situation in the State, and they were living under severe conditions. Their land was forcefully confiscated and villages were razed to the ground by the Army under the sponsorship of the Army leader Captain KZW and the situation worsened under Captain ABN. The Rohingya houses were converted into latrines, Buddhist pagodas and Military Training Camp 313 where tortur and interrogation of Rohingyas were done inhumanely. The words ‘human beings’ and ‘freedom’ have no value and are non-existent for the Rohingya community in Myanmar. They were treated like dogs, pigs and other animals. No words ever existed to describe the social, economic and political condition of this community.

Habiburahman remembers that he and his fellow Rohingyas were brutally oppoessed and made to face ill-treatment in the form of forceful imposition of tax or Burmese language upon them or taking their money forcefully. The oppressors transformed the Rohingya

Kalars

into slaves in a model village called NaTaLa by confiscating their land after the operation named Operation Pyi Thaya (Clean and Beautiful Nation) in 1991. Before and after this operation, the Burmese Army carried out many successful operations including the recently launched Nay Myay Chin Lin Yay (Total Liquidation or Total Cleansing of the Land) in 2016 as a part of their ethnic cleansing (pp. 68 and 233-234). The last operation made the Rohingyas more stateless and resulted in mass exodus to other countries. The Army started erasing Rohingyas’ history from the land of Myanmar as is evident from its targeting of the Sandi Khan Mosque built by the Muslim leader Sandi Khan who had come to offer help to King Narameikhla of the great Mrauk U Dynasty (p. 73).

In the Arakan region, Muslims needed to take travel permits from the authorities. Habiburahman also points out that the erasing of Rohingyas’ history is part of the Buddhist state project. Distorted history is being taught through the school textbooks where Bengalis allegedly invaded Arakan and thousands of them got butchered by the courageous Rakhine warriors for the sake of their motherland.

He also talks of the apartheid policy followed in Myanmar like in South Africa. Habiburahman wanted to get admission in an unstitution in Yangoon but could not get it on account of being a Rohingya. He also talks of departure from his home country to other countries like Thailand, Malaysia, etc. due to the ‘arrest warrant’ issued by the Burmese Army, and how he faced tremendously barbarous, relentless and callous torment in jail. He portrays in this biographical memoir that apart from the brutal prosecution and genocidal activities executed continuously on his community, the saddest part in his entire journey from Burma to Australia was the death of his father who was the milestone-pillar and role model for him. He moved to Australia where he not only found respect, dignity and compassion, but also received the title of his name as Habiburahman.

There are two major observations in the entire book. First, he could not definitely identify the historically rooted context of the use of one pejorative term

Kalar

indicating scorn and disgust for dark-skinned ethnic groups, particularly the Rohingya Muslims. This term is shrouded and clouded in controversy. It has different terms such as

Kala, Kula, Kla or Kalas

which is the Burmese term given to the natives of the Indian subcontinent, according to Moshe Yegar, and used synonymously before the British rule in Burma cutting across the religious lines; but it was used with disgrace and hatred in nature in the calculative context after the British rule in Burma in the 1820s. This point is not elaborated in the memoir. Second, this memoir has not mentioned the historical roots of how, why and when the Rohingyas came to Burma and their contribution towards the country of Burma. It would have been more significant and relevant if the memoir had talked about this aspect at length as this historical and biographical memoir is the first of its kind from the Rohingya perspective detailing inhuman oppression by the Buddhists.

However, Habiburahman’s memoir is a timely work on one of the most heinous genocides in human history. The book is readable, written as it is in a lucid manner, informational and unparalleled in its approach. It can be a primary source of information on the Rohingya issue for future researchers on the topic.

Md. Chingiz Khan is a Doctoral Candidate, Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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