The Rohingya are a community of Muslims concentrated in the northern parts of Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine. There have been Muslims in Rakhine for a thousand years, but their numbers were substantially increased by migration from British India, particularly Bengal, during colonial rule. Before the recent forced exodus to Bangladesh, the Rohingya population in Myanmar was estimated at a little over a million, but that figure is contested. The last census did not count them because the government did not wish to recognize Rohingya as a legitimate identity. Including Rohingya refugees in nearby Bangladesh who fled during “clearances” conducted by Myanmar’s military rulers in 1978, the early 1990s, and 2012, their total number is likely larger.
There are other Muslim communities in Rakhine and Myanmar, but they are culturally and ethnically different from the Rohingya, who have been singled out for violent discrimination. Their distinct dialect and ethnic “otherness,” combined with their concentration in northern Rakhine, have made them seem to Myanmar’s rulers unassimilable and a threat to the integrity of this avowedly Buddhist state.
In late August 2017, Rohingya militants attacked police stations in northern Rakhine using knives and homemade bombs. Twelve members of the security forces were killed. The Myanmar military retaliated by burning Rohingya villages, killing and raping civilians, and forcing more than half a million Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh.
The scale of this ethnic cleansing represents the most extreme triumph of majoritarian politics in South Asia. The persecution of the Rohingya has made Myanmar something of an inspiration to majoritarian parties in neighboring states. The Indian government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, announced in mid-August that the 40,000 Rohingyas in India (refugees from an earlier exodus) would be deported because they were illegal immigrants. Even in early September, after the ferocity of the Myanmar army’s “clearances” was known and the extent of the exodus became apparent, no one in Narendra Modi’s administration voiced even the pro forma expressions of concern by which governments often acknowledge widespread human suffering.
Majoritarianism—the claim that a nation’s political destiny should be determined by its religious or ethnic majority—is as old as the nation-state in South Asia; it was decolonization’s original sin. Postcolonial nations in South Asia began with varying degrees of commitment to the ideal of a pluralistic, broadly secular state, but after a decade or so of independence they were either taken over by military rulers or transformed into religious states by majoritarian politicians.
Pakistan was carved out of British India to create a Muslim-majority country, and although its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, seemed at times to support the idea of a secular state, the genocidal violence of the 1947 Partition more or less purged the country of its non-Muslim minorities. In its short-lived constitution…
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