When a military-run Burmese language newspaper reported that my book Myanmar’s Rohingya Genocide: Identity, History and Hate Speech was banned, and the trading licence of the book seller who advertised it revoked, it confirmed people in Myanmar still hungered for knowledge about the military’s mistreatment of the Rohingya.
In Myanmar, a country still often known as Burma, a military junta clings to power by violently terrorising the mostly Buddhist population and aggressively stifling freedom of expression. There are widespread internet shutdowns and broad censorship of news media. Dozens of journalists are among the nearly 14,000 political prisoners arrested since the 2021 coup. The military’s goal is to muzzle information that counters its own political narrative and through public book bans and bookshop closures they sow fear and encourage self-censorship. This was the third bookshop shuttering in recent times, with others closed for offering books on subjects sensitive for the military, such as LGBTQ+ themes.
The Myanmar ministry of information does not like truth, but name-checking a foreign academic is a new step for the junta and indicates the strength of their desire to cover up their genocide crimes. My book presents strong evidence Myanmar’s military undertook a planned genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority. The Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, also wants to prevent Myanmar’s people understanding that it has now unleashed similar violence against civilian communities who resist Tatmadaw rule in the country’s Buddhist heartlands.
The Tatmadaw’s scorched-earth tactics, routinely used against civilians, are stomach-churningly awful. My book includes extensive first-hand accounts from Rohingya survivors of the 2017 genocidal forced deportation. These accounts were told to me in the suffocating heat and dust of a newly built shanty city of bamboo and tarpaulin in Bangladesh. Within just a few weeks desperately poor and deeply traumatised Rohingya had settled on unoccupied forest land along the international frontier, creating the world’s largest refugee camp, more populous than a city the size of Dublin.
Rohingya genocide survivors shared blood-curdling accounts of how army helicopters were used to spread fire through the Rohingya’s mostly bamboo villages, how tens of thousands of people were murdered and how soldiers unleashed a monstrous campaign of sexual violence targeting women and girls. Survivors told me how parents were forced to watch their children raped and murdered and how young women were taken away by soldiers and not seen again. The wholesale destruction of hundreds of Rohingya villages was evident in satellite images, but the Tatmadaw desperately wants to hide evidence of their crimes from Myanmar’s people.
The military portray Rohingya as recent arrivals from Bangladesh, and they want to hide the strong documentary evidence that Rohingya are an indigenous group that were genocidally driven off their ancestral lands. I undertook extensive archival research in the East India Company archive, and my book presents strong evidence of Rohingya indigeneity and their documented presence in pre-colonial Myanmar. This is more evidence the Tatmadaw is keen to hide from Myanmar’s people.
I became a regular visitor to Myanmar in 2010 when I observed the country’s first national election for two decades. Being one of the few foreigners in the country at that time, I was able to meet Aung San Suu Kyi just days after her release from house arrest. Perhaps because I am an Irish-born scholar and a child of the Border, rather than focus my academic work on Aung San Suu Kyi as a political saviour, my focus quickly became the ethnic and religious divisions that continued to dog Myanmar, and in the Rohingya’s case were often neglected by the international community. Through dozens of research visits to Myanmar and to the Rohingya’s refugee camps in Bangladesh, I collected evidence of military crimes and the deliberate nature of the oppression of the Rohingya.
Since the coup, there are now daily reports of Tatmadaw atrocities nationwide including mass killing of civilians fleeing conflict between soldiers and anti-coup militia, and the use of fighter aircraft to target rural villages as collective punishment for local anti-coup activity. The United Nations estimates half a million people are displaced within Myanmar and 13 million now face food shortages. Civilians in Myanmar’s Buddhist heartlands can sadly now too readily relate through personal experience to the Rohingya’s plight. This is solidarity the Tatmadaw desperately wants to prevent by hiding the truth of their crimes against the Rohingya. The Tatmadaw has also commonly adopted colonial-style divide-and-rule tactics to drive wedges between groups that might otherwise understand they have much in common.
Despite moves towards democracy, throughout the past decade, ethnic and religious divisions were aggressively preyed upon by the military and nationalists to justify discrimination. Combined with a steady diet of anti-Rohingya hate speech spread through social media, this enabled the Tatmadaw to commit atrocities against the Rohingya without any strong domestic political opposition. A defining feature of Myanmar’s domestic politics has long been the 1988 uprising that first brought Aung San Suu Kyi to political prominence, but more than 70 per cent of Myanmar’s population were not born then, and those young people are now fast rethinking their previous wilful blindness to the Rohingya’s plight. The potential political power of these young people is a key reason the military is now so aggressively censoring books and limiting freedom of expression.
Myanmar’s military banned my book to cover up evidence of their crimes, but this only highlights their political weakness. They fear that knowledge of military crimes against the Rohingya, and the ready comparison with recent nationwide violence, threatens their rule. Censorship was a hallmark of previous periods of military rule and resulted in a thriving underground book industry. Since the ban, key sections of my book are already being circulated within Myanmar. Myanmar’s military will soon discover that while they might ban a book, they cannot ban knowledge.
Ronan Lee is a doctoral prize fellow at Loughborough University London’s Institute for Media and Creative Industries. His research focuses on the Rohingya, genocide, hate speech, migration and Asian politics