In the recent past, there has been a renewed interest among Journalists for Myanmar and treatment being meted out to Rohingya Muslims. While print as well as electronic media are flooded with narratives full of inhuman conditions that Rohingya are facing and concentrate on the present situation, they fall short of engaging with the historiography of this crisis. Most of us are being made to believe that Rohingya crisis started in 2012 after the military ‘Junta’ government started giving way to democracy. In this article, I will be contradicting this commonly held belief by providing a concise history of the problem.
The Present Crisis:
Rakhine state is one of the seven ethnic states of Myanmar, which shares a border with Bangladesh. According to estimates, since religious data was not disclosed in the last census, Rohingya Muslims constitute one-third of the state’s population. There have been campaigns against these Muslims led by Buddhist 969 Movement, MaBaTha and Arakan National Party (ANP). Muslims are being economically boycotted, socially excluded, murdered and raped. Human Rights Watch has termed these campaigns as ‘ethnic cleansing’ while many scholars like Alice Cowley have called it ‘genocide’.
Historical Context of the Rohingya Crisis:
Ultra-Nationalist Buddhists as well as official Myanmar histories claim that Rohingya Muslims are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh/East Bengal who migrated during British rule of Myanmar or even after 1947. According to these narratives, the term Rohingya was created in the 1950s to expand the political space for illegal Bengali immigrants.
Even a superficial reading of historical sources is enough to understand that Rohingya are native to the region for centuries, and at least before British Rule. Francis Buchanan in his A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken In the Burma Empire, published in 1799, writes; ““The first is that spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan”. Charles Paton also noted in his 1826 published A Short Report on Arakan that ‘Mussalman’ constitute thirty percent of the population in the region. Here it must be told to the readers that Arakan is the old name of Rakhine state.
Rakhine Buddhists today claim that Rakhine state belongs to their ethnicity while other ethnic groups, like Rohingya are invaders. Rakhine politicians like Aye Maung, leader of Arakan National Party (ANP) spells out their party’s vision, as; “We need to rebuild the Rakhine State only for the Rakhine who alone are the indigenous on the soil.” They knowingly ignore the evidence that points towards a long history of Rohingya in the region.
During the early years of its independence Myanmar Rohingya were recognized as a legitimate ethnic group that belonged to Burma and hence deserved a homeland there. On September 25, 1954, the then Prime Minister U Nu in his radio address to the nation talked about Rohingya Muslims’ political loyalty to predominantly Buddhist Burma. This usage of the term ‘Rohingya’ is important in the sense that today Myanmar denies to accept this category altogether and calls them ’Bengali’. During the same time a separate administrative zone May Yu was established comprising most of the present North Rakhine State, which had Rohingya as its majority ethnic group. One of the objectives of this Muslim majority zone was to ‘strive for peace with Pakistan’. Brigadier Aung Gyi, one of the deputies of General Ne Win, in 1961 explained Rohingya as; “On the west, May Yu district borders with Pakistan. As is the case with all borderlands communities, there are Muslims on both sides of the borders. Those who are on Pakistan’s side are known as Pakistani while the Muslims on our Burmese side of the borders are referred to as ‘Rohingya’“
In 1962 military dictator General Ne Win, took over the government and started implementing a hyper-Nationalist agenda, which had its roots in racial discrimination. In 1978 military government launched operation Nagamin to separate nationals from non-nationals. This was the first concerted large scale violent attack on Rohingya. National Registration Cards (NRC) were taken away by state actors never to be replaced. Violence that followed forced 200,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. Bangladesh denied Rohingya admission into her territory and blocked food rations leading to death of 12,000 of them. After bilateral negotiations Rohingya were repatriated.
General Ne Win drafted Citizenship Act in 1982, which denied citizenship rights to any community/group that was not listed in a survey conducted by British in 1824. All other ethnic groups were considered aliens to the land or invaders. Eighth major ethnicities Arakan, Chin, Kachin, Karen,Kayah, Mon, Shan and Burmese were broken into 135 small ethnic groups. Groups like Rohingya who do not belong to any of these 135 ethnicities were denied citizenship rights. Taking into account just one survey for defining the history of a group of people is highly problematic. It overlooks the fact that Rohingya were mentioned in records earlier to this survey.
Scholars like Maung Zarni have argued that Burmese military ‘encoded its anti-Indian and anti-Muslim racism in its laws and policies’. He further argues;
“The 1982 Citizenship Act serves as the state’s legal and ideological foundation on which all forms of violence, execution, restrictions, and human rights crimes are justified and committed with state impunity if carried out horizontally by the local ultra-nationalist Rakhine Buddhists.
In light of the on-the-ground link between the legalized removal of citizenship from the Rohingya and the implementation of a permanent set of draconian laws and policies—as opposed to periodic “anti-immigration” operations—amount to the infliction on the Rohingya of conditions of life designed to bring about serious bodily and mental harm and to destroy the group in whole or in part. As such, the illegalization of the Rohingya in Myanmar is an indication of the intent of the State to both remove the Rohingya permanently from their homeland and to destroy the Rohingya as a group.”
Rohingya again faced state sponsored violence by NaSaKa (security forces) between May 1991 and March 1992. UN observers noticed ‘razed villages, mass rapes and extra judicial killings’ and around 250,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh.
While prior to 2010 it was military government, which directly abused and tortured Rohingya Muslims after the democratic reforms popular state-backed hate campaigns and violence against the Rohingya by Rakhine Buddhists mobs has escalated. In 2012 widespread violence against Rohingya Muslims by the 969 Movement with state impunity killed around a thousand Muslims and forced more than 140,000 into camps. These Rohingya are still living in these camps with limited mobility since they do not enjoy fundamental rights as a citizen of Myanmar. UN identifies 36,000 Rohingya living in these camps as ‘acutely vulnerable’.
Rohingya crisis is not simply ethnic violence but an act of denial of fundamental rights by a state to its people hence making them vulnerable to different ‘crimes against humanity’.
(Author is a well known historian)