Myanmar’s Rohingya: The Roots of a Tragedy

Ethnic violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state continues to keep the region’s Rohingya Muslim populations in a state of fear and misery. Since clashes between the Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhist populations broke out in 2012, more than 100,000 Rohingya have fled the country, mostly by boat.

Though the future of the refugees is often one of conscripted labor and sexual slavery, conditions in Rakhine state, where families are forced by the government to live in squalid IDP camps, are bad enough to make thousands prefer to face the risks that come with fleeing.

The crisis has deep roots in the history of the state, known as Arakan until 1974. It has long been isolated from the rest of the country. Situated between India, Myanmar and Bangladesh, it sits at the convergence of Asia’s Islamic and Buddhist lands. It has a 500 km-long mountain range on its eastern shoulder, the Naaf river to the north forming the border with Bangladesh and the Indian Ocean to the west.

Though largely cut off from the central government, it was long a major trading post for Dutch, Portuguese and British traders and under British governance was one of the most prosperous states in Burma. Today it is the second poorest. It is one of seven ethnic minority states. The local Buddhist population make up the Rakhine majority.

Prior to 1784, when the Burman monarch Bodawpaya invaded and secured Burmese control, Rakhine had been ruled by a series of sovereign kingdoms. At the conclusion of the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1826, Burmese rule over Rakhine was cut short and the state was ceded to the British as war reparation. When the British Crown gained control over the whole of Burma in 1886, Rakhine became a part of the Province of Burma of British India. With the arrival of independence in 1948, it was made an official division of the new Union.

Fighting between Rakhine’s Muslim and Buddhist populations broke out almost immediately following independence and has continued in various forms to this day. Much of the animosity between the two groups stems from Burma’s experience during colonial rule. In the first few decades of British governance, tens of thousands of Indians migrated to the new province, which had an open-door policy and an abundance of work. Most came from the Chittagong region of Bangladesh, which borders Rakhine.

A 1931 census counted over 1 million Indians living in Myanmar. Migrants of all different ethno-religious backgrounds, many of them Muslim, came as laborers, administrators, money-lenders and merchants and by the 1920s Indians dominated much of the local economy. As Indian influence grew, so did tensions.

“[Indians are] exploiting our economic resources and seizing our women/we are in danger of racial extinction,” went the lyrics of one popular song of the time. In 1930-31 and again in 1938 hundreds of migrants were killed in anti-Indian riots throughout Burma. Though Rakhine was spared much of the violence that hit others parts of the country, Buddhists and Muslims clashed there during World War II when soldiers from the Burma Independence Army led by Aung San (the famous nationalist and father of Aung San Suu Kyi) forced 500,000 Indians out of the country.

Following the expulsion, many Rakhine Muslims sided with the British, which in turn bred deep resentment among Buddhist nationalists, whose movement had been gaining steam. What began as anti-Indian prejudice ultimately evolved into an animosity towards Muslims in general. Because scores of Muslims migrated to Rakhine from British India during the colonial period, many Rakhine Buddhists don't see Muslims as true citizens. Kala, the word many Buddhists use to refer to Muslims in Burma today, means ‘foreigner’. The implication is that only Buddhists can be Burmese.

Christian ethnic groups such as the Kachin and Karen and other Muslim groups such as the Kaman face similar discrimination. However, their designation as nationally recognized ethnic groups in the Burmese constitution protects them from the same level of widespread discrimination that the Rohingya face, who don’t have official recognition.

With the communal belief that the Rohingya are foreigners, the ethno-religious difference between the minority Rohingya and the majority Rakhine Buddhists has become a nationalist issue – the immigrant vestiges of Burma's colonial past versus the indigenous, Buddhist Burmese. That religion is involved has only added to the tension.

The Rohingya, whose physical appearance, language and cultural practices are explicitly different from both those of the ethnic Burmans and Rakhine Buddhists, have borne the brunt of this anti-Muslim ethno-nationalism.

Territorial politics have played a part in the ethnic distrust as well. Throughout the 1970s a number of insurgent groups operated in the state’s lush mountains, including mujahedeen, communists and Rakhine nationalist groups. From 1948-1968 one such group, a Rohingya mujahedeen militia, fought to install a separate Islamic state, seizing large parts of northern Rakhine.

Again in 1971 a group of Rohingya tried to join Bangladesh during its split from East Pakistan. These separatist actions are still remembered by Buddhist nationalists in Rakhine today and only add to communal impressions of the Rohingya as troublesome and anti-Burmese.

The term Rohingya has become highly politicized. Rakhine Buddhists, who don’t count the Rohingya as a legitimate ethnic group, despise the term and claim it was invented in the early 1950s to describe Bengalis who were brought to Burma by the British Raj and those who illegally immigrated after. They insist that there is no firm historical evidence for the name. However, the first ever use of the word in a published work seems to be by Francis Hamilton (also known as Francis Buchanan) in his paper “A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire” in 1799.

“Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan,” Hamilton wrote. However in censuses taken during the colonial period, there is no use of the term and it is only in the first years after independence that the name begins to appear again. The central government, which denies the Rohingya official status as a national ethnic group and also insist they are Bengalis, is equally critical of the term.

Though a majority in Rakhine state, Rakhine Buddhists are a minority in the rest of the country and have themselves suffered official persecution. Historically, they see themselves as victims of three aggressions: the 1784 Burman invasion, British colonization and the ongoing Bengali (Rohingya) Islamization.

This sense of victimhood plays a prominent role in the current strain of Rakhine Buddhist nationalism and its populist appeal. Their main concern is that the Rohingya population is growing at 10 times the rate of the local Buddhist one, a dubious statistic that has even been mocked by a Rakhine state government spokesman. Nonetheless, the same official also said that “the Rohingya are trying to Islamize [Buddhists] through their terrible birth rate. “Despite a lack of supporting evidence, the sense that Rakhine Buddhists are being birthed out of their own homeland by what is regarded as a vile group of illegal immigrants is strongly felt across the state.

The central government’s role in Rakhine has not improved things. In 1978, as part of a national effort to curb illegal immigration coined Operation ‘Nagamin’ or ‘Dragon King’, a first-ever government demographics census of the border region was taken. The census quickly deteriorated into chaos, with widespread allegations of army brutality including killings, rape and the destruction of mosques. More than 200,000 Muslims fled Rakhine. To make matters worse, the state-run media blamed the turmoil on “armed bands of Bengalis” and “wild Muslim extremists.” In other words, illegal immigrants.

Two decades later, the 1991-1992 exodus of 250,000 Rohingya, prompted by violent land grabs by the Burmese army, was followed again by a similarly ludicrous explanation: ”The Rohingya problem is no more than the problem of unregistered illegal immigrants," claimed a January 1992 edition of the state-run Working People's Daily.

That the government has facilitated an environment of prejudice towards the Rohingya has only legitimized antagonistic actors in Rakhine.

Four years after the Nagamin crisis, the central government enacted the Citizenship Law, which established three categories of citizenship: National, Associate and Naturalized. Full citizenship was exclusively allotted to the National category, which included only the country’s eight largest ethnic groups. Any resident who could claim that his or her ancestors lived in Burma before the start of the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1823, though a nearly impossible task, were also granted full citizenship. The 1982 Citizenship Act, still in effect today, is what has left most Rohingya officially stateless.

The renowned Burma scholar Martin Smith once called the Rohingya crisis, “by far the most tense and difficult of all the ethnic problems I have encountered in over a decade of writing on the political and ethnic situation in Burma.” Indeed the situation faced by the Rohingya in northern Rakhine state is about as dire as it can get. The United Nations calls them one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Unwanted in Bangladesh and despised in Burma, they are a people without a home and have experienced periodic episodes of abuse because of it. Tensions in Rakhine are still high and conflict could break out again at any time. In the current state of things, history appears to be repeating itself.