. By T.V. Antony Raj
Myanmar, formerly Burma, has a diverse ethnic and religious make-up. Now, there are at least 800,000 Rohingya Muslims in the country. However, they are not recognized as one of its ethnic group by the government. According to the United Nations, the Rohingyas are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. In 1982, the military junta stripped off all citizen rights of the Rohingyas through a so-called “Citizenship Law” thus making them the only stateless community of the world.
A man walks through a neighborhood that was burnt in recent violence in Sittwe, June 16, 2012.
In late May this year, sectarian violence erupted between Buddhists and Rohingyas in the Rakhine (or Arakan) province of Western Myanmar.
We are faced with conflicting reports from all quarters.
According to “Voice of America,” the violence broke out in late May after three Muslim men were accused of raping and murdering a young Buddhist woman and 10 Muslims were killed in an apparent revenge attack.
However, according to Pakistan’s “The News,” Intikhab Alam Suri, President, Human Rights Network says that on May 28, a Buddhist girl embraced Islam and married a Muslim man. This infuriated the Buddhist community. They resorted to vengeance. They stopped a bus carrying Muslim pilgrims and killed some of them.
Which version is true?
Thein Sein, President of Myanmar
No one knows for sure how many died in this ethnic violence. President Thein Sein dismissed such speculations in comments carried by the state-controlled “New Light of Myanmar.” He said he was “disheartened by the hairsplitting of the media.” He insisted that only 77 people – 31 Rakhine Buddhists and 46 Rohingya Muslims – have died. However, some rights groups and media reports suggest the figure may be higher.
The issue has prompted a wave of criticism by Muslim and non-Muslims the world over. Some view the conflict as a case of religious persecution against the Muslims. The Saudi-based Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has also urged a probe into the violence.
Rights groups have also called for Burma to do more to protect the Rohingya. Human Rights Watch said in a recent report that Burmese security forces have committed killings, rape, and mass arrests against the group in the aftermath of the sectarian violence.
Who are these Rohingyas?
Some historians like Khalilur Rahman trace the history of Rohingyas way back to the 8th century CE when an Arab trading ship was wrecked near Ramree Island. The Arakanese king ordered the execution of the Arab traders and the crew.
Jahiruddin Ahmed and Nazir Ahmed, former president and Secretary of Arakan Muslim Conference dispute this story. They say that the descendants of the ship wrecked Arabs are currently known as ‘Thambu Kya‘ Muslims and are now residing along the Arakan sea-shore. According to them, Rohingyas are descendants of the inhabitants of Ruha in Afghanistan.
In 1799, Francis Buchanan-Hamilton published an article titled “A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire.” In it, he states: “I shall now add three dialects, spoken in the Burma Empire, but evidently derived from the language of the Hindu nation. The first is that spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan…”
After King Narameikhla (1430–1434) retained his throne with the help of the Sultan of Bengal of that time, Indian Muslims of Bengal started arriving in Rakhine.
According to another historian, Dr. Maung Maung, there is no such word as Rohingya to be found in the census survey conducted by the British in 1824. The British census of 1891 reported 58,255 Muslims in Arakan. By 1911, the Muslim population increased to 178,647.
During the British Colonial rule, a large number of Bengali farmers migrated to the fertile valleys of Arakan. The waves of migration were primarily due to the requirement of cheap labor from British India to work in the paddy fields. Immigrants from Bengal, mainly from the Chittagong region moved en masse into western townships of Arakan. Migration of Indians into Burma was not just restricted to Arakan.
A Burmese historian, Thant Myint-U writes: “At the beginning of the 20th century, Indians were arriving in Burma at the rate of no less than a quarter million per year. The numbers rose steadily. In 1927, immigration reached its peak with 480,000 people. Rangoon outweighed New York City as the greatest immigration port in the world. This was out of a total population of only 13 million; it was equivalent to the United Kingdom today taking 2 million people a year.”
By then, in most of the large cities in Burma, Rangoon, Akyab, Bassein, Moulmein, the Indian immigrants formed a majority of the population. The indigenous Burmese felt helpless under the British rule, and reacted against the Indians with a “racism that combined feelings of superiority and fear.”
The immigration’s impact was particularly acute in Arakan, one of less populated regions. In 1939, the British authorities were aware of the long-term animosity between the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingyas. They formed a special Investigation Commission led by James Ester, and Tin Tut to study the issue of Muslim immigration in the Rakhine state. The commission recommended securing the border; however, with the onset of World War II, the British retreated from Arakan.
Burmese historians like Khin Maung Saw have claimed that before 1950s, the term Rohingya has never appeared in Burmese history. This observation coincides with that of a historian Aye Chan from Kanda University of International Studies, Chiba, Japan. He states that the term Rohingya was created in 1950s by the descendants of Bengalis, who migrated into Arakan during the Colonial Era. He further argued that the term cannot be found in any historical source in any language before 1950s. However, he stated that it did not mean Muslim communities have not existed in Arakan before 1824.