Tuesday 30 August 2005

Rohingya: The Forgotten People

Source from iviews, 23 Aug 2005, 
By: Dr. Habib Siddiqui

The First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26) ended on 24 February 1826 when Burma ratified the Treaty of Yandabo and ceded Arakan and Tenasserim to British India. At that time, nearly a third of the population of Arakan was Muslims. Burma was separated from British India on 1 April 1937 under the Government of India Act of 1935. Arakan was made a part of British Burma against the wishes of its people and thus finally Arakan became a province of independent Burma in 1948.[23] For centuries, the Rohingya Muslims coexisted relatively peacefully with the Rakhine Buddhists.[24] However, this changed around the Second World War, when communal riots erupted between the two ethnic groups at the instigation of third parties, most notably the British Raj. The bitterness was fuelled by the pogrom of March 28, 1942 in which about 100,000 Rohingyas were massacred and about 80,000 had to flee their ancestral homes.[25] 294 Rohingya villages were totally destroyed.[26] Since then the relationship between the two communities deteriorated. After Burma's independence in 1948, Muslims carried out an unsuccessful armed rebellion demanding an autonomous state within the Union of Burma. This resulted in a backlash against the Muslims that led to their removal from civil posts, restrictions on their movement, and confiscation of their property.[27] Under the military regime of General Ne Win, beginning in 1962, the Muslim residents of Arakan were labeled illegal immigrants who settled in Burma during British rule. The government at the center made efforts to drive them out of Burma, starting with the denial of citizenship. The 1974 Emergency Immigration Act took away Burmese nationality from the Rohingyas, making them foreigners in their own country. 

As of 1999, there have been no less than 20 major operations of eviction campaigns against the Rohingyas carried out by the successive Governments of Burma. In pursuance of the 20-year Rohingya Extermination Plan, the Arakan State Council under direct supervision of State Council of Burma carried out a Rohingya drive operation code named Naga Min or King Dragon Operation. It was the largest, the most notorious and probably the best-documented operation of 1978. The operation started on 6th February 1978 from the biggest Muslim village of Sakkipara in Akyab, which sent shock waves over the whole region within a short time. News of mass arrest of Muslims, male and female, young and old, torture, rape and killing in Akyab frustrated Muslims in other towns of North Arakan. In March 1978 the operation reached at Buthidaung and Maungdaw. Hundreds of Muslim men and women were thrown into the jail and many of them were being tortured and killed. Muslim women were raped freely in the detention centers. Terrified by the ruthlessness of the operation and total uncertainty of their life, property, honor and dignity, a large number Rohingya Muslims left their homes to cross the Burma-Bangladesh border.[28] Within 3 months more than 3,00,000 Rohingyas took shelter in makeshift camps erected by Bangladesh Government. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recognized them as genuine refugees and started relief operations.

On 18 July 1991 a more dreadful Rohingya drive extermination campaign code named "Pyi Thaya" was launched. This involved killing and raping of Rohingyas, and destroying their properties, plus places of worship. It forced Rohingyas again to seek shelter in Bangladesh. In recent years, while some Rohingyas have returned to Arakan as a result of Bangladesh-Myanmar bilateral agreement, still there are many who are afraid to return to their ancestral homes. Due to the divide and rule policy of the Myanmar government, the relationship between the Rakhine and the Rohingya have become increasingly strained without any trust. The Rakhines, as a matter of fact, have become Rohingya's worst enemies. With very few exceptions, the Rakhines want to cleanse the Arakan of the Rohingya.[29] In Myanmar, the Rohingyas have been denied their citizenship, uprooted from their ancestral homes and forced to live as refugees and illegal immigrants in Bangladesh. Truly, their plight is worse than those suffered by the Native Americans in the USA and the Mayans in Latin America, and the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. 

Solution to the problem:
The Rohingya people need help to publicize their plight and their right to live as a free nation. The Buddhist military regimes that have ruled Myanmar are brutal, savage and tyrannical. They cannot be either a guarantor or a protector of human rights of minorities. They will use and have been using their barbarity against the minority Rohingyas to justify prolonging their illegitimate ruling in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. So, the plight of the Rohingyas, regrettably, is not a matter of concern for many otherwise good-natured Buddhists. Under the circumstances, the Rohingyas have no way to protect their basic human rights but to opt for freedom. Freedom is a God-given right of all humanity and can neither be denied nor snatched away from disadvantaged groups for either political expediency or diplomatic acrobatics.The Rohingyas need world body to wake up to the reality of their sufferings and pains. They need to mobilize world bodies, esp. the UN, to grant them the same privilege that has been granted to the people in south Sudan and East Timor. There is no other way to solve this problem now. Citizens around the globe simply cannot afford to remain silent spectators to this gruesome tragedy of our time. They must act and help to solve the problem.In the meantime, for easing the sufferings of the Rohingya Diaspora community my suggestions are that:
  • The UNHCR must maintain its support for the material well being of Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh.   
  • The UNHCR must continue its direct involvement in refugee protection, ensuring the voluntary nature of refugee returns to Myanmar, and providing logistical support to repatriation as required.
  • The Government of Bangladesh must cease all pressure on Rohingya refugees to repatriate and consider the possibility of providing options for local integration, with the financial support of international donors. 
 [1] Free Rohingya Campaign
[2] See, e.g.,The Plight of the Rohingya People of Arakan state of Myanmar
[3] The Rohingyas: A Short Account of their History and Culture, Arakan Historical Society (A.H.S), Bangladesh, June 2000. See also: Mohammed Ashraf Alam, Historical Background of Arakan, the SOUVENIR, Arakan Historical Society, Bangladesh, 1999; Moshe Yegar, The Muslims of Burma, A study of Minority groups, Wiesbaden, Otto Harrassowitz, 1972
[4] In the medieval works of poets of Arakan and Chittagong, e.g., Alaol, Qazi Daulat, Mardan, Shamsher Ali, Ainuddin, Abdul Ghani and others Ð Arakan is frequently referred as Roshang, Roshango Des and Roshango Shar.
[5] http://www.rohingya.org/summary.htm
[6] Mohammed Ashraf Alam, A short historical background of the Arakan people:  ; M.A. Taher Ba Tha, The Rohingyas and Kamans (in  Burmese), Published by United Rohingya National League, Myitkyina (Burma), 1963, P.6 Ð 7; Maung Than Lwin, Rakhine Kala or Rohingya, The Mya Wadi Magazine, issue July 1960, PP.72-73; N.M Habibullah, Rohingya Jatir Itihas (History of the Rohingyas), Bangladesh Co-Operative Book Society Ltd., Dhaka, 1995, PP.32-33.
[7] R.B. Smart, Burma Gazetteer Ð Akyab District, Vol. A, Rangoon, 1957, P.19.
[8] British-Burma Gazetteers of 1879, page 16
[9] The essential History of Burma by U Kyi, P.160
[10] Op. Cit.
[11] Note the similarity of the word Magh with Mog, Gog and Magog Ð the Mongolian tribes (also known in history as Scythians). Others contend that the name Magh originated from the Magadha dynasty that was Buddhist by faith.
[12] Muslim Influence in Arakan and the Muslim Names of Arakanese kings: A Reassessment by Alamgir M. Serajuddin*(From Asiatic Soc. Bangladesh (Hum.), Vol. XXXI (I), June 1986.
[13] G.E. Harvey, The History of Burma, London (1928), pp. 142-4.
[14] During Sher Shah's rule, Chittagong was under his rule. At a later time, it became a zone of contention between Mughal and Arakanese rulers.
[15] Bengal-Arakan Relations (1430-1666 A.D.) by Mohammed Ali Chowdhury, Kolkata, Firma KLM Pvt. Ltd., 2004.
[16] Alam, op. cit.
[17] Mohammad Ashraf Alam, op. cit.
[18] Bangladesh District Gazetteers, P.63 See: http://www.rohingya.org/not_settler.htm
[19] Journal of Burma Research Society (JBRS) No.2. P.493. Historians disagree on whether or not the Arakanese rulers themselves became Muslims. (See: Bengal-Arakan Relations (1430-1666 A.D.) by Mohammed Ali Chowdhury. Kolkata, Firma KLM Pvt. Ltd., 2004; and http://www.rohingyatimes.i-p.com/history/history_maa.html)
[20] Serajuddin, A short historical background of the Arakan people op. cit.
[21] The Arakanese Maghs treacherously killed Shuja and his family members in 1661. (G.E. Harvey, Outline of Burmese History, Longmans, London (1947), pp. 95-6)
[22] Dr. Enamul Haq O Abdul Karim Shahitya Bisharad, Arakan Rajshabhay Bangla Shahitya, Calcutta, 1935, PP. 4-12.
[23] D.G.E. Hall, A History of South-East Asia, Third Edition 1968, the Macmillan Press Ltd., London, U.K.; G.E Harvey, Outline Burmese History, Longman, Gree & Co., Ltd., London, 1947; Nurul Islam, The Rohingya Muslims of Arakan: Their Past and Present Political Problems, THE MUSLIM MINORITIES, Proceedings of the Six International Conference of World Assembly of Muslim Youths (WAMY), Vol. I, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 1986.
[24] The SLORC Publication ' Thasana Yongwa Htoonkazepo' p.65.
[25] Burma News International
[26] Sultan Mahmud, Muslims in Arakan, The Nation, Rangoon, April 12, 1959.
[27] ibid.
[28] Genocide in Burma against the Muslims of Arakan, Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF), Arakan (Burma), April 11, 1978, PP.2 Ð 4; Dr. Mohammed Yunus, A History of Arakan Past and Present, 1994, PP.158 Ð 159.
[29] Dr. Shwe Lu Maung, Dr. Aye Chan, U Mra Wa, Dr. Khin Maung ( NUPA), and Major Tun Kyaw Oo (president of the Amyothar Party) recognize the Rohingyas birth rights as well as genuine citizenship. Even Dr. Than Tun, rector of Mandalay University and former professor of history, Rangoon University makes strong recommendations on Rohingyas as ethnic group and bonafide citizen of Arakan. (Ref: http://www.ibiblio.org/obl/docs3/BNI2005-03-08.htm)

Dr. Habib Siddiqui lives in suburban Philadelphia, PA, and is the author of the book Islamic Wisdom. He can be reached at saeva@aol.com