Friday, 29 May 2015

The Rohingyas - The forsaken people

Natasha Shahid in The Friday Times

Who are the Rohingya people and why does everyone disown them? Natasha Shahid attempts to answer these questions 

Outsiders in their own country

“The Rohingya come from Burma, but for many years have fled repression there to Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. […] Primarily because the Burmerse government denies them citizenship, most are stateless.” – David Mathieson,Perilous Plight: Burma’s Rohingya Take to the Seas

Of the approximately two million Rohingya alive today, 800,000 live in Burma, 200,000 in Bangladesh, 50,000 in Malaysia and around 500,000 live scattered over the Middle East, where they went looking for work. But can the Rohingya call any of these countries their home? Their treatment by the two proposed countries of their origin – Burma and Bangladesh – does not suggest so: while one has a majority tied up in refugee camps, the other is bent upon killing them to the last man. What did the Rohingya do to deserve this fate?

Rakhine, the state where most of the Rohingya community is settled

History of the Rohingya People

The origins of the Rohingya people are disputed. Followers of Islam and belonging to the Indo-Aryan stock, they themselves say that they are natives of Rakhine, the south-western Burmese state which shares its northern border with Bangladesh. Others suggest that they are of Bengali origins, and that their language is a derivative of the Bengali language. Alistair D. B. Cook suggests that their movement originated in the Middle East, and brought them to Rakhine after crossing the rest of South Asia.

Whatever their origins, most scholars agree that the Rohingya have been residents of Burma since around the 15th century AD. Archaeological evidence reportedly suggests that the Rohingya have lived in the country since the times of the Kingdom of Mrauk U (1425 AD – 1785 AD). And yet the Burmese government insists that they are not one of their “historical ethnic groups”: the major reason behind their persecution at the hands of the Burmese authorities.

One of the many boats floating on the Indian Ocean, with no country willing to let it anchor

What did the Rohingya do to deserve this fate?

Under British rule, Bengalis were encouraged to repopulate the fertile region of Arakan (now Rakhine), and the boundaries between Bengal and Arakan were removed. So, in all practicality, Bengal and Arakan became a single state making it easier for the Bengali people – who were majority Muslims – to travel to and from Arakan. This migratory trend resumed at the time of the Bangladesh Liberation Movement in 1971, when many Bengalis fled their country and settled in Arakan, instead. The Burmese government insists that most of the people who form the Rohingya community today belong to this stock: another reason behind their attempts to expel the community from the country.

During the Second World War, Japan successfully captured Burma but the British fought the Japanese invading forces on Burmese soil. After the Japanese were ousted, Burma’s Rohingya formed a political party – Arakan Muslim League – which started a political movement to be absorbed into East Pakistan at the time of the Partition of India. The party sent a request to Mohammad Ali Jinnah, himself, in May 1946 to include Arakan in his partition plan. Jinnah turned the request down, replying that he could not intrude in Burmese affairs.

Apparently Jinnah’s rejection led the Rohingya to abandon their political cause, not seeing any use in pursuing it. They decided to take up arms, instead. The target of this armed movement, termed by the Rohingya as a jihad, was at first the separation of the Mayu region in the north of Arakan – where most of their population resided – and its annexation with East Pakistan. When the Burmese government refused to cater to these demands, the Rohingya mujahideen declared jihad on their own government. There was a time when these armed rebels controlled almost all of northern Arakan, forcing the non-Rohingya inhabitants of the state to flee their homes.

This jihadist movement continued for about a decade before the Rohingya rebels finally laid arms between 1957 and 1961, primarily as a result of a military operation initiated to crush the uprising. This is when the displacement of the Rohingya began, which continues to this day.

Another abandoned boat

The Rohingya’s Current Status

After being crushed by the Burmese government in the 1960s, the Rohingya rebellion re-immerged at the time of the East Pakistani separatist movement. At the moment, it is believed to be receiving aid from Islamic terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Tehrik-i-Taliban, and even from some countries, including Pakistan.

The recently accelerated attempts of the Burmese government at the genocide and expulsion of the Rohingya people has brought the country into the international spotlight – for all the wrong reasons. The persecution of the Rohingya, especially under the nationalist, pan-Buddhist military rule (1962-2011) has had terrible repercussions for the community. General Ne Win, the first military ruler of Burma who assumed control of the country in 1962, expelled Muslims – all Muslims, not just the Rohingya – from the army, and in 1982, under a new citizenship law, the Rohingya were declared as non-nationals.

It didn’t stop with the government: Burma’s citizens – mostly Theravada Buddhists – had an equal share in victimizing the Rohingya people. It was the Buddhist monks who initiated an anti-Muslim movement in 2001, in which pamphlets like Myo Pyauk Hmar Soe Kyauk Sa Yar (“The Fear of Losing One’s Race”) were distributed in the common public. In the same year, 200 Muslims were killed and 11 mosques were burnt down by common Burmese citizens. It is said that this movement was in retaliation to the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in March, 2001 by the Taliban. The claim is very likely true, as the Burmese government brought down two mosques – Han Tha Mosque and Taungoo Railway Station Mosque – on the demands of angry Buddhist monks, who wanted to “avenge” the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

Clearly Muslims aren’t the only ones who are over-sensitive about their religion.

Since 2012, there have been repeated anti-Muslim riots in Rakhine and elsewhere in Burma that have claimed the lives of hundreds of Muslims. An anti-Muslim riot can be sparked in Burma for a reason as little as a Facebook photograph, or for no reason at all – it’s like a haystack simply waiting to catch fire.

Verbal abuse: a member of the Burmese bureaucracy once termed the Rohingya “ugly as ogres”


With the state of their lives in Burma, the Rohingya Muslims have no option but to leave their home country – if they can call it that. But where would they go? At the moment, they don’t seem to care. The Rohingya are fleeing Rakhine by the boatful whenever they can, even though they know their journeys do not have any destination. Many have fled to Bangladesh, where they are being kept in refugee camps. Many have managed to make it to the Middle East and Japan, while some have even reportedly made it to Karachi. These are the lucky ones.

The unlucky ones? They are stranded mid-sea with nowhere to go. We can only imagine what the state of their lives in their native country must have been for them to rather float endlessly in the middle of salty waters with no food to eat and no water to drink.

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