The Rohingya of Arakan: Homeless and Stateless

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By 2017-09-26


The world as it stands is a place of perpetual pain and suffering. It has always been at war, and very rarely have any of these wars actually ended. Sri Lanka was at war for nearly three decades, and it took a comprehensive effort to defeat terrorism in Sri Lanka.

However, wars around the world are rising disproportionately in comparison to the rate at which wars end. In the yesteryears, we have seen the people of Palestine, Libya and Syria among many other countries suffer a gruesome fate and most recently, it has been the Rohingya of Arakan. Over half a million people have fled the State of Rakhine in Myanmar in fear of persecution since the beginning of this month. Several towns have been incinerated to dust, and the number of deaths caused remain unaccounted for.

Yet, the government refuses to recognize the Rohingya as citizens of Myanmar.

But why? How did the problem originate? Why is the government refusing to intervene? These are only a few questions among many in the minds of the people.

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya of Arakan are not a race or a tribe. They are a joinder of several tribes and races. They are descendants of Indians, Bengalis, Arabs, Persians and Afghans among others who entered the country at some point and married into the local Rohingya populace in the State of Arakan. The State of Arakan is now known as 'Rakhine.'

Due to the integration of many foreigners in the land, the origins of the Rohingya have been debated and disputed in recent times. While Rohingya scholars trace their history as far back as over a millennium, the Rakhine scholars have debated that the Rohingya population emerged from a rise in illegal immigrants after the British conquest in 1824.

Historical records have, however, indicated that a Muslim population had existed long before the British conquered the country in 1824. During the 7th and 8th century, Muslim traders from the Arab world had travelled to Arakan and married into the local populace. The religion of Islam was also spread by the traders to the locals, and the culture of Islam spread quite rampantly.

Over several decades, many people from surrounding regions also married into the local Muslim population, hence expanding the group. This particularly took place between the 15th and 17th century when the South Eastern part of Bengal was from time to time ruled by the State of Arakan or Rakhine.

Those who migrated and joined the Rohingya population after the British Conquest in 1924 were eventually indigenized as locals before the British left in 1948. The East India Company particularly facilitated the movement of people from other regions for the purpose of developing administration, agriculture and industries in the Arakan/Rakhine region. They settled on the Mayu-Kaladan river valleys and around the Mrauk-U area and adopted local customs and traditions as they blended in with the Rohingya. The Baxter Committee Report noted that in 1931, the Muslim population in the State of Arakan/Rakhine was 77% and concluded that the Rohingya were indigenous to the State of Arakan/Rakhine.

Through the 1947 Constitution, the Rohingya were given a 'National Registration Certificate' with full legal and voting rights and citizenship was granted on the condition they had lived in the territory for at least eight years uninterrupted. The Prime Minister of Myanmar in 1954, U Nu, had adjudicated that the Rohingya had equal status of nationality with Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Mon, Rakhine and Shan. The Rohingya also took to politics with nearly six Rohingya politicians becoming Parliamentarians between 1948 and 1961.

How did the problem originate?

After the annexation of Lower Burma in 1852, there was a massive influx of Indians in the Arakan/Rakhine region. After the annexation of Upper Burma in 1885, there was an even larger influx of people from all over India into the Arakan/Rakhine State, particularly from South India and the Bengali region. Most of them blended into the cultures and practices of the Rohingya. The increased influx created tensions between the people of Akyab, which is now 'Sittwe,' the current capital of Rakhine State, and the Rohingya Muslims.

This cultural conflict quickly became a religious conflict and the simmering tensions grew more and more prominent. It was particularly significant when the 'Burma for Burmese Only' movement ran riot in the 1930's. Riots blew out of proportion in almost all parts of Burma as the vastly Mongoloid Buddhist population began an insurgency against the vastly non-Mongoloid Rohingya population. The Rohingya comprised mostly Muslims and a minority of Hindus and other secularists.

The Japanese occupation of Burma between 1942 and 1945 during World War II left an even worse ethnic relationship between the communities. The Rohingya of Rakhine moved to the more densely Rohingya populated regions in the South of Rakhine, while the Mongoloid Buddhists populated Akyab. The two communities parted ways, but their ethnic differences were never resolved. Despite the prevalence of general peace, the animosity and ethnic rivalry between the communities grew to be permanent.

Escalation of the problem

The post-independence Burmese Army Campaign in November 1948, introduced the first refugee situation of Independent Burma with approximately 20,000 people taking refuge in East Pakistan. A Mujahid rebellion developed in the region, but lost momentum and broke apart by 1955. The more secular Rohingya leaders met Prime Minister of the time, U Nu, to halt the ongoing radicalization in the Mayu Frontier. U Nu tried to resolve matters using peaceful means.

The problem of illegal migrants entering Burma continued, and the Rakhines and Burmese believed that U Nu only conceded to the issue unwillingly. Despite reasonable efforts by U Nu, the crisis between the Rakhines and the Rohingya could not be settled.

The Socialist Constitution of 1974 created a certain classification of 'foreigners' and disentitled them to several services afforded by the State. Identification as a citizen required both parents to be classified as 'Nationals.' In the same year, the Head of State at the time, Ne Win, introduced the Emergency Immigration Act of 1974, which created an ethnicity based identity card system where the Rohingya were left out. They were classified as foreigners under the system.

Tensions intensified between the communities, and the people of Rakhine grew more and more aggressive against the Rohingya population, especially under the Ne Win regime between 1962 and 1981. This led to a large scale exodus of Rohingya into Bangladesh. In 1978, an exodus of roughly 200,000 people was seen, and the Citizenship Act of 1982 denied the citizenship rights of Rohingya people and classified them as 'foreigners.'

A further exodus of refugees amounting to over 250,000 refugees once again entered Bangladesh in 1991 and 1992. After increased pressure, Myanmar (formerly 'Burma' until 1989) agreed to the repatriation of all Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. They agreed to allow each of the returnees to return to their homes and recommence their livelihoods as members of the Myanmar society.

Myanmar had thus conceded to the fact that the Rohingya were indeed rightful citizens and not illegal migrants.

The discrimination continued through the 2008 Constitution of Myanmar which was introduced following a military coup. The Constitution held that 25% of the seats be allocated to members of the military, regardless of who won. It also prevented any person who has been previously convicted, or is married to a foreigner, from attaining higher power. The government would also have no control over the military, Police or any of the armed forces. As such, any attacks or violations of human rights by the armed forces could not be controlled by the government. It also deprived the Rohingya of their right to vote or to contest in an election.

However, the Rohingya continued to exercise their right to vote, and were considered eligible to vote in all national level and local government level elections until 2010. The Rohingya were completely disenfranchised by March 2015.

Post 2008 Constitution

Due to the prevailing Constitutional menace, the government was not able to control the crisis in the country. They had no capability of handling the armed forces that had repeatedly run riot on the premise of their racist tendencies. The 2008 Constitution had finally given the people some form of power to elect its representatives in proper democratic fashion, but the Constitution stillfailed to address core issues.

Since 2011, a new semi-civilian government took over as mandated by the Constitution. The popular political icon and 1991 Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party boycotted the 2010 elections which resulted in the victory of the military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. Her party, the National League for Democracy, was able to secure a landslide victory with 86% of the Assembly of the Union. However, Aung San Suu Kyi was prevented from becoming President due to a Constitutional limitation.

She took over as the State Counsellor, which is a role similar to a Prime Minister.

Her first task upon taking over as the State Counsellor was to release some of the students who had been politically victimized for opposing the National Education Bill and to create a Commission on the Rakhine State to investigate the perpetual persecution of the Rohingya.

Nonetheless, the Constitution allows the military to take over at any point that it feels there is undue interference from the government.

While steadily attempting to steer the government in the right direction, further ethnic conflicts emerged in the states of Shan and Kachin which Suu Kyi was not able to control. Thousands of people fled from the states to China. While Aung San Suu Kyi's attention was diverted to them, the situation in Rakhine escalated even further and the persecution of the Rohingya reached a pinnacle point where villages were pillaged and destroyed, people were raped and killed mercilessly and the human rights situation reached uncontrollable heights.

At a later interview, Aung San Suu Kyi denied allegations of ethnic cleansing in the Rakhine State and refused to grant citizenship to the Rohingya. Instead, she offered to hand out identity cards granting residency permits to the Rohingya.

Criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi

After Aung San Suu Kyi expressed her views on the matter, many people from around the world began calling for Aung San Suu Kyi's Nobel Prize to be revoked. The call was particularly in reference to her inaction relating to the Rohingya crisis. During the interview with BBC, Aung San Suu Kyi stated that violence had been committed by both sides, and therefore she could not take sides in order to resolve the crisis. Peter Popham, the interviewer, expressed that her stand was intentionally ambiguous in order to secure political mileage.

In May 2015, the Dalai Lama publicly pleaded with Aung San Suu Kyi to strive harder to resolve the Rohingya issue. However, the persecution of the Rohingya did not seem to be diminishing at any point since she took over. The escalation of the crisis continued into 2017 as Aung San Suu Kyi denied ethnic cleansing of any sort. The Queen Marie University of London even warned that Aung San Suu Kyi was legitimizing genocide against the Rohingya populace.

Aung San Suu Kyi has kept silent as best she could on the Rohingya crisis, and has refused to respond to allegations of ethnic cleansing.


It could be deduced that the lack of intervention by Aung San Suu Kyi is partly due to the impossibility emanating from the Constitutional limitations. However, if such were the case, then Aung San Suu Kyi has not expressed it openly. It is probably due to a fear of another military coup as the Constitution of 2008 mandates a military takeover in the event it is dissatisfied with governmental intervention in military matters.

Perhaps, Aung San Suu Kyi is silently playing a political game to regain control of military forces without losing her government before she could take any measure to prevent the atrocities of the military on the Rohingya. Perhaps, she too has got sucked into dirty politics where her mental scales now tilt towards her greed for power over the plight of an entire people. Perhaps, we will find out in time to come or perhaps we may never find out. Only time will tell.

Regardless, as the situation escalates further and further each day and as the cities burn to the ground, the Rohingya can no longer be patient until partial democracy slowly transitions into fully-fledged democracy.

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(The writer is a law tutor and an independent researcher of laws. He holds a postgraduate degree in the field of Human Rights and Democratization from the University of Colombo and an undergraduate degree in Law from the University of Northumbria, United Kingdom)




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