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A historical overview of the Rohingya crisis

  • Published at 02:09 pm July 27th, 2019
A gigantic challenge for Bangladesh Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

Rohingya Muslims have inhabited Rakhine for centuries

The Rohingya were the Muslim inhabitants of the medieval land of Arakan, a majority of whom have now taken shelter in Bangladesh after being forced to flee Myanmar. The Myanmar province of Arakan, renamed as Rakhine in 1974, is located in the northwestern region of that country beside the southeastern border of Bangladesh.

According to recent figures, the territory of Arakan has an area of around 36,762 square kilometres with its capital at Sittwe, and contains a population of over 4 million. The Rohingya constitute around 35% of the province’s current population, and the rest are mostly Buddhists.

Neither the Myanmar government nor the Rakhine province’s dominant Buddhist group “Rakhines” recognize the label “Rohingya” that surfaced mainly in the 1950s in order to provide the ethnic community with a collective political identity. Although the etymological root of the word is disputed, the most widely accepted theory is that Rohang derives from the word “Arakan” in the Rohingya dialect, and “ga” or “gya” means “from.”

By identifying as Rohingya, the ethnic minority group asserts its ties to a land that was once a part of the medieval Arakan Kingdom. The exploits of the Bengal-origin poet Alaol (1607-73, composer of Padmavati) in the royal court of Arakan is quite well-known.

The Rohingya community is believed to have originated during early 9th century, when some Arab and Persian traders of Islamic faith found shelter in Arakan after their ship sank near the island of Ramree.

The Englishman RB Smart had written in the Burma Gazetteer (1917): “The local histories relate, in the ninth century, several ships were wrecked on Ramree Island and the Mussalman crews were sent to Arakan and placed in villages there. They differed but little from the Arakanese except in their religion and in the social customs which their religion directed; in the writing they used Burmese, but amongst themselves employed colloquially the language of their ancestors.”

Based on a number of documents, Professor Mohammad Ali Chowdhury of Chattogram University has claimed (1996): “It was a long established custom that foreign residents and even visitors to Burma and Arakan, either by shipwreck or for commercial reasons, were encouraged to form matrimonial alliances with the women of the country, but on strict understanding that when they left the country, their wives and children might not be taken away with them.

“Later, Muslim soldiers, traders, fortune-seekers, slaves etc from Bengal and other regions of India started to live permanently in Arakan in significant numbers. The Muslim population also continued to increase through inter-marriages with the locals.”

Therefore it is quite clear that Bangladesh and the present-day Rakhine state of Myanmar have had a long history of social and cultural interactions, and the main reasons for this have been geographical contiguity as well as historical entanglements. Chittagong was under Arakanese occupation from 1550 to 1666, and Tripura was also its protectorate during the 16th century. During this period, the Arakanese “Maghs” as well as Portuguese “Harmads” or “Firingis” used to conduct joint piracy raids for carrying out lootings and abductions in different regions of Bengal, especially in the coastal districts, which severely disrupted the socio-economic lives of the Bangali population.

Even European traders were not spared from these attacks. The Mughal Subedar of Bangla Shaista Khan, however, captured Chittagong from the Arakanese in 1666, and then incorporated it in the Mughal Empire.

 In 1760, the British East India Company received the right to extract revenue in the territories of Chittagong, Medinipur, Bardhaman etc from the Nawab Mir Qasim, and the company then strove to exert its influence in the region.

As sporadic attacks by the Maghs hindered their effort, the company tried to improve its relations with the Kingdom of Arakan. The company officials also adopted a policy of sanctioning Arakanese settlements on the southern coast of Chittagong with the objective of obstructing the Maghs as well as cultivating the southern territories. But the relations between the two parties could not develop much due to the anarchy and disorder prevailing in Arakan. In this backdrop, the Burmese King Bodawpaya captured Arakan by removing the then King Thamada in 1785, and incorporated it as a province of Myanmar.

Between 1785 and 1794, over two-thirds of the Arakanese population including Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist Maghs fled Arakan for saving their lives due to tortures and repression perpetrated by the Burmese king.

They mostly took shelter in the present-day Cox’s Bazar and Bandarban districts. This long history and tradition of the Arakanese people taking shelter in Chittagong after being driven out by the brutal Burmese troops in Arakan has continued till today.

Between 1797 and 1798, as many as 40 thousand Arakanese refugees arrived in Chittagong. Captain Hiram Cox was appointed as a commissioner and superintendent by the British rulers to rehabilitate these refugees. He allowed the refugees to settle in various parts of Chittagong as well as the hill tracts. The district of Cox’s Bazar still bears the name of this outstanding British diplomat.

The British East India Company tried to increase their revenue and output by settling the Arakanese refugees, mainly Buddhist Rakhines, in uncultivated lands of Chittagong, Bandarban, Barisal, Patuakhali, etc. They gradually became part of the Bangladeshi ethos despite their distinct cultural origin.

The plight of Arakanese Refugees improved after the regions of Arakan and Tenaserim came under British rule as per the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826 following the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26). The lower territories of Myanmar came under the control of British East India Company after the Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852-53). And the whole of Myanmar came under British rule at the end of the Third Anglo-Burmese War (1885-87). These political developments had a massive impact on the flow of population and migration in the region.

The British framed supportive laws under which they rehabilitated many people from Chittagong in Arakan by distributing fallow lands. The refugees were also allowed to return voluntarily to Arakan, but the British extended some benefits to them for encouraging their return.

Due to the opportunities created by the British for engaging in unhindered trade and commerce all over the British-controlled territories, a large segment of the Arakanese population living in Chittagong then started doing business in Arakan. Besides, in the backdrop of severe unemployment and economic difficulties faced by the Chittagong region, better facilities and higher wages in Arakan also motivated the refugees to go back to their own land.

Following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, commercial production of paddy became feasible and was taken up in right earnest in Myanmar because of its high profitability. Mass migration of people from Bengal to Burma commenced after that from the 1880s, which was mostly spontaneous and partly encouraged by the British Indian government.

The latter encouraged free movement of workers in order to bring the fallow lands under paddy cultivation, reduce population pressure in Bengal and solve its unemployment problem. The workers were tempted to migrate because of higher wages in Arakan as well as the possibility of getting official land-grants.

The situation, however, started to deteriorate during the Second World War (1939-45), when the British troops withdrew following the occupation of Burma by Japanese military. During this interregnum, the communal Maghs started killing Rohingya and expelling them to Bengal.

There were then horrendous communal riots between the Buddhist Maghs and the Muslim Rohingya in the northern parts of Arakan, when Arakan virtually got divided into two communities based on religion. Under the circumstances, the Rohingya supported the British and carried out activities in their favour. The British also promised the Rohingya a separate homeland by adopting a “Divide and Rule Policy.”

Many Rohingya fought on the sides of the British and served as spies against the Japanese occupiers. When this linkage was discovered, the Japanese military along with the Burmese nationalist forces entered Arakan in 1942 and carried out widespread killings, which is also known as the “1942 massacre” or “genocide.”

At this juncture, about 100 thousand Rohingya were killed and 500 thousand took refuge in the British-controlled India including Chittagong, as well as in Malay, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Since 1942, around 1.2 million Rohingya have taken shelter in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Southeast Asia, Saudi Arabia, and the countries in the Persian Gulf region in order to save their lives from incessant tortures and repression in Arakan.

British rule in Burma was restored at the end of Second World War. But the British did not keep their pledge of creating a separate homeland for the Rohingya. Even the founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah betrayed their cause when he declined to incorporate northern Arakan in the new state after being approached by the Rohingya Muslim League leaders in 1947.

Following the independence of Burma from British Raj in January 1948, the government under Prime Minister U Nu constituted the Burma Territorial Force (BTF) with the inclusion of 99% Magh troops. They unleashed a reign of terror in the north of Arakan. Muslim men, women, and children were mowed down in hundreds by machine gun fire. Hundreds of intellectuals, village elders, and religious leaders were killed like dogs and rats.

Almost all Muslim villages were razed to the ground. The BTF massacre triggered a refugee exodus into the then East Pakistan, and they numbered over 50,000.

After the military takeover in Burma by General Ne Win in 1962, all constitutional rights of the Rohingya including their citizenship were rescinded. During the eviction drive that followed, around 20,000 Rohingya escaped to Cox’s Bazar by crossing the border. The Burmese regime, however, took back the refugees after talks with the Pakistani government. In 1964, numerous Rohingya socio-cultural organizations were banned by the military junta.

The programs broadcast in Rohingya language by the Burma Broadcasting Service (BBS) were stopped from October 1965. All private newspapers were also banned from 1966. There was another Rohingya exodus from Arakan to Cox’s Bazar after the Burmese military officers raped Rohingya women and encouraged the Maghs to attack the Rohingya in 1966.  

Following the independence of Bangladesh, a large number of Rohingya again fled to the country in 1973 and 1974 in the face of renewed persecution by the Maghs. When the Bangladesh government warned of dire consequences, the Burmese regime was compelled to take back the refugees and rehabilitate them in their Arakan homes.

But within a few years, the military junta of Yangon launched the operation “Naga Min” or “King Dragon” in 1978. Over 10,000 Rohingya were killed during this operation and about 250,000 refugees fled to Bangladesh. Around 40,000 Rohingya women, children, and elderly people perished during the journey.

The refugees were sheltered in 13 refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar and Bandarban as well as in some outer areas. However, the Burmese regime again took back these refugees under a program titled “Operation Golden Eagle” following an agreement signed with the Bangladesh government in 1979.  

Myanmar’s military junta once again targeted the Rohingya in 1990 after the junta’s rejection of the country’s parliamentary polls results in 1989. As a result, 270,000 Rohingya refugees were again forced to flee Myanmar during 1991-92. Although a bilateral agreement was signed by the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar on April 28, 1992 for the return of the refugees, the repatriation progressed only at a snail’s pace. There were additional Rohingya influxes during 1996-97, and the repatriation process was almost halted from 2005 onwards.

Meanwhile, riots again broke out in the Rakhine state between the Rohingya Muslims and the Buddhist Rakhines in June 2012. As a result, 200 Rohingya were killed and over 110,000 refugees fled to Bangladesh. There were similar inhuman tortures on the Rohingya community in 2016 as well.

Then following the killing of 12 Myanmar security personnel by the Rohingya rebels on August 25, 2017, the military launched the “clearance operations” against the Rohingya. About 10,000 Rohingya were allegedly killed by the Myanmar troops during this operation, and many among them were wounded or became victims of tortures and rape.

Over 300 villages were burned to ashes, and around 700,000 refugees were forced to flee and take shelter in Bangladesh. Although a bilateral agreement was signed by the Myanmar and Bangladesh governments for repatriation of the refugees on November 2017, there has been virtually no progress on the issue till today. This has created a problem of huge proportions unprecedented in the history of Bangladesh.

The Myanmar government refuses to grant citizenship to the Rohingya, as a result of which most of them now have no legal documentation, effectively making them stateless. Myanmar’s 1948 citizenship law was already exclusionary, but the military junta seizing power in 1962 introduced another law that blocked the Rohingya’s access to full citizenship.

Until recently, the Rohingya were able to register as temporary residents with identification cards, known as “white cards,” which the junta began issuing to Muslims during the 1990s. The white cards granted limited rights but were not recognized as proof of citizenship, and only allowed temporary stay of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

The Myanmar government organized an UN-backed national census in 2014, where the ethnic minority group was initially permitted to identify themselves as Rohingya. But later the authorities ordered the Rohingya to register by identifying themselves as “Bengali” after the Buddhist nationalists threatened to boycott the census. Again coming under pressure from the Buddhist nationalists who protested the Rohingya’s right to vote in a 2015 constitutional referendum, the then President Thein Sein cancelled the temporary identity cards (white cards) in February 2015, thereby revoking their right to vote.

The Bangladesh foreign minister visited the Rakhine state in August 2018, where he inspected the progress in building shelters and houses for the Rohingya. But the issue of granting Myanmar citizenship to the Rohingya, which is essential for ensuring their secure and dignified existence there, has remained elusive.

Under the circumstances, the Rohingya would naturally be disinterested to return voluntarily. In fact, it appears that the initiatives taken and the assurances given by Myanmar have been mere eyewashes. Apparently, Myanmar has been applying this technique in order to protect itself from outside pressures including international embargos.

Many countries, agencies, and human rights organizations have termed as “genocide” and

“ethnic cleansing” the crimes committed by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya population in Rakhine. But ironically, the international community is yet to take any effective steps against these crimes against humanity.

The global community and donor agencies have certainly come forward with humanitarian assistances. But it is not possible for a populous and resource-poor country like Bangladesh to bear the brunt of 1 million refugees for an indefinite period. The country has no other option now but to generate global public opinion in favour of the return of refugees with recognition of their citizenship and assurance of a safe future, as well as trial of the inhuman acts committed against them. The global community also cannot forsake its responsibility in this regard.

In the above backdrop, about 1 million Rohingya refugees continue to live in Bangladesh, mostly in Cox’s Bazar, posing a gigantic challenge for the country’s economy and society. The Bangladesh government, however, has been facing the crisis quite courageously and the matter has now reached even the International Criminal Court.

Although various countries and agencies from the Western world, the United Nations, European Union, and the Commonwealth have stood beside Bangladesh on the Rohingya issue, Bangladesh faces an embarrassing situation as the regional powers like India, China, and Japan maintain their tacit support for Myanmar due to geo-political and strategic reasons.

A swift resolution of the repeated persecutions, expulsions, and statelessness of the Rohingya Muslims requires empathetic attention and urgent action of the global community.

If ethnic communities including the Maghs or Rakhines can live in peace and harmony in Bangladesh with all constitutional and citizenship rights, then why cannot it be so in case of the Rohingya in Myanmar?

It is high time that Myanmar and its people come to terms with the historical reality of the existence of Rohingya Muslims in the Arakan or Rakhine state for centuries. Only then can one expect an honourable solution to this centuries-old problem. l

Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editorial Consultant of The Financial Express. He can be reached at [email protected].

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