The Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar are the most persecuted of all the ethnic, racial and religious minorities on the planet. This is not new in the history of Myanmar. This happened in 1978-79 and 1991-92. As a result, a large number of refugees have taken shelter in Bangladesh.
On June 3, 2012, at least 21 people were killed and more than 1,600 homes were torched in rioting between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and stateless Rohingya Muslims in coastal Rakhine state in one of the worst incidents of sectarian unrest recorded in Myanmar. It was unclear what fueled the riot. It was reported that tension increased after the gang rape and murder of a Buddhist woman for which Muslims were intentionally blamed. This led to the killing of Muslims on June 3.
Again in early October this year, three police posts along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border were attacked and nine police officers were killed. In a statement, President Htin Kyaw blamed Rohingya Muslims for the attack which fueled genocide in Myanmar. Military troops with attack helicopters were recently sent to Rakhine. The troops have since been accused of killing innocent people, raping hapless women and looting the houses of Rohingyas. It is being called the worst episode of government brutality in this decade. To make things worse, local Buddhist extremist attackers have burned entire Rohingya neighborhoods, butchering the populace with knives, sticks and machetes.
It is surprising that Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi whose political party the National League for Democracy (NLD) rode to power in elections in November, 2015 has remained largely silent on the issue, with her administration rejecting claims of military abuse.
More than 800,000 Rohigyas live in Myanmar. Inside Myanmar they have no formal status, and they face the constant threat of violence from paramilitary groups egged on by nationalist Buddhist monks while security forces look the other way.
The Myanmar government considers Rohingyas (often described as “terrorists” in the state media) to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. As far as ethnic minorities are concerned, Rohingya Muslims face intense ethnic and religious persecution in Myanmar. It is the Citizenship Law (1982) which basically relegates the Rohyngya to non-citizen status. As a result, they are not officially regarded as a part of the at least 135 accepted minorities in Myanmar.
According to the law, the descendants of the people or group living in Myanmar (erstwhile Burma) before the Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) are now considered citizens of Myanmar. The Citizenship Law (1982) was the deliberate policy on the part of the former military junta of Myanmar to denationalize Rohingya Muslims. As a result of the ongoing oppression, suppression and attacks, Rohingyas have been forced to leave Myanmar and take shelter in the southern parts of Bangladesh especially in Teknaf and Ukhia. At present in Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims are denied their rights: the right to own property, the right to higher education and the right to vote. They are even denied their basic human right to live with dignity.
The government of Myanmar claims that Rohingya Muslims are not natives of Myanmar. However, if we shed light on the history of Arakan, we find that the Rohingya played a glorious role in establishing the great Arakan Empire. They have been living in Rakhine state (Arakan) for a long time. They are descendants of those who settled in Arakan 1,000 years ago. They have a language, established religion and a rich cultural heritage of great poets and writers.
If we study the history of the Muslim settlers in Arakan, we find that there are at least four phases starting in the 9th century and continued to the 17th century. It is evident that the first Muslim settlers in Arakan or Rakhine state were Arabs.
In 1917, R. B. Smart wrote in the British Burma Gazette, “The local histories relate that in the 9th century several ships were wrecked on Rumree Island and the Mussalman crews were sent to Arakan and placed in villages there. They differ but little from the Arakanese except in their religion and in the social customs which their religion directs, in the writing they use Burmese, amongst themselves employ colloquially the language of their ancestors.”
This is remarkable evidence regarding the origin of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Those shipwrecked “Mussalman crews” were the ancestors of the present Rohingya Muslims. They have retained the original religion of their ancestors but use a peculiar language consisting of Arabic, Chittagonian and Burmese words. Later many Muslims from Arabia, Persia and other countries came to Arakan for trading
There was another group of Muslims who entered Arakan. They were the unfortunate Muslim people of coastal areas kidnapped by Arakan pirates who carried them off in large numbers to employ them in tilling soil and developing agriculture. So these captives helped to increase the Muslim population of Arakan.
Therefore, it is clear that Muslims began arriving in Arakan in large numbers and on different occasions 1,000 years ago. Rohingya Muslims are the descendants of the Muslims including the shipwrecked “Mussalman crews” and Muslims captured by pirates. As the number of Muslims increased, they exercised power in local administration. They occupied many government offices and posts of ministers and judges. It should be mentioned that as many as three prime ministers, three defense ministers and two ministers have been Muslims.
It is clear from the historical evidence that Rohingya Muslims are natives of Myanmar (erstwhile Burma) with a rich religious, literary and cultural heritage. Even according to the Citizenship Law, they can never be considered to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Notwithstanding that, they are now deprived of their basic human rights in Myanmar and unwelcome in neighboring countries.
International communities and United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees (UNHCR) are urging Bangladesh to give shelter to those Rohingya Muslims who have been driven away from their homeland. Bangladesh can help stateless Muslims on the grounds of humanity. But Bangladesh is reluctant to take the responsibility of providing food, shelter and security to such a large number of refugees who may never return to their homeland. In 2012, The Daily Sun wrote: “The general sentiment of registered Rohingya refugees is against their repatriation to Myanmar right now, which is really a matter of concern as the symptoms are not positive.”
Thousands of Rohingya Muslims have obtained national ID cards and even passports from the Bangladesh government through an illegal process and corruption. Many of them now reside in the Middle East and some of them have degraded the reputation of Bangladesh by committing various crimes.
The fundamental problem lies with the government of Myanmar and the ruling party leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi who could play a vital role in mitigating the bloody sectarian violence against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.
Moreover, all neighboring countries must contribute to and deal with the refugee operation. If the problem is not addressed internationally, these stateless refugees may eventually form extremist, fundamentalist and separatist groups which may have a negative effect on the South Asian region.
Mohammad Jamir Haider Babla