The Rohingya people: In search of Livelihood and Nationality

The Myanmar government insists they are not citizens

The Rohingya people, largely belong to the Indo- Aryan ethnic group, having a total population of 1,547,778,and  are mainly inhabitants of present Rakhine State, earlier known as  Arakan in history, a coastal country in Southeast Asia, and are scattered in about 20 countries including the USA, China, Australia, Japan, Canada, Sri Lanka, Finland, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia  and many more countries of Asia surrounding Myanmar. They are followers of three contemporary religions-Islam (Sunni), Sufism and about  2.5% are Hindu.

The Rohingya of Myanmar claim that are indigenous with a historical and cultural heritage of over a millennium and influence from Arabs, Mughals and Portuguese continuing from precolonial and colonial periods when Arakan was an independent kingdom between Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, while the Myanmar government considers them as colonial and post-colonial migrants coming from neighbouring Chittagong/East Bengal, now Bangladesh. During the British colonisation of Burma, now Myanmar, between 1837-1937 migration of labourers from India and Bangladesh to Myanmar was significant and Human Rights Watch also admits that this kind of migration was considered an internal movement because under British administration Burma was also a province of India, although even at that time local population did not like it.

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After Independence in 1948 from the British, the Government of Myanmar declared their migration illegal and in place of Rohingya, the government accepted Kaman as the distinct pre-colonial Muslim as original residents of the country. Even the government does not recognise the term Rohingya and prefers to use the word ‘Bengali’for the community. According to government the Rohingya having mixed their history with Kaman Muslim and with the help of human rights organisations push their separatist agenda and demand right to self-determination within Myanmar and here lies the socio-political and legal aspect of the entire problem.

As a result of this inherited perception about the Rohingya of Rakhine State, their position became very weak, socially, politically and legally, in independent Myanmar and gradually they began to be treated as a deprived lot, separated from government facilities and concessions. Most of the evidences testify that as there was no international boundary between the Bengal Presidency and the Arakan valley of Myanmar, the British East India Company encouraged a large number of people to migrate into the then lightly populated and fertile land of Arakan primarily to work as labour in paddy fields. The migration of people did not remain limited to the Arakan but extended to almost the whole of Myanmar, and the largest cities in particular, continued to be a hub for migrants from British India between 1885-1937 and Burmese rule felt helpless. It however, gave birth to a feeling of superiority and racism, and extended to resentment as exhibited in social tension and inter-ethnic clashes after the country became free.

Military rule, which lasted till 2011, continued with a mix of Burmese nationalism and Theravada Buddhism and discrimination against Rohingyas. The same theme continued after 2012 but took an ugly and violent form from 2016-2017 which resulted in mass killings having tacit support of the government of the day. All surveys and reports conducted in this phase confirmed its genocidal nature and it was condemned by countries of the world at large.

Even earlier in the 1930s and 1940s Myanmar witnessed several struggles against the Indian Muslims living in the country but it became more frequent and repressive as well after 1962 when a Military Junta took over, nd treatment of Rohingya became both visible and discriminatory. Now, the new military dictator initiated implementing a Nationalist agenda which had its roots in racial discrimination and further the 1978 operation Nagamin to separate nationals from non-nationals.

These steps of the government followed large scale violence that forced more than 200,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh, where they faced a number of difficulties including starvation leading to the death of about 12,000 of them, but after bilateral negotiations they were repatriated. In a nutshell, the military junta in 1962 proved a disaster for Rohingya, for apart from launching a nationalist agenda also ended Burma’s Westminster- type political system.

Before the takeover, when Westminster system was in practice, it was hoped the country would find a solution because the Rohingya became politically conscious after taking part in general elections in 1951, 1956 and 1960 and in every term Rohingyas were represented/elected for the Parliament of Burma and a discussion was active in the higher political circle that the Rohingya-majority northern Arakan would either remain under the central government or be made a province where more than 40 percent Rohingya lived. But these positive developments and political participations by the Rohingya were falsified when under the Citizenship Act of 1982 this community was excluded, as they were not included in the list of the country’s 135 ethnic groups. The passed laws established three levels of citizenship-the most basic level, naturalization, and requiring proof of family living in Myanmar prior to 1948. Although the Rohingya community of Burma were eligible for apply in two categories, they had no any documents to show as a proof and General Ne Win, who drafted the Citizenship Act, used as a basis a survey conducted by the British in 1824 in which the name of Rohingya was not included, and this is why they were denied citizenship right. However, their name was included in earlier surveys, but this single survey was made basis of this decision.

Thus, the new Citizenship Act indicated the intent of the State to both remove the Rohingya permanently from their homeland or to destroy the community as a group. Further developments led to the change of country’s name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989 followed by the name change of province Arakan to Rakhine State in 1990s. It intensified the earlier struggle between the Rohingya and the Buddhists.

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From the 1990s the forms of the Rohingya struggle change and now it was characterized by lobbying international overseas diaspora, establishing indigenous claims and highlighting the term Rohingya in place of the documents of Bengali origin but these steps were largely criticized from ethnic Rakhines and Kamans and considered it a movement for achieving a self-administered area or a separate Islamic State. Military rule, which lasted till 2011, continued with a mix of Burmese nationalism and Theravada Buddhism and discrimination against Rohingyas. The same theme continued after 2012 but took an ugly and violent form from 2016-2017 which resulted in mass killings having tacit support of the government of the day. All surveys and reports conducted in this phase confirmed its genocidal nature and it was condemned by countries of the world at large.

Dr Rajkumar Singh
The writer is head of the political science department of the B.N.Mandal University, Madhepura, Bihar, India and can be reached at [email protected]

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