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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 7    Issue 15   16-31 December 2012

Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar – Victims of Xenophobia, Demonisation and Hatred

Minaret Research Network

Burma, now known as Myanmar, located in Southeast Asia, is one of the least developed countries in the world. The country’s population is ethnically diverse. There are 135 distinct ethnic groups. Buddhists comprise nearly 90 per cent of Myanmar’s population of 48 million. According to official figures, Muslims constitute about 4 per cent (2.27 million) of the population, but Myanmar’s Muslim organizations estimate that they comprise between 6 and 10 per cent of the population. There are 2.98 million Christians. Hindus constitute less than 1 per cent of the population. There are many minority groups in the country, including the Rakhine Buddhists, Rohingya Muslims, Shan, Lahu, Karen and Kachin. The Rakhine Buddhists, who see themselves as the inheritors of the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Mrauk U, are ethnically non-Burmese and are recognized by the government as a separate ethnic group.

Muslims in Myanmar

Muslim traders and travelers began arriving in Myanmar around the 9th century. The presence of Muslim settlements in the country is attested by the accounts of Arab, Persian, Chinese and European travelers and explorers. Some regions of the country were ruled by Muslim kings in the 13th century. A major landmark in the history of Islam in the country was the ascension of the Muslim king of Arakan, Narameikhla, in 1430 and the establishment of Mrohaung as his capital. King Narameikhla constructed a mosque in the capital city, which came to be known as Sandi Khan Mosque. Trade and learning flourished in the Muslim kingdoms and their cultural ethos reflected a blend of Islamic and Buddhist traditions. In the 17th century, the city of Mrauk U in the Arakan region, which was ruled by Muslim kings, was a flourishing hub of trade and commerce.

In later years, Arakan was ruled by kings who followed the Buddhist faith. However, they used Islamic titles and issued medallions which bore Islamic inscriptions. In 1660, Prince Shuja, a brother of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, fled to Arakan and took refuge there. He was killed by the Buddhist ruler of Arakan, Sandathudamma, but his companions and courtiers were employed in the royal army. Their descendants are still living in Burma and have maintained their distinctive cultural identity.

A turning point in the history of Burma was British colonial rule, which was established in the wake of the Anglo-Burmese Wars (1824-1885). Under British control, Burma became a province of India. When Arakan was conquered by the British in 1826, a large number of Muslims from the Chittagong region of what now constitutes Bangladesh migrated there. The majority of seafarers in the country had migrated from the Chatgam region in Bangladesh. In addition, Khoja Muslims and other trading communities from Gujarat migrated to Burma during the colonial period. The colonial government encouraged the entry of immigrant casual labourers and traders. Many Muslims were recruited in the administration and the police force and the community was fairly well represented in government service, banking and trade.

The Muslim population of Myanmar is ethnically and culturally heterogeneous. They comprise descendants of Arab, Persian, Turkish, Indian, Malay and Chinese Muslims who arrived in the country as merchants, travelers, soldiers, refugees and prisoners of wars at different points of time and many of them married local Burmese women. About a third of the population comprises the descendants of Persian and Arab traders and travellers who began arriving in the country from the 13th century onwards. They are largely concentrated in the Shwebo region and are fairly well integrated into mainstream society. Another third of the Muslim population consists of the descendants of Muslim immigrants from undivided India who arrived in the country during the colonial period. These Muslims have maintained strong links with the religious and cultural practices of their homeland.

Ethnic distinctions among the Muslims of Myanmar are widely known. There are clear demarcations, for example, among the Burmese-Chinese Muslims, who are known as Panthay, Muslims of Malay ancestry (who are locally known as Pashu) and Bengali-speaking Rohingya Muslims, who are pejoratively referred to as Kalars.

Burma’s Military Regime and its Dark Legacy

Burma was occupied by Japan in World War II and gained independence in 1948. General Ne Win seized power in a military coup in 1962. Military rule, which ended in 2011, was marked by widespread political repression and violation of human rights, torture of political prisoners, rampant use of sexual violence as an instrument of control, genocide and corruption. Myanmar has no independent judiciary. More than 2,100 political prisoners are languishing in jails. Burma has been ranked 180th out of 183 countries worldwide on the Corruption Perception Index.

Burma’s military junta is one of the world’s most repressive regimes. The United Nations and international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have consistently reported and documented hundreds of cases of systematic and willful violation of human rights. The European Union, United States and Canada have imposed economic sanctions on Burma on account of its gross and brazen violation of international law and human rights. Shortly after he assumed the reins of power, General Ne Win launched a policy of “Burmanisation” or “Mynmarisation” based on the preeminence and ascendancy of the ethnic Mynma population, ultranationalism and Buddhism. The military regime specially targeted non-Myanma ethnic minorities, such as Rohingya Muslims, Shan, Lahu, Karen and Kachin. There have been ongoing armed conflicts between the Kachin Independent Army and the government of Kachin State. The Rakhine Buddhists, who are among the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups in the country, complain of being persecuted by the Burmese majority.

Rohingya Muslims

The Rohingya Muslims, who number about 800,000, are among the poorest in the country and are largely concentrated in the coastal Rakhine state of western Myanmar. Most of them are of Bengali heritage who arrived in the country in the 19th century when Burma was a British colony. For more than five decades, the relations between the minority Rohingyas and the Buddhist majority have been marked by mistrust and hostility. There were violent clashes between the two groups in 1942, which left thousands dead. In 1947, some Rohingya leaders formed the Mujahid Party and demanded the creation of an autonomous region in northern Arakan. This move was deeply resented by Rahine Buddhists and the government. There were violent clashes between the Mujahid cadres and government troops until 1961.

The military regime launched Operation King Dragon in 1978 and unleashed a campaign of terror against the Rohingyas. They were attacked and terrorized by the security forces and the majority Buddhists and their houses torched. Large numbers of them were arrested on trumped-up charges. Their lands were confiscated and dozens of mosques were desecrated and destroyed. The orgy of violence led to the exodus of nearly 2500,000 Rohingyas to the neighbouring Bangladesh. Another wave of forced migration to Bangladesh came about in 1991 in the aftermath of Operation Pyi Thaya.

Burma’s military junta has systematically tried to dehumanize and de-ethnicise the Rohingya Muslims. They are prohibited from owning land or property and barred from leaving their villages or travelling without permission from the government. They are not permitted to construct or repair the existing mosques. They are not allowed to marry without official permission or to have more than two children. To cap it all, the 1982 Citizenship Law stripped the Rohingyas of citizenship and they were declared illegal foreigners. Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, told a visiting delegation from the United Nations that only those Muslims who have been living in the country for at least three generations would be considered eligible for citizenship. The rest, he said, are a “threat to the peace of the nation” and would be sent out of the country. The UN has rejected the idea.

Buddhist leaders call the Rohingya Muslims invaders, unwanted guests and “vipers in our lap.” They are demanding that Muslims who cannot prove their citizenship – who include the large majority of Rohingyas – should be put into camps and sent to any country which is willing to take them. The intolerance and hatred of the majority Buddhist population towards the Rohingyas is a far cry from the principles of Buddhism which emphasizes kindness and compassion and urges its followers to avoid causing harm to all living creatures.

The June 2012 Pogrom

In June 2012 all hell broke loose on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. Following reports of the rape of a Buddhist woman by a Rohingya man, rampaging Buddhist mobs attacked the Rohingyas from all sides, systematically burning every building, and were supported by the police and the army. Entire villages were wiped out and a number of mosques were raised to the ground. The violence left more than 700 Rohingyas dead and nearly 100,000 displaced. Amnesty International denounced the Burmese security forces as well as the majority Buddhist population for violent attacks on Rohingya Muslims, which were systematically carried out and were state-sponsored.

Commenting on the massacre, Amnesty International researcher Benjamin Zawacki said, “Most cases have meant targeted attacks on the minority Rohingya population and they were bearing the brunt of most of that communal violence in June and they continue to bear the lion’s share of the violence perpetrated by the state security forces”. Human Rights Watch said on November 18, 2012 that satellite imagery showed violence, arson and extensive destruction of Rohingya settlements in Arakan State in October 2012, which was carried out with the support of the state security forces and local government officials. Amnesty has called on Myanmar’s parliament to amend or repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law to ensure that Rohingyas are no longer stateless. The United Nations calls the Rohingya community as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.

Rohingya Refugees in Neighbouring Countries

Faced with growing hatred, persecution and violent attacks, hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and India. They are living – as unwanted guests -- in makeshift refugee camps under appalling living conditions. Bangladesh – where about 300,000 Rohingya have taken refuge -- has refused to allow them to settle in the country on a long-term basis, arguing that they are Burmese citizens and as such should be sent back to Myanmar. In Malaysia, Rohingya refugees have no legal status because the country has no law to protect refugees. Thailand has refused to give them refugee status.

Rohingya refugees have been arriving in India since April 2012 and their leaders are lobbying the Indian government, with the backing of some NGOs, for the grant of refugee status. Nearly 2,500 Rohingya refugees were living in a makeshift camp in southwest Delhi. They were evicted from the area as the local residents resented and protested against their presence. Many Rohingya refugees are living in Jammu and Kashmir, Hyderabad and Rajasthan.

The response of the international community to the plight of the Rohingya Muslims has been lukewarm. Myanmar has only recently begun a much-needed transition to democracy from four decades of authoritarian rule. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace laureate and a much-feted defender of democracy and human rights in her country, has been curiously circumspect about the persecution of Rohingyas. During her visit to India in November, she finally broke her silence and told an Indian news channel that the violence against the Rohingya Muslims was a “huge international tragedy” and that she would try her best to bring about a change in the situation. So far she has not done anything beyond expressing such pious words. Perhaps the fear of a backlash from the Buddhist majority population has restrained her from expressing her views or, being a politician that she is, she does not wish to be politically incorrect by raising uncomfortable questions about the plight of this hapless minority.

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