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The Rohingya: partners in building a new Myanmar

By Wakar Uddin
January 13, 2014

Myanmar is uniquely rich with an array of cultures, traditions and linguistic attributes. While diversity can be one of this country’s strengths, it has also sowed the seeds of discord for too long. Instead of helping Myanmar become a leader in Asia, it has held the country back, stifling development and creating chronic insecurity for its people.

A Rohingya man sits in a mosque in Sittwe township shortly after it was damaged by a Buddhist mob in October 2012. Photo: Kaung Htet
The precise identity and the composition of ethnic minorities in Myanmar have always been quite vague and often arbitrary. Although the government has officially put the number of ethnic minority groups at 135, many have challenged this number and the official list of categories. Some claim they have been left off the list; others say there are too many categories.

The citizenship of one particular ethnic group, the Rohingya – of which I am a member – has been a deeply polarising issue in this country for years. The Rohingya had been recognised in the 1950s. However, the military regime of General Ne Win revoked our citizenship over time after he seized power in 1962. Despite the indigeneity of Rohingya people in Rakhine for several centuries, the question often raised by scholars, analysts, human rights advocates, media, and others is why the citizenship of this population in Rakhine was revoked.

The answer to this question must take into account some basic underlying factors, including race and religion, cultural and social attributes, political manipulation, and the rise of local nationalisms in Myanmar. Such factors have put Rakhine State on a collision course over a period of five decades, causing divisions that affect the peaceful coexistence and advancement of people living in the state.

Despite some possible discontent among Rakhine people, it is reasonable to think that all people, including Rohingya and Rakhine people, would prefer a peaceful life over a violent life with no security. The first question now may be what is causing such an undesired rift between the people living in the state. Clearly one fundamental problem is the lack of rule of law, resulting in a failure to provide adequate security forces that operate fairly and equitably.

Both sides have committed violence against the other. No matter who commits the act and who is considered the primary victim, no such violence should be tolerated. When an incident occurs, the alleged perpetrators should be arrested and charged, and accorded due process to consider their guilt. Authorities should not allow violence or other violations of law of any kind to go unaddressed, and accountability must be fairly and equally applied to everyone. Failing to do so will only encourage more violence and anarchy.

An alleged Islamic agenda

The Rakhine community has expressed fears about the alleged population growth of the Rohingya people, and their alleged goal of “Islamicising” Rakhine State. They have alleged that the Rohingya are seeking to carve out an autonomous state of their own within Rakhine. They point to the unfounded claims and ludicrous manifesto of some insignificant and shady groups as further evidence of such a conspiracy.

These fears and allegations are all untrue, and stem from a deep misunderstanding among the Rakhine people about the goals of the Rohingya. I am confident that I speak for the overwhelmingly vast majority of Rohingya when I say categorically that the goal of autonomy within or separatism from Rakhine State, or any other state in Myanmar, is not desired or sought by the Rohingya people. In the 1950s, a small armed group seeking to establish an autonomous district, then known as Mayu Nay Gya Khayaing, did exist among a minority of Rohingya. Such a movement was not unusual in those days. Among the Rakhine themselves were independence movements in years past. But that sentiment is a relic of a different era with no currency or relevance to the 21st century desires of my people.

The name Rohingya is simply a term to describe my community. It is rooted in our history, and serves to describe cultural and demographic attributes. Historical records suggest the name was applied at least as far back as 1799 and today we consider it important as a measure of respect for our history and heritage. We reject the term “Bengali” as disrespectful to this identity and to our traditions as proud people with deep roots in Myanmar.

From an anthropological point of view, the Rohingya community retains a mixture of cultural, religious, and linguistic attributes with Aryan/Caucasian roots. The population originated from South Asian and Middle Eastern heritage centuries ago and it flourished during the days of colonial Burma in what was then known as Arakan State. As a practical matter, however, given the many generations who have made the area their home, the Rohingya people who today reside in the western region of the country are essentially indigenous. Indeed, there is ample evidence in history that Rohingya people have coexisted peacefully with other ethnic groups in Rakhine for centuries. 

What we don’t know can hurt us

Although it has been alleged that the Rohingya population has grown rapidly in Rakhine State in recent years, there is no reliable data on population – all the various figures presented by different sources are only estimates. Indeed, estimates have been driving the debate for some time; there has been no authoritative official counting for many years. A transparent and accurate account is needed. It is possible that the Rohingya population may have been perceived to have grown somewhat faster than other groups because they are confined and concentrated in a particular region in the state, as they are not allowed to travel to other parts of the state or country. By contrast, Rakhine and other groups were allowed to travel or migrate elsewhere. It should also be noted that nearly 1.5 million Rohingya have left Rakhine since 1962 and are now in various parts of the world.

A common Rakhine allegation is that the rise in population of Rohingya is due to illegal immigration. There is also no reliable data to support this.

We want to see a transparent process, as promised by the Myanmar government, to verify the presence of Rohingya in Rakhine State and determine if any are illegal immigrants. We also endorse strengthening border controls to build confidence on both sides of the border that illegal immigration or other nefarious activities are not occurring in that area.

Another allegation is that the rise is due to Rohingya religious and cultural traditions. As elsewhere around the world, if the Rohingya are offered the opportunity to be educated and develop themselves, population growth rates – whatever the reality in recent years – will almost certainly reflect the average.

The importance of dialogue

There is no reason why the Rohingya cannot integrate themselves into mainstream Myanmar society. A significantly large population of Rohingya have already adapted to mainstream Myanmar society in their day-to-day life, through the learning of Myanmar language and traditions. The religious faith of a person, whether they are Christian Kachin, Buddhist Rakhine, or Muslim Rohingya, should not be a barrier to peaceful co-existence in modern Myanmar.

There are extremist elements in all religions around the globe that find in religion a tool to manipulate the innocent segment of their respective communities. However, there are also ample means for effectively silencing or marginalising these extremist elements. The key is dialogue. I am confident that dialogue among people of good faith in each community would help to dispel myths that have arisen. It would also help address lingering questions the Rakhine may have about the loyalty and commitment of the Rohingya people to Myanmar and to maintaining Rakhine’s State’s unity.

In the end, the Rohingya are moderate people who seek basic human rights – just like the Rakhine have struggled to achieve for decades – so that they can live peacefully as equal citizens while retaining their unique cultural identity. Rohingya people hold strong potential to contribute to the advancement of the newly emerging Myanmar. Developing educational, economic, and social institutions in all parts of Rakhine and beyond will pave the way for national development and provide the foundation for tolerance, mutual respect, reconciliation and peaceful co-existence.

Realisation of such a dream is not impossible: Such a situation existed after the independence of Myanmar, particularly in the 1950s and early 1960s. I recognise that it will take time to overcome decades of misunderstanding and mistrust. Those who are already suspicious about the Rohingya will not take us at our word when we say we do not desire autonomy or separation, or that fringe organisations do not represent our true goals and interests. But the solution, on either side, cannot be violence. Solutions to our differences – for the interests of peace and stability in Rakhine State and the country – can only be found through dialogue. My community is ready to take part in such a dialogue at the soonest opportunity.

Dr Wakar Uddin is a professor at Pennsylvania State University in the United States, director general of the Arakan Rohingya Union, and chairman and founder of The Burmese Rohingya Association of North America. Dr Uddin may be reached at

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