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Rohingya Crisis: Politics of denial

Dr Maung Zarni, a Buddhist from Mandalay, Myanmar

M. Mizanur Rahman 
RB Opinion
May 5, 2016

The Rohingya are the only one ethnic group in the world, whose existence is denied even when they are alive. Although Rohingya are one of the hundred and thirty six ethnic groups in Myanmar, they have been the most significant political pawn in the country. This article looks back the history of the Rohingya and argues that Myanmar as a nation is thriving upon a flawed premise and thus creating chance of risking its image which the country started regaining after its recent democratic turn at least to its international allies.

Death of more than twenty people in a boat accident in the Rakhine State and demonstration of Ma Ba Tha, the anti-Rohingya nationalist Buddhist group in front of the US embassy have brought the Rohingya crisis in light again. In response to the accident, the US embassy released a statement expressing its concern in the debacle of Rohingya. When the term ‘Rohingya’ is deeply rooted not only in Burmese but also in world history and politics, after denying their citizenship in Myanmar, now the country has been desperate to deny the term itself. A peaceful resolution of the Rohingya crisis was expected under the new NLD government but so far there prevails an identical attitude towards this ethnic group. Can the democratic idol of Myanmar embrace the truth and establish a peaceful co-existence of all the ethnic groups in Myanmar? Will she continue looking towards China as a ‘client state’ or she will look beyond it and give necessary importance to its other international allies and neighbors? Rohingya crisis impacts not only the bilateral relations of Myanmar with several countries but also the image of Myanmar as a state in the humanitarian world. 

The entire debate centered on the Rohingya issue is confined with their citizenship status. The unique nature of Myanmar as a state has added some salt to this debate. Dominance of religion in the nationalism of the majority Buddhists in the state fuels the crisis. They have a strong sense of being distinct from the mainstream or common practices of other states. For example, Senior General Than Shwe declared that the Western concept of human rights and freedom is not compatible with the culture and tradition of Myanmar and that is why his country is very different in these matters. According to him, Myanmar is Burman and consists of ‘one race, one language and one religion’ (Gravers, 2013). This belief justifies their decade long atrocities against the Rohingya who are not of the same race, language or religion.

The Rohingya constitute 1% of the total population, and 4% of the Arakan state population of Myanmar. Although they have become pawns in the game of colonial and post-colonial politics, according to Ragland (1994) they are an ethnic, linguistic, and religious minority both within Burma and within their own province. However, the word ‘Rohingya’ is an ethno-religious term which means Muslim people whose ancestral home is in Arakan, Under the 1974 Emergency Immigration Act and finally with the Citizen Act of 1982, the Rohingya are denied as the citizens of Myanmar. 

According to Professor Imtiaz Ahmed, one group of historians and scholars suggests that Rohingya are the descendants of Moorish, Arab and Persian traders, including Moghul, Turk, Pathan and Bengali soldiers and migrants, who arrived between the 9th and 15th centuries and the other, although very minority, claims that they are the descendants of the people in Chittagong. But a significant number of scholars agree and argue that the history of Rohingya ‘traces back to the early seventh century, when Arab Muslim traders settled in the area’. Arakan was an independent state where in the 15th and 16th centuries a distinct Muslim community was formed. Later on in 1784, the Burmese King Badaw Paya invaded and occupied Arakan and it became a part of Burma.

Although the seed of hatred between the Arakanese and Burmese grew during the colonial period, it was sparked during the immediate post-colonial era in Burma. In 1947, after the assassination of Aung Sun and his six cabinet ministers, U Nu became the new leader. During his government’s ten-year rule, the Rohingya were not given citizenship and so eventually some of them took up arms to establish their rights. They were pacified and managed by the government with the false promise of giving them citizenship and equal rights as with other ethnic groups. 

Some Buddhist scholars like Aye Chan promote the majority Buddhist belief that these Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and the term Rohingya was only introduced after 1950. While arguing in his paper titled, ‘The Development of a Muslim Enclave in Arakan (Rakhine) State of Burma (Myanmar)’, Chan contradicts himself. He notes the British census included Muslims in some account as ‘Indians’ and in others as ‘Chittagonians’. He states, ‘and history tells us that we do not have to go back very far’ and thus he tries to reject the history of Rohingya centuries ago.

Anti-Rohingya scholarship claims that since there is language affinity between the Rohingya and Chittagonians, the Rohingya are originally Bangladeshi. But interestingly, like many others, a prominent Burmese lawyer and scholar Maung Zarni rejects these view and argues that Chittagong itself was a part of the old Arakan Kingdom, which explains these people’s linguistic affinity. He also asserts that ‘many of them had resided in Myanmar for centuries with roots going back to the pre-colonial era. After a robust analysis, this scholar claims that what is happening towards the Rohingya community in Myanmar can be called ‘slow burning genocide’ and thus it is punishable under established international law. Being very straight forward, this Burmese lawyer has even changed his profile picture in social media as a protest against the demonstration of nationalist Buddhists. 

Therefore, it is clear that Myanmar has no way to deny the history and the existence of this term ‘Rohingya’ as an ethnic race in its land. But now the question is why, this hard line nationalist group has been so provocative now. After the victory of NLD, Ma Ba Tha was on back foot because of their declared support for the immediate past military government and their nation building project. Although, within this short span of time, Suu Kyi’s government has not done anything promising to solve this issue, and now planning to listen from all the ethnic groups (except Rohingya), Ma Ba Tha, is trying to reposition themselves in the center of Myanmar politics. This demonstration can also be seen as a new strategy of Ma Ba Tha to jeopardize the Suu Kyi’s relation with the US, one of her strong allies but time will say whether it will trouble the new government or only increase the plight of this down trodden ethnic group. 

M. Mizanur Rahman is a development researcher and doctoral research fellow in Australia. Email:

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