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Burma: The Rohingya Muslims: Ending a Cycle of Exodus?
Report Printed and Published by Human Rights Watch, New York, USA.
The title of this report is taken from a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report of June 1995 on the repatriation of over 200,000 Burmese refugees, most of them members of the Rohingya Muslim minority, from Bangladesh to their home state of Arakan in northern Burma. The repatriation is being held up as a success story by the UNHCR in speeches of senior officials as well as in publications, including its annual report, State of the World’s Refugees 1995. For the UNHCR, the return of so many refugees by early 1996, most of whom had left Burma in 1991 and 1992, was a vindication of its shift from providing refugee relief to promoting voluntary repatriation as the most durable solution to refugee problems.
But the story of the Rohingyas was not over: the cycle of exodus has not ended. On April 20, 1996, fifteen Burmese Muslims, part of a group of 150 who were seeking asylum in Bangladesh, drowned in the Naf river as they were being towed back to Burma by the Bangladesh Border Rifles, a branch of the Bangladesh army. All fifteen were women and young children. This incident brought much-needed attention to the plight of some 5,000 new asylum seekers who had entered Bangladesh since the end of February 1996. By the end of May their number had risen to an estimated 10,000. The Bangladesh government had refused UNHCR access to the new arrivals and was intent on sending them all back. Its security forces arrested 254 refugees without permitting them to apply for asylum and forcibly returned an estimated 200 others in violation of international standards.
There was a general agreement that voluntary repatriation is the preferred and best solution to the refugee problem. However, it was noted that in some instances UNHCR has placed too much emphasis on early return to countries of origin which has resulted in return movements to less than favourable conditions. The situation in Arakan was certainly less than favorable, despite the presence since January 1994 of a UNHCR office there to monitor the situation of returnees.
Historical Background — To understand the dynamics of the Rohingya issue, it is important to understand the claims made by both the Burmese government and by the ethnic group now known as ”Rohingya,” since the term itself has become politically charged.
Rohingya political leaders claim that Rohingyas are an ethnically distinct group, descendants of the first Muslims who occupied northern Arakan in the ninth century, though they also say that they are a mix of Bengalis, Persians, Moghuls, Turks and Pathans who came to the area later. The ethnic group ”Rohang” or ”Rohan” is said to be the name used for the northern Arakan region in the ninth and tenth centuries. Arakan was then inhabited by the Rakhine people, whom scholars believe to be a mixture of an indigenous Hindu people with the Mongols who invaded in the ninth century. The Rakhine people today are Buddhist and speak a dialect of Burmese; they constitute the ethnic majority in Arakan.
Rohingyas give as further evidence of their long settlement in Arakan the fact that the kings of Arakan from 1400 to 1600 took Muslim (as well as Buddhist) names. Their claim to be an indigenous ethnic group was recognized by the democratic government of Premier U Nu in the 1950s, for what most observers consider to be political motives, but it has been denied by subsequent governments since the military took control of the country in 1962. The current military government has denied that Rohingyas are an ethnic group and claims that all the Muslims in northern Arakan are Bengalis whose arrival is far more recent. Many foreign historians believe that most of Arakan’s Muslim residents came to Burma from Chittagong from 1891 to 1931, when British colonial authorities were encouraging labor migration in order to develop Arakan’s agricultural potential, or after the civil war in East Pakistan which led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.
During the Japanese occupation of Burma in World War II, the Rohingyas remained loyal to the British and thus were on the opposite side of the pro-independence Rakhine. As a reward for their loyalty, the Rohingyas were promised a separate Muslim state in northern Arakan, but like similar promises and assurances made to ethnic groups in northern and eastern Burma, this promise was not fulfilled.
During the war communal violence broke out in Arakan in 1942 as thousands of Indians fled Burma through Arakan to India, and again in 1948, leaving thousands of Rakhines and Rohingyas dead, and thousands more fled to seek refuge in India. By 1947 the Rohingyas had formed an army and had approached President Jinnah of the newly-created Pakistan to ask him to incorporate northern Arakan into East Pakistan (Bangladesh). It was undoubtedly this move more than any other which determined the present-day governmental attitude towards the Rohingyas: they had threatened Burma’s territorial integrity in the eve of independence and could never be trusted again.