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Genocide of Rohingya Muslims: A Classical Model of Ethnic Cleansing
By Belayet Hossen, Noor Mohammad Osmani, Qutub Shah, Maulana Akbar Shah @U Tun Aung of International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), Malaysia.
Considerable historical evidence affirms that the Rohingya Muslims are indigenous inhabitants and rightful citizens of Myanmar, who have been living in Rakhine State not for decades, but for centuries. The Myanmar government has been systematically eradicating the Rohingya people due to their Islamic religious identity. This analysis finds that the ongoing persecution on Rohingya Muslims is a manifestation of a classical model of ethnic cleansing. The disasters experienced in Rakhine State present a complete evidence of systematic, widespread and prolific human rights violations, including heinous crimes against humanity. This article presents an academic perspective on repeated incidents, based on authentic proofs to international community of ethnic cleansing committed by the Myanmar army. This research has been carried out through various types of sources, such as recent and previously published books, articles, local and international newspapers, TV channels, magazines, documentaries, human rights organizations’ reports, and eye-witness accounts of the victims. Finally, it provides suggestions to resolve the rising problems, which may bring a permanent solution to the long-lasting humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State.
Introduction — Rakhine State is on the western coast of Myanmar (Burma), bordered by Chin State to the north, Magway Region, Bago Region and Ayeyarwady Region to the east. The Bay of Bengal is to the west, and the Chittagong Division of Bangladesh is to the northwest. Its geographical land area is 36,762 square kilometer (14,194 Sq. Miles) and Sittwe is its state capital. Currently, its community of Rohingya Muslims are one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world. Despite having had an independent state Rakhine, they are now distressed refugees throughout the globe, and many have lived in slavery-like conditions for decades. Statistical estimates vary, but indisputably thousands of them have been brutally killed by the Myanmar army and mobs of fanatical local Buddhists.
They have lost their ancestral homes, villages, farmlands, and basic human rights and freedoms, and the Myanmar government has watched strangers take their homes and possessions. They have been targeted to be cleansed from their homeland due to their religious identity and economic and political opportunism. As a parable of an ethnic cleansing, Rohingya Muslims are a superlative example for the 21st century. In pursuit of the extirpation of Rohingya Muslims from Arakan, the Myanmar government has inflicted all types of torture upon them. Their citizenship has been denied, and their access to education, politics, religion, marriage, giving birth to children and all sorts of conventional citizens’ rights have been terminated. As a result, the lucky ones are refugees throughout the world, frequently exploited, abused, and despised, while many more remain imprisoned under the hostile and brutal Myanmar regime. While the issue has become particularly acute since the 2000s, many Rohingya men, women, and children have been murdered in Myanmar for decades.
In order to explore the applicability of the classical model of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State by the Myanmar authorities, some crucial issues are addressed in this paper, such as the historical back ground of Rohingya Muslims, denial of citizenship, burning houses into ashes, rape and sexual harassment, mass killing, looting wealth and property destruction, barring humanitarian aid and journalists, and banning marriage and birth. Based on the findings, some suggested solutions to mitigate the crisis are presented, followed by the conclusion and bibliography.
Historical Background of Rohingya Muslims — The Origin of Word “Rohingya” — There are numerous etymological theories on the history of the term “Rohingya”. The first one is attributed to an apocryphal tale of some Arab merchants shipwrecked on the coast of Arakan in the eighth century CE. When sentenced to death by the local king, they pleaded for mercy (Rahm in Arabic) and subsequently named the area ‘Rahm-bori’, a portmanteau of Arabic and local terms meaning ‘the land of mercy’. An island called Rambri still exists, although there is no sign of mercy there nowadays. Another theory is that the ancient name ‘Arakan’, derived from the word “Rukun” from which the name ‘Arakan’ came into existence, and from the word “Rohan”, the name ‘Rohingya’ was originated”.
Historically, Arakan was a tiny independent state in the south-east of Cox’s Bazar District of Bangladesh, surrounded by rivers, sea and hilly natural beauty, and called Rakhine Province, known as the “Switzerland of South-East Asia”. Most of the citizens of Arakan are Rakhine, thus it is known as Rakhine State. It is a majority Buddhist populated state. According to the pundits, from Sanskrit and Pali term rokkha (protection), the word “Rokkhain” or Rakhine came into existence. Based on their opinions, since they save their own religion and culture from evil forces they are called Rakhine. The inhabitants of Arakan feel more interested to introduce themselves as Rakhine rather than Arakani, and the ancient names of Arakan included Rakhine Pre, Rowang, Rosang, Rowaon, Reng, Rong, and Rang etc., which are Burmese synonyms. The Rakhine people consider themselves as a more conservative nation and thus they also claim that the word “Rakhine” comes from “Rakkhonshil”, which means conservative.
The Rohingya Muslims came to international attention in recent years as one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world. However, they have been subjected to deliberate cleansing for many years by the junta regimes of Myanmar. The history of Rohingya Muslims indicates that they are original citizens of the Rakhine State of Myanmar, and history shows that Islam first arrived from China c. 652-660 CE, and was later augmented by Arab merchants by the 9th century,10 when it was a transit port in the Arab maritime trading routes to China. In addition to the peaceful exchange of goods, Arab maritime trade was characterized by cosmopolitan ethnic exchanges, including intermarriage and religious propagation, between the ports and hinterlands of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, India, Southeast Asia, and China.
Consequently, the Rohingya Muslim community is a natural and indigenous feature of Rakhine rooted in centuries of historical presence and development (analogous to Chinese minority communities in historical ports such as Melaka), and by 1941 the Muslim population was recorded to comprise 30% of the total population in Rakhine State, with a majority of up to 80% in particular districts such as Maungdaw and Bothidung. Myanmar has 232 to 235 tribal groups, of which 130 to 135 are officially recognized by the government, but Rohingya Muslims are not included among them, and are dubbed “Bengalis” by their enemies in Myanmar, including the government, in order to portray them as foreigners. While it is true, they include Bengalis and other South Asian people among their ancestors, this is genetically true of the majority of people in Southeast Asia and Myanmar itself.
Nevertheless, historically there was no hard border between Myanmar and India, and there was essentially a free flow of peopleand goods and two-way migration (in ancient history, India itself was the locus of Buddhist religion and pilgrimage). People from Rakhine State settled in Chittagong, in modern Bangladesh, while people from Chittagong and different parts of the Subcontinent settled in Rakhine, which was an independent state in the fifteenth and sixteen centuries and a cosmopolitan society including Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists. Avoiding the historical reality and strengths of Rakhine’s pluralistic society, modern Myanmar has seized on an insular and xenophobic mentality seeking to assert itself as a monolithic and exclusive Buddhist state, contrary to the precepts of Buddhism itself.
In political terms, Arakan was annexed in 1433 by the Bangla Sultanate, and when the kings of Arakan lost authority over their lands several times due to foreign invasions or insurrections they took shelter in the courts of the Muslim sultans of Gour or Muggle. From the middle ages to the 18th century the local dynasty had cordial relations with Muslims, who were treated as an honored community, such as the poet Alaoul, Sayed Ashraf and others who were ministers of the Roshang Royal Court of Arakan. The historians of 14th century like Rashiduddin, the Turkish sailor Sidi Ali, Ain-e-Akbari, Bahristan Ghayebi, and Syarul Mutakharin also narrated the hospitality and acceptance Muslims found there. According to Dr. Mahfuzur Rahman Akand, Muslim fortunes began to decline as Arakan came increasingly under the authority of a single Burmese entity, with less autonomy, whereby the Muslims ceased to be prominent contributors to Arakan society and became Myanmar’s most persecuted minority, a convenient “other”.
Two key events in this process were the Burmese occupation of Arakan by King Bodawpaya in 1784, and the British creation of Burma as an independent state in 1948. Following the ascendency of Ne Win in Arakan in 1962, the Rohingya Muslims gradually started to be stripped of their citizenship rights, and in 1982 they were declared “foreign”,22 establishing the legal basis for the state and vigilante violence perpetrated against them since.23 Through scanning the history of Arakan, several reasons were found behind the loss of Rohingya Muslims’ citizenship as well as their authority over the Rakhine State. Firstly, although Rohingya Muslims played very crucial role in the royal court of Arakan, they could not produce any outstanding leadership. As a result, they lost the sovereignty over Arakan to the Burmese King Bodawpaya, whose regime deliberately
killed the top leaders of the Rohingya Muslims. The rest of them fled to Bangladesh and remained there until the Anglo-Burmese war of 1826. At that time, Cin Pyan and other Arakani leaders fought for liberation of own land, but because of various causes they failed.
Rohingya Muslims who took shelter in Bangladesh and those were left in Arakan lacked effective leadership. British domination over Burma after 1826 resulted in the provision of some decisive privileges to Rohingya Muslims, allowing them to return to their ancestral land, where they flourished in business and agriculture alongside administrative roles in the colonial administration. At that time, most of the educated and leading class of Rohingya settled themselves permanently in Cox’s Bazar and the Bandarban area of Bangladesh, without going back to Arakan itself, and those middle- and working-class Rohingya who did reestablish themselves there could not carve out any political role or presence in the burgeoning colonial framework and (subsequently) independent Burma. At this point, Rohingya became the conventional term to refer to the historical community of Muslims from Arakan, and by extension, Burmese Muslims in general, thus from this point onwards “Rohingya” can be understood as referring to “Rohingya Muslims”.
While the British were essentially favorable to the Rohingya after 1826, following 1857 they were intent on crushing the traditional Muslim elites whom they blamed for the “Mutiny”, which extended to a divide and rule policy in Burma by prioritizing the employment of local Buddhists and excluding Muslims from educational opportunities and employment in the civil service, which was the forerunner to post-independence governments in South Asia. During British colonialism in Burma the attitude that the Rohingya were foreigners festered in the list of local grievances, and despite their support of Aung Sun against British occupation, post-independence elites seized on this issue to further stigmatize and blame the Rohingya for postcolonial socio-economic difficulties, stripping them of citizen and human rights, and ultimately driving them out of their state. Rather than being acknowledged as citizens, the Rohingya were recognized as mere inhabitants of Arakan. ##