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History of Rakhine State and the Origin of the Rohingya Muslims
By Dr Haradhan Kumar Mohajan is Assistant Professor, Premier University, Chittagong, Bangladesh.
The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority group in Rakhine, are considered among the most persecuted, vulnerable, and oppressed minorities in the world. Recently, the persecution on the Rohingya Muslims has increased due to Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar. The Rohingya continue to suffer from several forms of restrictions and human rights violations in Myanmar due to them being denied Myanmar citizenship. They are victims of various forms of oppression, such as arbitrary taxation, land confiscation, destruction of mosques, torture and ill-treatment, extrajudicial executions, restrictions on movements, forced eviction and house destruction, forced laborers on roads and at military camps, and financial restrictions on marriage. Since the 1970s, a number of crackdowns on the Rohingya in Rakhine have forced them to flee to neighboring countries. More than one million Rohingyas have migrated to refugee camps in the Bangladeshi district of Cox’s Bazar. This article deals with the origin of the Rohingya, the form of their citizenship, and recent oppression in the Rakhine State of Myanmar.
Myanmar is the least developed country in the Southeast Asia. In the 1947 Constitution, the name of the country was proclaimed Burma, and in 1989, the military junta changed the name to Myanmar (Ullah, 2011). Some scholars believe that Burma is derived from the eponym ‘Brahma Desha’ after Brahma, one of the gods of the Hindu trinity. Some other scholars believe that “Burma” is the name derived from the spoken form of Bamar (the language of the majority ethnic group), and was also used during the independence movement in 1948. “Myanmar” is taken from the literary form of the language, and is supposed to be more neutral than Burma. “Myanmar” supposedly is associated with democratic and federalist ideologies, while “Myanmar” recalls military enforcement and hierarchal units (Dittmer, 2010). The official name of the country according to the 2008 constitution is “The Republic of the Union of Myanmar”(Government of Myanmar [GoM], 2008).
Rakhine is a state located in the west coast of Myanmar, one of the poorest regions of the country. Its area is 14,200 square miles (Islam, 1999). In Rakhine, it is estimated that 59.7% of the 3.8 million people are Buddhist, 35.6% are Muslim Rohingya, and the remainder are from other religious groups. The Rohingya Muslims did not originate from just one single racial stock. They are the mixture of diverse ethnic groups, including Arabs, Moghuls, and Bengalis (Alam, 2013). In Myanmar there are 7 million Muslims, which are 15% of the total populations of the country, and half of them live in Rakhine (Jaha, 1994).
Buddhist nationalism began to emerge in response to British colonial rule, and saw Buddhists identifying with Burmese culture and history. During the colonial period, the Burmese military Tatmadaw and the founders of several armies including Aung San were patronized and trained by the military of imperial Japan to defeat Allied forces and the British colonials. Myanmar’s Buddhist nationalism was influenced by Japanese fascism (Zarni, 2013). The Rohingya crisis is not only on religion but also on economical and political related (Shams, 2015). The Buddhists of Myanmar claim that the Rohingya are economically developed, and their culture is under siege than the Rohingya. The Rohingya are confronted with a deeplyentrenched Islam phobia with Rakhine in Myanmar. Myanmar is surrounded by some Islamic countries, such as Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The Buddhists think that if any Islamic country attacks Myanmar, the Rohingya will fight against Myanmar. As a result, they are culturally discriminated, economically exploited, and politically sidelined by the GoM (Wolf, 2017).
There have been many debates on the origins of the Rohingya and the Arakan State. The two conflicting theories are that i) Rohingyas are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh (Saw, 2011; Ahmed, 2012), and ii) Rohingyas are native to Arakan, and are descendents of the original Muslim converted on Ramree Island (Bahar, 2010a; Forster, 2011). Although there are two opposing debates about the origin of the Rohingya, it is true that a large number of Muslims have resided in the Arakan for hundreds of years (Azad & Jasmine, 2013; Leitich, 2014).
The sectarian conflict has been especially focused in the Muslim areas that lie in the northern part of Rakhine State: Maungdaw, Rathedaung, and Buthidaung Townships (Human Rights Watch [HRW], 2013). During the last few years the Rohingya ethnic violence in Rakhine became extensive, which has transformed into ethnic cleansing and genocide (Nawoyski, 2013).