Identity Crisis : Citizenship and Myanmar’s Muslim Ethnic Group


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Identity Crisis : Citizenship and Myanmar’s Muslim Ethnic Group
By Dr. Mussarat Jabeen — Ph.D & HoD  of Department of IR & Pol Science, University of Lahore, Sargodha Campus.   

Myanmar is one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse state in the world, with almost 135 ethnic groups. Owing to this diversity, the country has been suffering with multiple internal ethnic armed conflicts, including the Rohingyas-Rakhine conflict. The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group of Myanmar, was not included in the officially recognized groups of Myanmar at the time of independence in 1948. They migrated from neighbouring states at that time of history when borders were not demarcated and people frequently move from one place to another. The democratic setup of Burma (1948-62) maintained peace and harmony, but the military regime victimized the ethnic groups, including the Rohingya with its brutal policies forcing a huge number of people to flee into other countries. Above it, the 1982 Citizenship Law did not grant citizenship to the Rohingya as a recognized ethnic group with ties to Myanmar prior to 1824 (the year when Arakan (Rakhine) came under British occupation) and this law confirmed their statelessness. In the current situation, they have become alien as the major ethnic group and the Rakhine Buddhists are forcing them to flee to Bangladesh labeling them “illegal Bengali migrants.” Most of the Rohingyas found it difficult to apply for naturalizing citizenship in the absence of documents that are required as proof of their long-term stay in the country. Above it, they do not speak any of the Burmese language. Losing the status, they have become subject to persecution and discrimination. By law, they require travel permits to visit other countries. The military regime refused to accept back the refugees demanding proofs of ’genuine citizens.’ In this age of globalization, there is talk of the world without borders, but group like Rohingya reminds us the importance of national borders and the rights of citizenship. There is very little attention paid in World Politics to the plight of such „stateless‟ groups and solution to their problem. The central thesis of this paper is that assimilation of Roghina into Myanmar is made all the more difficult because they are made out to be just as Bengali and „foreigners‟ and secondly the religious colouring has been given to the conflict, highlighting the Muslim character of Roghinga and active involvement of the Buddhist monks in inciting riots against Roghinga are two dynamics that make the future of Roghinga grim in Myanmar.

Issue of Identity for the Rohingya — The term „Rohingya‟ is used for the Muslims (Sunni) living in Arakan State, which has been designated as Rakhine State in 1989 after the name of the major ethnic group living in the area. The Rohingya Muslims are the inhabitants of northwestern part of Myanmar, which shares borders with Bangladesh and India. The term Rohingya was first time used in early 1950s for Arakan‟s Muslims. The majority of Rohingya Muslims have been living in three townships named Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung. Like other ethnic minorities, the Rohingyas are also living in mountainous frontiers, on a line dividing Islamic and Buddhist areas. They are 1.3 million in number. Their miserable condition is recognized by the United Nations and its High Commissioner for Refugees called them the most victimized and persecuted people in the world. Medecins Sans Frontiers (2010) had presented the same picture of their plight.

The Rohingya Muslims have a long history in Myanmar but the details about their arrival are controversial. In some historian‟s writings, these people were Muslim Arab mariners and traders who arrived at the coast of Arakan in the ninth century (Lewa, 2001). While other Muslims like Moguls, Persians, Turks, Bengalis and Pathans arrived in later centuries. In the British era, there were massive migrations from Chittagong to Arakan State (Easy Targets, 2002).

Hatred between the Rakhine and Rohingya

The Rakhines are primarily Buddhist and their number is three million, making them the major ethnic group, comprising the two third of the population of the state (Asia Watch, 1992). Smith wrote (1995, p. 3), “it is important to stress at the very outset that Arakan itself is an ethnic minority state and that the problems Ethnic Group between local Muslims and Buddhists, but also between Arakanese Buddhists, known as Rakhine, and the central government in Rangoon.”

The borders of Arakan link it with India and Bangladesh. Both Buddhist and Islamic cultures encountered in this tri-border region, which is ethnically disputed. In addition to the Rohingya Muslims, other communities were also involved in conflict and became active in the mountainous region. The religious and ethnic tensions began to escalate in Arakan in the 1920s when a large number of migrants, particularly Muslim Bengalis, arrived in Arakan crossing the Indian border (Lewa, 2001). They were not welcomed by the Rakhines. In 1930‟s, an “Anti-Muslim‟s” campaign started calling “Burma for Burmese only.” Its focus was to prove the Rohingya Muslims as immigrants, not legally recognized nationals of the country. The Rakhines rejected the Rohingya Muslims‟ claim that their forefathers had been settled in Myanmar since the ninth century (Ijaz, 2015). Moreover, the Mughal rule‟s policy of forced conversion of Buddhists also played a role in nurturing the anti-Muslims sentiments (Margolis, 2002).

Their history unfolded that Mrauk-U Dynasty (1430-1784) was founded in 1429 by Min Saw Mon he was exiled from the kingdom and took refuge in Bengal. After 24 years, he regained his throne with the assistance of the Sultan of Bengal. Mon and his successors adopted the custom of taking Muslim name and he got the name of Suleiman Shah. He allowed his Bengali retinues to settle down in the outskirts of his kingdom where they built the famous Santikan mosque. It was a small community of the earliest Muslims, but in the 17th century, the arrival of the Bengali workforce increased the number of Muslims (Topich & Leitich, 2013, p. 20).

The last ruler of the royal court was defeated in1784 and the famous image of Mahamuni Buddha, a symbol of Arakan’s independence, was transported away to Mandalay and remained there even today (Smith, 1994, p. 54; Lewa, 2001; Chan, 2005). The Burmese rule (1784-1824) forced a large number of Arakanese to flee to British Bengal. According to a record of the British East India Company, after the decline of Mrauk-U, more than 20,000 exiles fled to the border area of Chittagong (Bengal) to seek protection (Chan, 2005). They continued their struggle to win back Arakan‟s liberation. However, the British occupied Arakan after the war of 1824-26, beginning annexation of the other parts of Burma on the pretext of continued disturbances along the border of British India. During the British rule, many Rakhine persons gained significant positions as they were famous for their learning and craftsmanship and one Rakhine, U Paw Tun, even got the rank of prime minister (Smith, 1994, p. 55).## 


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