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Rohingya : A Crime Against Humanity
By Shamsiah Abd Kadir — MA Media and Information Warfare Studies, Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), Malaysia.
Introduction — Persecuted and oppressed in Myanmar, Rohingyas flee across the border into Bangladesh. Starving and stateless, they live in squalid makeshift camps. The recent ethnic clashes between Rohingya Muslims and the Rakhine Buddhists in the Rakhine (Arakan) province of Myanmar have attracted global attention. It is as if a veil had been lifted to reveal a hideous blemish. The terrible ethnic and religious violence recently happened in June 2012, in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, pitted Buddhists against the mostly Muslim Rohingyas minority. The latest—when an ugly incident of rape and murder of a Buddhist woman allegedly by three Rohingyas—turned into a disaster for the Rohingya Muslims community in Myanmar. According to United Nations (UN) reports, there are more than 800,000 Rohingyas residing in Myanmar, mostly in the province of Rakhine, and many hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in other countries. Thus, Rohingyas are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. The ruling Junta stripped Rohingyas of all the rights of a citizen through a law called “Citizenship Law” in 1982, thus making Rohingyas the only stateless community of the world.
However, the ruling Junta in Myanmar did not want to know nor let others know that the Rohingyas have a long history, a language, a heritage, a culture and a tradition of their own that they had built up in the Rakhine, through their long history of existence there. Moreover, through their “criminal propaganda”, the Buddhist majorities have been feeding so much misinformation against the Rohingya. According to Siddiqui (1999), the level of disinformation has reached such an alarming level that if some of the people were to talk with a Rakhine Buddhist, they would say that the Rohingyas are refugees in Rakhine and they do not belong to Myanmar, but that they belong to Bangladesh. However, such allegations are unfounded. Some scholars distinguished that in fact the forefathers of Rohingyas had entered into Rakhine from time immemorial (Karim, 2000).
Who are Rohingyas?
Rakhine or Arakan was formerly known as “Rohang/Roshang/Raham”. The Rohingya name indentifies the Muslims of Arakan as natives of Rohang or of Arakan (Buchanan, 2003). According to Buchanan (2003), the ethnic majority Rakhine fundamentally rejects any suggestion that the Rohingyas should be considered an ethnic group with bona fide historical roots in the region. Indeed, the Rakhines contend that they only encountered the word “Rohingya” in the 1950s during the time of the Mujihid movement. However, it is clear that the Muslim residents in Rakhine who prefer to be designated “Rohingya” as opposed to “Burmese Muslims” have developed a culture and language (mixture of Chittagonian, Burmese, Hindi and English), which is absolutely unique to the region (Lewa, 2010).
The history of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar goes back to the 8th century as they claim to be original settlers of the Rakhine province in the country, while tracing their ancestry to Arab traders. The Rakhine State of Myanmar, bordering Bangladesh, is mostly inhabited by two ethnic communities—the Rakhine Buddhist and the Rohingya Muslim. The Rakhine Buddhists are close to the Burmese in religion and language, while the Rohingya Muslims are ethnically and religiously related to the people from the region of Chittagong in southeastern Bangladesh.
The number of Rohingya Muslim is approximately 3.5 million but due to large scale persecution through ethnic cleansing and genocidal action against them, nearly half of them (1.5 million), are forced to live outside their ancestral homes since Burmese independence in 1948 (Alam, 1998). These uprooted people are now living in exile as refugees and illegal immigrants, mostly in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Malaysia.
The Roots of the Rohingyas
According to Habibullah (1995), the original inhabitants of Rohingya were Hindus, Buddhists and animists, while from the pre-Islamic days, the region was very familiar to the Arab seafarers. Some historians cite that the first Muslims to settle in the Rakhine were Arabs under the leadership of Muhammad Ibn Hanafiya, in the late of 7th century, when he married the queen of Kaiyapuri who had converted to Islam. The mountain peaks where they lived are still known as Hanifa Tonki and Kaiyapuri Tonki (Habibullah, 1995).
The second major influx of early Muslims dates back to the 8th century. According to the British Burma Gazetteer (1957), Mahataing Sandya (788 AD) ascended the throne of Vesali, founded a new city on the site of old Ramadi and died after a reign of twenty two years. During his reign, several ships were wrecked on Rambree Island.
The third major influx came after 1404, when the Rakhine’s king, dethroned by the Burmese, took asylum in Gaur (the capital of Bengal) and pleaded for help from Jalaludin Muhammad Shah (the Sultan of Bengal), to regain the lost throne. The sultan sent tens of thousands of soldiers to conquer the Rakhine. Many of these Muslim soldiers subsequently settled there (Habibullah, 1995).
Later, other ethnic groups such as Mughals, Turks, Persian, Central Asians, Pathans and Bengalis also moved into the territory and mixed with the Rohingyas. Habibullah stated that the spread of Islam in the Rakhine (and along the southern coastal areas of Bangladesh), mostly happened through the Sufis and merchants. Hence, the Rohingya Muslims, whose settlements in Rakhine dated back to the 7th century, are not an ethnic group, which developed from one tribal group affiliation or single racial stock, but they are an ethnic group that developed from different stocks of people. The ethnic Rohingyas are Muslim by religion with distinct culture and civilisation of their own (Habibullah, 1995).
The Influence of Muslims in Rakhine
From the history itself, there are many interpretations that can have a persuasive impact towards Rohingya Muslim people. In Rakhine, the sandwiched Muslim-ruled India in the west and Buddhist-ruled Myanmar in the east, at different periods of history, had been an independent sovereign monarchy ruled by Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims. After Bengal became a Muslim country in the 1203 century, Islamic influence grew significantly in Rakhine to the degree of establishing a Muslim vassal state there in 1430 century (Siddique, 1999). In 1404, the Rakhine’s king, dethroned by the Burmese, took asylum in Gaur (the capital of Bengal) and pleaded for help to regain the lost throne. According to Siddique (1999), the Sultan of Bengal, Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah, sent General Wali Khan at the head of 50,000 soldiers to conquer Rakhine. Wali Khan drove the Burmese out and took control of power over Rakhine, introduced Persian as the court language of Rakhine and appointed Muslim judges. After that, Jalaluddin sent a second army under the General Sandi Khan who overthrew Wali Khan and restored the exiled monarch (Mong Saw Mwan, who took the title of Sulayman Shah) to the throne of Rakhine in 1430 (Saddique, 1999).
In 1660, the Mughal Prince, Shah Shuja fled to Rakhine. This important event brought a new wave of Muslim immigrants to the kingdom of Rakhine (Habibullah, 1995). The Rakhinese king issued a coin bearing the inscription of Muslim kalema, the state emblem and also inscribed Arabic words, the mosque began to dot the countryside and Islamic customs, manners and practices came to be established since this time (Habibullah, 1995).
Religion, Culture and Civilisation of Rohingyas
According to Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO) (2006), Rohingyas are staunch followers of Islam. Most of the elderly Rohingya grow beards and the women wear ‘hijab’. High bamboo walls surround all Rohingya houses. There are mosques and ‘Madrassahs’ (religious schools) in every quarter and village. There is still in existence a social bond in every village called ‘Samaj’. All social welfare activities like Adhahi – meat distribution, helping the poor, widows, orphans and needy, marriage and funereal functions are done by the Samaj. The Ulama play a very prominent role particularly in matters relating to personal laws, like family affairs of the Rohingyas (ARNO, 2006).
Unfortunately, today, cultural problems are becoming one of the most important problems of the Rohingyas in Myanmar. ARNO (2006) also stated that the Rohingyas have to encounter strong pressure from the Buddhist culture. The Rohingya Muslims have to confront ideological assault from all directions. The Rohingyas are viewed as practicing a foreign way of life that has no origin in Myanmar. According to the ruling military the Rohingyas should support the ideas of Burmese race and culture and Buddhism.
The Rohingyas are told to discard the Islamic names and adopt Burmese names instead. Everywhere Muslims’ are razed to the ground. Hundreds of mosques have been demolished (ARNO, 2006). Construction of new mosques or repairs to the old ones is prohibited. Pagodas, monasteries and Buddhist temples have been erected in every nook and cranny of the Rohingya homeland. According to Nurul Islam (2006), Muslim students have been brainwashed in schools where anti-Islamic materials are being taught to them. Islam and Islamic culture are always projected or presented in humiliating, derogatory, degrading and distorted forms.
Anti-Rohingya Campaign, Violation of Human Rights
Propaganda against Rohingyas has long been launched by the Burmese military dictatorship with the support of some Rakhine intellectuals and politicians. Now, it has reached the new quasi-military government’s highest political institution, the parliament in Naypyidaw. The regime and xenophobes denied the existence of Rohingya as an ethnic group and alleged that Rohingyas are illegal Bengalis who have entered into Arakan from Bangladesh (Nurul Islam, 2011). This concocted propaganda was met with strong condemnation from the Rohingya communities worldwide. There were global protests in front of the Burmese embassies on September 15, 2011. The protest rally held in London was joined by leaders and activists belonging to almost all Burma ethnic groups and democracy movements, some local supporters and NGOs. ##