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ROHINGYA BRIEFING REPORT October 2015
Report Submitted by WARZONE INITIATIVES
The controversy surrounding Myanmar’s Rohingya people is evident in conflicting stories about the ethnic group’s origin. The Burmese government and Burmese historians argue that the Rohingya are actually Bengali Muslims, refusing to recognize the term “Rohingya.” They claim that the Rohingya migrated to Rakhine state in Myanmar from Bengal during and after the British colonial era of 1824-1948. However, most experts outside of Myanmar agree that the Rohingya have been living in Rakhine state since at least the 15th century, and possibly as early as the 7th century. Claims that the Rohingya are recent immigrants from Bangladesh are simply untrue.
There are between 800,000 and 1,100,000 Rohingya in Myanmar today, 80% of whom live in Rakhine state. The Rohingya primarily reside in the two northern townships in Rakhine state–Maungdaw and Buthidaung–along the border with , Bangladesh. Rakhine Buddhists are the major population group residing in Rakhine state. Tensions leading to violence between these two groups is a regular occurrence.
WHO ARE THE ROHINGYA?
- Sunni Muslims
- Make up 1/3 of Rakhine state’s population
- 1,100,000 in Myanmar
- Significant population in Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand, and Malaysia
- Government claims they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and rejects them as one of the
- nation’s 135 official ethnic groups
- Most live in Maung Daw and Bu Thi Daung townships
While the government has played a significant role in the oppression of the Rohingya, it has not been without the help of Burmese citizens. There is widespread dislike and even hatred toward the Rohingya in Myanmar. The Burmese government has ingrained this disdain into its citizens, using dislike for the Rohingya as a way to mobilize support. Leading up to November 2015 elections, President Thein Sein has pointed to the passage of numerous discriminatory laws as evidence that he is a strong leader and should be elected for another term. His campaign is fueled, at least in part, by anti-Muslim rhetoric. The Rohingya are a stateless people, hated in their own country and forced to live in appalling living conditions.
- For the sake of clarity, the term “Myanmar” will be used throughout the report except when referring to the country before 1989, when its name was still “Burma.”
The history of the Rohingya people is inextricably linked to the history of Myanmar. Important lessons from the country’s history can be drawn to help explain the oppression of the Rohingya people today.
Myanmar is ethnically diverse, with 135 officially recognized races, and at least a few more that are unrecognized (like the Rohingya). The majority ethnic group is the Burmans, who make up 68% of the population (distinct from the term “Burmese” which refers to all citizens of Myanmar). Burmans reside primarily in the central geographic region of the country. Other ethnic groups, such as the Kachin, Chin, Rakhine, Shan, and others, reside primarily in the outside borderlands of the country, also called the Frontier Areas. Many of these minority ethnic groups live on both sides of Myanmar’s border with neighboring countries.
Burman 68%; Shan 9%; Karen 7%; Rakhine 4%; Chinese 3%; Indian 2%; Mon 2%; Other 5% .
Burma was colonized by the British in 1885, and achieved independence in 1948. A coup in 1962 put the military in control of the government. While recent reforms have lessened the military’s influence, it has played a prominent role in politics ever since the 1962 coup. After taking power, the military implemented a unique form of socialism in Burma. The government did it’s best to isolate Burma from the rest of the world, suppress dissent, and remain in control of the economy. More recently, the government has implemented democratic and economic reforms that have improved relations somewhat with the rest of the world.