The Rohingya Conflict : Genesis, Current Situation and Geopolitical Aspects


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The Rohingya Conflict : Genesis, Current Situation and Geopolitical Aspects
By Stefan Bepler — Lichtbrücke e.V. / Bridge of Light, Leppestr. 48, 51766 Engelskirchen, Germany.

The Rohingya in Myanmar are often described as the most persecuted minority in the world. In the former Burma, the Rohingya are considered illegal immigrants and have been denied citizenship for decades. Since the end of August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya from Rakhine State have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. After explaining the historical background, this paper aims to investigate the reasons behind the most recent violence and subsequent mass flights of Rohingya.

 The research is based on extensive literature and media analysis, interviews and discussions with researchers, academics in Dhaka and NGO representatives in Cox’s Bazar as well as a visit to a refugee camp in LEDA/Cox’s Bazar in February 2018. The public usually discusses mainly the ethnic-religious and humanitarian causes and effects of conflict. However, this paper shows that there are massive political, economic and geopolitical interests of directly and indirectly involved actors behind the conflict. As of today, no solution of the crisis is in sight. Therefore, further analysis is needed to find practical approaches for either repatriation or finding new living spaces for the Rohingya.

Since the mass exodus in August 2017 the Rohingya conflict in Myanmar is getting attention in the international public media. The ethnic-religious causes and humanitarian aspect of the refugee situation are put in the foreground. This article reviews first the historical background of the Rohingya as an ethnic group and their discrimination in the recent past, followed by a description of the escalation of the violent persecution, the subsequent mass flight as well as the international reactions and relief actions. Next the economic and geopolitical interests of different international players are pointed out. Finally, the most recent problems and concerns in the refugee camp areas are exposed.

Etymology and today’s spread — The word “Rohingya” was used for the first time as ”Rooinga” (= inhabitant of Arakan, today’s province Rakhine) in 1799 in the ”Journal Asiatic Researches” for a long-established population in Rakhine (Ibrahim 2016, Gill 2015). Later they were called ”Muslim Arakanese”. Myanmar is one of the most ethnically diversified societies of the world. 135 ”ethnic nationalities” with numerous subgroups are officially recognized in the Burma Citizenship Law from 1982, but the ethnic Rohingya were not included (Farzana 2017, 2018). In the first constitution of Myanmar in 1947, all people living at that time in “Frontier Areas” and who intended to stay permanently were considered citizens and accepted as “The People of Burma” (Farzana 2018). However, when General Ne Win came to power in 1962, the Rohingya were deemed as not compatible with other ethnic groups in Burma. Other Muslims, who do not belong to the Rohingya, have Myanmar nationality (Ibrahim 2016).

The Muslims in Rakhine have not always identified themselves as an independent group. But a uniform concept with an identifying name had political advantages, since recognition as an ethnic group would increase the chances to gain the right to citizenship. The common experience generated by decades of discrimination contributed further to the identity formation of the Rohingya. The term ”Rohingya” as an ethnic group spread only after the major refugee movements with the human rights debate through international organizations (Farzana 2017; Bochmann 2017).

In early 2017, around one million Rohingya lived in Rakhine (see Fig. 2). At that time about another million Rohingya lived already as refugees in neighbouring countries and in the Middle East. The government of Myanmar avoids the term Rohingya and speaks instead of ”Bengalis” that immigrated illegally from the neighbouring Bangladesh. The home state of the Rohingya, Rakhine, remains one of the poorest provinces of Myanmar despite its rich natural resources such as oil, gas and uranium (Zoglul 2017).

Historical Background : From the Kingdom of Arakan to the colonial era  — Since the 9th century, Arab and Persian merchants settled in Southern Burma and the then independent Buddhist Kingdom of Arakan. This region was geographically isolated from the neighbours by the Yoma-Mountain Range and the Naaf River. In the 12th century the Arakan Muslim population had close relationships to the Bengal king. Increasing Islamization occurred until the 17th century, but a tolerant attitude between the religions prevailed. In 1784, the Burmese king conquered Arakan. After massacres and the introduction of forced labour, the first major exodus followed to the English colony of Bengal (today divided into India and Bangladesh).

From 1824 to 1886 England colonized Burma. Through Arakan they invaded the lowlands and were supported by the local population. Afterwards, artificially defined ethnic and territorial administrative units separated the ethnic minorities and thus created the political and social conditions for local liberation movements.

This common British policy of ”divide and rule” (divide etimpera) was a key cause of ethnictensions. Minorities were ”positively discriminated”. Ethnic and religious groups that collaborated with the British were preferably recruitedinto the army and appointed to senior government positions. Until 1937, Burma remained a province of colonial India, after which it became an independent colony. For labour in plantations and ports, the British organized enormous intraregional labour migration movements from India to Arakan (Zöllner 2008; Farzana 2017).

During the Second World War, a national liberation movement under Aung San collaborated with the Japanese at their ”Anti-imperialist invasion” of Burma. Most minorities remained loyal to the British Empire. After their victory, the Japanese placed ethnic Burmese in administration positions and abolished protection measures for the minorities. This lead to bloody attacks of the Burmese independence army of Aung San and others. After the end of World War II, Burma was again integrated into the British colonial empire.


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