The Rohingya issue and international migration: a historical perspective

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The Rohingya issue and international migration: a historical perspective 
Dr.  Kazi Abdul Mannan – Professor & Research Fellow, Southern Cross University, Australia.

This paper examines the Rohingya Muslim experience historically, but perhaps more significantly, it examines their experience through a contemporary humanitarian and human rights lens as well. Indeed, it begins with a brief history of the Rohingya Muslims in post-colonial Myanmar. The second section analyzes contemporary humanitarian developments. The third section explores several key human rights abuses perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslims. The final section concludes with recommendations.

More than seventy five percent of the world’s population dwells in countries where state restrictions on religious freedom prevail1. Despite laudable strides towards democratic reform, Myanmar is among those nations. In fact, it stands out as among the world’s twenty-five most populous nations with the most government restrictions on, and social hostilities due to, religion. Notably, the religious hatred or bias is directed toward the Rohingya Muslim population. The United Nations has long characterized the Rohingya Muslims as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. By way of background, anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim sentiment has long tainted the state’s political and social spheres. More recently, escalating violence has not only exasperated the humanitarian crises confronting the Rohingya Muslims, but it also threatens to undermine the Burmese transition from one-party military rule to democratic governance. It adversely impacts global security, too.

Upon achieving independence from England in 1948, Myanmar struggled with armed ethnic conflict and political instability during a prolonged period of political reformation4. In 1962, a military coup produced a one-party, military state informed by socialist notions of governance—it would last for more than sixty years. During that time, the Burmese army committed numerous human rights abuses, such as killing, raping, and torturing the state’s Rohingya Muslim population. Notably, the army subjected the group to mass expulsions in 1977 and 1992, creating what has been widely viewed as a chronic refugee crisis in neighboring Bangladesh. Two years later, many of the Rohingya were forced to return to Myanmar; instances of excessive force by the Bangladeshi security forces and the Burmese troops (receiving the Rohingya) resulted in some deaths. Those Rohingya who returned were granted limited rights to movement and employment. Thousands remain displaced even today, surviving on international humanitarian aid while continuing to endure brutal repression by state border guards. Such repression includes forced conscription to perform labor, arbitrary detention, beatings, and other mistreatment.

The human rights and humanitarian condition of the Rohingya is further exasperated by their official “statelessness.”8 The Citizenship Act, enacted in 1982, codified the legal exclusion of the Rohingya, presently numbering approximately one million, by denying the group citizenship rights. The Act officially recognizes 135 “national races” that qualify for citizenship. The Rohingya Muslims are not included on that list and as such are denied the full benefits of citizenship on account of what the Burmese government has described as their “nonindigenous ancestry.” Widespread societal prejudice against the group informs the historical (and contemporary) lack of political will to repeal the law.

To be sure, the denial of Burmese citizenship has resulted in additional injustices and inequalities. Illustrative is a Burmese law—the Emergency Immigration Act—requiring the possession of National Registration Certificates by all citizens. As noncitizens, however, the Rohingya can only possess Foreign Registration Cards, which are rejected by a number of schools and employers. The government has also restricted their rights to marry, own property, and move freely—rights guaranteed to non-citizens as well as citizens under international law. Human rights violations continue until present day notwithstanding a nominally civilian Burmese government ushered in by popular elections in March 2011.

What appears historically verified based on the current state of research is the claim that Muslims had indeed settled in Arakan (now Rakhine) prior to the Burmese conquest in 1784. But there is no historical evidence available, which proves that Muslim settlements have existed in Rakhine since the 8th century. In fact, the earliest historical sources mentioning Muslim settlers date back to the late 16th century and suggest that they had travelled on trading fleets from Bengal to Rakhine (Leider 2013).

To contest the Bengali origin and provide prove for a Rohingya ethnic identity, Rohingya advocates refer to an article published by the British ethnographer Francis Hamilton-Buchanan in 1799. He mentioned Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan and who call themselves Rooinga. However, in the Chittagonian dialect, which the Muslim settlers spoke, the name “Rohingya” means nothing but “Rakhine.” Given that the name is not mentioned in a single other historical source, it seems unlikely that the Muslims Hamilton-Buchanan met referred to a shared Rohingya identity. Instead, it appears more convincing that they simply stated their place of settlement.

In line with this British testimonies suggest that the early Muslim settlers had largely assimilated to local Rakhine society and did not articulate a separate ethnic or communal status. In the 1872 population census the British therefore simply recorded them as Arakan Muslims (Suaedy & Muhammad 2015). In other documents they further distinguished between Burmese Muslims, which referred to those who had inhabited the land prior to the arrival of the British.

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