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THE ROHINGYA REFUGEE CRISIS – Contexts, Problems, and Solutions
By Dr Rey Ty holds a Ph. D. in Human Rights and Peace Education
This article focuses on a case study of the extremist actions of militant Buddhists who violate the rights of entire civilian populations of other religions in Myanmar. The goal is to question the popular stereotype of all Buddhists as promoters of unconditional peace and to examine the Rohingya refugee crisis. The text begins with an overview of the historical and current contexts that gave rise to the Rohingya crisis, after which a discussion of the causes and effects of the problem is presented. It concludes by presenting the proposed agenda to solve the refugee crisis besetting the Rohingya.
There are many problems related to statelessness and refugees in Asia, such as the current tensions in Assam, India, along the Myanmar-Thailand border, and the ones affecting the Rohingya in Myanmar, to name a few. Muslim-majority Rohingyas have been living in the Rakhine State for as long as they, their parents, their grandparents, and their great grandparents can remember. Their land is between Bangladesh, to the west, and the rest of Myanmar, to the east. Myanmar, as the country is known today, is home to a multiplicity of ethnicities, religions, and languages.
The Rohingya refugee crisis is a very complex case. Both the Buddhist Arakanese and the overwhelmingly Muslim Rohingyas have been cohabitating in the general area of what is now known as the Arakan state in Myanmar and the Chittagong Division in Bangladesh since the pre-colonial era.3 Historians trace the Muslims living in the frontier between what is now known as the Arakan State in Myanmar and Bangladesh to as early as the 12th century. Through Arab traders who also doubled as missionaries, Islam came to the region in the 7th century, in the Christian Era (CE), during which they intermarried with local Buddhists as well as converted Buddhists to Islam by 788 CE.
The Arakans and the Rohingyas, as we call them now, have been living at the frontier between what we now call Bangladesh and Myanmar for centuries. For example, from 1429 to 1785, the independent Kingdom of Mrauk-U ruled over what is now known as the Rakhine State in Myanmar and the Chittagong Division in Bangladesh, where Muslims and Buddhists of different ethnicities coexisted. During this same period, this region was a protectorate of the Sultan of Bengal at different points in time. By the 18th century, it became part of the Burmese Empire.
The conflict besetting the Rohingya is the result of a civil war that started in 1948 during which British colonialists drew up the flawed map of what was known as Burma at that time. Many of the problems in the world today are the result of maps drawn by former colonialists. In the post-independence period, many ethnic groups in Burma demanded federalisation, while the Rohingya called for unification with the then East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh. Why is Myanmar faced today with several armed conflicts among different ethnic groups which consider themselves as separate nations? The primary reason is that the non-Bama ethnic groups are not fully integrated into the Bama-dominated government, politics, economy, and culture. Despite the diversity in Myanmar, only the Bama history is taught in schools. Only Bamas can engage in politics and administration.
As the dominant Bama ethnic group has economic, political and cultural hegemony over all the other ethnic groups, the latter continue to demand respect for their right to self-determination. Only the Bama version of history, Bama language, and Bama culture are taught in schools. For these reasons, many ethnic and religious minorities live as second-class citizens and therefore continue to wage civil war in Myanmar today. The minorities that continue their revolutionary struggles today include the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Rohingya, Shan, Wa and other ethnic minorities.
The Rakhine State as we know it today is the homeland of several different ethnic communities. The two major ethnic groups residing in the Rakhine State are the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist Rakhines, whose identities are not fixed but change over time. Buddhist Rakhines, formerly called the Arakanese, live along the coast of the Rakhine State, known as Arakan and the Kingdom of Mrauk-U in the past, and in the Chittagong and Barisal divisions of Bangladesh. The Rakhine State is also home to other ethnicities, such as Hindus, the Chins and the Myo. The predominantly Buddhist Arakanese Chakma, the Marmas (known as Moghs or Maghs in the past) and other peoples who inhabit the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh since the 16th century share similar, if not the same, cultural elements with the Rakhines in the Rakhine State in Myanmar.
There are also the Arakanese Buddhist Mog people who live in Tripura, India. To make the situation even more complex, other Muslim groups live in Myanmar, such as the Kamans who are the only Muslim taing-yin-tha, or members of the 135 ethnic groups officially recognized by the Burmese government. The situation for the Rohingya worsened after the military coup in 1962. On 12 February 1964, General Ne Win made the taing-yin-tha (“national races”) concept the centerpiece of Burma during his Union Day speech. All citizens were given national registration cards, while the Rohingya were given foreign identity cards, which restricted their economic and educational opportunities. The Kaman also experience discrimination because they are not Buddhists. They were themselves displaced together with the Rohingya Muslims in 2012.