The Unwanted People: A Story Behind One of the World’s Most Persecuted Minorities

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The Unwanted People: A Story Behind One of the World’s Most Persecuted Minorities
By Ramon Fernandez , European Integration History , Address: Rende, Calabria, Italy.

Not so many people were acquainted with the issue of Rohingya prior to the communal conflict that erupted in 2012. In fact, the conflict has brought the “hidden” issue to the surface, to a new level of visibility particularly among common people. Nevertheless, there is still relatively plenteous unknown patency behind the tragedy that occurred to the Rohingyas, besides a simple fact that it is an ethnoreligious conflict between Buddhist majority of Burman and Arakanese against the Muslim minority of Rohingya. The United Nations, indeed, even has regarded the Rohingyas as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities and among the world’s least wanted.

Introduction — Not so many people were acquainted with the issue of Rohingya prior to the communal conflict that erupted in 2012. In fact, the conflict has brought the “hidden” issue to the surface, to a new level of visibility particularly among common people. Nevertheless, there is still relatively plenteous unknown patency behind the tragedy that occurred to the Rohingyas, besides a simple fact that it is an ethnoreligious conflict between Buddhist majority of Burman and Arakanese against the Muslim minority of Rohingya. The United Nations, indeed, even has regarded the Rohingyas as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities1 and among the world’s least wanted.2

This paper observes three major issues that are strongly linked and contributed to the creation of predicament for the Rohingyas. Comprehending these three issues are pivotal in order to see and possess thorough understanding about the Rohingyas. The first issue covers the problem that related to the legal status of the Rohingyas. Second, the issue that related with the human rights abuse that happened toward the Rohingyas. Third, the issue of Buddhist fundamentalism.

The Birth of The Stateless Rohingya — The statelessness of Rohingya is a product of legal-political process conducted by the Burmese regime ever since the birth of modern Burma. The main driving force behind this policy has been the (political) stance of the Burmese authority that does not consider the Rohingya as a part of its native population (shown by the Panglong Agreement). In fact, the origin of Rohingya is still debatable hitherto. Both sides, the Burmese and the pro-Rohingya, claim to have the most precise argument regarding the origin of Rohingya.

Based on the point of view of Burmese historians, Khin Maung Saw, for example, stated that there had never been the term “Rohingya” before 1950’s (when the Mujahids changed their name into “Rohingyas”) supported by the fact that there was no such name as “Rohingya” in the Census of India 1921 (Burma) compiled by G.G Granthan, I.C.S (Superintendant of Census Operation Burma) or in the Burma Gazetter, Akyab District compiled by R.B Smart.3 Aye Chan, a historian from Kanda University of International Studies, shares similarity about the terminology of “Rohingya”, in which she believes it came to use not before the 1950’s. However, her opinion differs from historian Khin Maung Saw arugued previously.

He argued that the educated Bengali residents from the Mayu Frontier Area, northwestern part of Arakan, were figures behind the inception of the term Rohingya.4 She asserted that the creators of the term might have been from the second or third generation of Bengali immigrants from Chittagong District in modern Bangladesh; however, it does not mean that there was no Muslim community in Arakan before the state was absorbed into British India.5 On the contrary, Arakan historian expert Dr. Jacques P. Leider has different opinion regarding the Rohingya. During the interview with the Irrawaddy, a Burmese news magazine, he stated that:6

“(The term Rohingya) appeared for the first time at the end of the 18th century in the report of an Englishman who went to the Chittagong area, the Rakhine (Arakan) area. His name was Francis Buchanan-Hamilton.” Thus, he questioned the argument stating that the terminology of Rohingya had just started to be used for the first time not before 1950’s. Francis Buchanan-Hamilton stated in the article he wrote in 1779 that; ”I shall now add three dialects, spoken in the Burma Empire, but evidently derived from the language of the Hindu nation. The first is that spoken by the Mohammedans7, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan.”8

Imtiaz Ahmed (2010), proposed two theories related to the origin of Rohingya.9 The first theory argues that the Rohingya is a mix of group of people with many ethnic and racial connections, such as Moorish, Arab, and Persian traders, including Moghul, Turk, Pathan, and Bengali soldiers and migrants, who arrived between the 9th and 15th centuries. Later, they married local women and settled in the region permanently.

Meanwhile, the second theory refers to the argument that the Muslim population of the Rakhine or Arakan was mostly Bengali migrants from the erstwhile East Pakistan and now Bangladesh, with some Indians coming during the British colonial period. The second theory is even supported by the fact that most of the Rohingya populations speak Bengali with a “Chittagonian dialect” (which was also Porto-Bengali of Ancient Chandra Dynasty of Arakan). The Government of Myanmar and the majority of Burman-Buddhist population prefer this theory since it gives justification that the Rohingyas cannot but be but illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. 10

Notwithstanding with the controversy, regarding whether the terminology and the origin of Rohingya have existed since more than two centuries ago or it was just a recent “invention”, the presence of Muslim community in the northwestern part of Arakan has been confirmed even older than the age of modern Burma itself.11 The internal political turmoil that happened in Burma following its independence had, indeed, contributed directly to the institutionalization (legalization) of the Rohingya’s statelessness.

The 1982 Citizenship Law is considered to be the source of the statelessness of Rohingya. Compared to previous laws, the 1982 Citizenship Law is considerably stricter in defining citizenship criteria, thus broadened the scope of de jure statelessness to greater part of population. In the previous laws, both of the principles of jus sanguins and jus soli were used to determine Burmese citizenship. Hence, persons who were not belong to any native ethnic groups of Burma mentioned in the constitution, could still be regarded as Burma citizen as long they could provide proof that their ancestors had lived in Burma prior the British occupation in 1823.

Those who were not able to prove still could apply for naturalization under the Union Citizenship (Election) Act 1948 with one of the requirements was able to speak any indigenous language. On the contrary, the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law, emphasizes heavily on the principle of jus sanguinis. The law also established a so-called kasta (caste) or hierarchy of citizenship, as what has been explained previously in the first chapter; (1) Full citizens; (2) Associate citizens; and (3) Naturalized citizens.

The main effect of this hierarchy lies on the list of rights linked to each category. The first “class” of the citizenship, indeed, obtains full rights and access of state services, while the other two only receive limited rights, particularly political rights, and access to public service. Burmese government argued the hierarchical system is pivotal for the national interest and security, as as what was stated by U Ne Win, former Burma Socialist Programme Party Chairman:12 “Such being their predicament, we accept them as citizens, say but leniency on humanitarian ground cannot be such as to endanger ourselves. We can leniently give them the right to live in this country and carry on a livelihood in the legitimate way. But we will have to leave them out in matters involving the affairs of the country and the destiny of the State.”

The Rohingyas cannot be classified in the first type of citizenship due to their exclusion as one of the Burmese’s native groups. Furthermore, their incapability in proving their existence prior the British occupation hinders them from being included to the remaining classes. In fact, the inability to prove their existence since decades or centuries ago were caused not only due to the lack of access to written records and difficulty in accessing government-controlled areas for registration, but also because of the unwillingness of the government officials to register them as what also happened to other minority groups.  

Conclusion — In conclusion, there are three chief factors that affect directly the plight of Rohingya, they are: the status of statelessness, the human rights abuse as the result of the absence of nationality, and the rise of Buddhist fundamentalism that leads to the amplification of the degree of the persecution against the Rohingya. For details please read Original PDF Copy of this Article.

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