The Historical Roots of the Rohingya-Burma Conflict

Muarif, Mariama

Chowdhury, Zaian F.

Sohail, Neelum

Lim, Hong Jie

Bjornberg, Anders


  • Student documentary film
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The Rohingya Muslims in Burma are one of the world’s most persecuted ethnic minorities. Living in the Rakhine states in the Burma-Bangladesh border, the Rohingyas are not recognized as one of Burma’s 135 minorities. Recent ethnic clashes between the Rohingya and the Buddhists have forced many out of their homes and into Bangladesh as refugees. Their plight has also attracted the attention of the United Nations, which called for Myanmar to stop ethnic violence and free political prisoners in 2013.
Aung Win, a Rohingya leader called the Burmese persecution apartheid and genocide. Most of the recent news reports trace the history of persecution to Ne Win’s regime from 1962 onwards. However, we suggest that Rohingya statelessness needs to be seen as part of a longer historical process of conflict and persecution. There are two main understandings of the Rohingyas’ history in Arakan (Rakhine). The first understanding claims that the Rohingyas are the descendants of traders and migrants who arrived in Arakan centuries earlier. Therefore, the Rohingyas have a long history of settlement and their histories can be traced to the Mrauk-U Kingdom of Arakan nestled between Bengal and Burma.
The second understanding of Rohingya history, however, sees the Rohingyas as recent migrants from Bengal, and therefore not deserving of citizenship. Proponents of this view cite common language, religion, and culture of the Rohingya and the Bengalis as evidence of this recent migration. The Rohingyas live in an area that Willem van Schendel calls the Bengal borderland, implying the presence of layered and often competing contested identities.
Actually, in trying to explain the current Rohingya crisis, many people don’t look back nearly far enough. Actually Rohingya have a very long history in the region, tracing back to the colonial period and actually the dominion of the Arakan Kingdom before that. Formerly before the borders that we now know were drawn at all, Arakan Kingdom was was a very powerful kingdom, totally independent of Burma. And at certain times the borders were quite fluid, and at certain times even Chittagong, sometimes even Dhaka, were part of the Arakan kingdom. So, during that period mobility was quite flexible.
We don’t know when exactly this ethnic group that we now call the Rohingya, what they were doing at that time or where they came from. We do know that in the colonial period there was a, there were large migrations back-and-forth. And it’s quite, many people are now saying that the Rohingya where a group of migrant laborers who migrated to, from what we now know as Chittagong over into Arakan kingdom at some point to fill some sort of labor need, and to work as farmers. So, that group, I think that that is actually quite important in understanding the current situation, that they migrated as laborers in the past.
So, what we now see is a nationalist problem or a communal problem, it can get sort of described in all these different ways, I think that if we look far back in history we can see that it is also a class problem. I’ve talked to different Arakanese people who say that there is no such thing as the Rohingya. Rohingya is just a word that we invented, that was invented in the 1970s and really just means “homeless”. So these so-called Rohingya are just you know homeless vagrants.
British colonial rule in Arakan from 1824 onwards, moreover, had adversely impacted the India Burma relations in three main ways: first British annexation of Arakan
after the First Anglo-Burmese War saw the imposition of an artificial boundary between Burma and India, and encouraged the movement of Muslim Arakanese whose grandparents had led Arakan to due to the Burmese occupation. This tied the position of Muslim Arakanese to the British in Burma. Second, the colonial division of labor led to a reorganization of land and labor, and brought about the steady movement of Indian population from the west to the east to cultivate rice.
The Indians also filled colonial administrative positions in the former Burmese Empire. This was in keeping with the British focus on cultivation and the export of raw materials from its colonies to meet the demands of global markets. This imperial division of labor led to the Arakan Buddhists being displaced and culminated in the 1930s anti-Muslim riots. This division of labor also conflated native Rohingya Muslims with recent immigrants, thus hardening the divide between the Arakan Buddhists and the Muslims. Third, the British defeated the Japanese in 1945 further contributed to the Rohingya-Burmese conflict because the Arakan Buddhists collaborated with the Japanese and forced many Muslim Arakanese to flee Arakan. Arakan subsequently became divided into a Muslim North and a Buddhist south.
However, the Rohingyas themselves were also partly a cause of their alienation and displacement. After the Japanese occupation the Rohingya Mujahideen adopted the use of violence to resist the Burmese state. They fought and controlled most of Arakan by 1949, and threatened Burma’s territorial integrity. This provoked further persecution and the Rohingyas were targeted by the Arakanese territorial forces.
Lastly, Ne Win’s rule over Burma from 1962 onwards institutionalized this divide between the Buddhist and the Rohingyas. His harsh policies, like the reclamation of frontier areas were motivated by his need for the legitimacy. For example, Operation Dragon King was a national effort to register citizens and pick up foreigners living in Burma.
Sweeping checks of papers were conducted to purge Burma of illegal immigrants. However, it turned into a large-scale violent crackdown targeted at the Rohingya Muslims. Destruction of mosques and religious persecution ensued. They were also cases of execution, rape, and brutality, leading Rohingyas to flee Burma into Bangladesh. Additionally, the Burmese government passed the Burmese Citizenship Law. This law’s response to Operation Golden Bird that saw the repatriation of Rohingyas from Bangladesh. Under this law, the Rohingya were described as non-nationals, And did not fit within the three categories of citizenship.
They are noncitizens. In Burma the Rohingya are completely stateless, they have no National rights, they have no rights even at the international level because clearly they are being denied services. So yeah, you are asking whether about them being non-citizens. Yes, I think that’s complete the accurate. . And that itself explains a lot about why the problem persists. Is that as long as they are not able to access citizenship rights, as long as they are not able to access, To make claims on nationality, They are not going to have, Nothing is going to get better for them, It’s going to continue like this.
Technically, They were Burmese citizens. They were granted something resembling citizenship in 1947 at the time of partition. And they held onto that until the early 80s. But in 1982 under the Ne Win policies they completely reconfigured citizenship laws in a way that conspired to leave pretty much only the Rohingya out. So they said okay we are going to have new ID cards, a new system, and the Rohingyas all got lost in the lost in the mail or something.
In conclusion, the Rohingya-Burman conflict is not merely a contemporary issue. Instead, the conflict has deep-seated historical roots and has been worsened by colonization, the Japanese occupation, and the Burman nation-building process.. Therefore we are still struggling with the questions of whether the Rohingya-Buddhist conflict is largely a legacy of British colonization or not, whether the Burmese state excludes that Rohingyas because of Burmese nationalism and the need to create a homogenous Burman State, and if the are historical roots of the conflict can help us in possibly solving the Rohingya-Buddhist conflict in any way.