Separating Fact from Fiction about Myanmar’s Rohingya
Written By Gregory B. Poling
Director, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, and Fellow, Southeast Asia Program
February 13, 2014
Rakhine State in western Myanmar has been the site of repeated outbreaks of violence between the Buddhists majority and its Muslim Rohingya minority, most recently on January 13. The details of what happened remain unclear, but it seems that dozens were killed. This follows widespread violence in 2012 that left more than 200 dead and 140,000 displaced.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says it has credible evidence that at least 48 Rohingya were killed on January 13 during an attack by their Buddhist Rakhine neighbors and security forces. The non-governmental organization Doctors Without Borders said its personnel treated 22 Rohingya who were wounded during the attack. The government of Myanmar has denied any large-scale violence occurred, insists only one policeman died, and has refused calls for an international investigation.
All the details might never become known, but the incident in Du Chee Yar Tan, and the government’s angry and dismissive reaction, have refocused international attention on the larger plight of the Rohingya. Strangers in their own country, they are disenfranchised, discriminated against, and subject to unpredictable cycles of violence. Many in Myanmar, including prominent Buddhist monks and political leaders among the Buddhist Rakhine ethnic group, demand that they be driven from Myanmar by any means necessary.
Rohingya have few defenders within Myanmar, with hatred of them seeming to be one of the few issues that can bridge the country’s political divide. Any public figure who stands up for them can expect to be persona non grata. The narrative of the Rohingya has been overtaken by fiction, with their place in Myanmar’s history expunged by a succession of military governments looking for scapegoats and aided by the country’s already strong sense of Buddhist nationalism.
Q1: Who are the Rohingya?
A1: The Rohingya are a Muslim minority living in Myanmar’s Rakhine State and adjacent areas of neighboring Bangladesh. They are not recognized by the Myanmar government as an official ethnic group and are denied citizenship. Their population within Myanmar has been estimated at roughly 800,000. Most of this population lives in the townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung, where Rohingya are the majority, as well as in neighboring towns and the state capital, Sittwe.
Myanmar’s government claims that the Rohingya are not eligible for citizenship under the country’s military-drafted 1982 Citizenship Law. That document defines full citizens as members of ethnic groups that had permanently settled within the boundaries of modern-day Myanmar prior to 1823, the year before the first Anglo-Burman War. The government of General Ne Win drew up a list of the 135 ethnic groups that supposedly meet this requirement. That list is still in use by Myanmar’s current civilian government.
The British colonial government encouraged immigration to Myanmar from modern-day India and Bangladesh. This is a source of continued resentment within Myanmar, which is why 1823 was used as a cut-off for citizenship. The dominant narrative within the country is that the term “Rohingya” is a recent invention, and those who claim to belong to the group are actually the descendants of these colonial-era immigrants from Bangladesh.
But this narrative is demonstrably false. In 1799, Francis Buchanan, a surgeon with the British East India Company, traveled to Myanmar and met members of a Muslim ethnic group “who have long settled in Arakan [Rakhine], and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan.” That would indicate there were self-identified Rohingya living in Rakhine at least 25 years before the 1823 cut-off for citizenship.
Even if the name “Rohingya” is too taboo to be accepted inside Myanmar, the historical record is clear that the ethnic group itself has existed in Arakan, or Rakhine State, for centuries. A significant Muslim population lived in the independent Kingdom of Mrauk-U that ruled modern-day Rakhine State from the mid-fifteenth to late eighteenth centuries. Many of the Buddhist kings of Mrauk-U even took Muslim honorifics. The evidence suggests that this community is the origin of today’s Rohingya. The group likely assimilated later waves of immigrants from Bangladesh during and after British rule, but it did not begin with them. Read more ›