Backgrounder: the Rohingya of Myanmar
September 19, 2012
The are an ethnic and religious minority of South Asia, mostly living in Myanmar. Their numbers are disputed, as are their origins in the region, but traditional animosities between the Rohingya and other ethnic groups, the Buddhist majority of Myanmar in particular, have resulted in considerable conflict over the years. A renewed wave of violence towards the Rohingya began in the summer of 2012, raising the international profile of this troubled region. According to the United Nations, the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted groups in the world.
Culture and Demographics
Though organizations representing Rohingya interests claim that the Rohingya have existed in Myanmar since the early Middle Ages, the modern origins of Myanmar’s Rohingya community can be reliably traced to the late 19th century, when the British colonial government began to encourage Arab, Indian, and Bengali immigration as a source of inexpensive labour.
Nowadays, Rohingya populations in Myanmar are situated primarily in Rakhine, a state on the western coast that is cut off from central Myanmar by the Arakan Mountains. Census records indicate that there are approximately 800,000 of them currently living in Myanmar; however, pro-Rohingya advocacy organizations dispute this number, instead claiming that there are over 2 million in the country and a million more in surrounding nations. Given the systemic marginalization of the Rohingya that has occurred in the past, it is likely that the official records underestimate the true population.
The Rohingya practice a unique form of Sunni Islam with elements of Sufi mysticism. Their style of worship is fairly rigid, with men attending religious houses to pray while women pray at home. Those who seek education typically pursue religious studies in their communities, though this is mostly due to the limited opportunities afforded to them elsewhere. They also have their own language and alphabet. Most Burmese Rohingya are farmers, and their labour accounts for a considerable amount of the agricultural output of Rakhine.
Rohingya interactions with foreign and local governments have historically been violent. During World War II, the Japanese invaded Myanmar, seizing the country and chasing off British forces. In the ensuing chaos, the Rohingya were brutally targeted by both the Japanese forces and by other Burmese and Rakhine-native ethnic groups, causing a significant number to flee. Following the war, there was a fairly strong movement in Rakhine for Rohingya sovereignty until it was suppressed by a campaign carried out by the military government of the 1960s and 1970s.
The Myanmar government then continued to oppress the Rohingya as part of a wider divide-and-rule strategy that kept ethnic minorities ostracized and excluded from mainstream politics. To an extent, this practice continues today. The Rohingya, with their claimed Arabic heritage, distinct language, and Islamic faith were obvious targets for the government to seize on and incite zealous nationalism, all in order to distract from its own autocratic policies. In the 1980s, the government passed legislation classifying the Rohingya as a stateless people, legally denying them recognition as citizens of Myanmar.
Recently, there has been an increase of ethnic conflict in Rakhine, and it is being called the “2012 Rakhine State Riots.” The conflict is between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the Rakhine Rohingya. It began in early June 2012, when Rakhine Buddhists killed several Rohingya in apparent retaliation for the rape and murder of a Rakhine Buddhist woman. Though reports are unreliable, at least hundreds of Rohingya have been killed and tens of thousands have been displaced. The Myanmar government has enacted emergency measures and allowed the military to temporarily govern the region in an attempt to restore order, but they too have been accused of perpetrating violence against the Rohingya. Amidst this conflict, the government has announced its intention to expel the Rohingya from Rakhine and from the country as a whole.
The 2012 riots and recent UN investigations which dubbed the Rohingya one of the most oppressed people on earth have drawn international media attention towards this hitherto obscure ethnic conflict. Though the Burmese government was mostly successful in eliminating the Rohingya sovereignty movement of the 1970s, some militants are still active in Rakhine. Moreover, international advocacy groups and associations that represent the political and human rights of the Rohingya people in Myanmar maintain a commitment to pursue at least some form of Muslim autonomy in the Burmese state.
These factors, combined with explicit government declarations on the removal of the Rohingya from Myanmar and its disavowal of responsibility for them as citizens could very well lead to a revival of the sovereignty movement. Given their exclusion from Burmese society, it is unlikely that the state possesses sufficient instruments to locate and forcibly expel the Rohingya. It remains to be seen if the government’s desire to have the Rohingya gone- reinforced by pressure from the Buddhist population- is strong enough that leaders would permit separation of the Rohingya areas of Rakhine or some form of semi-autonomous self-governance.
The plight of the Rohingya may also have regional repercussions. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its fledgling Human Rights Council might find itself having to take an interest in the situation if media attention continues to illuminate the violence. Should ASEAN leaders fail to do so, it could be diminish the credibility of their already-dubious record on human security, creating a good deal of political embarrassment in the process.
Time-line of the Rakhine Rohingya
700-800: earliest Muslim settlements in present-day Rakhine and the surrounding area
1890s: Burma is a colony of the British Empire. British colonial government began to encourage Arab, Indian, and Bengali immigration to present-day Rakhine to increase agricultural output.
1942: The Japanese conquer Burma, British rulers are forced to retreat.
1942-1945: Systematic violence is carried out against the Rohingya, by ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and by Japanese occupiers. Tens of thousands of Rohingya flee to neighbouring countries as refugees.
1962: The Burmese government begins a campaign of violence against Rohingya militants fighting for self-determination.
1978: The Burmese government, labelling the Rohingya as illegal settlers from Bangladesh, conduct “Operation King Dragon” to expel them. International pressure eventually forces Burmese leaders to halt the operation.
1982: Rohingya are officially classified as non-citizens of Burma by a new piece of legislation.
1991: “Operation King Dragon” begins anew. Due to disapproval of the authoritarian State Law and Order Council (SLORC), international pressure comes more swiftly, and the Burmese leadership quickly halts the operation again.
2012: Rohingya in Rakhine rape and murder an ethnic Rakhine Buddhist woman. In retaliation, Rakhine Buddhists kill ten Rohingyas. The 2012 Rakhine State Riots begin. Burmese leaders enact emergency military measures in Rakhine. Thousands of Rohingyas disappear, are killed, or flee the country. Buddhist monks, with long-standing ties to the military, hold anti-Rohingya demonstrations. In response, the government announces its intention to expel the Rohingya from the country.
Zak Rose is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com