Separating Fact from Fiction about Myanmar’s Rohingya

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.

Q2: How have previous governments viewed the Rohingya?

A2: Following independence from the United Kingdom, Myanmar’s 1948-1962 parliamentary government recognized the Rohingya as citizens. Prime Minister U Nu referred to the group by the name “Rohingya,” undermining the current narrative that the term is a recent invention. They were issued government identification cards and official documents, enjoyed all the benefits of citizenship, and the national public radio even broadcast several segments a week in the Rohingya language.

Maung Zarni, most recently a fellow at the London School of Economics, has uploaded several Burmese-language documents showing government recognition of the Rohingya during the government of U Nu and the early years of military dictator Ne Win’s reign. These include public statements, official radio broadcasts, government-printed books, and government-issued licenses.

Several members of Myanmar’s post-independence parliament publicly identified themselves as Rohingya. They opposed the inclusion of Rohingya-majority areas in a proposed Arakan State, which would later become Rakhine. As a result, U Nu in 1961 decided to carve out Buthidaung, Maungdaw, and part of nearby Rathedaung townships as the Mayu Frontier Administration, named after the river that runs through the area. It was administered separately from Buddhist-majority Arakan.

Life changed dramatically for the Rohingya under the military government of Ne Win. Benedict Rogers, in his Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads, cites a former minister in Ne Win’s government saying that the dictator “had ‘an unwritten policy’ to get rid of Muslims, Christians, Karens and other ethnic peoples, in that order.” Ne Win’s government systematically stripped citizenship from the Rohingya, starting with the 1974 Emergency Immigration Act and culminating with the 1982 Citizenship Law. The Rohingya-majority Mayu Frontier Administration was folded into Arakan State, and hundreds of thousands of them fled to Bangladesh during brutal crackdowns in 1978 and 1991.

Since then, the Rohingya have been systematically stripped of the rights of citizens. They have been blocked from travel, education, government assistance, land ownership, and even marriage and the right to have more than two children. They have been scrubbed from the national consciousness, and several generations in Myanmar have grown up being told by their government that the Rohingya are interlopers, stealing land and economic opportunities, with the eventual goal of overthrowing Buddhism as the country’s majority religion.

Q3: What comes next?

A3: In late March, the government of Myanmar will launch its first nationwide census in three decades. The Rohingya and many of their international defenders are concerned that the census will mark the first step in a campaign to cement their status as non-citizens. They will not be listed as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups, and many Rohingya communities have so far resisted efforts by government officials to force them to register as “Bengalis.”

There appears to be some hope, as central government officials have recently affirmed that Rohingya may self-identify as such by marking “other” and writing in their ethnicity. Whether or not they will really be free to do so remains to be seen, as local and federal officials have a history of intimidation and violence against Rohingya during previous registration and census drives.

In the long-term, the census will not end the Rohingya’s quest to be accepted as a national ethnic group. Officials assert that it will only be a statistical exercise, and that any redefinition of the country’s ethnic groups will be decided by the parliament. All the momentum in the treatment of the Rohingya seems to be moving in the wrong direction, with legislative efforts underway to cement their status as illegal immigrants.

The outcry from the international community is likely the only reason that this has not yet happened. The U.S. and UK embassies in Myanmar issued a joint statement following the violence in Du Chee Yar Tan expressing concern and calling on the government to investigate. U.S. and European officials have repeatedly raised their concerns about the Rohingya during official visits to Myanmar. And even Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa raised the issue on the sidelines of an ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in January—the first meeting Myanmar hosted as ASEAN chair this year.

All of this international opprobrium has not led to an improvement in the lives of the Rohingya, but it has helped prevent further deterioration. Myanmar officials have asked foreign counterparts stop meddling in the country’s internal affairs and have angrily demanded that foreign officials and media only rely on Myanmar government spokespersons for information on the Rohingya. These reactions show just how explosive the issue has become within Myanmar. But it also shows that the government is discomfited by the international criticism.

Continued attention from abroad, and explicit promises that Myanmar’s good relations with foreign countries will be damaged by continued abuses against the Rohingya, are essential. It is also important that international actors not accept double-speak and falsifications regarding the Rohingya and their history.

Gregory Poling is a fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative