Myanmar’s Rohingya – stateless, and to some, nameless – Nikkei Asian Review


Anuar Begum and child sit behind Anuar's mother Zeinab, inside clinic at Thay Chaung , outside Sittwe in Rakhine State (Photo: Simon Roughneen, April 2014)

Anuar Begum and child sit behind Anuar’s mother Zeinab, inside clinic at Thay Chaung , outside Sittwe in Rakhine State (Photo: Simon Roughneen, April 2014)

YANGON — Myanmar’s minority Muslim Rohingya are holding fast to their identity in the face of official discrimination, public scorn and military action.

Excluded from Myanmar’s 2014 census unless they assented to the epithet “Bengali,” most of the country’s roughly 1.1 million Rohingya live as virtual aliens in Rakhine State in western Myanmar. How long they have lived there and under what name is a highly contentious matter in Myanmar.

“The Arakanese people and the Myanmar people do not accept the term Rohingya,” said Aye Maung, chairman of the Arakan National Party, the biggest party in Rakhine State.

Like the Myanmar government, Aye Maung refers to the Rohingya as “Bengali,” implying that the Rohingya are foreigners.

Rohingya disagree. “Nobody can deny us to call ourselves by our name, that is our right,” said Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK.

A 1982 law renders Tun Khin ineligible for Myanmar citizenship, though he was born in the country and his grandfather was a parliamentary secretary during Myanmar’s post-independence period of democratic rule from 1948 to 1962. The citizenship law, Tun Khin says, “is the core cause of our problem.”

During the post-independence period, wrote former U.K. diplomat Derek Tonkin, the term Rohingya “was a designation which the Myanmar government itself quietly acknowledged and even on occasions used, though only infrequently, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.”

“It is preposterous to say there is no such group as the Rohingya,” said Matthew Walton, Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at the University of Oxford. “What does seem to be the case is that the consistent use of the term is largely, though not exclusively, a post-World War II phenomenon.”

No Myanmar official now accepts the term, even though the long-oppressed National League for Democracy won 2015 national elections. Discussing the Myanmar army’s operations near the border with Bangladesh, NLD spokesman Nyan Win said that “these people in northern Rakhine are not Burmese.”

Suu Kyi asked foreign diplomats not to use term “Rohingya,” but it seems that a directive asking local officials not to use the label “Bengali” has been ignored. A government investigation into violence in Rakhine State reported no evidence of persecution of the “Bengali” population there.


1400’s: Evidence of Muslim settlements in what is now Rakhine State in western Myanmar

1784/5: The Kingdom of Arakan (broadly, modern-day Rakhine State) conquered by the Burmese Konbaung dynasty which sent Arakanese Muslims and Buddhists fleeing into what is now Bangladesh

1790: British diplomat Hiram Cox establishes the town of Cox’s Bazaar, in modern-day Bangladesh close to the Myanmar border. The town has hosted hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in recent decades.

1799: Francis Buchanan, a Scottish doctor, travels to what is now Myanmar and notes in an article the presence of people “long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves ‘Rooinga’, or natives of Arakan.”

1824: Start of the British conquest which saw Burma incorporated into Britain’s Indian imperial possessions – initially the British East India Company – and resulting in significant migration of migrant workers from what are now India and Bangladesh to what is now Myanmar

1826: Arakan ceded to the British after the first Anglo-Burman War

1885: The 3rd Anglo-Burmese War ends with Britain’s annexation of Burma into British India and the acceleration of migration from what is now known as the Indian sub-continent to Myanmar

1942: Japanese invasion of British-held Burma during World War II and attacks on Muslims in Burma by local Buddhists who saw the Muslims as beneficiaries of British rule. Burmese nationalists sided with Japan at first, while clashes intensified between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims.

1945: With the help of Burmese nationalists who had turned on their Japanese allies, including General Aung San, father of Myanmar’s current de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the British drive the Japanese from Burma as World War II nears its end.

1948: Burma regains its independence as Britain relinquishes control over much of its empire. Tensions rise between the government and Rohingya groups, some of whom wanted Arakan to join Muslim-majority Pakistan. Government moves to remove Rohingya from civil service jobs contribute to a short-lived Rohingya insurgency.

1950s: During Burma’s decade of democratic rule, Rohingya Muslims participate in government, and official documents show the term “Rohingya” in use in Burma at the time

1961: U Thant, a Burmese diplomat, appointed secretary general of the United Nations.

1962: Military coup as General Ne Win seizes power claiming that Burma faced secession by ethnic minority regions. Rohingya and other minorities face a military crackdown

1977: Operation Nagamin, or Dragon King, ostensibly aimed at ridding Burma of foreigners. More than 200,000 Rohingya flee to Bangladesh, accusing Burma’s army of abuses, charges denied by Ne Win’s junta.

1978: A United Nations deal between Burma and Bangladesh facilitates repatriation of “Nagamin” refugees

1982: A citizenship law, still in force, effectively deprives most Rohingya of Burmese citizenship

1988: Economic crisis leads to massive student-led protests across Burma against army rule. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of independence hero Aung San, returns from Britain after many years to see her ill mother, but ends up heading the movement for democratic change. Burmese Muslims join protests against the army, which ends the demonstrations by gunning down an estimated 3,000 protestors and jailing thousands more

1989: The country’s name changed by army decree to “Myanmar,” Arakan renamed Rakhine State.

1990: Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy wins a landslide in national elections, but the military refuses to hand over control of the country.

1991: More than 250,000 Rohingya refugees flee what they describe as forced labor, abuses and religious persecution at the hands of the Myanmar army. The army claims it was trying to bring order to Rakhine. Aung San Suu Kyi awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Early 1990s: Senior General Than Shwe consolidates power as Myanmar’s military dictator, a position he does not relinquish until 2011.

1992 to 1997: Around 230,000 Rohingya return to Arakan, now known as Rakhine, under another repatriation agreement.

1997: Myanmar joins the Association of Southeast Asian Nations

2003: An NLD convoy is attacked by paramilitary thugs at Depayin in Sagaing Region, central Myanmar. NLD leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, narrowly escape assassination although more than 70 supporters are killed.

August/September 2007: Massive protests led by monks against military rule, known as the Saffron Revolution, end with an army crackdown and jailing of many demonstrators

November 2010: Myanmar’s military rulers hold elections in which several Rohingya candidates are elected. Rohingya, despite being not given full citizenship, are allowed to vote. The army-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party wins the elections – boycotted by the NLD – in a landslide, but the vote is widely dismissed as a sham. Aung San Suu Kyi released from house arrest, after nearly 15 of the preceding 20 years in detention.

2011: A quasi-cilvilian government led by former general and junta era Prime Minister Thein Sein takes office and surprises many by introducing economic reforms and political liberalization. There is no change in the status of the Rohingya however

January 2012: Many of Myanmar’s prominent political prisoners, including Muslim dissidents, are freed in a mass amnesty

June-October 2012: Rioting between Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists kills more than 100 people, mostly Rohingya. Tens of thousands of people flee eto Bangladesh and thousands more escape by boat to Thailand and Malaysia. Nearly 150,000, mostly Rohingya, are forced into camps in Rakhine, where most remain to this day. Wirathu, an anti-Islamic Buddhist monk, leads demonstrations against the Rohingya as growing anti-Muslim sentiment rises across Myanmar

2014: Myanmar’s first census since 1983 de facto excludes the Rohingya by requiring them to self-identify as “Bengali” to participate

May/June 2015: Refugee crisis as waves of Rohingya flee by boat southwards, mostly to Malaysia but also to Thailand and Indonesia. All countries reluctant to allow refugees to land. Discovery of dead bodies at migrant smuggling camps along the Thai- Malaysia border.

September 2015: So-called Race and Religion Protections Laws formally adopted by Myanmar’s parliament. The laws, first proposed by anti-Islamic Buddhist monks, discriminate against religious minorities.

November 2015: The NLD trounces the USDP in national elections. However most Rohingya are barred from voting and Rohingya candidates are denied participation. The NLD does not field any Muslim candidates.

October 2016: A little-known Rohingya militant group called Harakah al-Yaqin attacks border guard posts, killing nine soldiers. The army retaliates with a sweeping crackdown.More than 60,000 people flee to Bangladesh amid widespread reports of murder, rape and arson – mostly vehemently denied by Naypyitaw.

December 2016: Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak condemns Myanmar’s crackdown in northern Rakhine State. Protests break out in some Asian cities against Myanmar’s mistreatment of the Rohingya. Aung San Suu Kyi hosts a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers to discuss the matter

January- February 2017: A special session of the OIC in Malaysia again sees Najib Razak denounce the Myanmar government for “genocidal” policies, after which Indonesia sends Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi to negotiate with the Myanmar government. A delegation of Myanmar officials and religious leaders goes to meet Marsudi to Indonesia. When the group returns, Muslim lawyer Ko Ni, a NLD member and legal advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi, is assassinated at Yangon airport, days after Buddhist hardliners denounce moves in parliament to revise Race and Religion Protection laws that discriminate against religious minorities. Yanghee Lee, United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, warns of deterioriating human rights situation in ethnic and Muslim-dominated areas, particularly in Rakhine state, after a 12-day visit; says Myanmar government risks losing credibility. A subsequent U.N. report based in interviews with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh features multiple accounts of rape and murder commited by the Myanmar Army, prompting the government to promise an investigation.


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