Dr. Habib Siddiqui
An often-practised devious way to grab someone's land is to deny his right to that property. Nothing could be more horrific when a government itself gets into such a criminal practice. The most glaring example of such a crime can be seen in the practices of the regimes that have ruled Burma (now Myanmar) since its independence from Britain in 1948 (especially, since 1962 when Gen. Ne Win came to power). In our times, one can hardly find a regime that has been so atrocious, so inhuman and so barbarous in its denial of basic human rights to a people that trace their origin to the land for nearly a millennium. The victims are the Rohingya Muslims living in the Arakan (now Rakhine) state. They have become the forgotten people of our time.
The ruling junta in Myanmar do not want to know and let others know that the Rohingyas have a long history, a language, a heritage, a culture and a tradition of their own that they had built up in the Arakan through their long history of existence there. Through their criminal propaganda — to garner support among the Buddhist majority — they have been feeding so much misinformation against the Rohingya that even Joseph Goebbles must be amazed in his grave! The level of disinformation has reached such an alarming level that if you were to talk with a Burmese Buddhist, he/she would say that the Rohingyas are foreigners in Arakan; they don't belong to Burma; they belong to Bangladesh. Such allegations are unfounded. Distinguished scholar Abdul Karim writes, "In fact the forefathers of Rohingyas had entered into Arakan from time immemorial."
Brief geography and history about the place and its people: The word "Rohingya" comes from 'Rohang,' which was the original and ancient name of Arakan. The Arakan State of Myanmar, bordering Bangladesh, is mostly inhabited by two ethnic communities — the Rakhine Buddhist and the Rohingya Muslims. The Rakhine Buddhists are close to the Burmese in religion and language. The Rohingya Muslims are ethnically and religiously related to the people from the region of Chittagong in south-eastern Bangladesh. The Rohingya Muslims number approximately 3.5 million. Due to large-scale persecution through ethnic cleansing and genocidal action against them, about 1.5 million Rohingyas are forced to leave outside their ancestral homes since Burmese independence in 1948. This uprooted people now live in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Thailand and Malaysia.
Origin of the Rohingya: The original inhabitants of Rohang were Hindus, Buddhists and animists. From the pre-Islamic days, the region was very familiar to the Arab seafarers. Many settled in the Arakan, and mixing with the local people, developed the present stock of people known as ethnic Rohingya. Some historians tell us that the first Muslims to settle the Arakan were Arabs under the leadership of Muhammad ibn Hanafiya in the late 7th century (C.E.). He married the queen Kaiyapuri, who had converted to Islam. Her people then embraced Islam en masse. The peaks where they lived are still known as Hanifa Tonki and Kaiyapui Tonki.
The second major influx of early Muslims dates back to the 8th century (C.E.). The British Burma Gazetteer (1957) says, "About 788 AD Mahataing Sandya ascended the throne of Vesali, founded a new city (Vesali) on the site of old Ramawadi and died after a reign of twenty two years. In his reign several ships were wrecked on Rambree Island and the crews, said to have been Mohammedans, were sent to Arakan Proper and settled in villages. They were Moor Arab Muslims."
Later, other ethnic groups, namely — the Mughals, Turks, Persians, Central Asians, Pathans and Bengalis — also moved into the territory and mixed with these Rohingya people. The spread of Islam in the Arakan (and along the southern coastal areas of Bangladesh) mostly happened through the sea-borne Sufis and merchants. This fact is testified by the darghas (shrines), which are dotted at the long coast of the Arakan and Myanamar. The Burmese historian U. Kyi writes, "The superior morality of those devout Muslims attracted large number of people towards Islam who embraced it en masse."
Hence, the Rohingya Muslims, whose settlements in Arakan date back to the 7th century C.E., are not an ethnic group, which developed from one tribal group affiliation or a single racial stock, but are an ethnic group that developed from different stocks of people. The ethnic Rohingya is Muslim by religion with distinct culture and civilisation of their own.
Origin of the Rakhine: The other dominant group that lives in the Arakan is the Rakhine Buddhist. In the year 957 C.E., a Mongolian invasion swept over Vesali (Vaisali) — the capital city — and killed Sula Chandra, the last Hindu king of Chandra dynasty. They destroyed Vesali and placed on their throne Mongolian kings. Mohammed Ashraf Alam writes, "Within a few years the Hindus of Bengal were able to establish their Pala Dynasty. But the Hindus of Vesali were unable to restore their dynasty because of the invasion and migrations of Tibeto-Burman who were so great that their population overshadowed the Vesali Hindus. They cut Arakan away from Indians and mixing in sufficient number with the inhabitants of the eastern-side of the present Indo-Burma divide, created that Indo-Mongoloid stock now known as the Rakhine Arakanese. This emergence of a new race was not the work of a single invasion. But the date 957 AD may be said to mark the appearance of the Rakhine in Arakan, and the beginning of fresh period." They were a wild people much given to plunder, violence, cruelty, kidnapping, enslavement and sea piracy, and came to be known as the Maghs of the Arakan. History researcher Alamgir Serajuddin writes, "Their cruelty, comparable only to that of bargi marauders of later days, was a byword in Bengal. Shihabuddin Talish thus describes: "They carried off the Hindus and Muslims, male and female, great and small, few and many that they could seize, pierced the palms of their hands, passed thin canes through the holes and threw them one above another under the deck of their ships."
After the Portuguese established their settlements in Chittagong, Sandwip and Arakan during the Mughal rule of India, the Rakhine Maghs entered into a scheme of plundering Mughal territory in Bengal by making an alliance with the Portuguese pirates. So the Magh-Portuguese piracy was a menace to the peace of Bengal until 1666, when the Mughals, under the governorship of Shaista Khan (1664-1688) conquered Chittagong from the Arakanese control. That year (1666) marked the decline of the Arakanese Empire. [The Arakanese (Rakhine) Maghs left Chittagong, never to reoccupy it, which became a part of Bengal (and now Bangladesh).] However, plundering by the Magh-Portuguese pirates continued throughout the 18th century.
Historian G.E. Harvey writes, "Renell's map of Bengal, published in 1794 AD marks the area south of Backergunge 'deserted on account of the ravages of the Muggs (Arakanese)'…. The Arakan pirates, both Magh and feringhi, used to come by the water-route and plunder Bengal…. Mohammedans underwent such oppression, as they had not to suffer in Europe. As they continually practised raids for a long time, Bengal daily became more and more desolate and less and less able to resist them. Not a house was left inhabited on their side of the rivers lying on their track from Chittagong to Dacca. The district of Bakla [Backergunge and part of Dacca], which formerly abounded in houses and cultivated fields and yield a large revenue as duty on betel-nuts, was swept so clean with their broom of plunder and abduction that none was left to tenant any house or kindle a light in that region. …… When Shayista Khan asked the feringhi deserters, what salary the Magh king had assigned to them, they replied, 'Our salary was the Mughal Empire. We considered the whole of Bengal as our fief. We had not to bother revenue surveyors and ourselves about court clerks but levied our rent all the year round without difficulty. We have kept the papers of the division of the booty for the last forty years."
Because of their centuries of savagery, the Maghs of Arakan earned such a bad name that they started calling themselves the Rakhines.
The Rakhines practise Buddhism and their spoken language is pure Burmese with slight phonetic variation.
Muslim influence in Arakan: Arakan, sandwiched between Muslim-ruled India in the west and Buddhist-ruled Burma in the east, at different periods of history, had been an independent sovereign monarchy ruled by Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims. As the threat from the Burmese court of Ava grew, it turned westward for protection. After Bengal became Muslim in 1203 C.E., Islamic influence grew significantly in Arakan to the degree of establishing a Muslim vassal state there in 1430 C.E. In 1404, the Arakan king, dethroned by the Burmese, took asylum in Gaur (the capital of Bengal) and pleaded for help to regain the lost throne. Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah, the Sultan of Bengal, sent General Wali Khan at the head of 50,000 soldiers to conquer Arakan. Wali Khan drove the Burmese and took control of power over Arakan for himself, introduced Persian as the court language of Arakan and appointed Muslim judges (Qazis). Jalaluddin then sent a second army under General Sandi Khan who overthrew Wali Khan and restored the exiled monarch (Mong Saw Mwan who took the title of Sulayman Shah) to the throne of Arakan in 1430.
Mong Saw Mwan's Muslim soldiers settled in Arakan and established the Sandi Khan mosque in Mrhaung. They eventually became the kingmakers during the Mrauk-U dynasty. The practice of adopting a Muslim name or title by the Arakanese kings continued until 1638. Bisveswar Bhattacharya sums up the position thus, "As the Mohammedan influence was predominant, the Arakanese kings, though Buddhist in religion, became somewhat Mohammedanised in their ideas…"
In 1660, the Mughal Prince Shah Shuja fled to Arakan. This important event brought a new wave of Muslim immigrants to the kingdom of Arakan.
Dr. Muhammad Enamul Haq and Abdul Karim Shahitya Bisharad in their work "Bengali Literature in the Court of Arakan 1600-1700" state that "[T]he Arakanese kings issued coins bearing the inscription of Muslim Kalema (the profession of faith in Islam) in Arabic script. The State emblem was also inscribed Arabic word Aqimuddin (establishment of God's rule over the earth)." The Arakanese court's adoption of many Muslim customs and terms were other noteworthy signs to the influence of Islam. Mosques began to dot the countryside and Islamic customs, manners and practices came to be established since this time.
From 1685 to 1710, the political power of Arakan was completely in the hand of the Muslims. Muslim rule and/or influence in Arakan lasted altogether for approximately 350 years until it was invaded and occupied by Burmese king Boddaw Paya on 28 December 1784. The latter is responsible for destroying everything Islamic in Arakan and sowing the seed of distrust between the two communities – Rohingya and Rakhine.
Arakan in post-1784 era: Arakan was neither a Burmese nor an Indian territory till 1784. It had managed to retain its independent (or semi-independent) status for most of its existence. In 1784 thousands of Arakanese, Rohingya and Buddhists alike, were killed, and their mosques, dargas and temples destroyed by the Burmese soldiers. During the 40-year Burmese tyrannical rule (1784-1824), nearly two-thirds or 200,000 Arakanese were forced to take refuge in Chittagong (Bengal).
The First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26) ended on 24 February 1826 when Burma ratified the Treaty of Yandabo and ceded Arakan and Tenasserim to British India. At that time, nearly a third of the population of Arakan was Muslims. Burma was separated from British India on 1 April 1937 under the Government of India Act of 1935. Arakan was made a part of British Burma against the wishes of its people and thus finally Arakan became a province of independent Burma in 1948.
For centuries, the Rohingya Muslims coexisted relatively peacefully with the Rakhine Buddhists. However, this changed around the Second World War, when communal riots erupted between the two ethnic groups at the instigation of third parties, most notably the British Raj. The bitterness was fuelled by the pogrom of March 28, 1942 in which about 100,000 Rohingyas were massacred and about 80,000 had to flee their ancestral homes. 294 Rohingya villages were totally destroyed. Since then the relationship between the two communities deteriorated.
After Burma's independence in 1948, Muslims carried out an unsuccessful armed rebellion demanding an autonomous state within the Union of Burma. This resulted in a backlash against the Muslims that led to their removal from civil posts, restrictions on their movement, and confiscation of their property.
Under the military regime of General Ne Win, beginning in 1962, the Muslim residents of Arakan were labelled illegal immigrants who settled in Burma during British rule. The government at the centre made efforts to drive them out of Burma, starting with the denial of citizenship. The 1974 Emergency Immigration Act took away Burmese nationality from the Rohingyas, making them foreigners in their own country.
As of 1999, there have been no less than 20 major operations of eviction campaigns against the Rohingyas carried out by the successive Governments of Burma. In pursuance of the 20-year Rohingya Extermination Plan, the Arakan State Council under direct supervision of State Council of Burma carried out a Rohingya drive operation code named Naga Min or King Dragon Operation. It was the largest, the most notorious and probably the best-documented operation of 1978. The operation started on 6th February 1978 from the biggest Muslim village of Sakkipara in Akyab, which sent shock waves over the whole region within a short time. News of mass arrest of Muslims, male and female, young and old, torture, rape and killing in Akyab frustrated Muslims in other towns of North Arakan. In March 1978 the operation reached at Buthidaung and Maungdaw. Hundreds of Muslim men and women were thrown into the jail and many of them were being tortured and killed. Muslim women were raped freely in the detention centres. Terrified by the ruthlessness of the operation and total uncertainty of their life, property, honour and dignity, a large number Rohingya Muslims left their homes to cross the Burma-Bangladesh border. Within 3 months more than 3,00,000 Rohingyas took shelter in makeshift camps erected by Bangladesh Government. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recognised them as genuine refugees and started relief operations.
On 18 July 1991 a more dreadful Rohingya extermination campaign code named "Pyi Thaya" was launched. This involved killing and raping of Rohingyas, and destroying their properties, plus places of worship. It forced Rohingyas again to seek shelter in Bangladesh. In recent years, while some Rohingyas have returned to Arakan as a result of Bangladesh-Myanmar bilateral agreement, still there are many who are afraid to return to their ancestral homes.
Due to the divide and rule policy of the Myanmar government, the relationship between the Rakhine and the Rohingya have become increasingly strained without any trust. The Rakhines, as a matter of fact, have become Rohingya's worst enemies. With very few exceptions, the Rakhines want to cleanse the Arakan of the Rohingya.
In Myanmar, the Rohingyas have been denied their citizenship, uprooted from their ancestral homes and forced to live as refugees and illegal immigrants in Bangladesh.
Solution to the problem: The Rohingya people need help to publicise their plight and their right to live as a free nation. The Buddhist military regimes that have ruled Myanmar are brutal, savage and tyrannical. They cannot be either a guarantor or a protector of human rights of minorities. They will use and have been using their barbarity against the minority Rohingyas to justify prolonging their illegitimate rule in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. So, the plight of the Rohingyas, regrettably, is not a matter of concern for many otherwise good-natured Buddhists.
The Rohingyas need world body to wake up to the reality of their sufferings and pains. They need to mobilise world bodies, especially the UN, to grant them the same privilege that has been granted to the people in south Sudan and East Timor. There is no other way to solve this problem now. Citizens around the globe simply cannot afford to remain silent spectators to this gruesome tragedy of our time. They must act and help to solve the problem.
In the meantime, for easing the sufferings of the Rohingya Diaspora, the UNHCR must maintain its support for the material well-being of Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh. The UNHCR must continue its direct involvement in refugee protection, ensuring the voluntary nature of refugee returns to Myanmar, and providing logistical support to repatriation as required. And the Government of Bangladesh must cease all pressure on Rohingya refugees to repatriate.
Dr. Habib Siddiqui can be reached at: email@example.com