Rohingya Muslim refugees have invited worldwide attention for quite some time now. They are widely perceived as world’s most ‘persecuted minority’. Who are Rohingya? In a way it depends on whom you ask- and that itself may be the core to the conflict. To most of the world, Rohingya are Muslim minority in Myanmar; the Buddhist nation in Southeast Asia. But for Myanmar government Rohingya do not exist at all; instead arguing that they are Bengalis who entered the region during the British rule or later as illegal immigrants after Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971.
Myanmar’s security operations against Rohingya Muslims forced the United Nations to dub those as a ‘text book case of ethnic cleansing”. Out of an estimated population of about two million, only 400,000 of them now reside in Myanmar, mostly in Northern part of Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh and India. Rest of the Rohingya population has been driven out of their country and are living as refugees in Southeast Asian Countries, Saudi Arabia, UAE and in small numbers in the USA, Canada and Ireland. Contrary to the common belief that prior to current crisis Rakhine was home only to the Buddhists and Muslims, truth, however, is that it also has a small but longstanding population of Hindu minority and some other ethnic groups.
Rohingya population is concentrated in Arakan region (now Rakhine state of Myanmar), an old coastal country in Southeast Asia. It is not clear as to who the original settlers of Arakan were. Burmese nationalists say that the Rakhine inhabited Arakan since 3000 BCE but that claim is not supported by any archaeological evidence. Ever since the time of Mauryan Empire, Arakan, with its coastline along the Bay of Bengal, was a key center of maritime trade and cultural exchange between Burma and the outside world. Some historians claim that, since very early times, Arab merchants would travel to Arakan through the Bay of Bengal. They used Southern branch of Silk Route in the region to travel to India and China. Rohingya trace their history to this period. Besides locals converting to Islam, Arab merchants married local women and later settled in Arakan. Because of intermarriages and conversion, the Muslim population in Arakan grew. Modern day Rohingya believe they descended from these early Muslim communities.
During almost 125 years of British rule (1824-1948), there was a significant migration of labourers from present day India and Bangladesh to Burma, now called Myanmar. Though during the British rule such a movement, legally speaking, was an internal migration of cheap labour force yet the native population viewed it negatively. Interestingly, when demand for formation of Pakistan was gaining momentum in undivided India, Rohingya people, considering their religious and geographical affinity to East Bengal, raised a demand for merger with Pakistan. They even approached M.A. Jinnah who, however, spurned the proposal as he did not wish to meddle in the internal affair of Myanmar.
Immediately after independence from the British in 1948, Myanmar passed the ‘Union Citizenship Act’ that listed the ethnicities that could gain citizenship rights. Rohingya were not included in this list. This Act, however, permitted those families, of Rohingya and other left out ethnicities, who had lived in Myanmar for two generations to apply for domicile ‘Identity Cards’. Rohingya were initially not only granted such identity but, in some cases, even bestowed full Citizenship rights under the ‘Generational Provisions’. Many a Rohingya were even elected to the Myanmar parliament.
Post 1962 military coup in Myanmar, plight of Rohingya worsened. All Myanmar citizens were now required to obtain ‘National Registration Cards’. Under the new rules, Rohingya were only eligible for ‘Foreign Identity Cards’ thus restricting their chances of pursuing education or taking up jobs. Thereafter, ‘Citizenship Law of 1982’ effectively rendered Rohingya stateless. This law recognized only 135 ethnic groups as citizens of Myanmar. Rohingya were left out of this list thus severely restricted their freedom and right to live in Myanmar. For Rohingya, it has been a saga of bitter persecution.
Current Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar
The fact that Buddhists, backed by the government, consider Rohingya as illegal settlers in Myanmar has resulted in intense hostility between two the sides and that, in fact, is core to the present conflict. There have been claims and counter claims of atrocities by the two sides. Rohingya claim that persistent military crackdowns since 1970s on their settlements in Rakhine state have forced thousands to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh and other Southeast Asian countries. On the other hand, Myanmar government blamed Rohingya groups for killing nine border police personnel in October 2012, a claim that led to a massive cracked-down on Rohingya villages by the troops. It is alleged that a wave of human-rights abuses and extrajudicial killings was thus unleashed, prompting UN to accuse Myanmar government of ethnic cleansing. Human Rights activists claim that, in August 2017, Myanmar troops resorted to indiscriminate firing at unarmed Rohingya men, women and children. Myanmar government was quick to deny such excesses by its troops, instead claiming that 100 people were killed when Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) launched a raid on police out posts.
In February 2018, Associated Press released a video purportedly of a site of a massacre and of, at least, five undisclosed mass graves of Rohingya in Myanmar. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), ever since commencement of latest military campaign in August 2017, Myanmar government has razed to ground about 362 villages, once populated by Rohingya, thus destroying with them the evidence of crimes against this minority. This unprecedented military crackdown against Rohingya even prompted India’s MEA to ask Myanmar government to exercise ‘restraint and maturity’. There is no denying the fact that Myanmar military and government-backed Buddhist vigilante groups are behind burning down villages and shooting down those who try to escape death as part of their ‘scotched earth’ policy.
The de facto leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi- once considered global human rights icon- played down this international outrage over the recent violence in Rakhine by blaming terrorists for spreading misinformation. Critics have assailed her response to the Rohingya crisis and some even demanding revocation of her Nobel Peace Prize. However, her supporters defend her claiming that she has done what she must to maintain Myanmar’s fragile democracy.
Rohingya’s Tryst with Armed Insurgency
Much before Myanmar government’s repressive policy and institutionalized discrimination, extremist wings of Rohingya had attacked nearly 30 police posts and an army base camp in Maungdaw district of Myanmar costing government forces 71 fatalities. Besides, Rohingya were even involved in attacking border posts, blowing bridges and killing policemen. ARSA is known to be involved in terror activities in Myanmar.
Rohingya crisis has also drawn the attention of Islamic State of Iraq & Syria (IS). In 2014, IS declared the Rakhine state a ‘key region for jihad’. However, this terror group has long been struggling to operationalize its intentions among Rohingya. A possible reason for its inability to do so could be dearth of suitable recruits from within the Rohingya population. Typically, IS militants hail from the educated urban backgrounds which Rohingya can’t not offer. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, has worked out a more effective Rohingya recruitment strategy. In 2012, Al Qaeda in Indian
Subcontinent (AQIS), an affiliate of Al Qaeda, gave a call to arms. AQIS specifically called upon all mujahideen in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Philippines to set for Myanmar to help Muslim brothers to resist repression. Samiur Rehman, a Bangladeshi-born British Citizen and an Al Qaeda operative, was incarcerated in Bangladesh in 2014 for recruiting Rohingya for this mission in Myanmar. Later in 2017, Rehman also tried to enlist Rohingya refugees in India to fight in Myanmar, an endeavour that ended in his arrest in Delhi. However, like IS, the floundering presence of AQIS in India seems to be constraining its ability to take substantial action.
Credible evidences about existence of ARSA surfaced in 2016. According to International Crisis Group (ICG), this insurgent outfit is led by a committee of Rohingya emigrants in Saudi Arabia. It appears to be a well-organized and very well-funded group. Myanmar government has declared ARSA a terrorist organization as it is committed to establishing an Islamic State of Rakhine. However, ICG debunks this claim that there is no evidence to suggest its Islamic militant agenda. To substantiate their observation further, ICG maintains that videos released by the group have shown “only a few dozen scrawny and shabbily dressed fighters”. However, ICG’s claims appear hollow in view of Amnesty International’s Report of 21 May 2018 wherein it is mentioned that, on 25th August 2017, Rohingya militants, most probably of ARSA, massacred about 100 Hindu villagers during last year’s uprising in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Simultaneous raids were launched by these militants on Myanmar security forces tipping Rakhine into crisis. In September 2017, Myanmar Military took media to witness the exhumation of putrid bodies from a shallow grave. “There are many witnesses but we have not had any justice” says Ni Maul, a local Hindu leader. He further adds “people have less interest in (Hindu) killings compared to reporting on the atrocities against Rohingya”