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The Rohingya Muslims

Stilt houses at Lake Inle, Myanmar.
Stilt houses at Lake Inle, Myanmar. 
The Rohingya people (Ruáingga /ɹuájŋɡa/, Burmese: ရိုဟင်ဂျာ rui hang gya /ɹòhɪ̀ɴɡjà/, Bengali: রোহিঙ্গা Rohingga /ɹohiŋɡa/) are an ethnic group who practice Islam and speak Rohingya, an Indo-European language of the Eastern Indic branch, closely related to Chittagonian and more distantly to Bengali. The origin of this group of people is disputed with some saying they are indigenous to the state of Rakhine (also known as Arakan, or Rohang in the Rohingya language) in Burma and others contending that they are Muslim migrants who originated in Bengal, latterly Bangladesh,[10][11] and migrated to Burma during the period of British rule.
 
The Rohingya are linguistically related to the Indo-Aryan peoples of India and Bangladesh (as opposed to the mainly Sino-Tibetan languages of Burma). As of 2012, 800,000 Rohingya live in Burma. According to the United Nations, they are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.[12] Many Rohingya have fled to ghettos and refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh, and to areas along the Thai-Burma border. The Rohingya have been in the news in the wake of the 2012 Rakhine State riots.[13][14]
 
Etymology
 
The term "Rohingya" comes from Rohang, the Rohingya word for the state of Arakan, from where the Rohingya originate. Though some Rohingya historians, like Khalilur Rahma, contend that the term Rohingya may be derived from the Arabic word Rahma meaning 'mercy', this is unlikely.[15] They trace the term back to a shipwreck in the 8th century CE. According to them, after the Arab ship wrecked near Ramree Island, Arab traders were ordered to be executed by the Arakanese king. Then, they shouted in their language, 'Rahma'. Hence, these people were called 'Raham'. Gradually it changed from Raham to Rhohang and finally to Rohingyas.[15][16]
 
The claim was disputed by Jahiruddin Ahmed and Nazir Ahmed, former president and Secretary of the Arakan Muslim Conference respectively.[15] They argued that shipwreck Muslims are currently called 'Thambu Kya' Muslims, and currently reside along the Arakan sea shore. If the term Rohingya was indeed derived from that group of Muslims, "Thambu Kyas" would have been the first group to be known as Rohingyas. According to them, Rohingyas were descendants of inhabitants of Ruha in Afghanistan.[15] Another historian, MA Chowdhury argued that among the Muslim populations in Myanmar, the term 'Mrohaung' (Old Arakanese Kingdom) was corrupted to Rohang. And thus inhabitants of the region are called Rohingya.[15]
 
Burmese historians such as Khin Maung Saw have claimed that the term 'Rohingya' was unknown before the 1950s.[17] Another historian, Dr Maung Maung, notes that the word Rohingya is not used in the 1824 census, conducted by the British.[18] Historian Aye Chan from Kanda University of International Studies states that the term Rohingya was created by descendants of Bengalis in the 1950s who migrated into Arakan during colonial times. He also holds that the term cannot be found in any historical source in any language before the 1950s. However, he accepts that there may have been Muslim communities in Arakan before 1824.[19]
 
Arakan history expert Dr Jacques P. Leider points out that the term Rooinga was in fact used in a late 18th century report published by the British Francis Buchanan-Hamilton.[20] In his 1799 article “A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire,” Buchanan-Hamilton stated: "I shall now add three dialects, spoken in the Burma Empire, but evidently derived from the language of the Hindu nation. The first is that spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan."[21] Leider also adds that the etymology of the word "does not say anything about politics." He adds that "You use this term for yourself as a political label to give yourself identity in the 20th century. Now how is this term used since the 1950s? It is clear that people who use it want to give this identity to the community that live there."[20]
 
Contradicting this opinion, somewhat, is Professor Aye Chan, an expert in Burmese linguistic and cultural history employed at Kanda University of International Studies. Aye Chan has published work dating from 2003 on the Muslim Community in Rakhine State.[22] He asserts that there has never been a nation of Rohingya people adding that, "in the chronicles of Myanmar, there never were Rohingya people." He has put forward the view that the term "Rohingya" was first coined 1951 by a man named Abu Gaffer writing for the "Guardian" daily newspaper in Rangoon. Further, Professor Aye Chan claims that it was Abu Gaffer who first claimed that the Muslims residing in Buthitaung and Maungtaw townships "were not the illegal migrants sneaking from the other country, but the descendants of Arabs from the Middle East who survived a ship wreck in the sea and settled down by marrying the local Rakhine women." Aye Chan dismisses this story as a fabrication without any reliable evidence to support it.
 
Citing Jacques Leider, Professor Aye Chan states that, "I and French historian Jacques Leider had earlier disproved this theory about the shipwrecked. There was no solid, firm evidence of the shipwreck. We historians [should] uphold primary source of evidence. The secondary sources were not reliable and [they] contained doubtful factors. Moreover, there may be conspiracy and hidden agenda
 
The Rohingya language is the modern written language of the Rohingya people of Arakan (Rakhine) State of Burma (Myanmar). It comes from the Indo-Aryan sub-branch of the greater Indo-European language family and is closely related to the Chittagonian language spoken in the southernmost part of Bangladesh bordering Burma. While both Rohingya and Chittagonian are related to Bengali, they are not mutually intelligible with the latter, despite what is often proposed in the Burmese national narrative. Rohingya scholars have successfully written the Rohingya language in various scripts including Arabic, Hanifi, Urdu, Roman, and Burmese, where Hanifi is a newly developed alphabet derived from Arabic with the addition of four characters from Latin and Burmese.
More recently, a Latin alphabet has been developed, using all 26 English letters A to Z and two additional Latin letters Ç (for retroflex R) and Ñ (for nasal sound). To accurately represent Rohingya phonology, it also uses five accented vowels (áéíóú). It has been recognised by ISO with ISO 639-3 "rhg" code.[24]

History

Muslim settlements have existed in Arakan since the arrival of Arabs there in the 8th century CE. The direct descendants of Arab settlers are believed to live in central Arakan near Mrauk-U and Kyauktaw townships, rather than the Mayu frontier area (near Chittagong Division, Bangladesh), where the majority of Rohingya are populated.[25]

Kingdom of Mrauk U

Early evidence of Bengali Muslim settlements in Arakan date back to the time of King Narameikhla (1430–1434) of the Kingdom of Mrauk U. After 24 years of exile in Bengal, he regained control of the Arakanese throne in 1430 with military assistance from the Sultanate of Bengal. The Bengalis who came with him formed their own settlements in the region.[26][27]
Narameikhla ceded some territory to the Sultan of Bengal and recognised his sovereignty over the areas. In recognition of his kingdom's vassal status, the kings of Arakan received Islamic titles and used the Bengali Islamic coinage within the kingdom. Narameikhla minted his own coins with Burmese characters on one side and Persian characters on the other.[27] Arakan's vassalage to Bengal was brief. After Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah's death in 1433, Narameikhla's successors repaid Bengal by occupying Ramu in 1437 and Chittagong in 1459. Arakan would hold Chittagong until 1666.[28][29]
 
Even after gaining independence from the Sultans of Bengal, the Arakanese kings continued the custom of maintaining Muslim titles.[30] The Buddhist kings compared themselves to Sultans and fashioned themselves after Mughal rulers. They also continued to employ Muslims in prestigious positions within the royal administration.[31] The Bengali Muslim population increased in the 17th century, as they were employed in a variety of workforces in Arakan. Some of them worked as Bengali, Persian and Arabic scribes in the Arakanese courts, which, despite remaining mostly Buddhist, adopted Islamic fashions from the neighbouring Sultanate of Bengal.[26] The Kamein/Kaman, who are regarded as one of the official ethnic groups of Burma, are descended from these Muslims.[32]

Burmese conquest

Following the Burmese conquest of Arakan in 1785, as many as 35,000 Arakanese people fled to the neighbouring Chittagong region of British Bengal in 1799 to escape Burmese persecution and to seek protection from British India.[33] The Burmese rulers executed thousands of Arakanese men and deported a considerable portion of the Arakanese population to central Burma, leaving Arakan as a scarcely populated area by the time the British occupied it.[34]
According to an article on the "Burma Empire" published by the British Francis Buchanan-Hamilton in 1799, "the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan," "call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan."[21] Sir Henry Yule saw many Muslims serving as eunuchs in Konbaung Dynasty Burma while on a diplomatic mission there.[35][36][37][38] These Muslim eunuchs came from Arakan.[39][40]

British colonial rule

British policy encouraged Bengali inhabitants from adjacent regions to migrate into the then lightly populated and fertile valleys of Arakan as agriculturalists. The East India Company extended the Bengal administration to Arakan, thus there was no international boundary between Bengal and Arakan, and no restrictions on migration between the regions. In the early 19th century, thousands of Bengalis from the Chittagong region settled in Arakan seeking work.[34] In addition, thousands of Rakhine people from Arakan also settled in Bengal.[41][42]
 
The British census of 1891 reported 58,255 Muslims in Arakan. By 1911, the Muslim population had increased to 178,647.[43] The waves of migration were primarily due to the requirement of cheap labour from British India to work in the paddy fields. Immigrants from Bengal, mainly from the Chittagong region, "moved en masse into western townships of Arakan". To be sure, Indian immigration to Burma was a nationwide phenomenon, not just restricted to Arakan.[44]
 
Historian Thant Myint-U writes: "At the beginning of the 20th century, Indians were arriving in Burma at the rate of no less than a quarter million per year. The numbers rose steadily until the peak year of 1927, immigration reached 480,000 people, with Rangoon exceeding New York City as the greatest immigration port in the world. This was out of a total population of only 13 million; it was equivalent to the United Kingdom today taking 2 million people a year." By then, in most of the largest cities in Burma, Rangoon (Yangon), Akyab (Sittwe), Bassein (Pathein), Moulmein, the Indian immigrants formed a majority of the population. The Burmese under the British rule felt helpless, and reacted with a "racism that combined feelings of superiority and fear."[44]
 
The impact of immigration was particularly acute in Arakan, one of less populated regions. In 1939, the British authorities, alert to the long-term animosity between the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims, formed a special Investigation Commission led by James Ester and Tin Tut to study the issue of Muslim immigration into the Rakhine state. The commission recommended securing the border; however, with the onset of World War II, the British retreated from Arakan.[45]

World War II Japanese occupation and inter-communal violence

During World War II, Japanese forces invaded Burma, then under British colonial rule. The British forces retreated and in the power vacuum left behind, considerable inter communal violence erupted between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya villagers. The British armed Rohingyas in northern Arakan to create a buffer zone from Japanese invasion when they retreated.[46]
The period also witnessed violence between groups loyal to the British and Burmese nationalists.[47]
Aye Chan, a historian at the Kanda University, has written that as a consequence of acquiring arms from the British during World War II, Rohingyas tried to destroy the Arakanese villages instead of resisting the Japanese.[48]
 
On 28 March 1942, around 5,000 Muslims in Minbya and Mrohaung Townships were killed by Rakhine nationalists and Karenni. Rohingya Muslims from Northern Rakhine State killed around 20,000 Arakanese.[45]
The Japanese committed countless acts of rape, murder and torture against thousands of Rohingya.[49] In this period, some 22,000 Rohingya are believed to have crossed the border into Bengal, then part of British India, to escape the violence.[50][51] Defeated, 40,000 Rohingya eventually fled to Chittagong after repeated massacres by the Burmese and Japanese forces.[52]

Post-war Islamic insurgency

The Mujahid party was founded by Rohingya elders who supported Jihad movement in northern Arakan in 1947.[53] The aim of the Mujahid party was to create an autonomous Muslim state in Arakan. They were much more active before the 1962 Burmese coup d'état by General Ne Win. Ne Win carried out some military operations targeting them over a period of two decades. The prominent one was "Operation King Dragon" which took place in 1978; as a result, many Muslims in the region fled to neighbouring Bangladesh as refugees. In addition to Bangladesh, a large number of Rohingya have also migrated to Karachi, Pakistan (see Rohingya people in Pakistan).[7]
The Burmese mujahideen (Islamic militants) are still active within the remote areas of Arakan.[54] The associations of Burmese mujahideen with Bangladeshi mujahideen were significant, and they have extended their networks to the international level and countries, during the recent years. They collect donations, and receive religious military training outside of Burma.[55]

Burmese juntas

The military junta which ruled Burma for half a century, relied heavily on Burmese nationalism and Theravada Buddhism to bolster its rule, and, in the view of US government experts, heavily discriminated against minorities like the Rohingya, Chinese people like the Kokang people, and Panthay (Chinese Muslims). Some pro-democracy dissidents from Burma's ethnic Burman majority do not consider the Rohingyas compatriots.[56][57][58][59]
Successive Burmese governments have been accused of provoking riots against ethnic minorities like the Rohingya and Chinese.[60]
In 2009, a senior Burmese envoy to Hong Kong branded the Rohingya "ugly as ogres" and a people that are alien to Myanmar.[61]

2012 Rakhine State riots

The 2012 Rakhine State riots are a series of ongoing conflicts between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine in northern Rakhine State, Myanmar. The riots came after weeks of sectarian disputes and have been condemned by most people on both sides of the conflict.[62] The immediate cause of the riots is unclear, with many commentators citing the killing of ten Burmese Muslims by ethnic Rakhine after the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman as the main cause.[63]
 
Whole villages have been "decimated".[63] Over three hundred houses and a number of public buildings have been razed. According to Tun Khin, the President of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK), as of 28 June 650 Rohingyas have been killed, 1,200 are missing, and more than 80,000 have been displaced.[64] According to the Myanmar authorities, the violence, between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, left 78 people dead, 87 injured, and thousands of homes destroyed. It also displaced more than 52,000 people.[65]
 
The government has responded by imposing curfews and by deploying troops in the region. On 10 June, a state of emergency was declared in Rakhine, allowing the military to participate in the administration of the region.[66][67] The Burmese army and police have been accused of targeting Rohingya Muslims through mass arrests and arbitrary violence.[64][68] A number of monks' organisations that played a vital role in Burma's struggle for democracy have taken measures to block any humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya community.[69] In July 2012, the Myanmar Government did not include the Rohingya minority group–-classified as stateless Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh since 1982—on the government's list of more than 130 ethnic races and therefore the government says that they have no claim to Myanmar citizenship.[70]

Religion

The Rohingya people practice Sunni Islam with elements of Sufi worship. Because the government restricts educational opportunities for them, many pursue fundamental Islamic studies as their only educational option. Mosques and religious schools are present in most villages. Traditionally, men pray in congregations and women pray at home.

Human rights violations and refugees

The Rohingya people have been described as “among the world’s least wanted”[71] and “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.”[72] They have been denied Burmese citizenship since a 1982 citizenship law was enacted.[73] They are not allowed to travel without official permission, are banned from owning land and are required to sign a commitment to have not more than two children.[73]
According to Amnesty International, the Muslim Rohingya people have continued to suffer from human rights violations under the Burmese junta since 1978, and many have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh as a result:[74]
The Rohingyas’ freedom of movement is severely restricted and the vast majority of them have effectively been denied Burma citizenship. They are also subjected to various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation; land confiscation; forced eviction and house destruction; and financial restrictions on marriage. Rohingyas continue to be used as forced labourers on roads and at military camps, although the amount of forced labour in northern Rakhine State has decreased over the last decade. […]In 1978 over 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh, following the ‘Nagamin’ (‘Dragon King’) operation of the Myanmar army. Officially this campaign aimed at "scrutinising each individual living in the state, designating citizens and foreigners in accordance with the law and taking actions against foreigners who have filtered into the country illegally." This military campaign directly targeted civilians, and resulted in widespread killings, rape and destruction of mosques and further religious persecution. […]
During 1991–92 a new wave of over a quarter of a million Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh. They reported widespread forced labour, as well as summary executions, torture, and rape. Rohingyas were forced to work without pay by the Burmese army on infrastructure and economic projects, often under harsh conditions. Many other human rights violations occurred in the context of forced labour of Rohingya civilians by the security forces.
As of 2005, the UNHCR had been assisting with the repatriation of Rohingya from Bangladesh, but allegations of human rights abuses in the refugee camps have threatened this effort.[75]
Despite earlier efforts by the UN, the vast majority of Rohingya refugees have remained in Bangladesh, unable to return because of the negative attitude of the ruling regime in Myanmar. Now they are facing problems in Bangladesh as well where they do not receive support from the government any longer.[76] In February 2009, many Rohingya refugees were rescued by Acehnese sailors in the Strait of Malacca, after 21 days at sea.[77]
Over the years, thousands of Rohingya have fled to Thailand also. There are roughly 111,000 refugees housed in 9 camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. There have been charges that groups of them have been shipped and towed out to open sea from Thailand, and left there. In February 2009 there was evidence of the Thai army towing a boatload of 190 Rohingya refugees out to sea. A group of refugees rescued by Indonesian authorities also in February 2009 told harrowing stories of being captured and beaten by the Thai military, and then abandoned at open sea. By the end of February there were reports of a group of 5 boats were towed out to open sea, of which 4 boats sank in a storm, and 1 boat washed up on the shore. 12 February 2009 Thailand's prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said there were "some instances" in which Rohingya people were pushed out to sea.
There are attempts, I think, to let these people drift to other shores. [...] when these practices do occur, it is done on the understanding that there is enough food and water supplied. [...] It's not clear whose work it is [...] but if I have the evidence who exactly did this I will bring them to account.[78]
The prime minister said he regretted "any losses", and was working on rectifying the problem.
Steps to repatriate Rohingya began in 2005. In 2009 Bangladesh announced it will repatriate around 9,000 Rohingya living in refugee camps in the country back to Burma, after a meeting with Burmese diplomats.[79][80]
In 16 October 2011, the new government of Burma agreed to take back registered Rohingya refugees.[81][82]."[23]
 
 
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