A Brief Historical Background Of Rohingya Muslims In Myanmar

Severe violence against the Rohingya people of Myanmar has drawn international attention to their plight. Since the outbreak of violence in August, more than half of the Rohingya population has fled their homes to Bangladesh. Such mass exodus of the Rohingyas has happened at least three times in the past 50 years: in 1977-78, in 1991-92 and in 2012. While the international community has condemned the Burmese government in the persecution of the innocents, little regarding the manifestation of conflicts was discussed. To understand the conflict thoroughly, it is essential to study the historical and cultural background of the Rohingyas.

According to the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation, Rohingyas have been living in Arakan from the time immemorial. The Rohingya is an indigenous Muslim minority group in Myanmar which mainly inhabits the Rakhine State. They constitute 1 % of the total population, 4% of the Rakhine state population, and 45% of the total Muslim population inhabiting in Myanmar. The Rohingyas are believed to have migrated from India and Bangladesh during the British rule from 1824-1948. Back then, Myanmar was considered as a province of India. Thus, the Rohingya migration was considered as internal migration. Unfortunately, after Myanmar’s independence, the migration was seen as illegal and the Rohingyas were not included as ethnic minorities by constitution. In 1982, a new citizenship law which established three levels of citizenship was enacted. In order to acquire the lowest level of citizenship, one has to provide proof that his/her family lived in Myanmar prior to 1948. Yet, due to the lack of documents, the Rohingyas failed in establishing proof while applying for citizenship.

The hatred for the Rohingyas roots from nationalism-fuelled racism. “Rohingyas have been facing genocide for many years. They are a different ethnic group, they have a different appearance and religion,” said Tun Khin, human rights activists and president of Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK. Despite being a significant part of the population, the stateless Rohingyas are denied access to health care, state education and political rights. For instance, in comparison to non-Rohingya dominant regions in Rakhine State, Rohingya-dominant regions suffer from acute malnutrition and higher mortality rates.

Discrimination and violence against Rohingyas mainly lie in a false fear of Muslim power inflicted by Buddhist nationalists under the 969 movement and Ma Ba Tha (the Organisation for Protection of Race and Religion). The most prominent radical monk, Ashin Wirathu, openly spreads anti-Muslim rumours and hatred. Although Buddhist monks are often portrayed as peace-preachers globally, many in Myanmar are involved in political activism. Even the government does not dare to challenge these radical religious parties. Public policies are designed in favour of Ma ba Tha in fear of religious retaliation. Consequently, many other religious minorities also encounter severe religious violence in Myanmar.

Under the pressure of radical monks, the Burmese government successfully passed discriminating laws such as the Religious Conversion Law, the Interfaith Marriage Law, and Population Control Law, that mainly target against Muslims in the country. The tragic situation of the Rohingyas can only be improved once the underlying issue is resolved. Grave religious inequalities led to dispute among people. To narrow the indifference’s between stakeholders from different religious backgrounds, the Burmese government must enact just and equal laws to restrict religious leaders from influencing the political realm.  This will effectively improve religious security of the Rohingya people and reduce prejudice against them.