The heart-breaking misfortunes of the minority Muslim community in the Rakhine State of Myanmar, known generally as Rohingya, show little sign of improvement. As most Rohingya are no longer regarded as nationals of the country where many have lived for generations, they have almost all been debarred from standing as candidates and even from voting in the country’s general elections due on November 8.
It was not always like this. At independence in 1948, subject to certain basic qualifications, all Muslims permanently resident in Burma held Burmese citizenship. Most had been issued with identity cards confirming this. But the extent of illegal post-independence migration from Bengal into Arakan, as Rakhine State was then called, induced the Burmese authorities to introduce tighter controls.
After the passage of the 1982 Citizenship Act, citizens everywhere were required to surrender their old IDs and exchange them for new documents. The process of exchange was completed without trouble in almost every region of Burma, except among the Muslim population of Rakhine State. After waiting patiently for a few years, they were eventually issued with supposedly temporary “White Cards” and led to believe that their cases would be processed soon.
But 25 years have passed and no action has been taken. Their lives have stagnated and been subject to considerable repression and discrimination. “White Cards” were declared invalid earlier this year. It is not known when the process of “citizenship verification” instituted by the present government will start in earnest.
The majority of Muslims in Myanmar do not claim to be “Rohingya” and there is limited support among this majority for “Rohingya” pretensions. This is not well understood outside Myanmar, because of the high profile international lobby on behalf of the Rohingya. At the same time, the majority who are non-Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar now feel under threat, and after the communal violence in July and October 2012 in Rakhine State, there were for a time serious anti-Muslim clashes elsewhere in the country. Fortunately the situation has been reasonably quiescent since an outbreak of violence in Mandalay in July 2014.
In Rakhine State, relations between the Buddhist and Muslim communities are fraught. There now exists a de facto separation of the communities in which the restrictions on travel and livelihoods are almost entirely borne by the Muslim community. This includes the small Kaman community who are recognised as full citizens. This suggests that even granting full citizenship to “Rohingya” would for the present have no practical impact on their lives. It might even make matters worse in the wake of uncontrolled resentment from the Buddhist community.
Mutually Exclusive Historical Narratives
A root cause of the tensions are to be found in the diametrically opposed historical narratives of Rakhine Buddhists and their Muslim compatriots. The Buddhists say that the Muslims are immigrants from Bengal, note that many registered as Pakistanis in the 1953 Census and as Bangladeshis in the 1983 Census, and say should be encouraged to return to Bengal. The Muslims rightly reject this, pointing that they have migrated, freely or as captives, to what is today Rakhine State over the centuries and that by 1785, when Burmese forces invaded Arakan, there was already a well-established Muslim minority community there.
Rakhine Muslims are upset by use of the term “Bengali” and “Bangladeshi” to describe them, which they find offensive, even though historically they are mostly of Bengali descent. Buddhists are equally offended by use of the term “Rohingya,” even though this designation is anointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. President Barack Obama.
The Muslim Council of North Arakan went so far, on independence in 1948, to claim that Arakan Muslims were not of Bengali origin at all and that their roots lay with Arab settlers from the eighth Century onwards. They denied that there was any migration of substance from Bengal under British rule, which in Arakan lasted from 1826 to 1948. This defiant, but scarcely credible view is propounded today by leading Rohingya protagonists, both inside and outside Myanmar.
British censuses conducted on an annual basis in Arakan from 1829 onwards for household registration and tax purposes, and from 1872 onwards every ten years as full censuses, recorded a growing influx of agricultural labourers from the Chittagong region of Bengal into Arakan, originally on a seasonal basis, but from the last quarter of the 19th Century into the 20th Century increasingly for settlement, with the encouragement of the British authorities in both Bengal and Burma. By the time of the 1931 Census “Chittagonian” immigrants outnumbered indigenous Muslim residents of Arakan by at least four to one.
During British rule, the designation “Rohingya” was unknown. After independence the indigenous Muslim community said that they wished to be called “Rwangya.” The Muslim Council of North Arakan said that they did not wish to be called “Chittagonians” but “Burmese Muslims” or “Arakan Muslims” and that descendants of the Arab settlers were actually known as “Ruwangya” or “Rushangya.” A Muslim scholar at Rangoon University, Ba Tha later suggested that they had originally been called “Roewenhnya” and after many years of intermarriage their descendants this term had morphed into “Roewengya.” “Rohingya” though was eventually to be the community’s designation, chosen under pressure from separatist Mujahid rebels supported from East Bengal.
No historical sources for the origins of these various R-words have ever been provided in support of any of these designations, and they are regarded in Myanmar itself as contrived, if not fictitious, though at the time of the Mujahid surrender in 1961 the authorities paid lip-service to the term “Rohinja” (Rohingya), in the interests of securing their loyalty. It is doubtful, but not wholly to be excluded that some folkloric tradition unrecorded and unknown to the British might lay behind the “Rohingya” designation which most are agreed has been derived from “Rohang,” one of several very similar names in Bengali for Arakan.
If ever there is to be reconciliation between the two communities in Rakhine State, something needs to be done to debunk both the Buddhist narrative that the Rohingya are all illegal migrants from Bengal and the Muslim narrative that they all trace their ancestry back to early Arab settlers and are not of Bengali origin at all.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been supported since 2007 by a 14-nation Partnership Group on Myanmar, initially called his “Group of Friends.” The members are Australia, China, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Norway, Russia, Singapore, the Republic of Korea, Thailand, the United Kingdom, the United States and Vietnam – plus the European Union. Since the communal clashes of 2012, the problems in Rakhine State have been high on their agenda whenever they meet.
Might not the UN Secretary-General, with support from the Partnership Group, establish a Committee, a panel of experts, to look into these two mutually exclusive historical narratives? In collaboration with all shades of opinion in Myanmar itself and internationally, such a “Committee of Wise Men” could attempt the difficult task of elaborating a common narrative about the historical presence of Muslims in Myanmar. Another key purpose of such a Committee would also be to support the interfaith dialogue which the Myanmar Foreign Minister says has already started between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State and throughout the country.
The terms of reference of such a Committee would naturally require careful thought. They might include an analysis of the immigration and citizenship policies of Myanmar which are based on the 1982 Citizenship Act. This Act reflects the “Three Generations Principle” explained by President Thein Sein to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres when they met on 12 July 2012. This is that the descendants of Bengali immigrants to Burma under British rule were entitled to Burmese citizenship after three generations of residence – applicable, that is, to the grandchildren of the original immigrants.
There are many problems to be encountered, not least the fate of those who entered the country illegally after 1948 and the absence or loss in many cases of family history documentation. But anything which can be done to resolve the present impasse, reduce tensions, and point the way towards eventual reconciliation is surely worth the effort. It will all take a long time, especially with the current surge of extreme Buddhist nationalism in the country, but the sooner a positive, proactive approach is agreed with Myanmar, the better.
Derek Tonkin is a former British Ambassador to Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.