Saturday, 10 December 2005

A Long History of Injustice Ignored: Rohingya: The Forgotten People of Our Time   20 November 2005,

by Dr. Habib Siddiqui

An often-practiced devious way to grab someones 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 (esp. 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. [1[ The victims are the Rohingya Muslims living in the Arakan (now Rakhine) state. They have become the forgotten people of our time. The Burma Citizenship Law of 1982 has reduced them to the status of ғStateless.

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 donԒt belong to Burma; they belong to Bangladesh.[2] Such allegations are unfounded. Distinguished scholar Abdul Karim writes, “In fact the forefathers of Rohingyas had entered into Arakan from time immemorial. [3]

Brief geography and history about the region and its people:
The word ԓRohingya comes from the word ‘Rohang,’ which was the original and ancient name of Arakan. In the medieval works of poets of Arakan and Chittagong, e.g., Alaol, Qazi Daulat, Mardan, Shamsher Ali, Ainuddin, Abdul Ghani and others Ԗ Arakan is frequently referred as Roshang, Roshango Des and Roshango Shar.

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.[4] Due to large-scale persecution through ethnic cleansing and genocidal action against them, nearly a half of them, about 1.5 million Rohingyas, are forced to live outside their ancestral homes since Burmese independence in 1948. This uprooted people are now living in exile as refugees and illegal immigrants particularly 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 the people known as ethnic Rohingya. Some historians mention that the first Muslims to settle in 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.[5]
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.Ӕ [6]

The third major influx came after 1404, when the Arakan king, dethroned by the Burmese, took asylum in Gaur (the capital of Bengal) and pleaded for help from Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah, the Sultan of Bengal, to regain the lost throne. The Sultan sent tens of thousands of soldiers to conquer Arakan. Many of these Muslim soldiers subsequently settled there. (See the section Muslim Influence in the Arakan - for more details.)

Later, other ethnic groups, namely - the Mughals (e.g., with the flight of Mughal prince Shah Shuja in 1660), 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.[7] 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. [8]
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 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 civilization of its 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, ԓWithin 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.[9] 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.[10] History researcher Alamgir Serajuddin writes, ԓTheir cruelty, comparable only to that of bargi marauders of later days, was a byword in Bengal. Shihabuddin Talish thus described it: “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.Ԕ [11]

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.[12] The Magh-Portuguese piracy was such a menace to the peace and security of Bengal that the Mughals had to step in. In 1666, Shaista Khan (1664-1688), the Mughal governor of Bengal, conquered Chittagong from the Arakanese control.[13] 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). [14] However, plundering by the Magh-Portuguese pirates continued throughout the 18th century.

Historian G.E. Harvey writes, RenellӒs map of Bengal, published in 1794 AD marks the area south of Backergunge deserted on account of the ravages of the Muggs (Arakanese)ђ. The Arakan pirates, both Magh and feringhi, used to come by the water-route and plunder BengalŅ. Mohammedans underwent such oppression, as they had not to suffer in Europe. As they continually practiced 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. Ņ 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.ђ [15]

Because of their centuries of savagery, the Maghs of Arakan earned such a bad name that they started calling themselves the Rakhines. [16]
The Rakhines practice 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).[17] 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.  [18]

Mong Saw MwanԒs 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 Mohammedanized in their ideasӅ [19]
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.  [20]

Dr. Muhammad Enamul Haq and Abdul Karim Shahitya Bisharad in their work ԓBengali Literature in the Court of Arakan 1600-1700 state that ԓ[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 Gods rule over the earth).Ҕ The Arakanese courts 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. [21]
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 approx. 350 years until it was invaded and occupied by Burmese king Boddaw Paya on 28 December 1784. Boddaw Paya may rightly be called the harbinger for destroying everything Islamic in Arakan and sowing the seed of distrust between the two communities Җ 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 Muslim. 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. [22]

For centuries, the Rohingya Muslims coexisted relatively peacefully with the Rakhine Buddhists. [23] 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 approximately 100,000 Rohingyas were massacred and another 80,000 had to flee from their ancestral homes.[24] Two hundred and ninety four Rohingya villages were totally destroyed. [25] Since then the relationship between the two communities deteriorated to the extent that for the Rohingya there remained hardly any option open other than self-determination in an autonomous territory that would protect their basic human rights.

After Burmas 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.  [26]
Under the military regime of General Ne Win, beginning in 1962, the Muslim residents of Arakan were wrongfully labeled illegal immigrants who had settled in Burma during the British rule. Their history and culture to their ancestral land was conveniently ignored. The Burmese central government made all efforts to drive them out of Burma, starting with the denial of their citizenship. The 1974 Emergency Immigration Act took away Burmese nationality from the Rohingyas, making them foreigners in their own country. Then came the ғBurma Citizenship Law of 1982 violating several fundamental principles of the international law and effectively reduced them to the status of ԓStateless.

As of 1999, there have been no less than 20 major operations of eviction campaigns directed against the Rohingyas that were 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 centers. Terrified by the ruthlessness of the operation and total uncertainty of their life, property, honor and dignity, a large number Rohingya Muslims left their homes to cross the Burma-Bangladesh border.[27] Within 3 months more than 300,000 Rohingyas took shelter in makeshift camps erected by Bangladesh Government. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recognized them as genuine refugees and started relief operations.

On 18 July 1991 a more dreadful Rohingya drive extermination campaign code named ԓPyi 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 mutual trust. The Rakhines, as a matter of fact, have become RohingyaԒs worst enemies. With very few exceptions, the Rakhines want to cleanse the Arakan of the Rohingya. [28]

Current Status 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, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Malaysia and Thailand. Truly, their plight is worse than those being suffered now by the Native Americans in the USA, the Mayans in Latin America, and the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

There is a systemic program by the ruling Myanmar regime to ethnically cleanse the Rohingya from their ancestral homeland of North Arakan. They are altering the demography of the region through extermination and displacement of the Rohingya population, demolition and confiscation of Rohingya properties (including Muslim endowed Waqf properties), and construction of Pagodas and monasteries on the sites of demolished mosques and Muslim shrines. As if these measures are not enough to obliterate Muslim identity, new non-Rohingya settlements with Pagodas and Buddhist monasteries are being built at every nook and corner of the North Arakan,
The Rohingya Ulema (religious leaders), women and youngsters are often the targets of harassment from the SPDC troops. Most of the Rohingya-community leaders are now serving long prison times on false charges, related to citizenship. [For example, on 29 July, 2005 U Kyaw Min (alias Mohammad Shamsul Anwarul Hoque) the leader of the National Democratic Party for Human Rights and Member of the Parliament, Committee Representing the People֒s Parliament (CRPP) from Buthidaung Township constituency Number 1 in the Arakan State - was sentenced to 47 years imprisonment on charges related to his nationality. His wife and three children were also sentenced to 17-years term on the same ground. Their arrest is in violation of the Articles 1-3, 5, 9, 10, 15-21 of the Universal Declarations of Human Rights.] Other leaders are forced to opt for a life of uncertainty as refugees outside.

Riots between Buddhists-Muslims are often engineered that invariably result in heavy losses to Muslim lives and properties. Anti-Muslim propaganda is routinely fed in the government-controlled media. As of February 2003, books and taped speeches, insulting Islam and Muslims, have become rather common and are being openly sold and distributed.
Of particular concern is the fact that as of 2004, Rohingya villagers are forced to practice Buddhism and take part in various Buddhist festivities. They are forced to pay for Buddhist festivals held every so often. Even Muslim cemeteries are not immune from desecration and abuses of the government. Buddhist dead bodies are now routinely buried at Muslim cemeteries, while the Rohingyas are forced to pay funeral fees.
The North Arakan has been turned into a militarized zone with increased violations of human rights practiced by the military troops. The Rohingya people are exploited as forced laborers into building military establishment, roads, bridges, embankments, pagodas, schools dispensaries and ponds without earning any wage. Their women and girls often face rape and sexual harassment from these troops and their contractors. They are also forced to work for free in the new settlements. The forced labor situation has become so excruciating that the Rohingya have been rendered jobless and shelter-less.

In order to extinct the Rohingya, the authorities have imposed undue restrictions on marriage between Rohingya couples. For example, not a single marriage contract was allowed in May 2005. Without payment of a huge sum of money, something that is unaffordable for most poor Rohingyas, as bribe, the corrupt officials dont allow any marriage to take place. Even after such payments, thousands of applications for the permission to get married remain pending in Maugdaw and Buthidaung Townships.
Rohingyas are restricted from moving outside the Arakan. Even for movements within the same locality they require clearance from the authority. Because of such restrictions, they are not permitted to travel to Rangoon or Myanmar (Burma) proper for serious medical emergency.

Since promulgation of the new Burma Citizenship Law in 1982, the Rohingya students are denied their basic rights to education outside the Arakan. It is important to point out that all professional institutes are situated outside Arakan. Thus, the Rohingya students are unable to study there because of such travel prohibition. In recent years, the Rohingya students are prohibited from even going to Akyab, the capital of Arakan, to attend Sittwe University for their studies. These draconian measures barring Rohingyas from attending universities and professional institutes are marginalizing them as the most illiterate section within the Myanmar population. They are forced to embrace a very bleak future for them.

Traditionally, the Rohingya are a farming community that depends on agricultural produce and breeding of cattle and fowls. Unfortunately, they are forced to pay heavy taxes on everything they own: cattle, food grains, agricultural produce, shrimp, tree, and even roof of their homes. Even for a minor repair of their homes, they are forced to pay tax. They are required to report birth and death of a livestock to the authority while paying an arbitrary fee.
Extra-judicial killing and summery executions, humiliating movement restriction, rape of women, arrest and torture, forced labor, forced relocation, confiscation of moveable and immoveable properties, religious sacrileges, etc., are regular occurrences in Arakan.

As a result, severe poverty, unemployment, lack of education and official discrimination are negatively affecting every Rohingya, especially its youths and workforces. The future of the community remains bleak and exodus into Bangladesh has become a recurrent theme. The new arrivals unfortunately often face arrests and/or ғpushback from the Bangladesh security forces. These refugees are also blocked from nominal opportunities of re-settlement in a third country or settlement within Bangladesh.
There is no international agency to look after the interest of the stateless Rohingya. Because of their lack of legal identity, they are not allowed to work or hold work permit by any name. To survive, many work as illegal workers in Thailand and other places where they and their children are deprived of basic human rights.

Solution to the problem:
The Rohingya people need help to publicize 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 ruling in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. So, the plight of the Rohingyas, regrettably, is not a matter of concern for many otherwise good-natured Buddhists. Under the circumstances, the Rohingyas have no way to protect their basic human rights but to opt for freedom. Freedom is a God-given right of all humanity and can neither be denied nor snatched away from disadvantaged groups for either political expediency or diplomatic acrobatics.

The Rohingyas need world body to wake up to the reality of their sufferings and pains. They need to mobilize world bodies, esp. 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 community my recommendations are that
ԕ The UN should immediately consider forming a fact finding mission to investigate violations of human rights against the Rohingya people of Arakan in Myanmar and take all measures to ease their pains and sufferings, including putting pressure on the ruling junta to release political prisoners.
The UNHCR must maintain its support for the material well being of Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

Օ 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.
The Government of Bangladesh must cease all pressure on Rohingya refugees to repatriate and consider the possibility of providing options for either local integration, with the financial support of international donors, or re-settlement in a third country.

2.  See, e.g.,

3.  The Rohingyas: A Short Account of their History and Culture, Arakan Historical Society (A.H.S), Bangladesh, June 2000. See also: Mohammed Ashraf Alam, Historical Background of Arakan, the SOUVENIR, Arakan Historical Society, Bangladesh, 1999; Moshe Yegar, The Muslims of Burma, A study of Minority groups, Wiesbaden, Otto Harrassowitz, 1972

5.  Mohammed Ashraf Alam, A short historical background of the Arakan people: ; M.A. Taher Ba Tha, The Rohingyas and Kamans (in Burmese), Published by United Rohingya National League, Myitkyina (Burma), 1963, P.6 Ֆ 7; Maung Than Lwin, Rakhine Kala or Rohingya, The Mya Wadi Magazine, issue July 1960, PP.72-73; N.M Habibullah, Rohingya Jatir Itihas (History of the Rohingyas), Bangladesh Co-Operative Book Society Ltd., Dhaka, 1995, PP.32-33.
6.  R.B. Smart, Burma Gazetteer Akyab District, Vol. A, Rangoon, 1957, P.19.
7.  British-Burma Gazetteers of 1879, page 16
8.  The essential History of Burma by U Kyi, P.160
9.  Op. Cit.
10.  Note the similarity of the word Magh with Mog, Gog and Magog ֖ the Mongolian tribes (also known in history as Scythians). Others contend that the name Magh originated from the Magadha dynasty that was Buddhist by faith.
11, Muslim Influence in Arakan and the Muslim Names of Arakanese kings: A Reassessment by Alamgir M. Serajuddin*(From Asiatic Soc. Bangladesh (Hum.), Vol. XXXI (I), June 1986.
12, G.E. Harvey, The History of Burma, London (1928), pp. 142-4. [Note also that there are still places in Chittagong that go by the names Arakan Bazar, Feringhi Bazar, etc. showing its Arakan and Portuguese heritage.]
13.  During Sher Shahs rule, Chittagong was under his rule. At a later time, it became a zone of contention between Mughal and Arakanese rulers.
14.  Bengal-Arakan Relations (1430-1666 A.D.) by Mohammed Ali Chowdhury, Kolkata, Firma KLM Pvt. Ltd., 2004.
15.  Alam, op. cit.
16.  Mohammad Ashraf Alam, op. cit.
17.  Bangladesh District Gazetteers, P.63 (See:

18.  Journal of Burma Research Society (JBRS) No.2. P.493. Historians disagree on whether or not the Arakanese rulers themselves became Muslims. (See: Bengal-Arakan Relations (1430-1666 A.D.) by Mohammed Ali Chowdhury. Kolkata, Firma KLM Pvt. Ltd., 2004; and

19.  Serajuddin, op. cit.
20.  The Arakanese Maghs treacherously killed Shuja and his family members in 1661. (G.E. Harvey, Outline of Burmese History, Longmans, London (1947), pp. 95-6)
21.  Dr. Enamul Haq O Abdul Karim Shahitya Bisharad, Arakan Rajshabhay Bangla Shahitya, Calcutta, 1935, PP. 4-
22.  D.G.E. Hall, A History of South-East Asia, Third Edition 1968, the Macmillan Press Ltd., London, U.K.; G.E Harvey, Outline Burmese History, Longman, Gree & Co., Ltd., London, 1947; Nurul Islam, The Rohingya Muslims of Arakan: Their Past and Present Political Problems, THE MUSLIM MINORITIES, Proceedings of the Six International Conference of World Assembly of Muslim Youths (WAMY), Vol. I, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 1986.
23.  The SLORC Publication ‘ Thasana Yongwa HtoonkazepoҒ p.65.

25.  Sultan Mahmud, Muslims in Arakan, The Nation, Rangoon, April 12, 1959.
26.  ibid.
27.  Genocide in Burma against the Muslims of Arakan, Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF), Arakan (Burma), April 11, 1978, PP.2 4; Dr. Mohammed Yunus, A History of Arakan Past and Present, 1994, PP.158 ֖ 159.
28.  Dr. Shwe Lu Maung, Dr. Aye Chan, U Mra Wa, Dr. Khin Maung (NUPA), and Major Tun Kyaw Oo (president of the Amyothar Party) are few of the exceptions that recognize birth rights as well as genuine citizenship of the Rohingya people.. Even Dr. Than Tun, rector of Mandalay University and former professor of history, Rangoon University makes strong recommendations on Rohingyas as ethnic group and bonafide citizen of Arakan. (Ref:

Wednesday, 7 December 2005

Burma's War on its own People

Source from Toward Freedom, 6 Dec 2005

Most of this information has been available from United Nations sources for over a decade.  The UN Commission on Human Rights appointed Professor Yozo Yokota, a highly competent Japanese law professor as Special Rapporteur.  He made his first report in 1993 after interviewing people both in Burma and in the frontier area of Thailand.  He continued year after year to present a sad picture of repression against individual democrats and reformers and the brutal repression of the ethnic minorities. (I will follow a usual practice of calling the majority population -Burmans - about 60 percent of the population, the non-Burman - Mon, Kachen, Karen, Shan etc - ethnic minorities - about 40 percent - without going into detail as to what is an ethnic group.  All the citizens of Myanmar are Burmese. While the name of the country was changed by the military, they did not change the name of the people living there.)

In addition to the yearly reports of the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, the International Labor Office (ILO) investigated and then acted upon the finding concerning forced labor, especially forced labor imposed by the military on the ethnic minorities to set up military camps, to carry supplies, often to walk in front of the troops to set off any land mines planted. The minority women are often forced to be sexual partners to the soldiers - usually the officers.  The ILO has a convention on forced labor which Burma had ratified in 1955 during the Cold War days when the only forced labor mentioned was that of the gulag camps of the Soviet Union.  The ILO committee has pointed out that not only does forced labor continue but that no soldier has been arrested, tried or convicted for his involvement in this form of human rights violation.

Faced with the fact that the human rights situation showed no signs of improving and that the steady flow of refugees to Thailand and Bangladesh threatened regional stability, the UN Secretary General appointed a Special Envoy to facilitate any efforts which the government might take toward a more open society.  Unfortunately, the Special Envoy has had little positive movement to encourage beyond a few very imprecise statements on the "road to democracy".  When in May 2002, the military government released the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, its official spokesman Lt. Col. Hla Min said " We shall recommit ourselves to allowing all of our citizens to participate freely in the life of our political process, while giving priority to national unity, peace and stability of the country and the region." Peace and stability required a quick end to Aung San Suu Kyi's ability to leave her home and to the arrest of some of her supporters.

But the priority of 'national unity' is the military government's prime argument for its repressive measures arguing that the country would "fall apart" without the junta's control.  The soldiers-in-power probably believe their own statements that national security takes precedence over all other obligations and that repression and a 'divide and rule' policy is the only way to prevent  the ethnic minorities from breaking up the country into dozens of small states, opening the door to Thai, Chinese, Indian and Bangladesh influence. The military, however, have spent the last 43 years refusing to discuss seriously with the minorities to see if the military nightmare had any grounds in reality.

In 1962, U Nu, the last freely elected Prime Minister, invited all ethnic leaders to Rangoon to enter into talks to find lasting solutions to the political causes of disunity and political unrest which had begun at independence in 1948.  The minority leaders accepted the invitation, but before the talks ended, General Ne Win and the military seized power, jailed the participants and destroyed any chance for a peaceful outcome.

Shortly after the partial change of military leaders in 1988, the younger officers in power, who had fought against the minority insurgencies, adopted a new strategy - no doubt inspired by movies of Mafia bosses.  The 'deal' proposed to the militarized insurgency leaders was that they could keep their weapons, have a certain control over their own areas, halt their wars against the military, and divide the income from the export of drugs, gems, wood and the import of goods without custom duties between themselves and the military.

Fourteen groups accepted and technically stopped their wars; five minorities continue their struggle with no end in sight.  Since the 'deal' allows certain military officers to make large amounts of illegal money, the only disputes within the system is over who gets what 'cut'.  The minority military also have ruthless and unchecked control of the areas allotted to them .Some groups such as the Wa, after the cease-fire turned their energies to expanding opium production and fought against the armed forces of Khun Sa, the Shan opium leader and chief rival.  The Wa have now added to the opium trade the production of methamphetamine pills for Burmese youth and that of Yunnan and other border areas of China.

While it's important to be critical of the Myanmar military government and their repressive policies, we should not idealize the military forces of the ethnic insurgencies.  In 1992-1993, I was involved in getting the National Council of the Union of Burma created by the insurgencies and the democratic Burman who had taken refuge in the ethnic minority zones to sign the Geneva conventions of August 12, 1949 and the additional protocols which provide the basic rules of international humanitarian law in armed conflict.  The Union President, General Saw Bo Mya of the Karen National Union and the three Vice Presidents signed in January 1993.  While the signature is symbolic - only governments may sign the Geneva conventions, the signature was widely noted and led the Myanmar government to sign the Conventions which they had always refused to do until then.  The signature led to a mutual release of war prisoners - but not to an exchange since the two sides in the conflict refused direct contact at that time.

Prior to the signature, I had discussed with officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross and reviewed what was known of battle conditions in Burma where humanitarian law was largely unknown. 

Today, there is still irregular fighting between the army and the ethnic insurgencies, fighting which gives a pretext to destroy villages along the frontier, to push the population into Thailand and to sell the best hardwood trees to Thai merchants - usually acting on behalf of the Thai military. The population under the control of the ethnic military is torn between a small group who benefit from the drug and gem trade and the larger group whose low standard of living has further declined as the government, under the pretext of local autonomy, has withdrawn educational and medical services.  There was never a structured development policy for the frontier areas so that the few teachers or nurses were the only sign that the area was part of the State.

Burma faces two basic and related issues: the installation of democratic government and a constitutional system which allows autonomy to the minority peoples.  Both tasks are difficult.  There is little democratic tradition or ethos upon which to structure a democratic government.  While a federal system would be the most suited for a pluriethnic state, there has been little coordinated political pressure for a federal system. There is little pluriethnic leadership and little 'national vision'.  What leadership exists both in the military and the insurgencies is often motivated by personal and clanic interests, and leaders recruit allies similarly motivated.  Only peace will allow new leadership to emerge with broader motivations and allow all citizens to participate freely in a renewed political process.

Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva. Formerly, he was professor and Director of Research of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva. Photo from 

In the next article, I will look at some of the possibilities through UN action for positive changes.
For an introduction to the role of the military in Burma see this article
For an extensive look at the ethnic insurgencies see Martin Smith Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity (London: ZED Books, 1991, 492pp.). There is a second, updated edition from 1999.

For a more personal and artistic view of the minority areas see the report of an American painter and pro-democracy activist Edith Mirante Burmese Looking Glass
(New York: Grove Press, 1993, 333pp.).