The Origin Of The Rohingya Muslims, One Of The World's Most Persecuted Minorities

Bangaldeshi residents demonstrate support for the minority Rohingya community in Myanmar. Photo credit: Sk Hasan Ali /
Bangaldeshi residents demonstrate support for the minority Rohingya community in Myanmar. Photo credit: Sk Hasan Ali /

The Rohingya is the name given to a stateless community which resides in Rakhine State, Myanmar, the majority of whom are Muslims while the remaining are Hindu. The Rohingya are estimated to be made up of about 1 million individuals in the country. The United Nations has labeled the Rohingya Muslims as one of the most persecuted minorities anywhere in the world. The community has experienced decades of ethnic persecution by the Burmese and later the Myanmar government. As a testament to the persecution these people face, the Myanmar government does not recognize the Rohingya community as a national race and restrict members from accessing education, employment opportunities and even the freedom of movement. In 2017, the Myanmar military conducted a crackdown in the Rohingya-dominated region of Rakhine which led to an unprecedented displacement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas from the country who moved to neighboring countries of Bangladesh and India as refugees which created a humanitarian crisis in these countries. The history of Rohingyas in Burma is traced back to the 8th century but reached its climax when the country was still a British colony.

Rohingya Immigration During The British Rule

During the colonial period when Burma was established as a British Colony, the number of Rohingya Muslims in the colony soared. Soon after settling in Burma, the British realized that the valleys of Arakan were quite fertile and had great agricultural potential. However, these lands were sparsely populated, and therefore the lands were not exploited to reach their potential. This realization led the British to encourage Muslims from Bengal to migrate and settle on the lands, and since there was no boundary between Arakan and Bengal at the time, the migrants did not face any migration restrictions. The political goodwill from the colonial government, as well as the availability of many opportunities in Burma, led to a significant exodus of Rohingya Muslims moving from India and settling in Burma. A 20th-century Burmese historian, Thant Myint-U stated that the Indian immigrants were moving into Burma at an unprecedented rate of a quarter million people per year. The Akyab District was of critical interest to the Indian immigrants. The District was home to a thriving shipping industry and was one of the world’s largest ports in the global rice trade.

Colonial census records in Burma of 1872 show that Akyab District was home to 58,255 Muslims. 40 years later (in 1911), the Muslim population in Akyab District had soared to reach 178,647 individuals. In 1931, Census records show that the Indian Muslim population in Akyab had risen to about 0.5 million individuals. The Indian immigrants soon became the majority population in several Burmese cities including Pathein, Yangon, Sittwe, and Mawlamyine. There were even few Indian legislators elected into the Legislative Council of Burma during the General Elections of 1936, and these were Gani Markan who represented Maungdaw-Buthidaung and U Pho Khaine who represented Akyab West. While the increased Indian Muslim population in Burma had an economic advantage to the colonial government due to the availability of cheap labor, the local community did not welcome the Indian Muslims with open arms. The native population deeply resented the Indians, and the resentment quickly became the seeds of a new wave of Burmese Nationalism in the early 20th century. By the 1930s, the Indian Muslims in Lower Burma were actively attacked by the local communities which culminated in the 1938 riots against the Indian Muslims.

Effects Of The Second World War

Burma was still a British colony when the Second World War broke out and was therefore actively involved in military operations. The British forces were concerned with the possibility of an invasion of the Imperial Japanese Army in the colony. The invasion of the Japanese troops became a reality and forced the British troops to make a hasty retreat. While retreating, the British provided arms to the Muslims to create a buffer between them and the Japanese troops. Another intention behind the arming of Rohingyas by the British was to counteract the Rakhines who were pro-Japanese. Upon obtaining weapons from the British troops, the Rohingyas shifted their focus from the invading Japanese troops to the Arakanese and proceeded to attack Arakanese villages. In 1942, armed Rohingyas killed as many as 20,000 Arakanese. 5,000 Rohingyas were subsequently killed in Mrauk-U and Minbya in retaliation by the Red Karens and the ethnic Rakhines. The Japanese troops on their part, committed heinous acts on the Muslim population in Burma ranging from rape to murder and this lead to hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas to seek refuge in neighboring Bengal. As many as 20,000 Muslims crossed the border to Bengal and became refugees. Soon, the British forces decided to make a reentry back to Burma and to facilitate the reentry, they established the V-Forces (Volunteer Forces) which was made up of Rohingyas who were trained and armed by the British. The Rohingya troops proceeded to conduct a mass destruction of Buddhist structures and monasteries in northern Arakan.

The State Of Rohingyas After The Independence Of Burma

In the years preceding the independence of Burma from British colonial rule, the Rohingya communities in western Burma had sent representatives to Pakistan, seeking an audience with the country’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Through the representatives, the Rohingya who had established a separatist movement requested Muhammad to facilitate the merging of Burma’s Mayu region into East Pakistan. The reasons behind the request included the geographical proximity of the two regions as well as their religious affinity. In anticipation for the separation, the separatist movement formed the Akyab-based North Arakan Muslim League soon after that. Muhammad turned down the requests, claiming that Pakistan would not interfere in the domestic affairs of Burma. Burma gained independence in January 1948, and the independent government recognized the Rohingya community as an indigenous ethnic nationality and even had members who served in the influential position in government including parliamentary secretaries and ministers. One of the members was M.A. Ghaffar who was elected to the Constituent Assembly of Burma. Another key figure was Sultan Ahmed, a Rohingya who served as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Minorities. Thousands of Rohingyas who had fled the country during the Second World War slowly began returning to Burma, but the government made them illegal immigrants. Zura Begum who was the first Rohingya female Member of Parliament was elected into the country’s legislature during the 1951 general elections. The coup d’état saw the end of democratic rule in the country and saw the rise of ethnic persecution of the Rohingya Muslims.


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