Ethnicity, Identity and Nationality: A Case Study of Rohingya Problem - I
by R Hariharan on 20 May 2018 1 Comment

The terms ethnicity, identity and nationality are generally understood to mean the following: Ethnicity: It is related to membership of a particular racial, national, or cultural group and observance of that group’s customs, beliefs and language. Identity: The Cambridge English Dictionary defines identity as related to a person or the qualities of a person or group that makes them different from others. In reality, what people perceive as ‘identity’ matters much more than definitions. Nationality: confers the official right to belong to a country. It is also used in relation to a group of people of the same race, religion, traditions etc. This right is enshrined in the law of the land, usually in conformity with international conventions.


However, peoples’ understanding of these terms is conditioned by ethnic affinities, cultural, religious and historical experiences of the community and their socio-political interactions with other ethnic communities. Often, this gives rise to prejudices and friction between communities fanned by religious and ideological obscurantism.


Rohingyas of Myanmar have been called “the most persecuted people on earth” ever since over 600,000 of them fled their homes to neighbouring Bangladesh to escape persecution at the hands of the army and Buddhist fringe elements, from August 2017 onwards. Rohingya community has been chosen for this case study as their plight has all the ingredients that cause ethnic conflict not only in Myanmar, but in many other multi-ethnic societies.



Origin of Rohingya


Geographically, the Indian subcontinent is the peninsular region of south-central Asia bound by the Himalayas in the north, the Hindu Kush mountains in the west and the Arakan mountains (in Myanmar) in the east. The region is home to over 1.7 billion people of different religions, ethnicities, nationalities and identity groups speaking a variety of languages and myriads of dialects.


The British East India Company, which entered the Indian subcontinent in 1600, had established control over three provinces of Madras (now Chennai), Bombay (now Mumbai) and Calcutta (now Kolkata) by 1708. After defeating the Burmese rulers of Konbaung dynasty in the First Anglo-Burmese War (5 March 1824 to 24 February 1826), the British gained control of Assam, Cachar (now part of Assam state) and Jaintia (now part of Meghalaya state) in India and Arakan (now Rakhine state) and Tenasserim in Burma. Burma was placed under a separate colonial authority from 1824 onwards till 1948, when it gained independence. 


The Rohingya community is of Indo-Aryan stock, concentrated in the Arakan region in Myanmar in the northern coastal area bordering Bangladesh. Arakan is separated from the rest of the country by Yoma hill range running north to south. The origin of the first settlers of Rakhine state is not clear. However, Dr. Abdul Karim, author of The Rohingyas: A Short Account of their History and Culture, says there was evidence of people from Bengal interacting with Arab traders in Arakan coast from 4th century onwards.


According to Human Rights Watch, “the Rohingya have had a well-established presence in what is now Burma since, at least, the twelfth century,” though Rohingya leaders claim they are an ethnically distinct group, descendants of first Muslims, who began migrating to northern Arakan in the eighth century. Arakan state existed as an independent kingdom till Burmese King Bodawpaya conquered it in 1784. The war saw Arakanese refugees fleeing to Bengal. The refugees appear to have had links with Rohingya in Rakhine since 1790 as recorded by the British emissary to the Burmese King in Mandalay. To summarise, it would appear that by 8th century Rohingya people of South Asian origin lived in the Arakan kingdom in the present Rakhine state. Between 9th and 14th century, they forged close ties with Bengal and came in contact with Islam through Arab traders.


The total area of Rakhine state is 36,752 square kilometers with population 3,188,807, according to Myanmar’s first-ever population census in 2014. According to the census, ethnic Rakhine of Tibeto-Burman stock, form the majority population. They live mostly in lowland valleys in the south and in Ramree and Manaung islands. A number of other ethnic minorities – Kaman (Muslims), Chin, Mru, Chakma, Khami and Bengali Hindu - inhabit the hill regions of the state.


Myanmar government does not recognise Rohingya as a distinct ethnic identity as they are not included in 135 ethnic communities officially recognised as inhabitants of Myanmar. So the 2014 census excluded their count. There are estimated to be approximately 1.2 million Rohingyas, who are mostly Muslims, speaking a dialect similar to Chittagong dialect of Bengali, living in Myanmar. 


Army rule and Rohingya persecution


Buddhist-Muslim confrontation has a long history in Myanmar. It goes back to pre-independence days when Buddhist groups supporting the Japanese and the Muslims supporting allied forces, fought each other during World War II (1942-43). Even after seven decades, the residual bitterness manifests itself in the religious, social, political and extremist discourse of both communities. As Rakhine state has the largest concentration of Rohingya Muslims, they are targeted in any communal clashes between Muslims and Buddhists.


According to the International Crisis Group report of December 2016, “a mujahidin rebellion erupted in April 1948, a few months after independence. After Pakistan rejected the rebels demand for annexing northern Rakhine State to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), they sought “to live as full citizens in an autonomous Muslim area in the north of the state.” However, the government placed restrictions on their movement from northern Rakhine to the state capital Sittwe. The Mujahidin attacked Rakhine Buddhist business and government establishments and quickly seized control of large parts of the north, throwing out many Buddhist villagers.


The Burmese army, already facing ethnic insurgencies across the country, had little control over the state other than Sittwe. In 1954 the army launched Operation Monsoon, a massive operation in Rakhine State and captured most of the mujahidin mountain strongholds along the East Pakistan border. The rebellion ended with the defeat of remaining groups in 1961 and a ceasefire was announced.


Burma as a whole had been facing ethnic conflicts ever since it gained independence in 1948, except for the first few years. On the eve of independence, minority ethnic communities like Arakanese, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Karen and Kayah (Karenni) became wary of domination by Burmese-speaking Buddhist Bamar majority in independent Burma. However, Major General Aung San, Burmese independence war icon, persuaded them to sign the Panglong Agreement promising autonomy for the ethnic groups. Accordingly, the Union of Burma and the Shan, Kachin, and Chin minority groups signed the agreement February 12, 1947.


However, after the first few years of independence, successive Burmese governments did not enforce the Panglong agreement in true spirit of reconciliation. As a result, the government lost the trust of non-Bamar ethnic groups and insurgency broke out in full swing in early 1960s, paralyzing the government. Ethnic insurgencies and Communist insurgencies aided by the People’s Republic of China threatened the very existence of Burma as a united entity. The unwieldy coalition governments found it difficult to handle the situation. The confused political situation enabled General Ne Win, Burma’s army chief, to take over power in 1962 with a promise to safeguard the integrity of the Union.


Low level Rohingya extremism continued even after Army seized power in 1962. The army carried out military operations to suppress Rohingya support organisations. Non-Rohingya Rakhine believed most of the Rohingya are illegal migrants, and assisted the army during the operations. Growth of Islamic fundamentalism in neighbouring East Pakistan fanned anti-Rohingya rhetoric among the Buddhist majority in Myanmar, particularly in Rakhine.  


During General Ne Win’s military rule from 1962 to 1988, Myanmar went into self-imposed isolation, cutting off international participation. His unique economic experiment “Burmese way to socialism” turned Myanmar into one of the ten poorest countries. As the Guardian noted, his “strategy was two-fold: to build up a monolithic system of government under the Burmese Socialist Programme party, while launching all out offensives against insurgent groups in the countryside. Foreigners were expelled, the economy nationalized and hundreds of political leaders imprisoned.” He declared federalism was “impossible” as it would destroy the union of Burma. His government adopted a hardline stance toward minorities, prompting attempts to reform the mujahidin movement. During the same period, over a dozen non-Bamar ethnic communities continued their quest for independence, resulting in ethnic insurgency that still continues in parts of the country. Fighting ethnic insurgency to defend the union provided the raison d’être for the army to hold on to power.


The army carried out ‘Operation Dragon King’ (February to July 1978) ostensibly to assist registration of citizens in Northern Arakan; however, it was in fact aimed at driving out Rohingyas, declared as “foreigners”, as well as to arrest the leaders of the Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF) operating from Bangladesh. During the operation, an estimated 200,000 to 250,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh as refugees. However, after UN intervention, both Burma and Bangladesh signed an agreement on July 31, 1978. About 125,000 refugees were repatriated back to Burma.


The military regime from 1988 to 2011 is said to have encouraged the conversion of ethnic minorities, “often by force, as part of its campaign of assimilation.” According to Monique Skidmore, the military regime promoted a vision of Burmese Buddhist nationalism as a cultural and a political ideology to legitimize its rule, trying to bring a religious syncretism with its totalitarian ideology. This is the reason why Buddhist extremist movements like Ma Ba Tha led by Mandalay-based Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, spouting anti-Muslim rhetoric, are able to continue their activity even today. These extremist movements continue to support strong arm tactics of the army against Rohingyas.


In 1982, the military regime passed a new citizenship law identifying 135 ethnicities entitled to citizenship. As Rohingya were not included among the “entitled” ethnicities, they are considered “foreigners,” but in reality stateless. Probably, the threat to Rohingya identity acted as the trigger that pushed sections to Rohingya to try and establish contact with radical Muslim extremist groups overseas. Among them, the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) which was formed in 1982, developed contacts with terrorist groups linked to the al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In 1989, the ruling junta promulgated martial law and carried out military operations against the Rohingya. In 1991-92, conscription of forced labour led to 250,000 Rohingya fleeing their homes. However, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) persuaded Myanmar to repatriate 230,000 Rohingyas to Rakhine.


In the 1980s and 1990s, the RSO had small bases in remote parts of Bangladesh near the Myanmar border, but was not thought to have any inside Myanmar. In its highest-profile attack in April 1994, several dozen fighters entered Maungdaw from Bangladesh and carried out attacks on the town’s outskirts. Significantly, the group did not receive strong local support and the security forces defeated them.


After that, the RSO kept a low profile in Bangladesh and carried out occasional small attacks on Myanmar security forces into the early 2000s. Rohingya National Army (RNA) claimed in a press release that on May 27, 2001 it had carried out an attack on the Myanmar army camp near Maungdaw in Rakhine state, killing or injuring 20 soldiers. Significantly, the report claimed it was RNA-Arakan Army joint operation, which was the first of its kind.


A Myanmar military intelligence report, cited in a US diplomatic cable in 2002, made the “generally plausible” claim that 90 RSO/ARIF members attended a guerrilla war course, 13 also participated in explosives and heavy weapons courses in Libya and Afghanistan in August 2001. In the early 2000s, the RSO had an active weapons and explosives training arrangement with the Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a notorious Bangladesh Islamist extremist outfit.


End to military rule


After General Ne Win’s rule ended in 1988, public agitation spearheaded by students took to the streets demanding civilian rule. In order to satisfy them, the army held the first-ever multiparty elections in three decades in 1991. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Myanmar’s national icon Major General Aung San, who led the National League for Democracy (NLD), campaigned for full restoration of civilian rule and swept the polls. Her enormous popularity probably kindled military’s fears of losing its grip on power. So the ruling junta never allowed NLD to come to power and incarcerated Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders. This created an international furore and spontaneous wave of sympathy for Suu Kyi led struggle for democratic rule.


In August 2003, the ruling military junta introduced the “Roadmap to Discipline Flourishing Democracy,” providing a seven-step process to restore democracy in the country. It reconvened the National Convention (NC) adjourned since 1996. The NC drafted a new constitution which was adopted in 2008 after holding a national referendum, though the country was devastated by cyclone Nargis. However, opposition parties and international NGOs considered the referendum a sham.


The 2008 Constitution, drafted under the guidance of the army, legitimizes the army’s role in the legislature and executive by reserving 25 percent of the seats in the union and state legislative bodies for the army. The commander-in-chief appoints the ministers of defence, home and border affairs by selecting officers from the defence services, while the president appoints other ministers. Thus effectively, the commander-in-chief controls defence, home and border affairs ministries.


Muslims, including Rohingyas, who were generally averse to violence, supported Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD’s struggle for restoration of democracy from 1991 onwards. There were Muslim leaders within the ranks of NLD. The NLD boycotted the first multiparty-election held in 2011 under the 2008 constitution as many of its leaders in custody were not released.


The pro-army Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won the elections and formed the government under President Thein Sein, a former general. During his rule from 2011 to 2016, a number of structural reforms were carried out. There was improvement in the human rights situation. The government restored media freedom, eased internet access and released most of the political prisoners. The government also constituted the State Human Rights Commission.


However, on the flip side, during this period Buddhist extremist elements became more active against Muslims, particularly the Rohingya in Rakhine State, under the benign watch of the law enforcing agencies controlled by the army. This led to some of the worst anti-Muslim riots listed below:


June 2012: In Rakhine state, rape and murder of a Buddhist woman sparked off a deadly chain of events resulting in widespread rioting.  In clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims, mostly Rohingyas, 200 people were killed and thousands were displaced. This set off a major exodus of Rohingya’s to safe havens abroad, notably to Bangladesh.


March 2013: In Meiktila in central Myanmar, an argument in a gold shop led to Buddhist-Muslim violence in which 40 people were killed and entire neighbourhood was razed.


August 2013: In the central town of Kambalu rioters burned Muslim-owned shops and houses after the police refused to hand over a Muslim man accused of raping a Buddhist woman.


January 2014: According to the UN, in Rakhine state, more than 40 Rohingya men, women and children were killed in violence after a Rohingya was reported killing a Rakhine policeman.


June 2014: In Mandalay, after a rumour spread on social media that a Buddhist woman had been raped by Muslim men, rioters killed two people and injured five.


These attacks increased the feeling of insecurity among the Muslim population living in Rakhine State, which was already facing severe restrictions on free movement outside the village or between townships, resulting in loss of work opportunities and near absence of government services. Ultra-national Buddhist elements’ demand for laws to protect race and religion targeted at Muslims made the minority community further nervous.


The feeling of insecurity among Muslims gave greater traction to the growth of Rohingya extremism, largely supported by expatriate Rohingyas. As early as 2009, media reports indicated that Rohingyas belonging to the Arakan Rohingya Nationalist Organisation (ARNO) and Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) were being trained in different Al Qaeda and Taliban camps in Afghanistan.


The insurgent group Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement, HaY) supported by Rohingya expatriates in Saudi Arabia gained a foothold in Rakhine State. According to the ICG report, HaY enjoyed considerable support from Muslims in northern Rakhine State, including several hundred locally trained recruits. The report also said HaY group had links with Rohingya expatriates in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. It also added that Afghan and Pakistani fighters had secretly trained groups of Rohingya villagers in Rakhine state. Indian intelligence agencies have also accessed similar information, identifying different groups and their leaders.

(To be continued…)

Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group, Paper No 6369, 20 April 2018

[This is an up-dated version of the  paper presented by the author at an international seminar on “Borders in South Asia: States, Communities and People” organized by Pondicherry University School of Social Sciences & International Studies UNESCO Madanjeet Singh Institute of South Asia Regional Cooperation & Centre for South Asian Studies at Pondicherry on February 1 and 2, 2018]


[See Notes and references from original]

The views expressed by the author are personal 

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