The persecution of Rohingya people in the Rakhine/Arakan state of Myanmar has been an unending tragedy. They are called the most and the longest persecuted people in the world. Their suffering is an ordeal that is hard to describe. Rohingya villages have been burnt, men massacred and women raped. There are frequent heart-wrenching videos of Rohingya families putting their rickety overcrowded boats on the rough waters of Bay of Bengal. Hungry, thirsty, scantily-clad and sun burnt, they row on, not knowing where the journey would end; in the bottom of the sea or in the clutches of the hostile Myanmar Navy, or on some unwelcoming land in Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia.
Though they have lived in the area for centuries, Rohingya have been denied citizenship by the Myanmar State, rendering them the largest stateless group of people in the world. Oppressed by the state, hated by the majority, denied economic opportunities and harassed by the Buddhists clergy, they have been forced to leave their homeland. Of the 2.5 million Rohingyas, 1.3 million are refugees in makeshift camps in Bangladesh and 0.4 million in Pakistan, where they live on the margins of society. There are an additional 0.2 million in Saudi Arabia, 0.15 million in Malaysia and 50 thousand in UAE and India each; leaving only 0.4 million in their original homeland in Arakan. This exodus qualifies to be called ‘ethnic cleansing’. The world and the UN have, however, largely remained aloof from their misery. UNHCR mission for Rohingya is critically underfunded. In Pakistan, they are concentrated in Karachi in slums and only a few have been able to find a decent living.
While Pakistani hearts beat for their brothers in faith, the mind agitates to discover the roots of their distress and its remedy. The following account traces the genesis of the Rohingya issue and option for its resolution.
Rohingya are concentrated on the coastal areas of Arakan State that is the southern extension of the Chittagong-Cox’s Bazaar coast, where they have resided with the majority Arakan people. Whereas the Rohingya belong to Indo-Arayan ethnic stock, most of the people of Maynmar, including the Arakanese and the Pue before them, belong to the Tibeto-Burman tribes who migrated from the land locked Chinese province of Yunnan in successive waves beginning in, perhaps the 4th millennium BC but definitely traceable to the 7th century AD. The Arakanese, who formed the last wave of these migrations, are socially distinct from the majority but originate from the same ethnic pool. The Rohingya belong to a Sunni-Sufi brand of Islam whereas the Arakanese-Bamar are Buddhist.
Rohingya presence on the coastal strip has a long proven history of over 500 years. The word Rohingya can be traced back to the pre-British times
Arakanese, with a population of 3.5 million, are the majority ethnic group in Arakan/Rakhine state. Some Arakanese live in the Chittagong Hills and are known as the Mog, who, due to their predatory raids in the past on the nearby coastal towns and villages, were dreaded by the sedentary Bengali and Rohingya population. Bamar, the majority group in Myanmar with a population of 35 million, inhabit the fertile Irrawaddy and Sittang river valleys further south.
For much of history since the middle of the 3rd century BC, including references in mythological episodes, Arakan was an independent kingdom. Its borders frequently extended north into the present-day Bangladeshi territory beyond Chittagong, as depicted in an ancient map made by the Europeans. Being a part of the same country, Bengalis moved up and down the coast seeking livelihood. Islam was introduced to this land by the Arab traders who had been visiting these coasts since before the advent of Islam.
Rohingya presence on the coastal strip has a long proven history of over 500 years. The word Rohingya can be traced back to the pre-British times. In 1799, Francis Buchanan wrote, “Among the native groups of Arakan, Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, call themselves Rooinga.”
The Classical Journal of 1811 identified “Rooinga” as one of the languages spoken in the “Burmah Empire”. In 1815, Johann Severin Vater listed “Ruinga “ as an ethnic group with a distinct language. Rohinya, therefore, are not recent migrants as advocated by Myanmar.
The Rohingya language is part of Chittagonian group of languages. It is not Bengali as the two are not mutually intelligible. This scribe’s school classmates from Noakhali Division, the coastal region bordering Chittagong Division, inform me that they do not understand the Rohingya dialect.
Bengal was first conquered by the Muslims in the first decade of the 13th century by Bakhtiar Khilji, who travelled from Helmand province to India in the wake of the Gauri invasion. This sultanate was initially centered at the ancient town of Gaur, east of Farakka Barrage, and then at Dacca but didn’t extend to the coastal areas of Chittagong or beyond, where the Arakanese held sway.
The Mughals got released thousands of Bengali prisoners from Arakan jails; some of whom were ancestors of the current Rohingya people
In 1406, the Arakan King Min Saw Mon was deposed by Burmese forces and fled to the court of Sultan of Bengal at Gaur. He stayed there for 24 years as a guest of Sultan Giasuddin. Later with the help of Bengali forces, Min Saw Mon recaptured his kingdom, founded the Maruk U dynasty (1430-1784) and ruled (r. 1430-1434) with the title of Sulaiman Shah. As reward for the Bengali help, he also ceded control of Chittagong to Giasuddin. He established the custom of adopting Muslim names that was followed by all his dynastic successors. The Arakan kingdom remained part of the Bengal Sultanate for a hundred years.
It was during the Maruk U period that the Bengalis freely moved into the Arakan coast to settle. The ethnic conflict commenced when first the Portuguese, and then the Dutch, starting moving to these littoral areas in the first decade of 1500s to establish trading and slaving posts. The western colonizers, and pirates, formed partnership with the Arakanese, whom they found to be competent sailors and fighters, and started kidnapping the Bengalis on the Chittagong-Arakan coast to sell them off as slaves. During this time, there are reports of charming dark women with large eyes and long hair being sold on the western coast of India. The long ordeal of the Rohingya had begun.
When the Bengal Sultanate was captured by the Mughals during the reign of Emperor Jahangir, Chittagong was under the suzerainty of the Arakan kingdom.
Infuriated with the behavior of the Araknese in the eastern Bay of Bengal, Emperor Aurangzeb ordered his governor of Bengal, Shaista Khan, to eliminate this threat. Shaista Khan won over the Dutch and the Portuguese to his side. In 1665, he took control of Sandwip island opposite Chittagong. He then launched attack on the coastline with 288 ships. His allies, the Portuguese. set alight the Arakan fleet. The Mughals gained Chittagong and renamed it Islamabad. They then crossed Karnaphuli River (Chittagong), Sangu River, the Matamuhri river complex, Bakhkhali River (Cox’s Bazaar) and the Naif River, the current Bangladesh-Myanmar border, to extended their control up to Kaladan River. The Mughals got released thousands of Bengali prisoners from Arakan jails; some of whom were ancestors of the current Rohingya people. Mughal control continued for over a century.
In 1748, the Burmese raided from the south, overthrew the Arakan Kingdom and advanced to the Naif River but East India Company, in control of Bengal from 1757, did nothing to preserve the borders established by Shaist Khan. This neglect on the part of the British is one of the causes of the Rohingya tragedy.
The British subsequently colonized Burma and had ample reasons to restore the Bengal border to Kaladan River but were too callous to do so. During the Second World War, the Rohingya supported the British forces against the Japanese aggressors whereas the Burmese leader Aung San, father of the current leader Aung San Suu Kyi (the Noble laureate in peace), supported the Japanese Empire. The British had promised an independent state to the Rohingya for their services but refused to honour these commitments after the war.
The Rohingya are a peaceful people with little inclination for organization or armed resistance. Their opponents, both the Arakanese and the Burman, are more traditionally martial peoples now led by terrifyingly iconic violent Buddhist monks.
In view of this historical testimony, it often appears as if the only way out for the Rohingya might be to fight their way out of this nightmare. It will not be easy.
As the international community turns its back on them, they face the terrifying choice of either prevailing or perishing.
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at email@example.com