A Rohingya girl holds her sibling at a confinement area in Bayeun, Aceh province, Indonesia, May 21, 2015. [AFP]
By Imran Vittachi
The Rohingya are an oppressed and stateless people who have lived for centuries at the crossroads between the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, where boundaries have shifted over time.
They hail from Rakhine state in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). But the government there does not recognize this Muslim minority as citizens, and the country’s Buddhist majority has long subjected them to oppressive and discriminatory policies, human rights advocates say.
“The impetus of this exodus is the Burmese government’s stripping of the Rohingya and others of their only legal documentation, known as white cards,” Jennifer Quigley, president of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, said this week.
“Many Rohingya families can trace their history in Burma going back generations,” she added in a statement. “But the Burmese government has not just revoked their citizenship but also even the hope of ever regaining that citizenship."
The roots causes of the exodus also lie in a lack of education, health care and opportunities, as well as restricted movement within the country’s borders, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told reporters in Yangon Friday, according to the Associated Press.
According to U.N. estimates, an earlier maritime exodus saw as many as 130,000 Rohingya flee by sea toward Malaysia because of communal violence in Rakhine in mid-2012.
An unwanted people
The root of the name Rohingya comes from "Rohang" or "Rohan," which was the name used for the Rakhine region during the 9th and 10th centuries.
The Rohingya descended from 7th century Arab, Mughal, and Bengali merchants who settled in the region. Approximately 800,000 Rohingya are concentrated in Rakhine state, where they live alongside the Rakhine, an ethnic group descended from Hindus and Mongols who make up the ethnic majority in the region.
Another 600,000 Rohingya live in neighboring Bangladesh. They fled across the border over the decades due to communal violence in Rakhine and alleged persecution at the hands of Buddhists and Myanmar’s former junta.
Yet Bangladesh won’t recognize its resident Rohingya population either. Most of them live in the Cox’s Bazar area in the country’s southeast.
During the regional crisis this month over thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants stranded at sea or coming ashore in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, officials from both Bangladesh and Myanmar rejected claims that the Rohingya were citizens of their countries.
Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s military, on Thursday suggested that some of the migrants landing on Southeast Asian shores to the south probably were passing themselves off as Rohingya Muslims in order to receive assistance from the United Nations.
“We are determined to bring all our nationals back as and when their identity is verified. Our diplomats in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are working to check their identity,” Bangladeshi State Minister for Home Affairs Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told reporters in Dhaka on Monday.
“But we are not going to take the responsibility for the Rohingyas, as they are not our citizens,” he added.
The Rohingya may be one of the world’s most forsaken people, but there was a time when they enjoyed a measure of prominence in Myanmar’s society.
Before 1962, their community was recognized as an indigenous ethnic nationality within the country, which was then known as Burma.
People from the community held public office as members of parliament, ministers, parliamentary secretaries, among other high-ranking positions.
But after the junta seized power in 1962, the Rohingya were systematically deprived of their political rights.
And, in 1982, they were declared “non-nationals” and “foreign residents,” according to a citizenship law established by the regime. They also were denied the right to participate in multiparty elections held in 1990.
A colonial legacy
The short-lived respect that the Rohingya enjoyed stemmed from the region’s imperial past, which also factors into how they eventually became stateless.
The British had promised the Rohingya a separate Muslim state when they reclaimed what was then known as Burma from Japanese occupation during World War II, as a way to thank the Rohingya for their loyalty.
However, only those Rohingya who had collaborated with the British were appointed to official posts within the British-controlled colony.
By 1947, the Rohingya had formed an army and had approached the president of newly-formed Pakistan to incorporate northern Rakhine into a part of the country that would later become Bangladesh.
Experts say it was this move that led to problems between the Rohingya and Burma’s government, who viewed the group as untrustworthy.
When Burma declared independence in 1948, most Rohingya officials were replaced with Buddhist Rakhines who began to institute policies many of the Muslim group considered unfair.
Ethnic tensions have divided the two peoples ever since.
According to Nirmal Ghosh, Indochina bureau chief for the Singapore-based Straits Times, the roots of the Rohingya question are very much tied to Southern Asia’s colonial past.
“In colonial times, Bengal was partitioned first in 1905 and then in 1947,” Ghosh wrote in the Straits Times last week. “Meanwhile, Burma was ruled as a province of India by the British, but they agreed to rule it separately in 1937 – in effect, another partition.
“When colonialism ended and new borders were set, many people who had moved fluidly across regions found themselves accidental foreigners” he added. “The Rohingya are the residue of this history.”