Rohingya is a people under endless tyranny. They are living in Arakan region of present Burma. They have long been subjected to campaigns of terror, genocide and extermination, particularly under the military rule in Burma since 1962. Their situation today reaches an ugly peak at the hand of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), with nearly 1.5 million of their people expelled from their ancestral homeland by use of force. It is a problem of ethnic cleansing as well as a problem of religious and political persecution, to rid Arakan of the Muslim population, and is not of refugee alone.
Hopefully, this small humble presentation, in a very precise form, will give the readers at least an idea, if not vivid picture, of the Rohingya problem, one of today's greatest human tragedies, in its aspects and dimensions.
Finally, the long-standing and deep-rooted Rohingya problem calls for an immediate and permanent solution. To this end, we seek all-out support of the international community.
Arakan Rohingya National Organisation
Dated: 31st August 1999
BURMA is a large, strategically placed country between South Asia and South East Asia, with an area of about 261,610 square miles and a population of nearly 50 million. It is home to numerous ethnic groups and about 60% of the area is inhabited by nearly 140 ethnic races. Rohingya is one of them. It has borders with India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, and Thailand.
Burma gained independence from the British on 4 January 1948. It is a multi-national, multi-cultural and multi-religious country. Majority people are Buddhists. The Muslims are the second largest religious community. Christianity and other religions are also practised.
ARAKAN, formerly called Rohang, lies on the north-western part of Burma with 360 miles coastal belt from the Bay of Bengal. It borders 176 miles with Bangladesh, 48 miles of which is covered by river Naf, which demarcates Arakan(Burma)-Chittagong (Bangladesh) border. It is a natural physiographic unit clearly separated from the rest of Burma by the long range of Arakan Yoma running north to south. The area of Arakan is about 20,000 square miles. But Arakan Hill-tracts district (5235 square miles) and southern most part of Arakan were partitioned from Arakan. So, it has now been reduced to 14,200 square miles.
Two major ethnic races, the Rohingyas (Muslims) and Rakhines (Buddhists), inhabit Arakan. The unofficial total population of Arakan is more than five million, both inside and outside the country, including about 1.5 million of Rohingyas who have been expelled from the homeland since 1942. At present Rohingyas and the Rakhines (Maghs) stand at almost in equal proportion inside Arakan. In addition, there are about 200,000 tribal and 200,000 Burman people in Arakan.
Rohingyas have been living in Arakan from time immemorial. They are a people with distinct culture and civilization of their own. They trace their ancestry to Arabs, Moors, Pathans, Moghuls, Bengalis and some Indo-Mongoloid people. Early Muslim settlements in Arakan date back to 7th century AD.
Due to massacre of about 100,000 Rohingyas in anti-Muslim pogrom of 1942 and ongoing genocide and persecution against them, some areas in South Arakan have been turned into non-Muslim territory. At present the Rohingya constitutes 70% to 80% population of North Arakan while they form 97% of the people living in Mayu Region.
The Rohingyas are nationals as well as an indigenous ethnic group of Burma. They had been recognized as such by the previous elected democratic governments with members in parliament and cabinet having a programme as an indigenous people in the official Burma Broadcasting Service (BSS) and participation in official 'Union Day' celebration of Burma's racial groups in Burmese capital every year. In spite of that frequent full-fledged armed operations with state patronized communal riots have been engineered and carried out against Rohingyas resulting in heavy tolls of lives, massive destruction of their settlements, holy places of worship, economic bases and expulsion from their hearths and homes.
The condition of the Rohingyas started to get worse when the military generals took over the power from the civilian government in March 1962 and installed an autocratic rule under 'Burmese Way to Socialism' with idiosyncratic policies of the Retired dictator General Ne Win. And the worst comes to the worst during the present ruling military junta officially known as State Peace and Development Council (until November 1997, State Law and Order Restoration Council - SLORC).
The democracy uprising in 1988 caused nothing but reshuffle of the military rulers who geared up atrocities and human rights violations upon the citizens in general and upon the minority ethnic groups in particular.
Forced expulsions of Rohingyas in 1978 and 1991 caused about 300,000 refugees in each time to nearby Bangladesh. There have been fresh influxes of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh since early 1996, despite the fact that more than 21,000 are still awaiting safe and voluntary repatriation from there. They are now resisting forced repatriation. Yet again more than 100 men, women and children belonging to about 15 families of Rohingya refugees have been observing hunger strike since 26 August 1999 in Kutupalong Rohingya Refugee Camp in protest against the planned repatriation of the refugees to Arakan against their will. 26 striking refugees have been sent to hospitals in Cox's Bazar area as their condition deteriorated. The refugees demand to suspend repatriation until a democratic and benign government is established in Burma and all their citizenship rights are restored. Those Rohingyas who had earlier been repatriated are still denied their right to nationality in their homeland while barbaric persecution against Rohingyas is continuing unabated in Arakan.
THE MAJOR PROBLEMS OF THE ROHINGYAS
The problems of the Rohingyas are the result of the well-planned conspiracy to rid Arakan of the Muslim population. Their problems are extremely grave and deep-rooted and they are today in sub-human condition. Generally their problems are:
(1) Rejection of Citizenship: The Rohingyas are aborigines of Arakan. They have their history and glorious past and had their Sultanate in Arakan. They are one of the recognized nationalities of the Union of Burma. In spite of that the present military SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) has absolutely rejected their citizenship. No National Identification documents have been issued to Rohingyas since 1970s, which are compulsory in daily life particularly in Arakan. It is important for ownership of property, transport, and studies, facing the law and even staying at home. The so-called Burma Citizenship Law of 1982, which was condemned and repudiated by the international community, has discriminatory affect on racial or ethnic nationalities, particularly it deprives the ethnic Rohingyas of their right to citizenship by rendering them 'stateless' in their historical homeland. The law continues to create outflows of refugees, which overburden other countries posing threats to peace and tranquillity within the region.
(2) Forced Expulsion: The military regime has denied the Rohingya people their right in their own homeland by forcibly dispossessing and seizing of their land, by criminally stripping them daily of their property in an oppressive manner and by expelling them from their ancestral homeland for replacement with non-Muslim settlers, while making them to wander from place to place both inside and outside the country, with ultimate aim of wiping this ethnic race.
(3) Genocide & Ethnic-cleansing: The military is carrying out the policy and practice of killing or driving out of Arakan the ethnic Rohingyas in order to rid Arakan of the Muslim population and to turn it into a purely Burmanized Buddhist region. Time and again, there have been massacres, communal riots, occupation of Muslims' lands and properties, destruction of Muslim villages and settlements, demolition of mosques, cemeteries and tombs of great Muslim saints across the country, particularly in Arakan. Round the clock senses of utter insecurity and abject helplessness on the part of the Rohingyas are prevalent. In bitter cold, torrential rain or scorching heat men, women and children, young and old have been gathered under open sky and houses have been emptied at gun point and herded them in boats and through jungles and dales towards the border areas to ultimately push them into Bangladesh. There are instances that some of the victims were drowned in the rivers. Many were missing, killed or died while trekking through the jungles. This human miseries and heart-rending sights are regular phenomenon. What fate holds in store for them they do not know.
(4) Cultural Problem: The Rohingyas have had superior culture through out the history. The influence of their culture had always been great in Arakan and it attracted the Buddhist community of the country in all spheres of national activities. Even the Buddhists (including the kings of Buddhist faith) willingly adopted Muslim names and titles and their women practiced purda (veil system). Unfortunately, today the cultural problem becomes one of the most important problems of the Rohingyas in Burma. The concept of Burmanization plays a vital role in absorbing various cultures and religions. For the Rohingyas, being Muslims, to retain their cultural identity is more complex and sensitive. Those who are more Burmanized are more acceptable in Burma. The Muslims have to encounter a strong pressure of the Burman culture. Particularly, the Rohingyas have to confront ideological assaults from all directions. Deliberate and persistent attempts have been made to impose the Burman culture and this efforts have become more vigorous on the Rohingyas in recent years under the military regime. Rohingyas are considered practicing foreign way of life having no origin in Burma. Burma for the present ruling military SPDC is a Burman nation and their one supreme goal is to bring to life the all-round glory and greatness of their military pride. The nationalist patriots are those who glorify the military. Others are so-called traitors and enemies of the nation. According to them the Rohingyas are to adopt and entertain no ideas but those of glorification of Burman race and culture and Buddhism.
Erasing of Muslim entity: The Muslims or Rohingyas have been told to discard Islamic names and adopt Burman names. They are despised and discriminated against for their belief. Muslim culture, Muslim relics and monuments have been destroyed. Everywhere Muslim and Islamic are razed to the ground. The Muslim names of the places have been changed and are being replaced with names attributed to the Buddhists or Buddhism. Hundreds of mosques have been demolished, including the historic Sandikhan mosque built in 1430 by an Arakan king. Pagodas, monasteries and Buddhist temples, with increased new settlements of settlers of Buddhist faith invited from within and outside the country, have been erected and built, in every nook and cranny of the traditional Rohingya homeland, with the forced labour of the Rohingyas, with a view to changing the demography and ethnic composition of Arakan.
Distortion of Islamic values: Particularly the Muslim students have been brainwashed in schools where anti-Islamic materials are being taught to them. They say that the Muslims have nothing to do in Burma. Their slogan is 'to be a Burmese is to a Buddhist'. Islam and Islamic culture is always projected in distorted forms through the media. The cultural issues like personal law, status of women in Muslim society, Muslim way of worship and Islamic missionary activities and projection of all these present different picture of Muslims from what actually it is. Either it is TV film, radio, or press, Islam has to be presented in humiliating, derogatory, degrading and distorted forms.
(5) Restriction on Freedom of Movement: The military regime has prohibited the Rohingyas of their right to freedom of movement and selection of their places of residence within the state seriously affecting the socio-cultural, economic, educational activities and daily life of Rohingyas. Humiliating movement restrictions faced by Rohingyas today in their homeland are unacceptable to any living creature on earth. The SPDC has seriously restricted them to travel from one locality to another. No Rohingya can travel without a permit even from one village to another in the same township. Such permit can be obtained by paying bribes to the authority, valid only for 24 hours to a maximum of seven days. Travel to Rangoon, the capital of Burma, has been totally banned for Rohingyas since 1992. Although this practice was only applied to rural Rohingya farmers since 1960s, it is now also applied to Rohingya businessmen, doctors, engineers, lawyers, students and even the patients who need urgent treatment available only in the capital city.
(6) Unresolved Rohingya Refugee Issue: Since 1942 about 1.5 million Rohingyas have been expelled or have fled the country for their lives. At present many of them are living in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Malaysia. Being unofficial refugees, most of them have no access to work, safe refuge, and basic necessities of life and education for their children. They are still hoping to return to their ancestral homeland of Arakan. Expulsion of Rohingyas from their homeland once in 1978 and another in 1991 caused the Diaspora of nearly 300,000 refugees to Bangladesh and other countries in each occasion. Despite repatriation, the crux of the problem still remains unsolved and persecution against Rohingyas is continuing. There have been new arrivals in scattered and steady numbers along the border, in spite of attempts by Bangladesh authorities to push back or repatriate them. Poor economic condition has not been the only cause of the fresh refugee exodus. Forced labour, forced relocation, torture, rape and other atrocities have caused them to flee for their lives. Unfortunately, the role of UNHCR does not effectively bring relief to the social, political and spiritual problems of the Rohingyas.
(7) Other grave human rights violations: The Rohingyas have been subjected to worst kinds of human rights violations. (i) Crimes like extra-judicial killings, summary executions, arbitrary arrests and torture, humiliating restrictions on movement, slave labour, uprooting of villages and forcible eviction of inmates, confiscation of properties, destruction of mosques, cemeteries and religious schools have been perpetrated against them. Rape and molestation of women-folk have become the unwritten but institutionalized code of punishment by the military junta. (ii) Artificial economic strangulation is a man made disaster for Rohingyas. Although Arakan is a resourceful land, massive toll collection, in addition to regular loots, by the ruling junta from every sector, particularly agriculture and fishing, creates famine in the Rohingya area of North Arakan. On the other hand, the junta blocks the passage of commodities to the area while taking out of the existing products to nearby Bangladesh resulting in high inflation. The price of commodities in the border town of Maungdaw (100 miles NE of Akyab) is between 150% to 300% higher than in Akyab, the provincial capital of Arakan. (iii) The junta seriously restricts their rights to own property and to do business. The Rohingyas have been forced to abandon their existing property, trade, and business to the junta and the Rakhines in Arakan. They can not withstand the ruthlessness of the junta. Mass eviction from the villages is common. (iv) Forced Labour: So-called 'voluntary labour', a term used by the junta for slave labour, is common in Burma. The authorities promise only four days of 'free labour' from every Rohingya family per month. But, in practice one has to work between half a month to more than a month when taken for forced labour. They have to carry their own food and are subjected to inhuman treatment, severe torture and sometimes killing during the course of portering or work. Some UNHCR projects have been undertaken by the junta on contract and have used forced labour from Rohingyas.
ASPECTS OF THE PROBLEMS
The Rohingya problem has two aspects: political and humanitarian. It is political because it constitutes violations of human rights and flagrant denial of elementary liberty and freedom, particularly the liberty to continue their living in their own homeland and in the hearths and homes of their ancestors. In nutshell, the burning problems of the Rohingyas may be summarized in the following dimensions:
· IDENTITY CRISIS: Absolute rejection of the citizenship of Rohingyas in their historical homeland, who lived there for centuries. The Rohingya have become homeless in their own homes. They have become stateless within the state. The military regime has put up two options before the Rohingya people: either to accept Burman-melting pot and become Buddhist or migration to alien lands. In the case of the former, no Muslim could agree to an arrangement or system that compromises or jeopardises Islam. The sensible and practical step is to accept the reality of the diversity and allow the Muslims to live according to the tenet of their faith. In the latter's case, their historical homeland is dear and sacred to them. There is no place for them which can accommodate and give them moral, material, spiritual relief and need except their historical homeland of Arakan. Because there is no home away from home.
· ETHNIC CLEANSING: Chronic, planned, persistent and progressive in nature. Mass eviction, genocide and extra-judicial killing, large-scale persecution and torture, de-Muslimization and Buddhization. Burmanization characterizes it. Their objective is to rid Arakan of the Muslim population and to turn this strategic place, between south and Southeast Asia, along the long coast of Bay of Bengal, into a Burmanized Buddhist region.
· ALARMING SOCIO-ECONOMIC DEGRADATION
Vital statistics in the socio-economic sphere are very much incomparable with the rest of the country as well as the world. Rohingya people have sunk deep into the morass of poverty and hunger. Serious unemployment, deprivation from basic vocation like trade and commerce, prejudicial and racist laws or directives and extreme poverty have conspired them die in starvation or live a life of abject poverty and servitude. In every respect they are lagging behind others and remain stagnant and backward.
· DIASPORA OF THE ROHINGYAS: Nearly 50% of the Rohingyas have been displaced from the homeland and are living in sub-human conditions, wandering from place to place in many countries of the world, as illegal immigrants or unofficial refugees with uncertain future. Now and again planned drive operations have been carried out by the military regime resulting in massive death of Rohingya and their expulsion from their ancestral homeland. In addition, the non-Rohingya (almost all Buddhists) are being brought in to the Rohingya homeland in concentric waves. The settlers edge out the native Rohingyas from their places to ultimately force them to become 'internally displaced’ or refugees. Vast tracks of land owned by the Rohingyas have been confiscated for military reservation and camps. Most of the settlers arrived in the Rohingya homeland during the military rule since 1962. The trend is more vigorous under the rule of SLORC/SPDC. The settlers are accommodated in specially created settlements, built with the forced labour and at the expense of Rohingya. Ultimately they come right in the middle of the Rohingyas as hostile elements, under the aegis of the military regime, creating chaotic and anarchic conditions. Thus those who are still at home find themselves herded like prisoners inside military barracks reminiscent of the Nazi concentration camps.
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ETHNIC CLEANSING OF ROHINGYAS?
n THE RULING MILITARY JUNTA: It is clear that the ruling military junta is fully responsible for the ongoing ethnic-cleansing of the Rohingyas since 1962 through
1.2 Burmese Way to Socialism with idiosyncratic policies of Ne Win during BSPP (Burma Socialist Programme Party) rule
1.3 Burmese Chauvinism and Buddhist fanaticism.
n THE SISTER COMMUNITY OF ROHINGYA (BUDDHIST RAKHINE): The historic and ethnic division between Rakhines (Maghs) and Rohingyas remains complex. The military junta uses the existing religious and cultural hostilities between Rakhines and Rohingyas to stir up clashes in Arakan and ensure that they do not unite.
The Rakhines have participated in every step of Rohingya ethnic cleansing strategy of the military junta although they themselves face discrimination from the majority ethnic Burmese.
n OTHERS: There have been strong pro-democracy activities led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma since 1988. Whatever is the power of the junta, democratic atmosphere in Burma is expected sooner or later. Could Rohingya issue be solved under a democratic government?
It depends on the moral and ethnic concepts and sincerity of the democratic leaders. The usual objection from the Rakhines on the wellbeing of Rohingyas in the land of Arakan will be the major obstacles. The enemy of the enemy is not necessarily a friend in the case of Rohingyas.
The Rohingyas are today in between two horns of dilemma. Despite their aspirations, commitments and cooperation with the Burmese oppositions and countrywide movement for democracy and human rights, the Rohingyas are deliberately kept at distance and barred from united movements and democratic forums even by the main stream political forces. Their statements and attitudes towards Rohingya people are full of ambiguities and ambivalence. Neither the Rohingyas are consulted with nor are allowed to participate in the nation wide democratic activities and in the present constitution making process by the exile pro democracy activists. The drafters of the present draft constitution are seemed to have overlooked the principle of democratic practice and human rights consideration in the case of Rohingyas. Thus, the present draft constitution of the opposition groups does not reflect the genuine hopes and aspirations of the unrepresented Rohingya people. As such it can not be a guarantee and hope for them. Most of the oppositions do not dare speak the truth to support the inalienable rights and freedom of the Rohingya people lest it will hurt the sentiment of the Rakhines (Maghs) who are hostile to the Rohingyas and have been dreaming on to exclusively own and dominate Arakan without Rohingyas.
C O N C L U S I O N
The Rohingya problem is one of the long-standing and deep-rooted problems of the world. It is a problem of religious and political persecution and is a systematic elimination of an ethnic Muslim community from their own homeland of Arakan through ethnic cleansing. Rohingyas are being killed, tortured, raped, incarcerated, and expelled from their homeland. The general situation obtaining among the Rohingyas of Arakan is beyond words to describe. But now they virtually have nothing, not even their own precious lives. What would their future be like, and their posterity?
In view of the above, we call upon the international community and peace-loving people of the world to try and investigate the real situation being faced by the Rohingyas and to take appropriate measures against the Burmese military regime and perpetrators of the crimes against humanity.
Finally, the Rohingya problem needs an immediate, permanent and viable solution to which fact we again invite the attention of the United Nations Organisation (UNO), Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), other World Bodies, IGOs, NGOs, Human Rights Organisations and international community.