The Rohingya of Burma/Myanmar have suddenly emerged from obscurity as possibly the most persecuted minority on earth?  Who are these unfortunate people and why are they so persecuted?  This Blog Post speaks to the origins and politics that have isolated the group rather than the current humanitarian issues.


So……Who are the Rohingyas……and why are they being persecuted?

Jews in 1939………Rohingyas today – Recent Haaretz headline.

“The most persecuted people on Earth” – Headline of article from June 13th Economist.

The readers of my blog have more than average political curiousity but I would guess that most have only peripheral knowledge of the Rohingyas.  Scenes of thousands of desperate people stranded in the Andaman Sea, pushed back by one nation after the other have captured the attention of journalists and the world. Who are they and why have they become victims of persecution and are now  emerging from obscurity?

This blog will speak to the above question and will suggest why they are being singled out for persecution. The current humanitarian crisis is being covered in the press and will not be the central part of this analysis.

A political travelogue written January 2014 about a visit to Burma and the region describes my engagement in the Peace effort in Burma plus comments about SE Asia.  The name Burma is used instead of Myanmar since that is the preferred term of the ethnic communities.   To view Article please click here:   Christmas, Peace and Other Subjects.

First some facts

The term Rohingya is a manufactured term that simply means “inhabitant of Rohang” which is the early Muslim name for Arakan.  The term Arakan in turn is the historic name of what is now the Burmese state of Rakhine which was an independent entity for much of its history.

How many and where do they live?

Those who identify as Rohingya are estimated to number about 1,600,000 of which 1,100,000 live in Rakhine State, another 100,000 elsewhere in Myanmar.  A similar number have migrated to Malaysia for economic and security reasons. Another 250,000 have “returned” to Bangladesh plus scattered communities in India and Saudi Arabia.

Where do they come from?

It is reasonably clear that they originate in the Indian sub-continent with the majority from neighboring Bengal and speak what is described as a “Chittagonian” dialect – Chittagong is the nearest major city and port in Bangladesh.

What is the nature of migration that brought them to the former Arakan and now Rakhine?

Records indicate that there were migrants dating from the 8th century but more substantial movement of people occurred when the Mughal Empire advanced as far as Bengal – defining a difference and religious boundary between the Muslim and Buddhist worlds.  Arakan, although Buddhist, was a sea-faring entity and because of geography related more to the Indian and Muslim reality to its north than the Buddhist and Burmese tribes scattered across mountainous terrain to its East.  There are many recorded migrations over centuries plus all of the random and voluntary movement of populations driven by opportunity, geography and sometimes political events.

There were several instances of recorded migrations from the sub-continent that became permanent and remain as additional identifiable ethnic groups.  One group is the “Kaman” who were Mughal soldiers stranded (in Arakan) by events in India in 1660 and became an elite palace guard reinforced by Afghanis.  They are Muslim, are unusually successful in the professions and other ventures and are recognized by the current Myanmar authorities as one of the 135 officially recognized indigenous/ethnic minorities.  They now suffer from identification with “less desirable” Muslim residents and are experiencing an encroachment of their long-established status as citizens of Myanmar.

A parallel group is the Gurkha who were originally from Nepal and employed by the British as very reliable mercenary soldiers throughout the Empire.  Since terms of engagement could be decades, many brought their families to where they were stationed or married locals and established families.  The British conquered Burma in 1825 and departed in 1947 allowing plenty of time for a community to become established.  Many of the Gurkha found life in Burma to be superior to the difficult conditions of Nepal and chose to stay.  Today there are an estimated 300,000 residents of Burma who self-identify as “Gurkha”.  They are primarily Hindu and because of their elite military background have always valued education with the expected outcome that they are relatively successful.  The Gurkha fought against the Japanese, supported the Burmese Nationalists against the British and finally were part of the Burmese effort in the 1950’s to subdue rebellious minorities.  They had historically been considered citizens of Burma (remember this was during the period of British control and they were unusually closely linked to the colonial system) and when the dictatorship of General Ne Win stripped them of that identity in 1962 they withdrew with a deep sense of grievance and disappointment.  Today they suffer discrimination but since they are scattered around the country they do not correlate territory and identity in a manner similar to most Burmese ethnic groups and to the Rohingya.  The Government in the recent census insisted that the Gurkha be enumerated as “Nepali” which in the Burma context makes them outsiders and non-Burmese.  (This is parallel to the demand that the Rohingya identify as Bengali).  The Gurkha refused and now share pariah status with the Rohingya and a few other groups.

Sometimes history becomes personal…….

We adopted a daughter in 1974 from a Catholic Convent in Chittagong.  Very little was known about her background except that she was the child of “Nepali refugees who had come to Chittagong” and died shortly after the civil war that created Bangladesh.  There were no particular events in Nepal at the time that would have resulted in refugees and in any event not with Chittagong as a destination.  I now realize that she is almost certainly of Gurkha heritage and has the visual appearance of the Nepali people.  This was during the years when the Ne Win regime practiced a scorched-earth policy in many of the ethnic regions with upward of a million refugees fleeing in all directions – primarily to Thailand.

At the time (1972-1974) I was Director of an international NGO (MCC) with substantial relief capacity and at one point we were asked to go to the border of Rakhine State and Bangladesh to assist with thousands of refugees who had suddenly appeared from the other side of the border.  They were not identified with the name Rohingya at the time and it is suggested that the name has really only become prominent in the last decade as they are increasingly being pressured to self-identify as “Bengali” with the implication that they are not part of (historic indigenous) Burma.  There have been several recent instances where events in Burma resulted in large refugee movements.  In addition to 1971-73, there was a major outflow in 1990 following the failed 1989 election and again in 2010.  The recent more visible persecution and outflow of desperate people follows the highly –publicized move (2012) toward a more democratic Burma and efforts to end the six decades of civil conflict.

The transition to some form of Democracy and Federalism will hopefully bring stability, identity and self-governance to the myriad of ethnic communities but may leave the Rohingya without a seat at the table.  It is a paradox that the move to the recognition of ethnicity in Burma may be their undoing. The problem stems from the very tight linkage between ethnicity and specific territory. The very rugged and inaccessible terrain of northern and eastern Burma allowed ethnic communities to survive into the modern era with their unique languages, cultures and sometimes religious differences substantially intact.

Rakhine state is separated from the rest of Burma by a very challenging mountain range which has allowed it to retain an identity separate from the dominant Burman population of the Irrawaddy delta. Rakhine was only ruled by what we now know as Burma for the short period of 1785-1825.  The British Empire set the rules during the period 1825 – 1947 with open borders.  The consequence of this history and geographic reality was a steady increase of population from British India.  The migrants were primarily Muslim and did not assimilate with the local Buddhist population.

WWII was an added complication since Rakhine State was the furthest advance of the Japanese military.  The ethnic Rakhine sided with the Japanese with the hope of ending British colonialism while the Rohingya supported the British and their religious/ethnic colleagues up the coast.  The result was a significant demographic shift of the Rohingya to the northern part of Rakhine.  This allowed the Rohingya to become a localized majority and potentially make a territorial claim in a future Federal system if they were recognized as an official ethnic group.

The periods of persecution in the last century have their roots in the existential fears of the ethnic Rakhine population that they would become minorities in their own territory.  (Rohingya number 1,100,000 out of a total Rakhine State population of 3,200,000.)  There is the belief, and possibly fact, that Muslims have larger families and there are efforts to restrict the number of children born to Muslims.  The current negotiations about the future of Governance in Burma speak of a Federalism built around a tight connection between ethnicity and territory.  Ethnic Rakhines fear that if the Rohingya become citizens they will have the potential to vote as a bloc and may effectively control the politics of their state.  Their fear is not unfounded.

These realities and the greater space for political expression have created the opportunity for extremist Buddhist leaders to stir up attitudes and fears which have predictably resulted in violent expression of those fears.  The Military Government presumably has the power to control civil violence but by remaining on the sidelines appears to encourage efforts to isolate the Rohingya and encourage their emigration.

We should therefore not be surprised if thousands of refugees cross the border into Bangladesh and others seek security and opportunity by attempting the precarious journey south to Thailand or Malaysia.

Rohingya and Burmese National Politics

The road to Democracy and Federalism will pass through the prism of an important election in late October.  The Burman ethnic majority hopes to capture enough seats to control the new parliament.  The National League for Democracy headed by Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to dominate but will compete with ethnic Burman parties to its political right plus the expectation that ethnic minorities will vote for their own political entities.  If Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD take a public stance in favor of protection of Rohingya interests they are vulnerable to attack from the Burman and Buddhist right and risk election defeat.  During my April visit with the Lady she recognized (See my Blog Post #5…Tea with the Lady….May 6, 2015) that there were few realistic alternatives to eventual citizenship but has not taken a public position in their defense – and has been criticized for her apparent silence.

We might think that the 135 other officially recognized ethnic groups would come to the defense of the Rohingya but that has not been the case.  Each group is jealous of its own particular territorial claim and set of rights expected from a Federal outcome and sees risks in recognizing additional groups that may infringe on their own claims and identity.

This leaves the Rohingya uniquely out of the loop and isolated.  They tend to be landless and poor making them vulnerable.  Other unrecognized minorities like the Gurkha or Kaman have their challenges but are not as immediate a territorial threat to other recognized indigenous ethnic groups as is the case with the Rohingya.  Expect the pressure to continue with more reports of humanitarian transgressions.

The UN, the International Crisis Group, Medicin sans Frontiere and others have been engaged in humanitarian activities but discouraged or restricted by Burmese authorities.  They maintain that this is a problem that belongs to two countries – Burma and Bangladesh – but Bangladesh authorities maintain that there have been many historic movements across borders in past centuries and this problem now belongs solely to Burma.

This blog could continue by reminding us of the atrocities committed in the name of ethnicity, language, religion and territory in South Asia.  Think of the untouchables in India, the Partition of 1947, the million Biharis in Bangladesh after 1971, the genocide at the creation of Bangladesh, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia plus the atrocities committed over 6 decades in Burma in the name of religious and ethnic purity.  The Rohingya are simply the latest chapter in a very difficult and tragic history.  Do not expect a simple, easy or quick solution.