Burma For Burmans

Plight of the Rohingya

Pranjali Bandhu

Post-colonial Myanmar political history with long years of rule by repressive and exploitative military ruling regimes intermittently interspersed with phases of some concessions to limited electoral democracy has given rise to a large number of refugees, who try to find safe havens in neighbouring countries. Myanmar is dominated by the Burman nationality ruling through the military, while over 100 other ethnic nationalities are still struggling for equal rights and self-determination/autonomy in their own territories and for genuine federalism or even independence, and are against any kind of assimilation process in the interest of the dominant group. Fanatic Buddhist majoritarianism is being used to integrate the multi-ethnic, multi-religious country and priority is given to national unity under a proposed “one country, one law” Act, rather than by means of a pluralistic democracy. The majority religion functions de facto as the state religion.

It will be pertinent to provide a few details regarding the history of the national question in Myanmar. The dominant Bamar/Burmans are a fusion of tribes from different regions of South-East Asia and Tibet who had settled down in the Irrawady Valley around the twelfth century. Ahoms were a Shan tribe that originally hailed from ancient China and travelled through Southeast Asia. They had entered the Brahmaputra Valley and established the Ahom Empire, which Burmans under the expansionist Konbaung dynasty invaded and tried to overthrow in 1821-22. They also waged campaigns against Manipur and Arakan. Arakan was a multi-civilisational independent region and kingdom (comprising Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Hindus), which later came under the domination of the Mughals. It included the Chittagong Hill Tracts area and Tripura and was inhabited by various ethnic groups including the Rakhines and Chakmas. They were militarily defeated by invading Burman Buddhist troops in 1785. At that time many fled to East Bengal, then under the British. The Rohingya (derived from the name Rohang which was the early Muslim name for Arakan), an ethnic Muslim majority group inhabiting the Arakan region, claimed a thousand-year inhabitation of the region having been converted from Buddhism to Islam by Arab traders between the 7th and 9th centuries, who also intermarried here like on the Malabar Coast.

It was the threat from the Bamar, and French competition in the region, that led the British colonialists to fight three Anglo-Burmese wars over a period of 60 years (1824-26, 1852-3, and 1885) for the conquest of the territory that became incorporated as a province in British India. It included territories of the Kachin and Karen and other ethnic groups who had not been under direct Burman rule before. Some of these ethnic groups majorly or partially converted to Christianity under the influence of Baptist missionaries as the Nagas and others in the North-East of India. The Civil Services were mostly manned by Indians (Bengali Babus largely); there was a large Indian population in Rangoon. The British made no efforts to train Burmese in skilled labour and did not invest properly in their modern education. In agriculture, migrants had been encouraged to come in from India by the colonial government to develop the rice fields of the Irrawady Delta. The country was fast becoming an Indian colony with a big presence of Indian bankers, mostly Tamil Chettiars, who through foreclosures had bought up most of the fertile rice lands. Marwari and Gujarati traders were present. During colonialism further migration from Bengal Presidency (which included Bihar and Odisha) took place encouraged by the British who had incorporated Arakan into the Bengal Presidency on gaining this territory in 1824 after the first Anglo-Burmese War, and these people settled along with the indigenous Muslim population. They were needed there as labour for export-oriented intensive rice cultivation promoted by the British.1

Burma became a separate British colony in 1937 as a result of the pressure of Burman nationalism and British colonial interests of creating a wedge between Burmese and Indian nationalisms. Indians generally, about half of whom were Muslims, (ethnic Chinese migrants too were not exempt) started being targeted during the 1930s because many of them, as mentioned, had come in with the British invaders and enjoyed a superior position in the economy and society. In 1938, there were anti-Muslim riots for several months throughout the country. Burmese nationalism (demanding Burma for Burmans – the dominant nationality), strongly linked to the trend of Buddhist revivalism and its imagined threat perceptions by a proselytising Islam wanted all these ‘invaders’ out.

The Burmese Army under colonialism had a preponderance of ethnic minorities, who were used against Burman resistance movements. Many Rohingya had fought in the British Army during the Anglo-Burmese Wars in the nineteenth century and during World War-II and aligned—as did other minority ethnic groups like the Kachin and Karen—with the British who expertly played a divide-and-rule policy here as elsewhere in its Empire. There were various armed insurrections by the Rohingya since the 1940s with the aim of creating an autonomous Muslim zone in Arakan. They pushed for the creation of Pakistan during the freedom movement and had wanted to be included in this state at the time of independence in 1947. After Partition, being largely Bengali-speaking, they even requested Jinnah to annex the State of Arakan from Burma.2

The Burman nationality formed the main component of the Burma Independence Army which was trained by Japan. The Burman-dominated Burmese Communist Party founded by Aung San also took Japanese help for military training. But the Japanese imperialists reneged on their promise of independence for Burma and occupied it in 1942. Aung San then went over to British and allied with them to drive the Japanese out. He formed the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFFL), negotiated independence from the British, and an elected interim government saw AFPFL win an overwhelming majority of assembly seats. In 1947, some of the minority ethnic groups had been persuaded by General Aung San to join a multi-ethnic conference at Panglong, in the Shan hills, to devise a political structure acceptable to Burmans and to them. The concept of a secular federal union within which each ethnic State (which had never come under Burman domination) would be accorded full autonomy over internal administration was upheld.

The process of drafting a Constitution was started, but he and other members of his cabinet were assassinated on instigation of a conservative politician. The Constitution detailed the right of the State governments to make laws, run their own civil services, and develop their own budgets. State heads would be part of the Union cabinet and members of State legislative councils would serve in Parliament. The Karenni (later renamed Kayah) and the Shan States were given the right to secede after ten years, if they were not happy with their status within the union. The Karen nationalist leaders not being able to come to an agreement regarding boundaries with the Rangoon government took up arms to forcibly create an independent State that might or not join the Union. The Mon and the Arakanese, who at that time were offered full and equal citizenship under the 1948 Union Citizenship (Election) Act, also wanted independent states of their own, and they organised armed resistance movements too.

The Bamar nationality asserted its dominance in the Army after the 1948 independence from Britain. Burma did not join the British Commonwealth unlike India and Pakistan. In 1958, when the time came for possible secession of some ethnic minorities, the army took over under General Ne Win to assert the political and economic supremacy of the Bamar ethnic group over others and also to purge communists. The minority states were forced to bow to the central government. The Burma Socialist Programme Party was formed and it followed the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism.’ Nationalisation of major industries was done and Indian traders began to be forced out. A demonetisation in 1987 robbed most people of their savings.

Rohingya Persecution
Systematic persecution of the Rohingya people started in the 1960s following the military coup by General Ne Win after a brief period of electoral democracy from 1960-62. They were driven out of their land holdings and replaced by Rakhine Buddhist peasants. In 1982, the Ne Win government passed an exclusionary Citizenship Act. This Act created three categories of citizens – national, associate and naturalised. Full national citizenship was reserved for 135 “national races” (official indigenous ethnic groups) or those who could prove their ancestry in Burma before 1823, that is, before the first Anglo-Burmese war (1824-26). The term Arakanese was now replaced by the term Rakhine, and the Rohingya were given only a second class Associate Citizenship by offering them ‘white cards’ which conferred the right to vote. Those not conferred full citizenship suffered restrictions on their freedom of movement, could not avail of state education or apply for civil service jobs. They have been subject to periodic pogroms since 1978. In 1991, the Army confiscated Muslim agricultural land in Rakhine State to feed its troops and establish encampments, imposing forced labour and arbitrary taxes. A quarter million fled to Bangladesh at that time. A later repatriation of about 200,000 under oversight of the UNHCR was not always voluntary. The violence against the Rohingya did not abate even under the so-called democratic transition in 2015, whereby the military retained much power.

In fact, now even the ‘white cards’ were cancelled and military repression became particularly severe in the period 2016-18. They were labelled ‘Bangalis’ and had to furnish evidence of three generations of continuous living in Myanmar for eligibility as naturalised citizens. Race and Religion laws restrict intermarriage with Muslims because ostensibly this less than 5% of the country’s population presents a take-over threat through Islamisation. On the one hand, while making it difficult for them to live in Arakan, the Myanmar government is also constructing a chain-link wire fence with bunkers and military posts along its border with Bangladesh. Forty out of two hundred miles of border have this fence since 2009 with the purpose of containing trafficking, narcotics smuggling and terrorist activity. Some refugee camps have come up on the no-man’s land after the fence.

The pre-colonial Muslim indigenes are known as Kaman in Burmese and are a recognised indigenous ethnic group with citizenship rights. But they are also affected by the anti-Rohingya ethnic cleansing drives of the Burmese Army and by Buddhist ultra nationalists, who make no distinction between the two Muslim groups. Already living mostly across Myanmar (50,000) they are being resettled by the authorities outside Rakhine State, where about 20,000 of them lived. They also now face discrimination in terms of the difficulty of getting national identity cards for the younger generation, thus obstructing for higher education and land ownership registrations. Climate change has also played its part. The Irrawady Delta is seeing erratic monsoon patterns and above normal flooding making rice farming here an increasingly risky venture. This has led to the phenomenon of internally displaced climate refugees, some of whom migrated to the Rakhine State exacerbating the ethnic conflict situation there.

There are economic and political reasons behind the ethnic cleansing of the stateless Rohingya from Rakhine State, which has massive oil and natural gas reserves. A sizeable chunk of land (1,268,077 ha) was allocated for corporate rural development (plantation agriculture, e.g., timber and oil palm). In 2012, the law governing land was changed to permit large corporate acquisitions displacing millions of smallholders (mostly Buddhists) who became refugees. The burning of Rohingya homes, the bulldozing of entire villages (a scorched-earth policy), wanton destruction of their ancient religious sites, forcing them to live in internment camps in so-called “lockdown zones” or “area clearance operation zones,” the systematic stoking of generalised Islamophobia also through social media by its psychological warfare division initiated in the mid-1960s, is a genocidal and divide-and-rule policy, whereas actually all smallholders are affected. It is falsely billed as counter-insurgency or anti-terrorist self-defence measures of a state under attack.3

Over a million have become stateless and are being forcibly driven out at the risk of genocide. Ninety per cent of Myanmar’s Muslim population has become displaced. Like other minority ethnic groups in Burma (and now also like many in mainstream society currently) persecuted Rohingyas have been fleeing the country. The major chunk of refugees is concentrated in Bangladesh. They have been taking risky sea voyages to South-East Asian countries and to Australia trying to escape from the difficult conditions in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh suffering severe deprivations, sometimes losing their lives in the process because of being turned away by nations and having to drift around in the seas without adequate provisions. Cases of trafficking via Thailand to work as bonded labourers are there.

The UNHCR’s call for neigh-bouring countries to give protection to anyone coming from Burma is not heeded by China, Thailand, India or Malaysia. The World Bank initially proposed that Bangladesh should integrate/assimilate this population and it will provide funds for the same, and it will also simultaneously help Myanmar by funding relevant projects. But the Bangladeshi government rejected this proposition and would like them to be eventually repatriated to their homeland in Arakan. It is trying to forcibly resettle unwilling 1 lakh refugees on a recently formed low lying silt island with constantly shifting shorelines, Bhasan Char, because of the overcrowding (more than 1 million) of the main (world’s largest) refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar on hilly forested land. Already suffering arbitrary internet access cuts and susceptible to frequent fires, difficulties increase due to it being enclosed by a barbed wire fence and watch towers.

According to a report by Human Rights Watch—which calls Bhasan Char an Island Jail inaccessible in severe weather conditions—insufficient measures are in place to protect against severe cyclones and tidal surges that are predicted to increase in frequency and intensity due to climate change, putting lives at serious risk. Refugees already resettled report separation of family members, inadequate health care and education, severe movement restrictions, food shortages, unreliable fresh water sources, lack of livelihood opportunities and abuses by security forces. Disruption of the education of the young is a major problem for Rohingyas in Bangladesh. The Rohingya Youth Organisation in Cox’s Bazar has suggested that the international community in collaboration with the Bangladesh government can develop a higher education facility for Rohingya children or reserve quotas for them at various institutions with scholarship facilities.

The World Bank has now committed to a grant to help Bangladesh in hosting the refugee community till their safe and voluntary repatriation. But the funds required for looking after the needs of the refugees far exceeds this amount. Other international donors are also not pitching in to the extent required as the Afghan refugee situation has also come up and the ravages caused by COVID 19 worldwide has its own demands on donor funds.

Rohingya in India
The fact is that the Indian government has been more concerned about normalising diplomatic relations and improving trade and commercial relations between the two countries. This has been the position of China since long and that of the West and now of Japan, which have investments in the oil, gas and other sectors. Both the public and private sector of India are involved in the extraction of these fossil fuels and requisite infrastructure development to bring them to India like building a petrochemical complex, laying pipelines and upgrading the Sittwe port. As there is insurgency in these border areas on the Indian side too, and militants take shelter on the Burmese side, the government has been interested in cooperating with the military juntas to curb the insurgent activities. Joint military campaigns with this purpose have been held.

The Rohingya refugees face discrimination from the present Indian government also due to their religious background, which is majorly Muslim but also includes Hindus and Christians. Their fighting force, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), is identified as a jihadist terrorist group, in the same way as the Burmese government does. The small number of Hindu refugees among Rohingyas, now in Bangladesh, would like to resettle in India, but the overall government policy towards Rohingya is making this difficult. The ARSA claims to be a nationalist resistance group with no links to pan Islamic fundamentalist forces. And there are other organisations fighting for Rohingya rights in a non -violent way, such as the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights. Though fleeing from extreme persecution they are not accorded refugee status by India and face unkind treatment and deportation. Human rights treaties demand individual assessment of cases and not a blanket generalisation of entire populations.

As of now there are 40,000 Rohingya in India, out of which 16,500 are registered with the UNHCR. Because India does not provide them with any relief as refugees they live in abject poverty in slums of Muslim-majority areas of Delhi, Telangana, Jammu, Mewat in Haryana and West Bengal, where they are being helped by local Muslims and NGOs. Indian Muslims have conducted protests against the Myanmar regime for their treatment of the Rohingya. Putting them into the category of illegal infiltrators (as it has done with the bulk of Bangladeshi Muslims) and marking all of them as terrorists who pose a security threat, without any sort of investigation and verification process, the government decided to deport 150-160 of them detained in Jammu under section 3 of the Foreigners Act and for not holding valid passports under the Passports Act. Right-wing forces organised a campaign against the Rohingya and Bangladeshi Muslims staying in Jammu in the name of safeguarding Dogra identity, history and culture. Similar agitations have been held in some other locations of their residence also and periodic fires break out in their makeshift camps due to suspected arson and bad urban planning.4 The Supreme Court did not order the release of the detained Rohingya refugees and allowed their deportation by the central government on 8 April, 2021, classifying them as ‘illegal migrants’ who present a threat, nay an aggression on the state.

But the fact is the Rohingya are stateless; the most persecuted and one of the most neglected people in the world as the UNHCR says, with all the concomitant misery. So it is difficult to deport them back. “If there were a refugee law in India, the most important protection that refugees and asylum seekers would receive is from being prosecuted for illegal entry under the Foreigners Act and for entering India without valid documents under the Passports Act, 1920”.5 What happens is instead of being provided basic amenities and rights they are endlessly and arbitrarily detained. In contrast, minorities from Pakistan and Bangladesh are exempt from prosecution under the Foreigners and Passport Acts. The 2019 Citizenship (Amendment) Act leaves them out of its ambit. This is a discriminatory approach. The government wants to take decisions regarding refugees according to geopolitical and internal political interests rather than out of basic humanitarian considerations.

In Myanmar the only way to stop genocide is for the Rohingya to link up with the Myanmar wide resistance movement against the military junta. A new Arakan-based community has to be forged: of Buddhists and Muslims and others fighting for self-determination, for an Arakan Dream, the Way of the Rakhita, for national liberation and the restoration of sovereignty to the people of Arakan, as proclaimed by the Arakan Army and its political wing, the United League of Arakan. This is necessary for liberating Arakan from the new colonial masters—the majoritarian Buddhist Burmese nationalists armed to the teeth and financed by billions of dollars in foreign investment and development aid by big powers.

Notes and References
1.        Both Gandhi and Tagore, who visited Burma several times, spoke against this exploitation of Burmese by Indians in collaboration with the British. Tagore described it as a double colonialism and Gandhi emphasised the distinct identity of Burma which never formed part of Bharatvarsha.
2.        Sam Darymple in “Five Partitions – The Making of Modern Asia.” HarperCollins, 2022.
3.        Among others, see Saskia Sassen: Is Rohingya Persecution Caused by Business Interests Rather Than Religion? The Guardian, 4 January, 2017.
4.        Riya Singh Rathore: Arson? Demystifying the Midnight Fires in India’s Rohingya Refugee Camps. The Wire, March 9, 2022.
5.        Meher Ali: An Uncertain Refuge: The Fate of the Rohingya in India. The Wire, 16 November, 2015.

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Vol 55, No. 14-17, Oct 2 - 29, 2022