The History Of The Rohingya: What The Media Gets Wrong

The History of the Term “Rohingya”:

The word “Rohingya” is an invented term, referring to Bengalis of the Chittagong region who entered the Rakhine region of Myanmar, mainly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The so-called progenitor of the word is the older word “rooinga”, which was initially a term to describe Bengali merchants in the Arakan region before the term was co-opted by Chittagong Bengalis. The term modern term, however, is inherently referring to a political group and not an ethnicity per se, as the modern world is a compound word stemming from the Chittagong name for the Arakan region “Rohan”, and a suffix meaning native “gya or ja”.

The Initial Migrations:

The mass migration of ethnic Bengalis who later began identifying as the Rohingya began during the colonial period when the British Government (via the Bengal Presidency, an administrative division within the British Raj), as the imperial forces encouraged Chittagong Muslims from the neighboring region in Bengal proper to settle in the area, with the intent of destabilizing the Rakhine and Bamar communities. This settlement began in the 19th century and continued until the late thirties as the political situation in Europe necessitated a change of focus from agriculture to industry. During this time tensions began to rise, as the indigenous Rakhine community received discrimination from the British government that favored the Bengali farmers, who discriminated against the non-Bengali natives. The descendants of his group however only make up a small portion of those who consider themselves Rohingya today.


The War With Japan:

In the winter of 1942, Japanese forces entered Burma with support from a portion of the Bamar population. The British led government developed a special guerilla task force entitled “V Force”, which was made to engage in small scale battles with the Japanese military, as well as sabotage communication and supply lines. In 1942, the British backed Bengali forces in the northern Arakan region began a genocide against the Rakhine Buddhists, who mainly supported the Japanese forces. As the Japanese military advanced, the ethnically Bengali V Force began killing of Rakhine Buddhists as they retreated north. The Japanese forces also engaged in attacks upon noncombatant Bengalis as they advanced further into the subcontinent.


Independence & Jihad:

In 1948 Burma gained independence from the British Empire. In this period of time, Burma was in a national crisis as multiple minor revolutions and warlords erupted into conflict against the government. During this time, an Islamic movement of Mujahideen (مجاهدين‎) began an insurgency against the Burmese government, with the support of Pakistan (at this time including Bangladesh as East Pakistan). The mujahideen encouraged ethnic Bengalis from East Pakistan to settle in the region, with at least several thousand Bengali mujahideen from East Pakistan entering the region, many of them bringing their families along to engage in the conflict. By the early ’60s, the Burmese Military (တပ်မတော်) managed to defeat most of the Mujahideen groups.


Insurgency Against The Government:

Following the defeat of the Mujahideen groups, insurgent groups began to rise up against the Burmese government with the intent of creating either an autonomous zone for Bengali Muslims (who now began to identify as Rohingya) or to separate and form an independent state of their own. During this time period, as Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan, upwards of 500,000 ethnic Bengalis crossed the border into Burma in support of these movements. The number of different insurgent groups is contested, although the major groups are as follows:

  1. The Rohingya Liberation Party: A group led by Zaffar Kawal, a former Mujahideen leader. Their armed wing was called the Rohingya Liberation Army, which committed terrorist attacks against both civilians and military forces in the region. The group dissolved in the summer of 1974 after a defeat at the hands of the Burmese military, with most of the insurgents crossing back into Bangladesh.
  2. The Rohingya Patriotic Front: This group was originally named the Rohingya Independence Front, then the Rohingya Independence Army, before becoming the Rohingya Patriotic Front. They carried out attacks much in the same vein as the RLP, until splitting into several factions after the Burmese Military “Operation Dragon King, (ဂါးမင်း စစ်ဆင်ရေ)”.
  3. Rohingya Solidarity Organisation: After the defeat of the RPF, the RSO formed with significant help from Al Qaeda. The RSO is still in operation yet has no major military presence currently.
  4. Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front: The Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front and its military wing, the Rohingya National Army (allied with the Arakan Army, another insurgent group) which disbanded in 1998, merging with the RSO in Bangladesh.
  5. Arakan Rohingya National Organisation: A political campaign based in London that is closely connected to multiple insurgent groups, headed by the former leader of multiple different terrorist organizations that fought against the Burmese government. They also had a military wing called the Rohingya National Army that operated until 2001.
  6. Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army: A terrorist organization that sprung out of the RSO, that currently is receiving funds from foreign Islamist groups, and has committed multiple crimes against humanity as well as terrorist acts. This group is still operating, with its recruits being trained in Bangladesh before engaging in conflict in Myanmar.


Citizenship In Myanmar:

According to the basic law of Myanmar, citizens are persons who belong to an “indigenous race”, have a grandparent from an “indigenous race”, are children of citizens, or lived in British Burma prior to 1942. There are 135 recognized of Myanmar, divided into 8 indigenous races. Because the Rohingya are Bengalis, they are ineligible for citizenship. Due to being the descendants of people residing in British Burma before 1942, there are a few Rohingya who are eligible for Burmese citizenship. Other groups that have citizenship in this manner are the Burmese-Chinese, the Gurkha, the Panthay, and the Burmese-Indians.


Is It Islam?:

Because the West is so deeply Islamophobic, the immediate assumption made as to the progenitor of this conflict is that there is some sort of intrinsic issue with Islam in Burmese society. This is a misrepresentation of the situation, as there are several predominantly Muslim groups in Myanmar that are not only given citizenship but are also generally well respected, and respectful of greater Burmese society. Among these groups are the Kamein, the Panthay (part of the greater 回族 community from China), as well as a sizeable community of ethnically Bamar (Burmese) Muslims, mainly descended from intermarriages between Muslim Burmese-Indian men and ethnically Bamar women. Furthermore, the Burmese government promotes freedom of religion and has released a statement that says “since the time of ancient Myanmar kings until the present day, successive Myanmar governments have given all four major religions an equal treatment. All the followers of each religion have been allowed to profess their respective religious faith and perform their respective duties freely. Myanmar’s culture is based on loving kindness; the followers of Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism in Myanmar are also kind-hearted people as Myanmar Buddhists are.” Myanmar takes incitements to violence very seriously, with the government recently prosecuting Maung Thway Chun for religiously based hate speech, with the intent to incite violence.


Issues In The Burmese Military:

As with any military, there have been cases in which human rights have been abused or violated, and seeing as the Burmese military has been in engagement with the Bengali Rohingya separatist movements for a long period of time, there have been instances of human rights violations against the Rohingya (Bengali) population. These abuses are not condoned by the Burmese government or military, with Burmese authorities recently sentencing 7 soldiers to prison for their war crimes. While up to 10,000 Rohingya non-combatants have died during the ongoing conflict, the majority of these casualties are collateral damage during raids against terrorist compounds, or during battles with the insurgents.


In Summary:

The conflict with the Rohingya is a relatively recent yet simultaneously long-standing issue in Burma. The Rohingya are an ethnically Bengali political group seeking to overtake certain regions in Myanmar, that employs violent means to attempt to break away. While there have been issues with the Burmese military or the Tatmadaw (တပ်မတော်), the Burmese government does not support or endorse the human rights abuses that have occurred and prosecutes war criminals to the fullest extent of the law. As the Rohingya return to Bangladesh in camps, the issue of where to settle these people in an already overpopulated country arises, which has led to some issues in their own nation. Currently, the Tatmadaw is working to end violence in the region and repatriate non-citizens to their proper countries, in a way that is in compliance with international law.



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