The Ethnic Cleansing of Ruhingya Muslims in Arakan: A Historic Study
Dr. A F M Khalid Hosen
The Ruhingyas are a Muslim ethnic minority group developed from different stock of people in the northern part of Arakan, once a sovereign and independent state, is now under Myanmar. The Ruhingyas are one of more than 100 different ethnic groups and sub-groups of Myanmar, making it the most ethnically diverse population in South East Asia. The Arakan is a geographically isolated area in western Myanmar, having an area of 20,000 sq miles and sharing a border of 171 miles with Bangladesh. The Rakhine Buddhists comprise the majority ethnic group in Arakan state, followed by the Ruhingya Muslims, who are concentrated in three northern townships: Maungdaw, Buthidang and Rathedaung. The Ruhingyas genetically trace their ancestry to Arabs, Moors, Pathans, Central Asians, Bangalees and some Indo-Mongoloid people, with early Muslim settlements in Arakan state dating back to the 8th century AD. The first Muslims who settled in this region were Arab traders who landed with their merchant fleet on the Arakan coast in the 8th and 9th centuries. Other Muslims who came later centuries include Persian, Moghuls, Turks, Pathans and Bangalees. The Arakan is cut off from rest of Myanmar by a range of near impassable mountains known as Arakan Yomas running north to South. Among the 14 provinces of Myanmar, the Muslim constitutes largest population in Arakan. Out of the 7 million Muslim population of Myanmar half of them are in Arakan.
The northern part of Arakan was point of contact with East Bengal. The resulting cultural and political Muslim influence was of great significance in the history of Arakan. Actually, Arakan served to a large extent as a bridgehead for Muslim penetration to other parts of Burma, and also Muslims attained some degree of importance elsewhere as they did in Arakan. The Islamic influence grew in Arakan to the extent of establishing Muslim vassal state beginning in 1430 AD under the suzerainty of Sultanate of Bengal. Muslim`s rule and influence in Arakan lasted for more than 350 years until the Burmese king Badaw Paya conquered it on 28th December 1784 AD.
The Burmese military regime and the majority of Rakhines of Arakan State brand the Ruhingyas as the 'Bengali immigrants' alleging that 'In the time of the British government, it was that the British brought Bengalis and Indians of India (now Pakistan, India and Bangladesh) into the nation with various intentions. ....The British ruled Rakhine State (Arakan) for 123 years from 1827 to 1948. During that period, Bengalis entered the nation en masses. The anti-Ruhingya camps brand the Ruhingyas as Bengali immigrants because of their close affinity with the neighboring people of Chittagong of Bangladesh linguistically, religiously, culturally and physically. Notably, Ruhingyas share an Indo-Aryan physical features of dark and pale skin like the people of Bangladesh and India because of being the descendants of the people of the Indo-Aryan stock.
The anti-Ruhingya camps brand the Ruhingyas as Bengali immigrants because of their close affinity with the neighboring people of Chittagong of Bangladesh linguistically, religiously, culturally and physically. Notably, Ruhingyas share an Indo-Aryan physical features of dark and pale skin like the people of Bangladesh and India because of being the descendants of the people of the Indo-Aryan stock.
The focal point of the historical rivalries is whether the Ruhingyas existed in ancient Arakan Kingdom before its annexation with the British colonial rule in 1827. Even though there is a tug-of-war between the Ruhingyas and anti-Ruhingya camps over many issues of the history of ancient Arakan, but at least there are few issues where there is an unequivocal consensus among the Ruhingyas, the anti-Ruhingya camps and the world historians. They unanimously agree that the names of many kings of the ancient Arakan before the British colonial rule, were 'Muslim' like (1) Solaiman Shah Narameikhla (1430-1434), (2) Ali Khan Meng Khari (1434-1459), (3) Kalima Shah Ba Saw Phyu (1459-1482), (4) Mathu Shah Doulya (1482-1492), ( 5) Mohammed Shah Ba Saw Nyo (1492-1493), (6) Nori Shah Ran Aung (1493-1494), (7) Sheikh Modullah Shah Salingathu (1494-1501), (8) Ili Shah Meng Raza (1501-1523), (9) Ilias Shah Kasabadi (1523-1525), (10) Jalal Shah Meng Saw Oo (1525), (11) Ali Shah Thatasa (1525-1531), (12) Salimshah (1608).
There is no denying the fact that the ancient Arakan was a multicultural society which was inhabited by many communities like the Rakhines, Rohingyas, Chakmas, Hindus, Christians, Mros, Khumis, Kamens and some hill tribes. In the words of Dr Shwe Lu Maung:
"The Rakhaing King was the patron of all religions and culture. Siddikh Khan Mosque was built by the Rakhaing King in 1430 AD. It is the first Mosque in all Burma.
Whilst at present it is difficult to determinate the exact number of Ruhingyas living in Arakan State due to lack on accurate data, it is estimated that of the 5 million people living in Arakan State, 1.5 million of them are Muslims. Nevertheless, it is thought that since Myanmar`s independence in 1948 one million Ruhingyas have left their ancestral hearth and home and are in exile.
Cultural and literary heritage:
The rise and growth of Arab culture and civilization in Arakan during thirteenth century were events of unequaled significance in social development. The rejuvenating currents of the values, thoughts and life pattern of Arabian traders made a far-reaching effect on the socio-cultural structure of Arakan which inevitably infused its people with a new glow of life.
The language of Arakan, known as Arakanese, has profound pronunciation and vocabulary differences from people of other parts of Myanmar. The Ruhingyas have distinct dialect, culture and civilization of their own. They still carried the Arab names, faith, dress, music, and customs. They speak a Bengali dialect, which is similar to what is spoken in Chittagong region of Bangladesh. This is mixed with words from the Urdu, Hindi and Arabic languages, although some words from English languages are also included in the dialect. Religion and its culture are particularly important to the Ruhingyas. There are mosques and religious schools in every quarter and village, and traditionally the men pray in congregation, women pray at home. It is common for Ruhingyas, particularly the elders, to grow beards and for the women to wear hijab. Due to their close proximity, the Ruhingyas have been highly influenced by Bangladesh ethnologically and religiously. The Ruhingyas are not new born racial group of Arakan rather they are nationals as well as indigenous ethnic group of Myanmar.
The kingdom of Arakan had come in close cultural contact with the Muslim Sultanate of Bengal since fifteen century so much so that 18 Buddhist rulers of that country adopted Muslim names for themselves (1430-1637), they appointed Muslim officials in their courts and even issued coins bearing the inscription of the Kalima (the profession of faith in Islam) in Arabic script on their coins. The state emblem was also inscribed Arabic word Aqimuddin (establishment of Allah`s rule over the earth). The Arakanese court also adoption of many Muslim customs and terms were other significant tribute to the influence of Islam. Contact with a modern civilization resulted in a renaissance. From this time onwards the relation of Muslims with the Arakanese became more intimate and for about two centuries Arakan was united in a bond of friendship with Islamic lands. As a result of the impact of the civilization of the Muslims, Arakanese culture also progressed and thus ushered in the ‘Golden Age’ in the history of Arakan.
The impact of Muslim culture on the life of the people of Arakan had profound effect on the subsequent course of the history of Arakan. Like the Pathan Sultans of Bengal, the kings of Arakan patronized the cultivation of Bengali literature and many talented poets and writers from different regions thronged the court. With the royal support Bengali literature developed; learned men and men of high caliber received patronage from the kings due to liberal policy. Bengali became a favorite language and the Arakan kings encouraged the writing of a number of Puttis (folklore literature), which was then the only form of literature. Some Putti literatures of Arakan are mentioned here: Shah Alaol`s Padmabati, Qazi abdul Karim`s Rahatul Qulub, Qazi Muhammad Hussain`s Amir Hamza, Saiful Mulk Badiujjaman etc.
Human Rights abuses:
Since the establishment of tyrannical rule of Burmese despotic kings, the systematic and calculated policy of persecution on Ruhingyas has been continuing unabated till today. The present junta has been following the policy of extermination on Ruhingyas with a vengeance.
The human rights situation in Arakan is such that there remains no security of life, property, honour, equality, freedom of expression. The nature of human rights violation against Rohingya Muslims minorities has no parallel in the world. The Ruhingya Muslims are deprived of their fundamental religious duties such as Haj (annual pilgrimage to Makkah), Qurbani (sacrifice of animals), religious preaching and holiday of congregation for sermons. Many Madrasahs (religious schools) are occupied turned into army barracks. Waqf property (endowments) of Mosques and Madrasahas are confiscated and distributed among Buddhists. The military Junta seriously restricts the Muslims to renovate, repair and maintain the existing Mosques, religious schools, relics, Muslim archaeological remains and historical places. It is only Ruhingya who are subjected to widespread ethnic cleansing and eviction. Human Rights Watch Asia in its finding has already admitted that the abuses against the Ruhingyas are racially and religiously prejudiced to most inhuman and barbaric form with contempt. They are also deliberately deprived of basic necessities of life like food, medicare, education and employment due to new forms of taxation imposed since 1992, which they are unable to meet. Due to unabated oppression and widespread indiscrimination, the Ruhingya ethnic population now is in danger of existence and survival. They have no alternative but to leave Arakan, which the Myanmar regime wants to happen.
Amnesty International reports that the Ruhingyas continue to suffer from several forms of restriction, discrimination and human rights violation on the basis of their ethnicity. The Ruhingya`s freedom of movement is severely restricted and the vast majority of them have effectively been denied Myanmar citizenship. They are also subjected to various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation; land confiscation; forced eviction; house destruction; financial restriction on marriage and extra judicial executions. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) reject the existence of a separate ethnic group called ‘Ruhingya’. They are not recognized as one of the 135 ‘national race’ as provided by section 3 of 1982 Law.
Freedom of Movement
There is no freedom of movement for Ruhingyas, Ruhingyas are not allowed to travel anywhere beyond their village boundaries without getting prior permission. Request to travel must be made to the village council, which then passes on the request to the nearest NaSaKa base. Here, the IMPD, police, riot police, military intelligence, and customs all have to agree to the request. Once that happens, a permit must be purchased. In most cases passes are only given for a twelve-hour round trip to nearby villages: only in exceptional cases are Muslims permitted to stay overnight. To travel further, for instance to the township capitals at Maungdaw or Buthidaung, or the state capital at Sittwe, is virtually impossible. Being unable to travel, even within Arakan state, makes it extremely difficult for landless Ruhingyas to find work during the dry season, when there is very little agricultural work available.
In addition to the land tax, Ruhingyas have also been subject to increasing new forms of taxation since 1992. It seems that all forms of business are now taxed. Every family in northern Arakan has to pay a chili tax, regardless of whether they actually grow chilies. As a result, many Ruhingyas are forced to buy chilies at the market rate of 500 kyats, and "sell" them to the NaSaKa at the government rate of 100 kyats. Human Rights Watch reprts that that they had to pay a fee when going on to the river to fish and when going the forest to cut bamboo. The fishing fee only applies to the Ruhingyas, as Buddhist Rakhines do not fish. New arrivals in 1997 said that the taxes had been extended to farm animals; the owners of a cow must pay 80 Kyats a year, while a goat is assessed at 30 Kyats a year. Finally, Ruhingyas have to pay for permits to travel from their village to the next, or to the market village to sell whatever produce they may have. A thirty-five-year-old man from Maungdaw township interviewed by Refugees International in July said he had to pay 20 Kyats every time hewanted to travel to the market to sell his eggs or chicken meat. In the end it was not worth his while, because once at the market the military would come to his stall and take whatever they wanted without paying for it.
Confiscation of Land and Property
In addition to having to work for the government for no pay, their land had been confiscated by the military, leaving them with no means of livelihood. Ruhingyas are not permitted land use rights. Nevertheless, customary law applies in most villages, and Ruhingyas have been able to acquire tenancy of land over the years. In many parts of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Kyauktaw townships, however, the military has confiscated land to build roads, "model villages" (see below), military barracks, hydroelectric stations, prawn farms and other commercial activities. In cases where land is taken in this way, there is no compensation for the owner and no recourse to law. The confiscation of land for development occurs throughout ethnic minority areas of Burma.
Denial of citizenship:
Ruhingya Muslims have been denied citizenship rights since an amendment to the citizenship
laws in 1982 and are treated as illegal immigrants in their own home. Human Rights Watch observes, Ruhingyas in Burma continue to be non-citizens under the prevailing law, which was designed to exclude them as an ethnic group and make naturalization virtually impossible. Deprivation of citizenship has resulted in deprivation of fundamental rights, to which all persons, citizens and non-citizens alike, are due. The withholding of citizenship has become a mechanism for discrimination and persecution on the basis of ethnicity. Thus, Ruhingyas are doubly at risk in a country where citizens face abuses such as forced labor, forced relocation, and denial of freedom of speech, association and assembly on a daily basis.
Exodus of Rohingyas:
The human rights violation, physical extermination, large scale persecution and uprooting of villages and eviction of inmates in Arakan has led to thousand of Ruhingya ethnic group fleeing neighboring countries. About 1.5 million Ruhingyas have so far been evicted from Arakan since the year of Burmese independence in 1948.
As a result they have escaped to Bangladesh in large numbers, with the biggest influx in 1991 and 1992 when about 2, 50,000 of them crossed the border. Although many of these refugees have since then been repatriated to Myanmar, there are still about 21,500 refugees living in two camps in southern Bangladesh. The refugees are completely dependent on UNHCR. In addition an estimated 1,00,000 Ruhingyas are living illegally in Bangladesh with limited access to protection or humanitarian assistance.
Over the years thousands of Ruhingya also have fled to Thailand. There are roughly 111,000 refugees housed in 9 camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. There have been charges that groups of them have been shipped and towed out to open sea from Thailand, and left there. In February 2009 there was evidence of the Thai army towing a boatload of 190 Ruhingya refugees out to sea. A group of refugees rescued by Indonesian authorities also in February 2009 told harrowing stories of being captured and beaten by the Thai military, and then abandoned at open sea. By the end of February there were reports that of a group of 5 boats were towed out to open sea, of which 4 boats sank in a storm, and 1 boat washed up on the shore.
Mr. Nurul Islam President Arakan Ruhingya National Organisation (ARNO) disclosed that this unfortunate uprooted people are mostly found in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia; also in UAE, Thailand and Malaysia. Present distribution of the Ruhingya population is furnished: Inside Burma: 2 million, Bangladesh: 600,000, Pakistan:350,000, Saudi Arabia 400,000, Others (U.A.E., Thailand, Malaysia.) : 100,000.
Bangladesh`s stand on Ruhingya issue
From the very beginning of a steady influx of Ruhingya, Bangladesh Govt. as well as the people welcomed them whole heartedly. They have made substantial efforts to accommodate their brethren in faith for nearly three decades in spite of their own problems. Ruhingya refugee put extra pressure on Bangladesh, a disaster-prone country. Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world where more than 40 per cent of the population live on less than $1 a day. Consequently, while the local community feel deep sympathy for the Ruhingya. While most of the Ruhingya refugees have gone, still some continue to remain in Bangladesh creating impact on domestic security as well as in bilateral relations. More important, the country is to remain vigilant against the reoccurrence of such developments. Bangladesh never pursued forced repatriation of the refugees. Bangladesh always wants permanent solution of Ruhingya issue by repatriating them to their ancestral lands in Arakan through diplomatic channels. The government has taken initiative to place the issue before international forums soon. Although Bangladesh is not a party to the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees 1951 and to its Optional Protocols, it has remained committed to the principle of international protection of refugees.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Pia Prytz Phiri during a meeting with Food and Disaster Management Minister Abdur Razzaque disclosed that "the Ruhingya refugee issue turned into a regional problem and the UNHCR is sincere to resolve it. Bangladesh, Thailand and Myanmar can take a joint initiative in this regard." UN official acknowledged that the number of Ruhingya refugees registered was 250,877 during the period of November 1991 to June 1992, of them, 236,599 have so far returned to their own country. At present, 24,135 registered Ruhingyas have taken refuge at Kutupalong in Ukhia upazila and Nayapara camp in Teknaf upazila of Cox's Bazar district.
Ruhingya Muslims issue is one of the lingering Muslim minority problems being faced by the Ummah today; it is also one of the modern world's most unreported human tragedies. They are the integral part of the history of South East Asia. It is common for a Ruhingya to have experienced trauma, isolation, violence and separation. They have left behind their lives and loved ones in Myanmar, and are living in difficult circumstances in refugee camps for days together. They have no hopes for the future. The people of Bangladesh have close affinity with the Ruhingyas in relation to the Faith, culture and heritage for long. But no effective step in extensive form has yet been undertaken for its solution. Unfortunately the Ruhingya people are split into many groups and organizations. By sinking their petty differences the Ruhingyas must unite under a common banner in order to achieve their cherished goal. The world community irrespective of creed and culture should raise their voices against the ethnic cleansing drive on humanitarian ground, so that the international organizations can exert pressure on military junta for permanent solution of Ruhingya issue.