By Eric Vandenbroeck 10 Dec. 2003

Historical Background of Myanmar

The dispute about the Rohingya's

Today Buddhist Arakanese and Burmese Nationalists will claim that Rohingya are foreigners to Myanmar/Burma and without exception infiltrated from Bangladesh while using the derogatory term 'Bengalis'. This whereby pro-Rohingya activists and scholars will point to Francis Hamilton who referred to a so-called Rooinga which is argued to be proven they are the same as those who currently call themselves Rohingya.

In 1937 the British administratively separated what became Burma from India, and Arakan was incorpo­rated into this new crown colony. Herein lie the seeds of discord as there are some Muslim residents with longstanding roots in the territory that became Burma spanning several generations and more recent migrants, providing a pretext to sow doubts about the bona fides of all Muslims and thereby deny citizenship rights and protections to the Rohingya community.

Thus the history of the Rohingya is contested whereby factual information is difficult to come by. Two studies so far that provide the best information are by Moshe Yegar (an Israeli diplomat posted in Burma in the 1960s) “The Muslims of Burma,” The Crescent in the East: Islam in Asia Major, Raphael Israeli, London, 1982 (an earlier version of this book was also published in Burmese in Yangon.) And Moshe Yegar, “Burmese,” Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey, Richard V. Weekes (ed.) Westport, 1984.               

As I have detailed elsewhere it was not the abolition of the old monarchy by the British in the late 19th century that forebode the disaster that came after independence in 1962. Rather, Myanmar’s inability to become a functioning national entity is the fact that the country, with its present borders, is a colonial creation bringing together peoples and ethnic groups with little in common, and even centuries of conflicts with the Burman kings that predate British rule.

Neither is the Bamar nationalist disdain for what currently is called the Rohingya new phenomena. It is not also without relevance that the earliest nationalist movement towards independence grew out of the General Council of Burmese Associations and the nationalist Burma Independence Army recruited during World War II was almost totally Burman and Buddhist.

This followed policy implementation and legislation of religious protection laws, which declare Buddhism’s superiority in Myanmar and to segregate as well as discriminate against non-Buddhists in the conduct of their daily lives.1

In 1992 and 93 there were also several appeals by the UN in the course of which it was "in principle, that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees would be allowed to establish a presence in Rakhine state in Myanmar to assist and coordinate the voluntary repatriation of the residents of Rakhine state at present in camps in Bangladesh." (See addendum underneath)

From the old to a new Arakan

The Rakhine region in Myanmar extends some six hundred kilometers along the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal. It is separated from the rest of Myanmar by a mountain range that for centuries impeded permanent conquest of that country but permitted occasional inroads and contacts between Bengal (present-day Bangladesh) and Myanmar. The northern part of Rakhine, the Mayu region, was a route of contact between Myanmar and eastern Bengal. These geographical factors largely account for the distinct character and development of the Rakhine region—both generally and in terms of its Muslim population, which was a separate kingdom until conquered by the Burmese in 1784. From the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries, the history of Rakhine was closely linked to that of Muslim Bengal. Rakhine came under British administration in 1826, joined the Union of Burma in 1948, and was constituted as the Rakhine “state” in 1974.

Kingdom of Arakan (1531-1666)

When Rakhine was occupied by the British during the first Anglo–Burmese war of 1824–26, large-scale Indian immigration, encouraged by the British, began immediately. Many of the new immigrants came from Bengal. Each year, during the plowing and harvesting seasons, some twenty thousand Bengali migrants crossed the border to find temporary work in the rice fields of Rakhine. Some returned, but many remained. Intermarriage between these Bengali Muslims and local Rohingya women became common. This immigration led to tension between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine, which escalated when the British retreated and the Japanese advanced into the territory in 1942. Thousands of Muslims (their exact number is unknown) were expelled from regions under Japanese control, mostly in south Rakhine where Buddhists constituted the majority. Those expelled fled to eastern Bengal or to northern Rakhine, seeking refuge in territories still under British military rule.

For their part, Muslims conducted retaliatory raids from British-controlled territories against their Buddhist neighbors. These acts of reciprocal violence caused the Buddhist population of Rakhine to flee from the north just as Muslims had been compelled to leave the south. As a result, Rakhine was in effect divided into Buddhist and Muslim areas.

Rakhine was the westernmost point reached by the Japanese in their drive toward India during World War II. Thus, at the beginning of 1942, it became the front line with the British. By January 1945, most of the territory was again in British hands. It is not clear whether London had made any commitments to the Muslims of Rakhine regarding their status after the war, but their leaders claimed that the British had promised to grant them a Muslim national area in parts of Rakhine. Some Rohingya Muslim leaders went even further and supported the immediate secession of the territory from Myanmar and its subsequent annexation by Pakistan or India when these countries achieved independence in 1947.

Following British victories, Muslims who had fled to Bengal during the war returned to their villages accompanied by land-hungry immigrants from Bengal who settled in northern Rakhine. Roving Muslim and Buddhist armed bands in the area engaged in robbery and the smuggling of rice to Bengal. When it became clear that the British would leave Myanmar, irredentist and separatist tendencies in northern Rakhine grew stronger still. In July 1946 the Northern Arakan Muslim League was founded.

After Myanmar attained independence in January 1948, the new government allowed Buddhist refugees to return to northern Rakhine and regain the homes and villages they had been forced to cede to Rohingya Muslims several years earlier—and Muslims were forced off the Buddhist-owned lands they had seized.

Muslim religious leaders now began preaching jihad. Thus an armed rebellion group of Arakanese Muslims (including the Rohingya), calling themselves "Mujahedin.T" demanded the creation of an independent Muslim state on territory formerly the party of Northern Arakan. Although the rebellion was unsuccessful, it left in its wake an inherent distrust and hatred towards the Arakanese Muslims, throughout the whole country.

As the Myanmar government was engaged in combatting rebel movements in other parts of the country, within a short time the Mujāhideen succeeded in taking over a large part of northern Rakhine. The rebels, like many other Rakhine Muslims who did not actively support the struggle, sought to establish a Muslim political entity that would not necessarily secede from Myanmar but would be separate from Buddhist northern Rakhine. Negotiations with the central government in Yangon in 1948 and 1949 eventually broke down, and from 1951 onward, Myanmar forces waged large-scale annual offensives against the Rohingya Mujāhideen. These culminated in Operation Monsoon in November 1954, in which the rebels were finally subdued. At that time, Mujāhideen strongholds were captured, and a number of their leaders killed. Others crossed the border and escaped to Bengal. From then on, the military threat they posed lessened considerably, and in 1960, Prime Minister U Nu appointed a commission of inquiry to assess all problems related to the Rakhine question.

The Rohingya Association of Ulama, speaking for the Muslims of Rakhine, demanded the creation of an autonomous district in northern Rakhine with its own regional council, which would be directly accountable to the central government in Yangon. This demand was rejected, but on May 1, 1961, the Myanmar government announced the establishment of the Mayu Frontier Administration (MFA) in northern Rakhine, which was to be administered by army officers. Although this was not the hoped-for autonomy, the Rohingya Muslim leaders agreed to the arrangement.

In March 1962, however, General Ne Win staged a military coup in Myanmar. The new government retained the MFA but put an end to all political activity related to minority demands, including those of the Rohingya, seeing them as a threat to national unity.

                                                                           What is in a name?

A second reason why Rohingya's are part of a contested history is that of the name they chose to be called by. This whereby it should be clear that according to international human rights law the Rohingya have a right to self-identification.

In Burmese and English sources, one can find various spellings, such as Rowannhyas, Rawengya, Royankya, or Rohinjas, and Ruhangya. Moshe Yegar, used Rohinga in his authoritative The Muslims of Burma. Prime Minister U Nu used the term in a speech broadcast on September 25, 1954, when he pleaded for the political support of moderate Rakhine Muslims in Buthidaung and Maungdaw against the Mujahids and the Rakhine nationalists.

The variants tend to show that the term had not been put into writing previously, but rather was in oral use among people who pronounced it differently and still were unsure about how to spell it. Although historical linguistics can explain its derivation from Ra(k)khanga, a literary Pali term, nonscientific etymologies have flourished, linking Rohingya to Arabic words and even Arakanese expressions. Certainly, it was not an invention, but with its adoption by a group of tightly knit nationalists, it was instantly impregnated with the group’s political messages. Sultan Mahmud disagreed. He may have shared the political objectives of the younger nationalist generation, but he remained opposed to the choice of a distinctive yet divisive ethnonym to denote the Arakan Muslim community.

The Jam’iyyat ul-Ulama, based in Maungdaw adopted the name Rohing[y]a at an unspecified date, while five new organizations including the term in their name were founded between 1956 and 1960 in Rangoon (United Rohinga Organization, Rohinga Youth Organization, Rohinga Students Organization, Rohinga Labour Organization, and Rohinga Rangoon University Students Organization).2

The early development of the Rohingyas as a movement of young educated Muslim nationalists was driven by the political requirements of the day. When U Nu won the 1960 parliamentary elections, he was prepared to grant Arakan statehood within the Union. This led to “frantic activities” by the Muslims around Sultan Mahmud and the Rohingya organizations.3 Sultan Mahmud’s Arakan Muslim Organisation ultimately was ready to compromise and accept the creation of an Arakan state if the Muslims were given religious, cultural, economic, political, and educational guarantees.4

Yet it was not the Rohingyas, but rather the military putsch of March 2, 1962, that spoiled Arakanese Buddhist expectations. The Arakan state did not come into existence before 1974.

Rohingya leaders, by asserting their name, are playing by the increasingly rigid rules of the game in Myanmar. They have not created these rules, but the tragic irony is that they have legitimized and encouraged the notion of national races which now ideologically underlies their oppression. Trapped in Myanmar’s cage, it is understandable they feel there is little else they can do to assert their rights.

Their right of self-identification is undeniable, but there is a certain fetishism of such rights among pro-Rohingya activists. And the problem at root is not so much the denial of their Rohingya identity as the prevalence of “national races” and communalism in Myanmar.

Ethnic identities were fluid and ever-changing in pre-colonial Myanmar. It was the British who classified people in boxes, mainly on a linguistic basis, and often discouraged interactions between them, thereby creating hard divisions where there was virtually none until then.

Ethnic Bamar chauvinism, ethno-nationalist insurgencies, and military dictatorships in the 20th century further hardened those divisions, and the democratic transition launched in 2011 has arguably exacerbated the problem as ultra-nationalist organizations have been freed to spread their exclusionary notions of Myanmar nationhood and anti-Muslim propaganda.

In early 1975, because of persecution by the local Buddhist population, thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine were forced to flee their homes and cross the border into Bangladesh (which had seceded from Pakistan and become an independent state in December 1971). Some Rohingya activists sought allies among other non-Muslim minority separatist groups that had been active in Myanmar since the end of World War II. In May 1976, thirteen such organizations demanding autonomy for their communities, including the Rohingya Patriotic Front, met to coordinate their actions. In 1978, General Ne Win’s government stepped up its suppression of minorities, including Muslims. In an attempt to stem the influx of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, the government launched a campaign called “Naga Min” [Dragon King] to register and classify all residents in the regions and determine whether they were citizens of Myanmar, legally domiciled foreigners, or illegal aliens. The majority of the Rohingya were illiterate and few were able to provide documents proving their citizenship. By August 1978, more than a quarter of a million Muslims had fled to Bangladesh; many others hid in the jungle.

In July 1979, the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed to the repatriation of 200,000 refugees to Rakhine, but many refused to return. Muslim fears that the Myanmar authorities were intent on ridding Rakhine of its Muslim population were confirmed when the new Burmese Citizenship Law of October 15, 1982, turned the Rohingya into de facto foreigners in their native country. According to the new law, only descendants of indigenous people who were present in Myanmar before 1823 were eligible for citizenship. That choice of date was not an arbitrary one. The first Anglo–Burmese war, which led to the British annexation of Rakhine, erupted the following year. As a result of that conflict and subsequent British conquests, immigrants arrived, particularly from the Indian subcontinent and China. Naturalized descendants of ethnic groups who entered Myanmar under British colonial rule constituted one of the categories regarded by the Burmese army as security risks. The new law rendered naturalized citizens ineligible to hold political posts, serve in the armed forces, or be appointed directors of government institutions. The close cross-border contacts and widespread integration between indigenous and immigrant Muslims that had gone on uninterrupted before and during the period of British rule made it especially difficult to decide who was of indigenous origin and who descended from immigrants.

At the end of 1989, the government began to settle Buddhists in Muslim areas of Rakhine by displacing the local population. Muslims claimed that community leaders were arrested, and others were conscripted by the Burmese army to work as forced laborers in the construction of roads or camps, or as porters. The army was accused of robbery, rape, murder, and the burning of mosques. In April 1991, refugees who had been expelled or had escaped began to appear in Bangladesh. It is estimated that by June 1992 some 210,000–280,000 had found refuge there. The numbers were actually higher because many other refugees were dispersed among the Bangladeshi population.

Under growing international pressure, Myanmar indicated a willingness to permit refugees to return. On April 28, 1992, the foreign ministers of Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a repatriation agreement. The Myanmar government agreed to accept even those refugees who had no proof of citizenship as long as they could prove that they had previously lived in Myanmar (by providing the names of their villages or village heads).

In November 1992, a memorandum of understanding was signed between Myanmar and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), see addendum underneath, as well as other UN bodies, which provided for the presence of those organizations in Rakhine. By 1993, only some fifty thousand refugees had returned. By the end of 1996, the number had risen to 200,000. However, there were also reports of retaliation carried out against refugees who had returned to Rakhine. It is estimated that a few thousand fled back to Bangladesh.

At the beginning of the 1990s, two militant Rohingya organizations emerged: the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF) and the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO). Both were based in southeastern Bangladesh, where the government permitted them to operate. According to some reports, they tried to recruit experienced fighters from among veterans of the war in Afghanistan. It appears that the RSO had developed connections with radical Muslim organizations in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and (Qadhafi’s) Libya, and with al-Qa‘ida, although details are difficult to confirm.

Representatives of the movements attempted to mobilize material and moral assistance from Arab and Muslim countries and international Islamic bodies, such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and to convince Muslim countries that taking a stand against Myanmar would be acting in the defense of Islam. However, the international community, including Arab and other Muslim countries, demonstrated little interest in the problem facing the Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine. The Rohingya problem raised fears in the Bangladeshi government that Rohingya refugee camps would become training grounds for extremists, that arms would be smuggled in, and that pan-Islamic activities among the refugees might, when combined with material aid from Islamic countries, foment militancy in Bangladesh. Throughout this period, there seem to have been no significant operations of any kind by Rohingya units, but only occasional skirmishes with army patrols in jungle areas.5

A major problem has been that the focus on the terminology used to describe the group has paralyzed progress on addressing important human rights issues and achieving durable solutions.

Many, though not all, Rohingya were in practice recognized as citizens under the 1947 Constitution and Union Citizenship Act 1948, either by virtue of having resided in Burma for three generations (Article 4(2) of the 1948 Act) or having applied to naturalize on the basis of 5 years residence in Burma (Article 7 of the 1948 Act).

This lack of legal status and identity is the cornerstone of the oppressive system targeting the Rohingya. It is the consequence of the discriminatory and arbitrary use of laws to target an ethnic group and deprive its members of the legal status they once possessed.

For addendum see UN document underneath.


1)  For details about these developments including the YMBA to Ba Maw see Haruhiro Fukui (1985) Political Parties of Asia and the Pacific, Greenwood Press, pp. 133−134 and pp.153–154.) 

2) Moshe Yegar notes that “as a matter of fact, the same group is active in all of them” (Yegar, The Muslims of Burma 102). A contemporary observer of Burma Muslim affairs, Yegar used only the spelling Rohinga.

3) Yegar, The Muslims of Burma, The Crescent in the East: Islam in Asia Major, Raphael Israeli (London, 1982) p. 103.

4) Mohammad Yunus, A History of Arakan Past and Present (Chittagong, Bangladesh: Magenta Colour, 1994), 71.

5) Yegar, “Burmese,” Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey, Richard V. Weekes (ed.) (Westport, 1984), pp. 187–90; Yegar, “The Muslims of Burma,” pp. 123–29.








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