By Eric Vandenbroeck

Some years ago I reported about the historical roots of the violence against Rohingyas, whereby to this one can ad that 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.

The Buddhist Bamar people also known as Bama or Burmans in the spoken register and Mranma or Myanma in the literary register entered the central Irrawaddy river valley in the 9th century and who became the de facto rulers of current Myanmar today differentiate themselves from other ethnic groups in Myanmar.

The British governed Burma as a province of India until 1937 despite profound cultural differences between the two countries. 

Class differences in colonial Burma also reinforced ethnic tensions. For example, Indian money-lenders, called kala, or foreigners, contributed 55 percent of all taxes in Rangoon and constituted the middle class, whereas the Europeans contributed 15 percent and the Burmans only 11 percent. The unequal class relationship bolstered Burmese opposition to the Indians, who were perceived by the Burmans as owning all of Burma. (Gravers, Nationalism as Political Paranoia in Burma: An Essay On the Historical Practice of Power, 1999, p. 21.) Present day xenophobia against the Rohingya Muslims can be traced to resentment of the favored status of the Indian Hindus and Muslims during the colonial period. While the Rohingya’s ancestors settled in Rakhine state in the early eighth century, their physical features and Muslim religion share many attributes with the neighboring Bengali people. Buddhist leaders in the 1920s and 1930s began to integrate xenophobic slogans in their rallying cries for revolts against colonial rule. The first political awakening in Burma following the consolidation of British rule in 1885 was led by the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA), which was established in opposition to the Christian dominance of Burma’s politics.

Protesters throughout the 1930s shouted slogans such as, “‘master race we are, we Burmans’” and “‘race, language, religion.’” Freedom and independence from colonial rule became inextricably linked with the purge of all foreign influences. (Ibid. Gravers, pp. 38 – 9.)

This year again a group of Buddhist monks staged a protest march to "let the world know that Rohingya are not among Myanmar's ethnic groups at all".

As is also elsewhere, the role of religion or in this case a nationalist form of Buddhism in violent conflict is not singular, nor is it unique. Most violent conflict however requires the organization of networks ready to move crowds hence ideologues and intellectuals at the pinnacle of organizations likely to incite religiously motivated violence. They construct the discourse that motivates for mobs to act.

In the case of Burma, however, there is a suspicion organizer on a State level, or/and army intelligence could be involved.

Campaigners for Burma's Muslim Rohingya minority have accused the country's government of failing to intervene as thousands of homes were attacked and more than 100 people were killed.

The satellite pictures released by Human Right Watch, show Kyaukpyu district on 9 October, and then on 25 October. On 9 October, hundreds of closely packed houses can be seen on the peninsula, as well as scores of houseboats along the northern shoreline. But in the image taken on Thursday, few boats remain and the 35-acre district is almost entirely empty of houses, here:

Some experts suggest existing population data is skewed to exaggerate the number of Burman, which forms the largest single ethnic group and are ethnically related to the Tibetans and the Chinese. They comprise of about two-thirds of Myanmar’s 47 million people and dominate the army and government. 

The state claims that 3% of Myanmar’s population comprises of Muslims, but other studies suggest the population could be as high as 13%, Muslims are believed to number around seven million in Myanmar. The majority are Indian Muslims who settled in Myanmar when the country was under British rule. Most of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities inhabit areas along the country’s mountainous frontiers. 

Islam is practiced widely in Arakan/ Rakhine State in the west of Myanmar, where it is the dominant religion of the 1 million Rohingya minority, as well as some Indians and Bengalis. There are also a few BaMa (Burman) converts to Islam as well as Muslims of mixed Indian Burmese ethno-cultural heritage, known (these days pejoratively) as Zerbadees. 

As I pointed out in my article from 2003, according to the first reference to the term, British medical doctor, Francis Hamilton, wrote at the end of the 18th century that Rohingya is a name, not an ethnic category, and that this was the word the Muslims living in Rakhine at that time used for themselves. In the above article “A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire”, Hamilton wrote: "I shall now add three dialects, spoken in the Burma Empire, but evidently derived from the language of the Hindu nation. The first is that spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan." Whereby elsewhere the suggestion is made that the term could also derive from the word “Rohang”, and that this was the Bengali name given to Arakan at the time.

What I would at to this today, is that more research should be done (including develop some estimates) about those who were already in Arakan before the region became culturally ‘Burmanized’ from the 10th to 14th centuries (they are also probably ancestors of  present day Rakhine); slaves taken by Rakhine kings and Portuguese mercenaries from Bengal in the 16th and 17th centuries and workers who migrated from Bengal during the colonial period; and those who migrated from Bangladesh after independence.

Clear is that what is now a clearly delineated border between two countries was not so before the British arrived to impose their European ideas of homogenous nation states. Arakan was before the British’s arrival a diffuse frontier area between the Burmese and Bengali worlds without a strongly enforced line of demarcation.

In certain historical eras, extensive areas of Arakan were under the sway of Bengali rulers; at other times areas in Bengal reaching up to the Bangladesh city of Chittagong were ruled by Rakhine kings.

As for the earlier mentioned 1911 census, Rohingya are included with the Indian population as an ethnic group of Indian origin, and the census of 1921 categorizes Rohingya as Arakanese, see a reaving detailed analyses underneath.(1)

Fact is also that what are currently called Rohingya, used to have National Registration Cards (NRC) like everyone else in the country. Apparently upon introduction of discriminatory policies on Rohingya by Ne Win in 1970s, the NRCs were taken away by various measures. Numerous check-points were set up to block Rohingya’s travel and to confiscate their IDs. Nagamin (the Dragon) operation in 1977-78 was crafted to drive out all Rohingya from Burma. It produced about 250,000 refugees that fled to neighboring Bangladesh. However, most of the fleeing refugees were returned to their original dwelling places, so the plan was not quite successful for the Burmese regime. Although systematic discriminatory policies were in place and IDs and other government issued documents were seized by the government, Rohingya remained as citizens of Burma until 1982. The Citizenship Act promulgated in 1982 is the official document that striped off the citizenship of Rohingya.

The Myanmar (Burmese) military junta calls itself currently the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Following its consolidation of power, the junta advanced an ideology called “The Burmese Way to Socialism,” which was xenophobic in character and formulated by the intensely nationalistic Burmese Revolutionary Council. The goal of this program, still evident to this day, is the “Burmanization” of the country, referring to the majority Bamar people.(2)

Including during the 1960s, the official Burma Broadcasting Service however relayed a Rohingya-language radio programme three times a week as part of its minority language programming, and the term ‘Rohingya’ was used in journals and school text-books until the late 1970s.(3)

These inhabitants called Rohingya are now among the most persecuted groups in Burma, and have been forced to leave.

The first step taken to this end was to remove them from Burmain legal terms by revoking their citizenship by initiating the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law.The law seems to have been declared in order to strip Rohingya of their nationality, as it was announced shortly after many Rohingyas returned after fleeing in 1978.(4)

The legal status of the Rohingya is dire. They have no citizenship in their country of origin, and the hundreds of thousands of them who have fled to Bangladesh and other nearby countries find themselves caught in limbo. None of the countries in the region are signatories of the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which requires its parties to grant its nationality to a person born on its territory that would otherwise be stateless.(5)

The revocation of citizenship for the Rohingya was only one component of the SPDC’s strategy to alienate and remove them from Burmese society. Intense ethno religious-based violence preceded the 1982 law, beginning in 1978 with Nagamin, the King Dragon Operation. The Burmese military, called the Tatmadaw, directly and deliberately targeted civilians, particularly Rohingyan Muslims, for killings, rapes, and the destruction of places of worship. Their aim was “scrutinizing each individual living in the state, designating citizens and foreigners in accordance with the law and taking actions against foreigners who have filtered intothe country illegally.”(6)

The rhetoric mirrors directly language used by Burmese officials today to describe the Rohingya: illegal immigrants, foreigners, and non-citizens. As a direct result of theKing Dragon Operation, over 200,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh. The vast majority of these Rohingya were repatriated by 1982, in this instance.(7)

Another major outflow of Rohingya from Burma to Bangladesh occurred in 1991-1992, and has resulted in a humanitarian crisis that has lasted for more then twenty years. Those fleeing to Bangladesh reported “widespread forced labour, as well as summary executions, torture, and rape.” Security forces, including the Tatmadaw, forced Rohingyans to work oninfrastructure projects under harsh conditions and without pay.(8)

During this early period more than 250,000 people, almost one third of the entire Rohingya population, fled the country.(9)

This influx of refugees was largely contained within twenty camps near the Burmese border, near Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh. The period between 1993-1997 saw the repatriation of 236,000 Rohingya, many of which were allegedly coerced into returning by the Bangladeshi government, with the consent of the Burmese government.(10)

Their return, however, in no way signaled an improvement in their condition within the country. Northern Rakhine is one of the most heavily militarized regions in Burma, despite verylow levels of armed conflict.(11)

The United States Department of State describes the plight of the Rohingya as discrimination of “the severest forms.”(12)

Their freedom of movement is non-existent, as they require official permission to leave their home villages, and may under almost no circumstances travel outside of Northern Rakhine. They are subject to arbitrary restrictions of religious freedom, forced labor (particularly in winter months), arbitrary arrests, and extortionate taxes on births and deaths.(13)

Individuals are even forced to carry out sentry duty for the villages, essentially doing the work of the Tatmadaw for them. In addition to restricting travel and expression, the Rohingya are constantly living with the threat of having their lands confiscated

Intimidation is rampant in causing families to leave their land, but the government also pursues legal means of removing Rohingya by strictly enforcing old zoning laws, for example by destroying a house built on land zoned for rice cultivation.(14)

Even Bangladesh does not legally acknowledge the status of the Rohingyas as refugees, because Bangladesh is not a party to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, nor its 1967 Protocol. There is no national law regulating the administration of refugee affairs or guaranteeing the realization of rights of refugees. (15)

As the situation became more dangerous in Burma and more desperate in Bangladesh, Rohingya started to take to the sea in rickety boats in the hopes of reaching Thailand or Malaysia. For example in December 2008, the Thai navy intercepted and detained 400 of these boat people on a military island called Koh Sai Daeng. From there, they were taken out to sea and forced onto a barge without motors or adequate food or water. They were then cut loose, and left to drift in open water for twelve days before being rescued hundreds of miles away by the Indian coast guardnear the Andaman Islands.(16)

Upon rescue, only 100 were left onboard, and there is evidence that this has been happening since 2007. (17)

As for the current situation, the government reported 82 killed, 4,600 houses burned and more than 22,000 people displaced—all almost certainly underestimates.

In the absence of mass deportation, Rakhine’s Buddhists are intent on absolute segregation. Those left behind in towns as yet untouched by the violence in Rakhine find themselves shunned by their Buddhist friends and neighbors. The one belief both groups still share is that more trouble will come, at any time.

The Thai military, however, denied any wrong doing, claiming that they ‘suspect’ the Rohingya of providing support to the Malay Islamic insurgency in southern Thailand. (18)

The current situation is that outbreaks of violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingyas have killed dozens and displaced thousands since June. Rights groups also have accused Myanmar security forces of killing, raping and arresting Rohingyas after the riots.

At least 800,000 Muslim Rohingya live in Rakhine State along the coast of western Myanmar. But Buddhists and other Burmese view them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh who deserve neither rights nor sympathy.


1) It was not until sixth census, that of 1921, that racial classification of the population was attempted. In previous censuses the population was classified by religious only.

In the Chapter XI, Paragarph 157 of that census mentioned that, “Numbers are tabulated in Imperial Table XIII for three Indo-Burma Races, the Zerbadis, the Arakan Mahomedans, and the Arakan Kaman, all these being associated as Race-group ‘S’ for convenience.”

About ‘Arakan Mahomedans’, in the Paragraph 159 also mentioned that, “The Arakan Mahomedans are practically confined to the Akyab district and are properly the descendants of Arakanese woman who were married Chittagonian Mahomedans. It is said that the descendants of a Chittagonian who has permanently settled in Akyab district always refuse to be called Chittagonians and desire to be called Arakan Mahomedans; but as permanent settlement seems to imply marriage to an Arakanese woman it is quite in accordance with the description given. Although so closely connected with Chittagonian racially the Arakan Mahomedans do not associate at all: they consequently marry almost solely among themselves and have become recognized locally as a distinct race.”

“The Arakanese Buddhist in Akyab asked the Deputy Commissioner there not to let the Arakan Mahomedansbe included under Arakanese in the census. The instruction issued to enumerators with reference to Arkan Mahomedan was that this race should be recorded for those Mahomedans who were domiciled in Burma and had adopted certain mode of dress which is neither Arakanese nor Indian.”

“The number of Arakan- Mahomedans tabulated in 1921 was nearly 24,000. The number tabulated at previous census as Mahomaden Arakanes have been as in Marginal Table 8 such difference of numbers as are shown here indicate enumeration of the Arakan-Mahomedans at previous under other description in the census tables of 1901 it is impossible to identify them. Probably under other Mahomedans tribes in all three earlier censuses mentioned, in the table.”

8. Tabulated Arakan-Mahomedans

Census persons M F

1921 23,775 12,740 11,035

1911 4,675 3,558 1,117

1901 —- —- —

1891 466 288 177

In the Report of 1931 Census, Volume XII, Burma, Part. I, Paragraph 140 mentioned that, “Figures of all population of different race-groups at the last four censuses are given in Imperial Table XVIII. The figures in that table for the years of 1901 and 1911 were obtained from Imperial Table XIII of those censuses and some difficulty was experienced in compiling them. In the Imperial Table XIII for 1901 the races, tribes and castes are classified according to the predominant religion, but the figure given for any race, tribe or cast include the figures for all religions with exception of 8,000 males and 7,000 females representing the Arkan- Mahomedans, which have been included in groups “S” (Indo-Burman Races). For the 1911 figures 10, 000 males and 9,000 females were taken to represent Arakan– Mahomedans and included in groups S (Indo- Burman Races).”

In Paragraph 141 mentioned that, “The number of Indians has increased from 881,357 in 1921 to 1,017,825 in 1931, i.e., by 136,468 or 15.5 per cent. In paragraph 16 of Chapter I, it is pointed out that many Arakan Mahomedans in Akyab district returned themselves as Indians at the 1921 census. The number may be roughly estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000, in which case the increase in the Indian population would be in the neighbourhood of 17 per cent.”

“In the Paragraph 143 also mentioned that, “The Arakan-Mahomedans are mostly found in Akyab district; the only other districts containing an appreciable number Kyauk Pyu (1,597) and Sandoway(1,658). They are properly the descendent of Arakanese women who had married Chittagonian Muslims. They are recognized locally as a distinct race and they dress different from the Arakanese and Chittagonians. The number recorded in 1931 was 51,615, which is more than double number of 1921, namely 23,775.”

“The Arakan Kamans have increased from 2,180 to 2,686 and are practically confined to Akyab and Kyauk Pyu districts.”

In the report of 1911 census, Volume IX, Burma Part I, Paragraph 264, it’s mentioned that, “the majority of the members of the Musalman tribes are to be found in the two districts of Akyab and Rangoon, which contain 56% of the Musalmans of Province (Burma). In Akyab they are indigenous and entered largely in the Agricultural occupation. The population of Musalman in Akyab district in 1901 is 154,887 and in 1911 it was 178,647.”

Thus, according to the series censuses we can tell that, ‘There was a Muslim community in Arakan, particularly in Akyab District, who prefers to call themselves ArakanMahomadens and were quite distinct from the Chittgonians and Bengali immigrants to Arakan.’ ‘According to Baxter report of 1940, paragraph 7, “This Arakanese Muslim community settled so long in Akyab District had for all intents and purposes to be regarded as an indigenous race.”

In 1825 Arakan became a British territory with a population of only one lakh souls, (Maughs 60,000; Muslims 30,000, Burmese 10,000). That’s means:-

Particulars 1825 1931 increased

Total 100,000 1,008, 335 10 fold+

Rakhines 60,000 548, 566 10 fold

Muslim 30, 000 54, 248 2 fold

The total population of Arakan increased 10 fold in 106 years from 1825 to 1931 and the Rakhine’s population also increased nearly 10 fold during the same years. Why the Muslim’s Population increased only nearly 2 fold, while the Buddhist population traditionally had a smaller growth rate compared to both Hindus and Muslims. There is strong possibility that the census on Muslims was incorrect. The populations of Arakan Mahomedans should be not less than 300,000 in 1931 not merely 51,615

2. Holmes, Robert A. “Burmese Domestic Policy: The Politics of Burmanization.” Asian Survey. Vol. 7, No. 3. Mar. 1967, University of California Press. p188.

3.  Lwin, N. S., ‘Making Rohingya stateless’, AsiaPacific, New Mandala, October 2012:

4. Myanmar: The Rohingya Minority: Fundamental Rights Denied.P 9-10:

5. Ibid. p10.

6. Myanmar: The Rohingya Minority: Fundamental Rights Denied.p5.

7. Bangladesh: Analysis of Gaps in Protection of Rohingya Refugees. UN High Commissioner for Refugees. UNHCR Refworld. May 2007. <>.Feb.13 2009. p12.

8. Myanmar: The Rohingya Minority: Fundamental Rights Denied.p6.

9. “Bangladesh-Myanmar: Bleak prospects for the Rohingya.” Integrated Regional Information Networks.29 Oct. 2008. UNHCR Refworld. <>.

10. Bangladesh: Analysis of Gaps in Protection of Rohingya Refugees.p12.

11. Myanmar: The Rohingya Minority: Fundamental Rights Denied.p14.

12. “Population of Arakan (Rakhine) State vulnerable to violations and forced displacement.” InternalDisplacement Monitoring Centre. Feb. 2008.

13. Rohingya: Burma’s Forgotten Minority.

14. Myanmar: The Rohingya Minority: Fundamental Rights Denied.p23-25.

15. Bangladesh: Analysis of Gaps in Protection of Rohingya Refugees.p8

16. “Time to ratify the UN convention on refugees.” Editorial. The Bangkok Post. 18 Jan. 2009.

17.  Montlake, Simon. “Thailand accused of mistreating Muslim refugees.”

18. “Thailand’s deadly treatment of migrants.” BBC World News. 17 Jan. 2009. <>.