Rohingyas: atrocities in Myanmar

June 3, 2015

Rohit Dhankar

One of Manoj ji’s posts attracted my attention to the issue of Rohingyas in Myanmar. I do not have a ready intellectual courage to cry “atrocity” or “genocide” at the first glimpse at a headline. So spent about 4-5 hours in 2-3 days looking at newspaper reports, social media cites (including those of Myanmar Buddhists’) and a documentary made by New York Times. I don’t think I understand the issue properly, yet. But a first tentative understanding, without any claims of it being ‘the truth’ is as outlined below. As I claim no great authenticity for my understanding, so am not bothering to site the references. It is just a summary of tentative ideas at present, as I said above.


Genocide is understood as systematic elimination of all or a significant part of a religious, ethnic, racial, or even a political group. The ways of elimination could be killing, driving away, or many others kinds; but the aim is to ‘eliminate’ from a particular geographical area.

If one goes by the majority of news report, social media cites and the documentary it is an attempt to drive away the Rohingyas from Myanmar. There is a lot of killing, scaring, hatred, confinement, denial of facilities. And so on. Seems to be very atrocious and as reprehensible as can get.

The state, the Buddhist religious establishment and he public all three seem to be determined that there should be no Rohingyas in Rakhine state. And the atrocities are a tool to drive them away or kill them.

Why this hatred?

There is a tremendous amount of fear on both sides. Rohingyas being a minority and at the receiving end on most of the case are naturally scared. But the Buddhist religious leader and public also seems to be scared. This will sound odd to many that an overwhelming majority (95%) should be scared of a tiny minority. But in a tentative survey of news items and opinions it seems to be true.

Understanding the roots and causes of the hatred and fear seems to be much more complex than getting a reasonable picture of the state of affairs at present.

The history

The present Rakhine state it seems was Arakan earlier, an independent kingdom that was ruled by Bengali kings at times. Therefore, there was an ethnic Bengali population living there traditionally.

When British captured it along with the rest of then Barma, they encouraged Bengali population to settle there. The Rakhines resented this new population right from that time.

After the British left, Rohingyas themselves didn’t make it easy for their compatriots.

“The Rohingya insurgency in Western Burma is an armed conflict between the state of Burma and its Rohingya Muslim minority since 1947. Their initial ambition during Mujahideen movements (1947-1961) was to separate the Rohingya-populated Mayu frontier region of Arakan from western Burma and annex that region into newly formed neighbouring East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh). Rohingya groups were again active during the period of the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Recently, during the Arakan State Riots, the aspiration of the Rohingya militant groups, according to various media reports, is to create northern part of Arakan an independent or autonomous state. In 2012, Rohingja émigrés in exile declared the creation of the “Islamic Republic of Rahmanland”, located in the north of Rakhine State.” Claims Wikipedia; this to me is not a very reliable source, but perhaps does not contain untruth on such an important matter. If that be true the Rohingyas loyalties lie more with Bangladesh and Islam then to Myanmar; they do not really want to remain citizens of Myanmar.

Such history obviously does not help create bonds of trust and gives credence to separatism fueled by religious zeal.

In the Myanmar favoring sites there are claims that the Myanmar government at one time gave citizenship to many Rohingyas but the influx from Bangladesh scared them and they revoked all such attempts. They claim that there is a sizable percentage of newly arrived Bangladeshis in the supposed to be Rohingya population. (The Myanmar people simply call them “Bengalis” and don’t even recognize separate Rohingya ethnicity!)

There is no evidence of independent news reports of sizable newly arrived Bangladeshis among the Rohingyas (what I mean is, I did not chance upon such evidence in my very short search). But in one of the boats of Rohingyas that landed in Indonesia there were 208 Bangladeshis out of 584 people. Indonesia and Malaysia both refused to admit the people coming by these boats because they fear an influx both from Myanmar and Bangladesh. This, however, does not prove that there are newly arrived Bangaladeshis in Rakhine state as well; as Rohingyas fleeing from Myanmay may have simply shared the facility provided by human traffickers with Bangladeshis fleeing from poverty. But this also does not allow to rule out the possibility completely. The affinity shown by Rohingyas to East Pakistan earlier and Bangladesh after its creation gives credence in the Rakhine people’s minds to the idea of influx from Bangladesh.

Rakhine people claim that there have been instances of rape and killing of Rakhine girls by Rohingyas. How far that is true is anybody’s guess, in absence of independent evidence.

Rakhine also think that the population of Rohingyas increasing very fast due to higher birth rate as well as influx from Bangladesh. I did not chance upon any independent corroboration of these claims.

If the Rakhine people believe all this then fear of overtaking them in terms of population may be justified at the least in their own minds. The situation in some border areas on India where Bangladeshis have become majority also gives grounds for such a fear.

The Rohingyas on the other hand have been always discriminated against by the successive regimes in Myanmar. Right from refusal to recognition their ethnicity, to lack of state support for their development, to denial of citizenship and confining them to concentration camps; are reason enough for them to be angry, distrustful and fearful of the public as well as the state.

There have been many instances of riots and Ronhingyas being minority has been at the receiving end. Both the communities at present seem to be totally distrustful and fearful of each other. On both sides religion has taken on the role of providing fuel for hatred for each other.

None of this, even if true, however, justify the denial of citizenship and encouraging genocide and ethnic cleansing on the part of the state. The issue of citizenship may be complicated due to difficulty of identification of genuine Rohingyas and new Bangladeshi entrants; but denial of citizenship to Rohingyas whose forefathers have been living in Myanmar (old Barma) cannot be justified. The situation is grave for Rohingyas, complex and toehold for rapprochement do not seem to be available at present.

It seems to me outside help will be required to force Myanmar state to recognize its own people. To help Rakhine to learn to be tolerant to the minority. And to the Rohingyas to abandon their hope of being part of a Muslim majority country and of establishing an Islamic state on Myanmar soil. All the three parties cannot accomplish this on their own. A healing process aided by concerned but neutral and impartial party is required.