An issue of identity and land

By: Daniel Otis - Posted on: June 1, 2013 | Current Affairs

By Daniel Otis

The ‘Rohingya question’ lies at the heart of the issue in Rakhine state. Groups such as the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) state that the moniker was adopted by Bangladeshi immigrants in the 1950s. Rakhine state’s Muslims claim that they have lived in the region and called themselves Rohingya for centuries. The vehemence with which the Arakanese deny the existence of the Rohingya ethnicity – and with which Rakhine state’s Muslims cling to the term – seems, now more than ever, a matter of political necessity. For the Rohingya, it is also perhaps something of a catch-22.

Photo: Daniel OtisPapers on hand: displaced Rohingya activist U Kyaw Hla Aung, 73, shows his National Registration Card, which establishes his citizenship
Photo: Daniel Otis
Papers on hand: displaced Rohingya activist U Kyaw Hla Aung, 73, shows his National Registration Card, which establishes his citizenship


While Muslims have lived in Arakan since at least the 15th century (and perhaps earlier), their numbers began to grow exponentially under British rule (1824 – 1948) as agricultural labourers were brought to the region from neighbouring Bangladesh. Although a 1799 report by Scottish physician and orientologist Dr Francis Buchanan describes “Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan,” most of the people claiming to be Rohingya today likely descend from the British-brought community.

Rakhine state’s Muslims need to posit their Rohingya identity in order to stake a legitimate claim to being a longstanding part of Myanmar’s diverse ethnic tapestry, thus making them eligible for full citizenship rights. Likewise, were the Arakanese to acknowledge the Rohingya, they would be resigning themselves to sharing their ancient homeland with a group that makes up more than a quarter of their state’s 3.8 million inhabitants –
a dangerous proposition come election time in this fledgling democracy. Nevertheless, so long as they cling to the Rohingya name, Rakhine state’s Muslims will continue to alienate themselves from the Arakanese, Myanmar’s government, and even the historically pro-human rights National League for Democracy (see boxed text page 27). Were they to suddenly drop the label, they would essentially be declaring themselves illegal immigrants, thus dooming their community to continued confinement, potential deportation and perhaps annihilation.

Myanmar’s government denies the Rohingya official ethnic status and citizenship. With roots that span several generations, however, many are legally eligible to become naturalised citizens under the 1982 Citizenship Law, if they are able to provide documents that prove their family history. Some Rakhine Muslims have presented such documents. Many others claim that theirs were destroyed in the fires that ravaged their communities. Others simply never bothered or were not allowed to register with authorities.

Western media, international NGOs and several Islamic states have tried to champion the Rohingya’s cause, but their involvement only seems to anger Arakanese and Burmese authorities, thus exacerbating the conflict. Western democracies have mostly stayed silent.

Ultimately, the Rohingya question that is obsessing so many in Myanmar is entirely beside the point. The current state of affairs – despite any historical antecedents (see boxed text page 28) – constitutes ethnic cleansing, perpetuated by Arakanese nationalists and government authorities. With few supporters, the coming rainy season, persistent rumours of a third wave of violence and growing anti-Muslim sentiment throughout the country, it is hard to imagine that the Rohingya’s future will be anything but grim.





Also view

“Exiled to nowhere” – Recent sectarian violence has brought renewed attention to the Rohingya. Brutal oppression is nothing new to this Muslim ethnic group, many of whom have chosen to endure a hellish existence in hostile Bangladesh rather than return to their native Myanmar

“Etched in time: Chin women” – Their faces marked with intricate tattoos, an older generation of Chin women embody a dying art of ritual in one of the country’s most isolated and persecuted states. Photographer Brent Lewin captures their story

“Gimme shelter” – As a new Myanmar emerges, the battle rages on for the inhabitants of Kachin, its northernmost state. Thousands of civilians have been displaced and ethnic troops have taken up arms once more to defend their homeland from government forces. Photographer Narciso Contreras captures their story

“War on Myanmar’s women” – With the constitution relegating women to second-class citizens and the national army increasingly employing sexualised violence as a weapon of subjugation, Myanmar is still very much a military man’s world

“A failed state?” – How Myanmar can position itself to join the ranks of successful nations