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The Rohingya People of Birma – Lost on the Brink


Myanmar, Burma

Lately more and more happy news are being heard from Myanmar (Burma), since the country is slowly developing from military dictatorship to a civil society. With Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma has its own heroine in the struggle for the freedom of Burma.

But freedom does not seem to be destined for all. In the extreme west of the country in the Rakhine State (formerly Arakan) there occurs a tragedy which is hardly noticed.

Area of the Rohingya - Situation

Area of the Rohingya – Situation

It is the Muslim Rohingya people which is treated as a foreign element by the nationally oriented Buddhist majority of Burma. This goes as far as that the Rohingya got deprived of their burmese citizenship in 1982 by a controversial law. Thus, the Rohingya became foreigners in their own country though they lived there since time immemorial. This is now the reason for recurrent pogroms against the Rohingya people. Their villages are being destroyed, people killed and hundreds of thousands have to flee their homes. The muslim population of Burma is an estimated 8 million people, representing about 15% of the total population. The government conceales these facts and numbers the Muslims only with 4% of the total population and calls them a foreign element in Buddhist Burma. But he Rohingya are an ancient people that resides in the same region for centuries and was also geographically separated from the rest of Myanmar.

Arakan on a historical map

Arakan on a historical map

Situation of the State of Rakhine (Arakan)
The estimated population for the entire state of Rakhine (Arakan) is approximately 3.8 million persons. Since independence, about 1.5 million Rohingya have been displaced and are now living in different countries of the world. This let to the situation that the Rohingya people account for no more than half of the population in Arakan. The other half of the population the buddhist Rakhine people is growing and winning more and more political influence over the becoming minority of the Rohingya. This results in further expulsions of the Rohingya, a trend that will probably develop, so that the Rohingya will lose more and more influence.

Exclusion and distortion of history
As a people, the Rohingya are related to the population of India. Also geographically the region where they live is regarded as a continuation of South Asia, and is separated in the east by the same mountain range from the rest of Myanmar, which also separates India from Burma. But still according to official Burmese authorities the Rohingya are immigrants from Bangladesh and therefore they have to be brought back there. To get an impression of the situation one can have a look at the following picture of protesters in front of the BBC building in Rangoon:

Demonstrators in front of the BBC in Rangoon

Demonstrators in front of the BBC in Rangoon

The demonstants point out that the Rohingya are not a Burmese ethnic group. Implicitly, they mean that the Rohingya have also no rights in Myanmar. The comparison with the exclusion of German Jews in the Third Reich is obvious, there also the Germans did not consider the Jews as a Germans, but as a foreign element, which had no right to reside in the country. In both cases this is a clear distortion of history.

If one looks at historical documents, one can easily see that the Muslim Rohingya belong historically provable to Arakan. According to a British map of 1909 the Muslim Rohingya people presented 50 to 70 percent of the population in their ancestral lands of Arakan:

Rohingya in history

Rohingya in history

Myanmar makes great progress on the road to freedom and democracy, not least because of Aung San Suu Kyi. Unfortunately this does not seem to apply to all peoples of the country equally, on the contrary. The more power the democratic majority gets, the harder is the lot of the Rohingya minority. To them there remains often only one way, escape.

Kutupulung refugee camp in Bangladesh

Kutupulung refugee camp in Bangladesh

Learn more about:

Rohingya refugee committeee in Malaysia

Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO)

About David X. Meier

David X. Meier has a Master's degree in Social Anthropology at University of Zurich. One of his special interest are ethnopolitical occurrences and issues and the hope that the awareness of ethnical issues will help to establish peace and understanding.

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