Plight of Rohingya

A legacy of British colonial policy

ABM Razaul Karim Faquire | Published: September 14, 2018 20:47:26

The Rohingya are the inhabitants of Rakhine state (historically known as Arakan) in Myanmar. Arakan emerged a kingdom with the military and diplomatic assistance from the Bengal Sultanate in 1429. Being far off and detached from mainland Burma by the ArakanYoma (meaning mountain) and contiguous to Bengal (Bangladesh and West Bengal), it flourished as an independent Kingdom of Arakan by receiving social and political influences from Bengal during the late medieval period. One community of its inhabitants were the Rohingya - a minority community formed by different ethnicities having their origin in Bengal, West Asia and Central Asia. The Rohingya as a community emerged undergoing a process of creolisation as a socio-religious polity with the leniency of the imperial authority of Arakan. Later they were joined by a new flux of Bengali people leading to an increase in the Rohingya population under the British colonial rule. Thus Rohingya share the religion, language, and ethnicity with the people of Bangladesh and some Indian states, e.g. Assam and India.

In the past decades, the Rohingya as an ethnic minority underwent several constitutional and administrative forfeiture set by the Burmese Government - this began in 1948 and finally they ended up being "non-national" or "foreign residents" under a citizenship law passed in 1982. Last year, they fled their homeland of Arakan en masse to escape a drive (August-September 2017) of persecution (to be described as ethnic cleansing) conducted by the Myanmar military Junta and became stateless. The present plight of stateless Rohingya people is assumed to stem from the British colonial policy undertaken over Arakan during the colonial period.

Historically, Arakan was not a part of Myanmar (Burma), rather it was an independent kingdom that existed from 1429 to 1785. Arakan was established in 1429 with the military and diplomatic assistance of the Bengal Sultanate as a vassal state and it flourished as a powerful kingdom which existed until 1785. In 1785, it was conquered and occupied by the Burmese (Konbaung Dynasty) invading forces and consequently it fell into a cycle of crisis. As soon as the Burmese fierce conquering forces rose to power, they started a drive to deport and exterminate their opponents and this affected both the Rakhine and the Rohingya people as inhabitants of Arakan. This was the first atrocity the Burmese imperialist forces committed on the Rohingya people. Such an act of atrocity of the Burmese forces then forced the Arakanese (Rakhine and Rohingya) to flee yielding a poor density of population in Arakan forever. Rakhine state (i.e. Arakan) still remains a scarcely-inhabited state of Myanmar since that Burmese conquest. A few decades after the conquest, the first Anglo-Burmese war broke out (1824-1826) over the domination of the Burmese colony. At the end of this first Anglo-Burmese war, the Burmese forces lost to the British colonial power and it had to cede Arakan to the British East India Company as war reparation in 1826. Initially, the British authority put Arakan under the Bengal Presidency as it took over Arakan when many settlers joined the Rohingya from neighbouring Chittagong Division. In 1937, the British colonial authority separated Arakan from the Bengal presidency and annexed it to Burma Province. This administrative decision of annexation of Arakan to Burma later gave the Burmese polity a political legitimacy to assert administrative authority over Arakan. The British decision to annex Arakan to Burma caused to arouse a movement among the Rohingya to join East Pakistan, when the Pakistan movement was at its height. However, the British colonial authority ignored the demand for restoring Arakan as a province of East Pakistan. Rather, it annexed Arakan to the independent Republic of the Union of Burma one year later when they withdrew from British Burma on January 04, 1948.

Thus, the record of Burmese rule over Arakan shows us that the Burmese political authority ruled over Arakan for about 100 years in total including: i) firstly, for 40 years (from 1785 to 1925) as an occupational force, ii) secondly, for 14 years (from January 04, 1948 to March 02, 1962) as a democratic polity, and iii) lastly, for last 60 years as a military Junta since the occurrence of Burmese coup d'état on March 02, 1962-marking the beginning of its totalitarian rule. During the first period of its rule, the Burmese colonial authority could not assert thorough administrative control over the inhabitants of Arakan. Hence, as a colonial force, it failed to win legitimacy over the Arakan as well. During the British colonial period, Arakan was under the administration of Bengal presidency which gave British Bengal the authority to rule Arakan. When the British were planning to withdraw the authority over Arakan, they had three options under their consideration: i) giving Arakan independence which would free it from both Pakistan (East Pakistan) and Burma, ii) annexation as a province to Pakistan, and iii) annexation as a province to Burma. The Rohingya opted for the first one as it could be an independent state free from Pakistan and Burma, for which they launched a movement. However, the British imperial authority annexed it to Burma by ignoring the political right of the Rohingya community. This political decision of the British imperial power with regard to Arakan wrested the rights for self-determination of the Arakanese (i.e. the Rakhine and the Rohingya) and gave the Burmese polity a legitimacy in asserting the political authority over Arakan.

After withdrawal of British colonial power in 1948, the Burmese polity rose to political power over Arakan as it was annexed as a territory of Burma. The Burmese government then made efforts to consolidate power over Arakan with a democratic means. However, the inhabitants of Arakan, including both the Rakhine and the Rohingya were skeptic about the Burmese rule, for which they grew to be conscious about their political rights. Then (during 1948 to 1962), the Burmese polity as a democratic force was amicable to handle the rights of the Arakanese (the Rakhine and the Rohingya). Therefore, during this period, their policy did not impair the democratic rights of the Arakanese (the Rakhine and the Rohingya) and the human rights of the Rohingya people remained upheld. However, the Burmese polity failed to consolidate political power over Arakan with this interim (during 1948 to 1962) democratic policy. A similar situation could be seen happening in other regions all over Burma as the Burmese government also failed to assert political dominance over the other ethnic communities like Shan and Karen. The failure of the Burmese polity in consolidating its political power over the Burmese states caused a dissatisfaction among the military authority. Consequently, a new political transformation occurred when the Burmese military occupied political administration by carrying out a coup d'état on March 02, 1962. The Burmese military set forth its totalitarian rule as it rose to political power. This marks the comeback of atrocities on the Rohingya committed by Burmese forces after that first instance of violence that went on from 1875 to 1925. The Burmese military junta launched a fresh drive against non-Burmese ethnic communities to consolidate the political authority over Burma. Under this new drive, the military junta attempted different types of maneuvres including discrimination to extermination (other maneuvres differing in degree of intensity can be arranged in a continuum: Discrimination >Subjugation > Deportation > Persecution > Ethnic cleansing). Therefore, the maneuvres which are being wielded by the military junta over the Rohingya can be seen as the manifestation of the attempts of consolidation of political power over Arakan. The recent drive conducted is considered to be an extreme military maneuvre by the junta which forced the Rohingya to leave their motherland Arakan en masse to Bangladesh and left them in a state of statelessness. The plight of the stateless Rohingya can, therefore, be seen as the end of this longstanding process, the onset of which can be attributed to the British policy over Arakan. The first Burmese conquest lasted only 40 years (from 1785 to 1925), when the Burmese authority could not consolidate power over Arakan. It is the British colonial policy which gave the Burmese polity a legitimacy to assert the authority over Arakan.

The British colonial policy giving Burmese polity a legitimacy to assert the political authority over Arakan occurred in two phases. In the first phase, the British colonial authority separated Arakan from the Bengal presidency and annexed it as a province to Burma in 1937. In the second phase, the British colonial authority gave Arakan independence as a part of Burma by ignoring the Rohingya rights to self-determination. Hence, the political decision by the British colonial power gave the present military junta of Burma the right to rule Arakan and exert different means of maneuvres which led to the present plight of the Rohingya. Given the afore-mentioned discussion on the role of the British colonial authority in creation of the crisis in Arakan, the present plight of the stateless Rohingya people can be attributed to the British colonial policy exercised over Arkan during 1926 to 1948.

ABM Razaul KarimFaquire, PhD is Professor of Japanese Language & Culture at the Institute of Modern Languages, Univesity of Dhaka

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