Only two generations ago the Rohingya people of Northern Arakan, or the Rakhine State of Myanmar, had a homeland.
The homeland of Rohingya people was officially referred to as the Mayu Frontier region, and was a separate administrative district made up of the two predominantly Rohingya, but not segregated, towns of Maung Daw and Buthidaung, and parts of Rathaey Daung. Owing to the specific request of the Rohingya community leaders and parliamentary representatives, who were worried about being placed under the regional control of Akyab or Sittwe-based Rakhine nationalists who clamoured for an autonomous statehood for Rakhine, the Burmese defence ministry in Rangoon established Mayu District in the late 1950’s as a distinct administrative region and placed it under the ministry’s Border Affairs Division. The first founding chief administrator of this homeland for Rohingyas was the young Lt Col Colonel Tin Oo, now 95-years-old vice chair of the ruling National League for Democracy.
Because of the two ongoing separatist movements - Rakhine Buddhists’ independence struggle and Rohingyas’ Mujahideen movements -the new Rohingya district was not fully operational under Tin Oo’s military command until 1961.
By virtue of being deputy commander of the All Rakhine Command (now Western Command), my relative, Zeya Kyaw Htin Major Ant Kywe, was deputy administrator of Mayu District in 1961 while the Commander Lt Col Ye Gaung, who later became Ne Win’s foreign minister, was Mayu Region’s Chief Administrator.
Even in the formative years of General Ne Win’s coup government that went by the name of the Revolutionary Council, the military government kept intact the official recognition of Mayu District as Rohingya’s ancestral and contemporary homeland. The official Myanmar Encyclopaedia Volume 9 (1964) was unequivocally clear about this recognition: “The Mayu District is home to the Rohingya people, who make up 70% to 75% of the district’s population. Largely adherents of Islam, Rohingyas are native people of this region. Majority of them are farmers, labourers and fishermen.”
Today, the large swath of their homeland - stretching over 100 km - has become a site of mass killings where 318 villages had been burned systematically by Myanmar Tatmadaw and auxiliary troops which subsequently bulldozed charred villages and mass graves.
Since the 1990’s when the United Nations first set up the UN Special Rapporteur to monitor and investigate pervasive human rights abuses in Burma, both military and civilian authorities have categorically denied the existence of Rohingya people as an ethnic community of the country, let alone acknowledge truthfully that Rohingyas were accorded a specific region of their own.
In fact, former General Tin Oo, the elderly vice chair of the ruling NLD and the oldest colleague of Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, knew these facts about the state’s official embrace of Rohingyas as an ethnic people of the Union of Burma and the defence ministry’s patronage in the establishment of the Mayu Frontier Region for the Rohingya community. After the two bouts of organised violence took place in Rakhine state involving both Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists, Tin Oo was heard on the Burmese language service of the Radio Free Asia denying that Rohingyas were a distinct ethnic people, in spite of his own intimate knowledge of the fact to the contrary.
The Burmese public, known for their pervasive anti-Muslim and anti-Indian subcontinent racism, is of course to believe one of their iconic anti-military veterans when Tin Oo repeated the Burmese military’s institutionalised stance: the country has no ethnic group named Rohingya, and those who identify as such are unwanted “Bengali” migrants which the neighbouring Bangladesh tacitly encouraged to illegally migrate into the sparsely populated Rakhine or Arakan through the 170-mile-long porous land and river boundaries.
When Aung San Suu Kyi infamously asked the US Ambassador Scott Marciel (UN officials and international diplomats) not to use the name “Rohingya” because in her misguided view calling Rohingya by their own group name was going to further inflame the Burmese nationalist passion against the group, she was in fact driving the last nail into the coffin of Rohingya identity and presence as an ethnic community living in their own ancestral land of Mayu Frontier region.
In the three consecutive years since the mass violence flared up against Rohingyas in Rakhine state, I had attempted to provide a select network of Burmese opinion makers - including nationally acclaimed writers, journalists, artists, as well as a few dozen spiritual leaders drawn from Buddhist clergy, Christian churches, Hindu and Muslim communities - with Burmese language official documentation which expose the intense and intentional denial of Rohingya identity, presence and history and, conversely, support solidly the claims of Rohingyas’ claim of Northern Arakan as their ancestral homeland and their pre-British presence on it.
The power of 40 years of sustained propaganda by the military is such that the otherwise intelligent and compassionate Burmese remain unconvinced by the facts about Rohingya people: my non-Rohingya Burmese friends stare at the official encyclopaedia, official transcripts by Prime Minister U Nu, high ranking military officials including the Deputy Commander in Chief of the Burmese armed forces, as well as a wide array of documentation as if the old official facts were lies and the new official lies were facts.
Alas, truth is fragile and lies die hard in a deeply racist mental culture such as today’s Myanmar.
Tragically, Myanmar’s rejection of Rohingya people is complete and total: all key pillars of the state and society - namely the powerful armed forces, the Sangha or Buddhist Order, the political class led by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy - have stated their counter-factual view that Rohingyas do not exist, never existed and will never exist as who they say they are as an ethnic group. Worse still, the country’s Christian and other ethnic non-Burmese who also suffer from decades of military oppression and cultural subjugation at the hands of the dominant Bama majority have expressed no empathy or solidarity when it comes to the Rohingya plight.
In light of this society-wide rejection of Rohingya people, a mere bilateral repatriation scheme has proven to be absolutely no panacea. In fact, repatriation has become a vicious cycle for Rohingyas and Bangladesh. Such well-worn repatriation mantra expressed as “voluntary, safe and dignified” return will simply not do.
The only viable way for the Rohingyas to regain normalcy of life and have a chance to rebuild their communal life is more proactive and aggressive intervention by the external state and non-state actors.
Specifically, Rohingyas need to be provided with their own homeland under international protection. The talk of the restoration of homeland to this world’s largest population with no piece of earth they can call home, belong to or settle down must not be misconstrued as another attempt at ‘ethnic separatism’ as the Burmese military and the public have done, in reaction to the call made by the Berlin Conference on Myanmar Genocide. How the protected homeland will work, and which forces will provide the protection, who will administer the protected homeland, are questions that can be pursued once the idea is accepted among key state and non-state actors with express concerns about the plight of one million Rohingyas who Myanmar has “dumped” on the sovereign territory of neighbouring Bangladesh.
As a matter of fact, in her address to the UN General Assembly last fall Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh officially proposed the creation of a ‘safe zone’ in North Arakan state from where Rohingyas have been expelled. Hasina’s proposal needs to be looked into again with urgency and seriousness, with the view towards forging an international alliance of friends that can firmly push for restoring Rohingyas their rightful homeland where they can belong, and where they can rebuild their communities, under international protection.
Over the last 40 years, there have so far been three such agreements since the Burma launched the very first centrally organised wave of violent mass expulsion of Rohingyas in February 1978. None had worked. There are absolutely no indications that the current bilateral agreement ceremoniously signed in the Burmese capital Nay Pyi Daw on 23 November will be any different.
By all means, maintain the current talks of economic sanctions, as well as international justice and accountability regarding Myanmar perpetrators including Suu Kyi and her military partners in power. But what Rohingyas need and want more than anything is a homeland where they can live in peace and rebuild their scorched earth communities under international protection. The solution to Myanmar genocide will not come from the perpetrators.
It is high time that Bangladesh leads a serious international effort to help actualise the protected return of Rohingyas to their protected homeland in their ancestral place of Northern Arakan or Rakhine. Such an effort needs to be given a serious grassroots and state-level backing worldwide. Rohingyas deserve and need a piece of earth which they can call home, just like every human community that walks this planet.
*Maung Zarni is a Burmese human rights activist, an adviser to the European Centre for the Study of Extremism based in Cambridge, UK and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Sleuk Rith Institute in Cambodia. He blogs at maungzarni.net