Arakan geopolitics render Rohingya stateless ethnicity

Rohingyas have fled from atrocities faced in their homeland in Arakan, MyanmarFile Photo

Rakhine state’s historical name was Arakan until it was changed in 1989. “After the 1960 Burmese general election, Sultan Mahmud, the Burmese health minister, advocated a state for the Arakanese Indian community in the northern part of Arakan. Mahmud suggested the Kaladan River as the boundary between Muslim-majority and Buddhist-majority Arakan. Mahmud submitted his proposal to the statehood consultative committee. Mahmud said that Arakanese Indians would accept a joint state with Arakanese Buddhists if there was adequate protection and representation of the Indian minority. If adequate safeguards were not possible, Mahmud proposed that a separate northern Arakan zone should be administered directly from the national capital Rangoon. On 1 May 1961, Prime Minister of U Nu implemented Mahmud's ideas, albeit the new zone did not extend up to the Kaladan River.”

Between 1961 and 1962, the Mayu Frontier districts were governed by the elected government in Rangoon. The 1962 military coup ended parliamentary democracy in Burma. Following the coup, the Mayu Frontier Districts were directly administered by the Tatmadaw and Ne Win’s Union Revolutionary Council. Tatmadaw changed the administrative status of Frontier Districts in February 1964 and placed under the Ministry of Home Affairs. In 1974, when Ne Win proclaimed the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma, the Mayu Frontier area was incorporated into Arakan State. In 1989, State Law and Order Restoration Council Headed by General Swa Maung changed the name of Arakan into Rakhine State and its capital from Akyab into Sitwe. He also renamed the country from Burma to Myanmar.

Historically, Arakan was an independent kingdom. A total of 234 Arakanese Kings ruled the land before the Burmese King annexed it in 1784. The Burmese King ceded Arakan to British Rule in 1826 as war reparation after the first Anglo-Burmese War (5 March 1824 - 24 February 1826). The Second Anglo-Burmese War (5 April 1852 - 20 January 1853) annexed lower Burma to British India and the third war (7 November - 29 November 1885) was a colonial conquest. Burma was ruled as a province of British India till 1936. The beginning of British rule of Burma as an independent colony met with the Second World War.

Japan occupied Burma (1942-1945) during the Second World War. Burmese welcomed Japanese as liberator against the British. Japan had assisted formation of the Burma Independence Army, and trained the Thirty Comrades, who were the founders of the Tatmadaw (armed forces). General Aung San, the founding father of Burma and the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, was one of the Thirty Comrades. This is the historic context that Japan has been sympathetic to military regimes despite their atrocious crimes against ethnic minorities. Japan only decided to stop training Myanmar military personnel following the junta’s execution of four pro-democracy activists in July 2022 “ignoring Japan’s strong concern”. On the other hand, Japan officially invited Myanmar to attend ex-Prime Minister Abe’s funeral held on 27 September 2022. Critics viewed the invitation as Japan’s recognition of the coup leader who has killed 2,000 democratic activists since the military coup on 1 February 2021. UK did not invite the Myanmar to attend the Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral.

Japanese Army pursued British forces up to Arakan Mountain Range. The presence of Japanese and British forces exposed the historical divide between the two major communities-Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya. Buddhists’ historical grievance against the British was due its colonisation of Burma from the Buddhist King. Muslims had their grievances against Buddhists for colonisation of Independent Arakan by the Buddhist King.

Buddhists supported advancing Japanese army and took up arms against the British forces. Rohingya population in Arakan supported British forces to resist Japanese advance. Weapons in the hands of two major communities resulted into riot which began from a fishing village known as Ale Than Kyaw on the Arakan Coast and Maruk U township. The riot inflicted much damage to properties and loss of life to both communities.

Before the Second World War, political movement against the British was gaining momentum in the sub-continent. At the juncture of partition of the subcontinent and independence of Burma, “Rohingya Muslims in western Burma had an ambition to merge their region into East Pakistan. Before the independence of Burma in January 1948, Muslim leaders from Arakan addressed themselves to Jinnah, and asked his assistance in annexing of the Mayu region (Mayu frontier district) to Pakistan which was about to be formed. Two months later, North Arakan Muslim League was founded in Akyab. It too proposed annexation to Pakistan. The proposal was never materialised after it was reportedly turned down by Jinnah.” The British annexed Arakan to Burma sowing the seed of permanent trouble in the western Burma.

Rohingya desire to annex Arakan into East Pakistan entrenched distrust among the majority Bamar and Rakhine Buddhist community. They hold a wild perception that, if Rohingya gets an opportunity will separate Rakhine from Myanmar.

After the independence of Burma, the historical divide turned into animosity and exacerbated by persistent anti-Rohingya narratives in domestic politics. Successive military regimes heavily garnered Buddhists sentiments against Rohingya and persistently spread hate speech and narratives against them and embarked on planned persecution and eviction of Rohingya.

Rohingyas were Burmese nationals through the centuries. Their Burmese nationality was endorsed by The Union Citizenship (Election) Act 1948. After the Burma’s independence, they exercised voting rights. They filed candidature in national and state elections. They represented people in the state and national parliament. They were employed on government jobs. They ran businesses. Military drafted Citizenship Act 1982 changed all. Military did not include Rohingya ethnicity in the new law rendering them the world’s worst persecuted stateless population much to the persistent insouciance of the global conscious.

* Mohammad Abdur Razzak, a retired Commodore of Bangladesh Navy, is a security analyst. He can be reached at [email protected]