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The Rohingya, Rising Asian Islamophobia and the Tenuous State of Muslim-
Buddhist Relations in Contemporary Southeast Asia

Asst. Prof. Dr. Imtiyaz Yusuf
Lecturer and Director Center for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding College of Religious Studies Mahidol University

A Brief History of the Rohingya

I heard about the case of the Arakan Muslims some thirty years ago, when few people knew about them. The first ever well-documented information and research about the Rohingya, who were described as insurgents, was done by an Israeli diplomat named Moshe Yegar. Yegar was posted as the Second Secretary at the Israeli Embassy in Rangoon (Yangon) in 1960s. His two books, titled: Between Integration and Secession: The Muslim Communities of the Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, and Western Burma/Myanmar and The Muslims in Burma: A Study of a Minority Group, are indispensible in order to learn and research about the Rohingya and Muslims of Burma, both of whom have different historical trajectories (Yegar 1972).

The presence of the Arakan Muslims in today's Myanmar is rooted in a past when there was little free movement between Chittagong in Bengal and the kingdom of Arakan. Various groups in the region interpret this history differently. Rohingyan writers hold that the Rohingya are descendants of mixed Asian and Arab identities and have been present in Arakan since the 9th century. Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist based in Yangon, and Jacques P Leider, a Swiss research scholar at the Ecole franaise d'Extrme-Orient, Bangkok/Yangon, contest the Rohingyan claim to an independent non-Bengali identity. In their view, the Rohingya is a political construct and not an ethnic identity. While they agree that Muslims have been living in Arakan kingdom since the 9th century, they argue that the majority of them today are Bengali immigrants since the time of British occupation of Burma in the 20th century (Leider 2017).

Meanwhile, Rakhine Buddhist writers claim that their land (the Rakhine-pray) was visited by the Buddha several times, making it a land of sacred geography; and that the Rohingya are descendants of Chittagonian migrants. Rakhine nationalist writers also view the Rohingyas as Bangladeshi refugees who fled to Myanmar during the 1971 Bangladeshi war of independence. Thus, they regard these Muslims as immigrants seeking and want to take over the Arakan land. The state of Myanmar designates them as illegal Bengali immigrants brought into Rakhine after it was annexed by the British in 1826.

The Rohingya claim their presence in modern Burma dates back to the times of the Kingdom of Mrauk U (1430-1785), which ruled over much of present-day Bangladesh and Burma (Berlie 48) However, the Burmese national historical narrative does not recognize the existence of the Mrauk U. The founder of the kingdom was Naramikhla Min Saw Mon, a Buddhist also known as Suleiman Shah. He became king in 1404 but was driven out in 1406 by the Burmese Crown Prince Minye Kyawswa of Ava. Narameikhla Min Saw Mon lived as an exile in Bengal for twenty-four years, regaining his throne in 1430 with the military support of Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah of the Sultanate of Bengal. As a result of this, the Arakanese Buddhist kings came under strong Muslim influence, even adopting Muslim political titles (e.g., Shah) (Rogers 133-134). Prior to this event Arakan does not figure in Burmese history (Bischoff).

From 1430 to 1531 Mrauk U was a protectorate of the Bengal Sultanate, a vassal state of the Buddhist kings of Arakan. Islamic gold dinar coins from Bengal were legal tender within the kingdom. King Narameikhla minted coins with Burmese characters on one side and Persian characters on the other, embossed with the kalima (the Islamic declaration of faith). During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Mrauk U was an important maritime port visited by large trading ships in the Bay of Bengal. The Arakan kingdom "maintained sea-going craft with Chittagong seamen." (Harvey 2000)

Numerous examples from the historical record demonstrate the continued presence of this population. In 1784, the Bamar king Bodawpaya invaded and conquered the Arakan kingdom, incorporating it into his kingdom. The British annexed Arakan in 1826. after the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824–26). The British brought the Indians into Burma to assist in colonial administration as well as in business and labor sectors. Their descendants today are among the economic elites of Myanmar.

The 1875 Census Report of British Burma (p. 30) reports:

There is one more race which has been so long in the country that it may be called indigenous and that is the Arakanese Mussulman. These are descendants, partly of voluntary immigrants at different periods from the neighbouring province of Chittagong, and partly of captives carried off in the wars between the Burmese and their neighborsdiffering from Arakanese but little except in their religion and the social customs which their religion directs.

The British censuses of 1872 and 1911 recorded an increase in the Muslim population from 58,255 to 178,647 in Akyab District.

In the 1942 Arakan massacres, the British recruited the Rohingya against the Buddhist Rakhine people, leading to separate ethnic identifications of the the two communities.

During the British Burma Campaign in World War II, the British established the V Force as a reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering organization against the Japanese; they recruited the Arakan Muslims to force while the Buddhist Arakan supported the Japanese. This caused permanent damage to the relationship between the Buddhist and Muslim communities of Arakan. There were even radio programs broadcasting in the Rohingya language over the Burma Broadcasting Service (BBS), this is denied by the present regime.

In 1940s during the period of Burmese independence and partition of India, there was an Arakan insurgent group named Mujahids who sought to separate their territory from Burma and join Pakistan. They contacted Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. Jinnah was not supportive of separation; he discussed the matter with General Aung San, who assured him that the Arakan Muslims will be protected in new Burma. The situation changed after the the military takeover of Burma and the nationalization of Buddhism by the majority Bamar group for maintaining their political domination over the other Buddhist and Christains ethnic groups in the country.

The Rohingya thus claim their rights to the land on the pretext that they were recognized ethnic group during Burma's democratic era (1948–1962). But with the longstanding denial of this history by the current government, tensions have escalated well into the early 21st century. During 2017, there were about 1 million Rohingya living in the state of Rakhine in Myanmar. Following the 25 August 2017 attack on thirty police posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents, 670,000 Rohingya children, women and men fled to Bangladesh escaping violence. Led by Ataullah Abu Amar Jununi, a Rohingya man born to a refugee family in Karachi, ARSA is a resistance group engaging with the Burmese army it is. Amar Jununi grew up in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Incensed by the suffering of fellow Rohingya, he gave up his affluent Saudi lifestyle to fight the Myanmar government for his people. While some sources say otherwise, ARSA has denied links with international jihadist groups ("ARSA Group Denies Links with Al-Qaeda, ISIL, and Others" 2017). As a result of this conflict, an additional 1.5 million Rohingya are living in exile in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, India, Malaysia, Thailand, UK, USA, and Australia.

Making of the Stateless Rohingya

The root of the Rohingya crisis goes back to 1940s when the Arakan Muslims, like other ethnic minorities in the country, felt insecure about their future during the formation of the Union of Burma, which would be dominated by the majority Bamars. This crisis has escalated over the decades and has now reached what is referred to genocide of the Rohingya which is denied by the state of Myanmar. The antagonistic state of inter-ethnic relations between all ethnic groups in Myanmar has created unmanageable political disorder in the country (Yusuf 2017).

Today, Myanmar has a three-tired citizenship system made of "full," "associate," and "naturalized" citizenship, the last two types are subject to revocation, per the 1982 citizenship law. The Rohingya are legally denied all three types of citizenship. Their delegitimization began during the 1970s military regime of General Ne-Win. he promulgated a new Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Myanmar and the Emergency Immigration Act, both in 1974 which laid the basis for ethnic citizenship. This change invalidated the National Registration Certificates issued to the Rohingya as per 1947 legislation. The delegitimization of the Rohingya culminated in the 1982 citizenship law which prevented them from becoming Myanmar citizens, the new requires of them to supply proof that their ancestors had settled in the country before 1823.

In June 1989, as per the "Adaptation of Expressions Law" (Law 15/89), the name of the state of Arakan was changed to "Rakhine state", and it came to be identified as an exclusively Rakhine Buddhist state.

In 1994, General Than Shew's government stopped issuing Rohingya children with birth certificates.

The final stroke at making the Rohingya stateless came in 2015, following the 2012–13 violence, when the Ultra Nationalist Buddhist group of Ma Ba Tha (Association for the Protection of Race and Religion), or the 969 Movement—led the radical Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu who calls himself the "Buddhist Bin Laden"—pressured the then Thein Sein government to invalidate the identity cards held by the Rohingya. The invalidation of temporary household identification White Cards by the Myanmar government stripped 400,000 Rohingyas of the right to vote, with which they had voted in the 2008 constitutional referendum and the 2010 national elections (Heijmans 2015).

The 2015 census declared that Myanmar had a population of 51 million people and 135 official ethnic groups. The Rohingya were not included among them they were declared to be outsider "Bengalis" from Bangladesh, making them the only stateless people in Southeast Asia (Zan and Chan 2005).

Further complicating the case of the Rohingya is that their community has been the arrival of Bangladeshis seeking economic opportunities. Bearing similar racial features and nearly the same language, the migrants are difficult to distinguish the native Rohingyas from the migrant Bengalis. This confusion has facilitated the Myanmar state designating all Rohingyas as Bengalis and thereby cutting the grounds to claim their citizenship right through both rationales of jus sol (territorial) and jus sanguinis (parentage).

In my frank view, the Rohingya will never get citizenship in Myanmar, no matter how much lip service leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi pay to the need to change the citizenship law, or much they speak (in response to foreign pressure) of their efforts to resolve the ("Myanmar Refuses Visas to UN Team Investigating Abuse of Rohingya Muslims" 2017).

Hence there is no chance of any legislation that will favor giving human right of citizenship to the Rohingya. They are not recognized as the original inhabitants of Myanmar on the basis of their dark skin color and belonging to non-Mongoloid race.

Furthermore, since the 2008 constitution establishes that the military will always hold a quarter of the seats in Parliament and it retains the power to veto any legal changes (Zin and Joseph 2017).

Racism, Religion and Violence: The Status of the Rohingya in the Emergent Democratic Era

Arjun Appadurai's theory of "fear of small numbers" based on "geography of anger" fits aptly to the case of the Rohingya's statelessness. As per Appadurai, the always divided majority creates fear of the demographically minority group will take over the country from the majority group. This results in "ethnocide" and "ideocide," in nearly every part of the world today (Appadurai 2006).

The Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party won the historic 2015 Myanmar elections, putting Myanmar on the path of democracy after a long oppressive 50 years military rule. However, in face of strong Buddhist nationalist opposition from the Ma Ba Tha—which support the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and also Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD)—neither party fielded a single Muslim candidate to contest for a parliamentary seat. Currently, it is first time in history that there is no Muslim member of the Myanmar parliament. This development gives strong evidence that the Myanmar elite, irrespective of their political affiliations, strongly believe that Myanmar is only for the Burmans and those who accept Buddhism. The gradual political exclusion of the Myanmar Muslims by the religious nationalists has now taken the form of practicing collective discrimination against all Muslims in Myanmar. This is sheer racism in the name of religion.

Prior to the 2015 elections, the military regime, again under pressure from the Buddhist religious nationalist group of the 969 - Ma Ba Tha, passed laws for the protection of "race and religion." These laws effectively disenfranchised the 4–10 percent Myanmar Muslims of various ethnicities on the pretext that their parents were not recognized as citizens at the time of the candidate's birth.

In anticipation of the 2016 Myanmar election, the Ma Ba Tha nationalists issued a twelve-point policy statement calling upon the voters public to consider alleged threats to support the protection of race and religion when voting. It also pledged to support the passage of laws for the protection of race and religion, which will place emphasis on population control, restrictions on interfaith marriage, religious conversion and polygamy. The group has also called for a ban on the wearing of Islamic headscarves and the ritual slaughter of cows during the Eid al-Adha festival "Hardline Monks Turn Up Political Heat Ahead of Myanmar Elections" 2015).

Following the formation of the new democratic government in April 2016, the new minister of religious affairs Aung Ko remarked that those who practice Islam are not full but associate citizens of Myanmar. This is in spite of the fact that the Burma's constitutions from 1947, 1974, and 2008 recognized Islam as a religion practiced by citizens of the country and does not mention the Muslims as being "associate citizens." (NLD Religious Affairs Minister: "Muslims Are Not Full Citizens" 2016);

After winning the 2015 Myanmar election with a landslide majority, the State Counsellor Suu Kyi became the powerhouse behind the current Burmese political scenario. She declared that from now on the Rohingya will be referred to as the "Muslims in Rakhine state" This further distinguishes them from the majority (Buddhist) population (Aung San Suu Kyi Tells UN That the Term 'Rohingya' Will Be Avoided 2016). She has also denied that there is ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya and advised the new United States ambassador to Myanmar to stop using the term "Rohingya." A United Nations delegation of investigators seeking to look into allegations of killings, rape, and torture by security forces against Rohingya Muslims were denied visas on the pretext that it will hamper the Myanmar government's "efforts to solve the issues in a holistic manner."( Aung San Suu Kyi ).

In 2016, the democratically-elected government established an Advisory Commission on the Rakhine State led by the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, with a mandate to examine the Rohingya issue and propose recommendations. The commission was however not mandated to "investigate specific cases of alleged human rights violations." In its report, released on 24 August 2017 (the day before the ARSA attack), the commission recommended the state of Myanmar scrap restrictions on movement and citizenship of the persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority as a solution to avoid the conflict from spiraling into radicalization within both communities (Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, "Towards A Peaceful, Fair and Prosperous Future for the People of Rakhine 2017).

Other examples of violence and intimidation took place throughout this time. For instance, on 28 January 2017, U Ko Ni, a prominent Burmese Muslim human rights lawyer and a legal adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi who played an important role in crafting the legal position of "State Counsellor", was shot dead at Yangon International Airport (Moe 2017). Meanwhile, the Ma Ba Tha have cultivated a fear of Muslims among the Myanmar Buddhists. Their efforts began as a protest against Indian Muslim businesses. Without consulting anyone, Ashin Wirathu wrongly interpreted that the Indian Islamic symbol of 786—a reference to the first Qur'anic verse, often used as a blessing for businesses, workplaces, homes and even print on their transcation slips—as being a talisman with occult powers and a Muslim plot to conquer Burma in the 21st century. In order to counter these supposed occult powers, Ashin Wirathu called on the Buddhists to use and display the Buddhist symbol of 969 written in Burmese numerals rather than Arabic numbers as a cosmologically powerful deterrent to 786. The symbol represents the "Three Jewels" the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha." It has thus become a symbol of Burmese Buddhist Islamophia which conceives Islam as violent religion.

It is reported that in light of the recent Rohingya exodus to Bangladesh, the Myanmar military plans to reduce the Muslim population of verified returnees in its northwestern towns to around 60%, and that of the Buddhists there to 40%. It will also resettle thousands of ethnic Rakhines and other Buddhists into the Rakhine's abandoned villages. This will create a new ethnic population balance, with fewer Muslims, and more Buddhists living under absolute control of the Myanmar military (Linter 2017). All this goes to show that in face of Burmese Buddhist nationalism there there is no clear solution for the Rohingya issue (Seiff and Jirenuwat 2016).

Yet, 2018 has shown that there is some hope. In April, it was announced Myanmar will allow the repatriation of 8,000 refugees listed by Bangladesh after a complicated verification process.( "First Rohingya Family Repatriated to Myanmar, Thousands More to Go," 2018)


Since its independence in 1948, Myanmar has failed to become a multicultural society of ethnoreligious equality and plurality.

Irrespective of international pressure, the main institutions of the Myanmar government, the main political parties, the vernacular mass media, the Buddhist Sangha and the radical Buddhist monks are in no mood to accept the Rohingya as citizens. They have demonstrated a pathological hatred towards them. This does not mean that there are no moderate Buddhist monks who oppose this abuse of religious teaching for racism. Just as not all Muslims are terrorists, not all Buddhist laity and Buddhist monks are racist. Historically, Buddhism has an impeccable record of religious tolerance and non-violence unmatched by other world religions until the rise of current Buddhist religious nationalisms in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

There is an urgent need in Myanmar to implement multicultural and multi-religious educational program at levels of educational training from kindergarten to the university, as well as through the media. At the national level, there is also an urgent to embark on Muslim-Buddhist understanding initiatives to remove theologically and racially myopic understandings of the two religions. The lack of knowledge of the history of Bengal, Arakan, and Burmese politics, and about the widespread ignorance Islam and Buddhism among their followers, is a dangerous condition.

The uncontrolled social media attention to the Rohingyan episode is already framing this crisis as Islam versus Buddhism. This essentially non-religious conflict, rooted in the claim to citizenship, requires a political solution to which Myanmar will yield with difficulty. At the same time, the Rohingya will not easily give up their hard line stands. Both pose security risks for the region.

Treating the Rohingya crisis as only an event-by-event disaster relief operation makes it a case of bottomless pit. Amit the worldwide Muslim uproar about Myanmar's inhuman treatment of the Rohingya, the Muslim media's condemnation of Buddhism as the religion of violence and calls for withdrawal of the Noble Peace Prize of Aung San Suu Kyi, which she received for the cause of democracy and not for the cause of the Rohingya, constitute a wrong approach. They have resulted in burning the bridges of communication.

The rise of transnational Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand also does not bode well for interreligious relations in these countries. Though each of them have different political histories, their political leaders are under tremendous pressure from Buddhist nationalist monks to declare that Islam as a violent and dangerous religion.

Najib Razak, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, has warned Myanmar and the ASEAN group of nations that without a just and durable solution to the Rohingya crisis, there remains threat to regional security. The conflict offers fertile ground for the arrival and recruitment to Islamic radicals such as ISIS and affiliated groups (Taylor 2018). As international players seek to gain control over Myanmar's rich natural resources, it is poised to become the new Afghanistan.

This requires of Myanmar to rethink its old-style domestic and foreign policy of isolation and promoting of Buddhism as the ideology of majoritarian religious nationalism.

As Myanmar enters into its still-yet undefined democratic at the present juncture there is little hope whatsoever for the solution of the Rohingya crisis runless there is a genuine political will on the part of the Myanmar government, its Buddhist community, and the Rohingya to resolve this problem constructively. It requires moving away from the myopic ethnoreligious nationalism. It also requires acknowledging that this issue is about nothing but claims to Myanmar citizenship, and thereby to citizenship of the world—a basic human right of seven billion inhabitants of the world today.


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