Who are the Rohingyas?

Abstract:  this article trace down the origin of Rohingyas and also the history of Arakan state, how the Rohingyas evolve in Arakan, the advent of Islam in Arakan when the influx of Rohingyas started at Bengal.  The first settlers of the Chittagong region were the Rohingyas or the people of Arakan.  And the history of Rohingyas traces back to the 6th century.  After that in the 15th century, the Muslims mixed with the Arakanese people and from that time the Rohingyas evolved.  In the 17th century, the rule Muslims in Arakan become fragile and the Rohingyas moved at large groups from Arakan to Chittagong. This is the first influx of Rohingyas in Bengal. This phase started at that time and become constant until now. So we can see the Rohingya refugee is not a problem of present-day but it can be dated back to 200 years ago. Now, 9,19,000 Rohingyas lives in a densely populated country  Bangladesh. And many problems have arisen because of the Rohingya.


Rohingyas are the most persecuted people in this world. They are ethnic minority groups in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. They have been tortured day after day for more than 50 years. They are the most unwanted and biggest refugee problem in the present world. So we trace down their history.


Rohingyas are the descendants of the inhabitants of Arakan. They are also chronologically linked up to Vaishali, Chandra, Denavadi and Indo-Aryan [2,3]. Arakan province(present Rakhine state) is a stretched land on the coastline of the Bay of Bengal.  Historian Phayre’s opinion was Arakan was an independent kingdom until it was annexed by Burma (present Myanmar) in 1784 AD. The Arakanese scholars argue that it was the Aryans from the west who was the first settler of Arakan. The majority opinion of scholars is that the first settler of Arakan was Kenyan Tribe of Tibeto-Burman group, the Mangus.  The Arakanese were animist so over the centuries many religions like Brahmanism, Buddhism, and Islam shaped their beliefs and lifestyles.  In the 1st century, the installation of the image of Mahamuni in the capital of Arakan testifies the influence of Buddhism. From 788 to 957 AD the suffix of Chandra was added to the names of Arakanese kings and also there was an image of Shiva on the coins which indicates the influence of Hinduism and Jainism there.

 Islam in Arakan :

The advent of Islam in Arakan was dated back to 788 AD. After the advent of Islam in Arab, Muslims follow their forefathers to spread Islam and their trade.  Arab merchants were the first Muslims who came across to citizens of Arakan. The Arabs were active in sea-trade and they even monopolized it. As Dr. Rahim said, in those centuries the Arabs were foremost sea-faring and maritime people in the world. They sailed across so far that their trade flourished from east to west. Their eastern trade flourished so much that the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal turned into Arab lakes [4].These merchants on their way to China anchored in the Rumri port of Arakan. They were the first Muslims who came to know the Arakanese. In the reign of Arakanese king Mahat-y-ing Chandyat several foreign ships wrecked on the shore of the island of Rarnree. And the shipwrecked people were Muslims, these people also settled down on the village of Arakan in the 8th century.  On the basis of Arab and Persian sources, Mr. Siddique Khan states that to the Arabs and Persian sailors and traders the ports of Burma specifically Arakan were well known. In the 8th century onwards Muslim traders were spreading over eastern seas from Egypt and Madagascar to China. Originally their intention was not to establish permanent colonies, but because of peculiar situations, these turned into permanent settlements.  As time passed the number of Muslims in Arakan began to increase as there was a custom that foreign residents or visitors to Burma were allowed to form matrimonial alliances with the women of the society. They except foreign customs and religion and use the language of their ancestors, but in writing they used Burmese.  Along with the Muslim traders and adventurers, some Muslim saints played the dominant role to preach  Islam in Arakan. In the East Pakistan District Gazetteer- Chittagong it was written that “Muslim merchants from Arabia, Iraq, Persia and another region of central Asia had started coming to Chittagong from the 5th century, and some of them had settled there for commercial purposes. Along with them Muslim preachers and saints, who penetrated deep into the country and proceeded down the coast to Arakan, which also had a Muslim settlement” [6].

At this time the famous Single Doomed Mosque of Akyab was established. And also at that time, the women of Arakan wore veils (Historian Harvey). the legendary HanifarTanki and KhayafurirTanki (both are shrines) in the Mayu territory between the rivers Kaladan and Naf, the shrines of “Babaji shah Monayam of Ambari” and “Pir Bader Shah” (Badr-al-Din Allamah), situated on the coast of the Bay of Bengal at Akyab, all bear evidence of the arrival of Muslim saints in Arakan in the early period of history. This indicates the increased penetration of Islam in Arakan [5].


The evolvement of  Rohingya:

The famous historian of Chittagong MahbubulAlam stated that around 951 after the Mongolian invasion in Burma:  the Arakanese king annexed the Chittagong, Ramu, and Shandwip region and it was named after him[7]. At that time the Indian continent was ruled by the Mughal and the Bengal ruled by the Muslim Sultans. And from 10 AD to 1580 this region was either under the rule of Muslim Sultans of the Arakanese kings. There was constant fluctuation among the relation of Bengal or Arakan. When the Bengal was powerful the Arakanese accept their tutelage and pay taxes for Chittagong, Ramu, and Shandwip region. When the balance of power shifted the Bengal was made its vassal state. This increased the interaction between Bengal and Arakan .in the 15th century there was constant Muslim influx from Arab to Afghanistan, Persia, Turkey, North India, and the Arabian peninsula. They merged with existing Muslims to become the Rohingyas, a distinct dialect with the mixture of Arabs, Persian, Urdu, Pushtu, Arakanese, and Bengali [9]. In the 16thcentury  the Arakanese learned sailing and war techniques form the pirate settlers and Portuguese.  They raided in Bengal and captured slaves for their offspring cultivation and the presence of those slaves can be seen till the present day. This slave called themselves Rohingyas. But the Arakanese called them “Heins”( low- caste)[9].

Who are the Rohingyas?
Rohingyas are the most perpetuated ethnic group in the world

The boost and erosion of Muslim rule in Arakan:

In the 15th century, the  MuslimInfluence was growing in Arakan.  In 1404 Narmikhila the king of Arakan was deposed by the Burmans, and he takes royal asylum in the court of Lillashahi ruler of Gaur. He lived in the Gaur for 24 years. During this period he became versed with Islamic history and culture. In 1430 Jalaluddin Shah gave 20,000 soldiers under Wali khan. After defeating the BurmansWali Khan declared himself the king of Arakan and another 30,000 troops were sent under Siddhi Khan to defeat Wali Khan [8]. And finally, Narmikhila regained power and assumed the name, Solaiman Shah. And his successor rulers added a Muslim name with their Buddhist names. The coins issued at that time had an Arabic inscription in It [10]. In the 17th century, the influence of Bengali language and literature increased in Arakan Court and the assumption of Muslims in Arakanese administration. It was the contribution of DautKazi, Algol, and Magan Thakur. They enriched the Bengali culture in that period and it was the Golden Phase of Bengali Culture in Arakan according to Sharif Ahmed which was present till the 18th and 19th centuries.  Ashraf Khan was appointed the DefenceMinister and Syed Musa was the Muslim member of the king’s cabinet.  In the defense services, the cavalry and archers division was dominated by Muslims. This was the boost of Muslim influence in Arakan.


In the declining phase of the Mughal empire when emperor Aurangzeb was in the power;  his brother Shah Shuja (then Governor of the Bengal) sought refuge in the Arakan Kingdom in 1660. Descending relation between Aurangzeb and Arakanese King; the Arakanese Court politics turn of the road. And because of this many Muslims were massacred in Arakan through the Suja family was in the protection of the king. The soldiers of the Arakanese army revolt and joined the other Muslims of their community. This led to a bloodbath and the Suja family was executed. For this, the Mughal Emperor ordered Shaista Khan for the reprisal and he strengthened his army .in 1665 he captured Sandwip and in 1666 he captured Chittagong and Ramu. This led to the erosion of Muslim Influence in Arakan.

The first influx of refugees:

in 1684 Arakanese king named Sri Chandrashudharam died and the political condition of Arakan got unstable. Court intrigue and conspiracies become the order of the day. As Hall claims that Muslims was the main actor in it and by this, they either make or overthrow the kings of Arakan [3]. In 1785 Arakan fell into Burma. The Burmans cruelly murdered the men and sent the women to Burma as prisoners. About 6000 youth was sent to renovate the Meiktila Lake but none of them returned. And the Arakanese were forced to build the 500 feet tall pagoda in Mingun in Burma.  In 1791 and 1796 attempts to break down the rule of Burma in Arakan but this was unsuccessful. And the reprisal was massive, about 200,000 Arakanese were murdered in 1791 and in 1796 about two-thirds of Arakanese, most of Rohingyas and Heins left Arakan for Chittagong region.  This was the first influx from Arakan into Bengal. The bulk of refugees were the first settlers of Teknaf and Cox’s Bazar region. Hiram Cox’s was the superintendent for the rehabilitation for the refugees appointed by the East India Company; after whom the Cox’s Bazar was named.


How the British occupied Burma:

The Arakanese refugees waged guerilla war under their deposed king against Burma’s king and this led the Burmans to enter into Bengal. This precipitated the first Anglo- Burmese from 1824-26 and the British annexed Arakan in this war.  British waged another war that ended in 1853 because of the natural resources of Burma and they occupied the lower Burma then. In 1885 in the third Anglo-Burmese war British occupied the whole Burma and a large section of refugees returned in the depopulated places on that year. New settlers also flowed there bringing with their Bengali Culture and Language[9]. Though the increased number of settlers did not affect the regular life of Burmans World War 2 disturbed the life of Muslims and Buddhists. As the Japanese Army advanced about 10,000 people of Indian subcontinent egressed from Burma. Anti-Muslim riot flared up as the Arakanese community divided into two parts. The Rohingyas were loyal to the British and their Buddhist counterparts, the Rakhaines look at the side of Japanese. After the war British promised the Arakanese Muslims autonomy in the Muslim national area which could comprise Maungdaw, Buthidaung and some part of Rathedaung along the Border of East Bengal [11]. But the Buddhists took control over Arakan and the Muslims felt betrayed.

Read More Impact of Rohingya Crisis on Rohingya Refugee Women and the Future


Result of the disillusionment of the Arakanese Muslims:

After the betrayal, the Arakanese Muslims sought to form the North Arakan Muslim League in Akyab and support of Jinnah ( then the leader of Pakistan) for their plans. But Jinnah was not keen to do it and he assured Aung San about it.  In 1948 an armed rebellion tool place named Mujahid movement whose main goal was to create an independent Muslim state Between rivers of Kaladan and Mayu.  This led to discord in the Muslim community as the moderatos wanted to avoid the confrontation with the Government and the Rakhaines. On the contrary, the extremist resorted to firearms.  At this point, some sections of the Rohingyas appealed for arms from the Government to fight the rebels [11]. In the end, this resulted in the suspicion of the Muslim in the eye of the Burmans and considered to be disloyalty to the state. The Muslim civil Servants, policemen, and headmen were fired. Arbitrary arrests and extortion of money were rising by law enforcement agencies and civil administration. The economic and educational development of Arakanese were also neglected.



Five decades of enormity (1960-2010):

After the independence of Burma, the Rohingyas were recognized as an indigenous race of Burma. There were representatives of this group in Burmese parliament as well as ministers, parliamentary secretaries, high ranking government positions.  In 1947 Sultan Ahmed and M. A. Gaffer were elected in the constituent Assembly of Burma.  Sultan Ahmed was the parliamentary secretary of the Ministry of Minorities. In 1951 and 1956 Burmese general election respectively five and six Rohingya  MPs were elected.  Sultan Mahmud ( a former Politian in British India) became Minister of Health in the Cabinet of Prime Minister of Burma U Nu.  Though till then the fate of Arakan was not decided whether it would get the statehood or became a province, in the 1960 election  U Nu set fort Arakan as a province.  From 1961 to1964 an administration zone directly under national government existed for Rohingya – majority northern areas of Arakanknown as Mayu Frontier District. After the 1962  military coup d’etat of Burma, it was administered by the Burmese Army. From then the Socialist Military Party Nationalized all property and many enterprises of white-collar Burmese Indians [12,13]. In 1974 the military government included the zone in Arakan  State. in1978 Operation Nagmin( Dragon King) carried out in Northern Arakan by the socialist party of Ne Win[14]). The purpose of this military operation was to register citizens and expel so-called ’foreigners’. These were executed by Tatmadaw and immigration officials from 6 February to 31 July;  resulted 2-2.5 lakhs of people fled to Bangladesh [15].. ICRC, UNHCR and Bangladesh government sent relief to the migrants immediately .on 31 July 1978  the governments of Bangladesh and Burma reached an agreement about the repatriation of Rohingya refugees and about 180000 were repatriated [15,16].  In 1982 the Military junta enacted a military law that did not enlist the Rohingyas as one of 135 races of Burma. And they become stateless in their historical homeland.  Rohingya leaders were supportive for democracy in 1988.in 1989 the name Burma officially changed to Myanmar and in 1990 Arakan was named to Rakhine State.   And in the 1990 election when Aung Sung Suu Kyi won but placed under house arrest then the National Democratic Party for Human Rights led by the Rohingyas won four seats in the parliament. But in 1992 the NDPHR was banned by the Junta and the politicians were jailed. The usage of the term Rohingya was objected strongly, and they preferred to label the group as “ illegal immigrants” [17]. Another Rohingya movement had emerged in 1990. As they wanted to achieve their status and settle the term Rohingya as their distinct identity. But the Rakhine thought themselves as a victim of Muslimisation and Burmese Chauvinism[18].  Moderate Rohingya people agreed to consider any identity like Rakhine Muslims, Myanmar Muslim or just Myanmar which is not “Bengali nor Rohingya”. The military junta according to the US government heavily discriminated against minorities to bolster its rule and accused of provoking riots led by Buddhist monks against ethnic minorities like the Rohingyas [20].  After the election, the military operation was targeting Muslims. Myanmar Army promoted forced labor, rape, confiscation of the land, farm, destruction of mosques and banned religious activities,  harassed the religious priests[1]. About 250000 people fled to Bangladesh.  230000 were repatriated in the early 2000s by diplomatic negotiation between Bangladesh and Myanmar, some against their will [19].


Read More Rohingya Crisis in the lens of Human Rights


Present-day crisis:

In 2011 Burma turned into democracy and the military was trying to retain its former position In  2012 a riot started between Rohingya( the majority in North) and Rakhine (the majority in South). After weeks of sectarian disputes in which a Rakhinewomen was gang-raped and murdered by Rohingyas and ten Rohingyas were murdered by Rakhine.  And according to The Economist, they encourage the riot and trying to pose it as the defender of Buddhism against Muslim Rohingya [18].  The government imposed curfew in the region and deployed troops.  In July 2012, the Burmese government did not include the Rohingya in the census but classified them as stateless  Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh since 1982(199). About 140000 people confided in IDP camps in Myanmar [21]. In 2015 thousands of Rohingya migrated from Myanmar to Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and other Southeast  Asian countries to escape persecution, violence. International media called them the Boat people [22,23,24]. In October 2016 a terrorist attack was made by Jihadist in border post along with Myanmar and Bangladesh [25].  Nine border officers and four soldiers died in those attacks and fighting; they also looted firearms and boxes of ammunition [26,27]. After these attacks, military forces and extremist Buddhists started a crackdown on RohingyaMuslims[28].  The Armed Forces stated on 1 September 2017 that 370 insurgents, 13 security personnel, 2 government officials and 14 civilians were died till then, but the UN believes that about 1000  people have been killed since October 2016 [29,30]. In August 2017 the government began “ clearance operation” against Rohingyas; following the attack of ARSA in several outposts on 25 August [31,32,33]. Though they stated that their operation was against ARSA but international organizations indicted it was an indiscriminate attack on Rohingya people and they wanted to purge northern Rakhine through “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” [31].  From  August to December of 2017 6,25,000 Rohingya had crossed the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh [34]. According to UNICEF 9,19,000Rohingyas are living in Bangladesh in Kutupalong, Nayapara, and other camps. Bangladesh is a densely populated country and they are now more like a burden for her as they lack access to services, education, food. They are also in poor health and lives in overcrowding places also they are vulnerable to natural disasters. Also, the Bangladesh government and international organizations are helping them to provide necessary things but that is too insufficient for them. And also these camps are affecting the environment of Bangladesh. `



Nushrat Moury

student, Department of International Relations

University of Chittagong




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