The first Muslim settlers arrived on the coastline of Arakan (Rakhine) in Western Burma (Myanmar) about 1,000 years ago. Most of them were shipwrecked seafaring traders. They settled down and intermarried with the local Buddhist population. There is evidence for the presence of Muslim Sufi saints in the coastal areas as well as traders in the cities and even warriors at the Arakan court throughout the centuries. The name “Rohingya” (as well as “Rakhine”) is most probably derived from “Rohingyahang”, an old name for Arakan. The first documented use of this name is from a study of British scholar Francis Buchanan from 1799. He writes about “the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rohingyaoinga, or natives of Arakan”.
The Annexation of Arakan by the British during the First Anglo-Burman War (1824-1826) opened the way for an increasing influx of Muslims from Bengal. The first serious tensions between the Muslim and the Buddhist population appeared during the British retreat before the advancing Japanese troops in 1942, when violent anti-Muslim riots broke out in Northern Arakan. Shortly after Burma regained independence on 4 January 1948, insurgency broke out all over the country. In Arakan, Muslim Mujaheddin, Buddhist Arakanese and Communist groups fought against the government. During a short period of weak democratic rule, Rohingyas enjoyed full citizenship rights. They even had special privileges, like regular radio programes in Rohingya language. In March 1962 the army took over power in a coup and started the “Burmese Way to Socialism”. Due to increasing discrimination, repression and ill-treatment against them, Muslims of Northern Arakan started fleeing to Bangladesh. Both, in 1978/79 and 1992, two waves of more than 250,000 refugees each poured across the border. After negotiations between the governments, most of them were later repatriated. In 1982, the Burmese government passed a citizenship law which stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship and made them de facto stateless. After a popular democracy uprising, the army took over power again in 1988. It changed many geographic names in 1989 (Burma to Myanmar, Rangoon to Yangon, Arakan to Rakhine etc.). The repression against the Muslims in Arakan continued unabated.
Since the 1990s, the situation gradually turned from bad to worse. “Historically, there has never been a Rohingya race in Myanmar [Burma],” says a press release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Myanmar government claims that Rohingyas are simply illegal immigrants who have infiltrated the country from the borders with Bangladesh and India since the British established colonial rule over the region in 1824, so they are denied citi-zenship. A state-owned newspaper reiterated: “The Rohingyahinja is not included in over 100 national races of the Union of Myanmar”. This view is shared by a huge majority of the population in Myanmar who instead call them “Bengalis”. The Rohingyas are subject to countless discriminatory rules. Most of them have no valid identity papers. Travel and education are severely restricted. Arbitrary taxation, confiscation of land and cattle, forced labour, etc. is commonplace for them. Economic insecurity and extreme poverty, combined with absence of their basic rights, adds to their misery. For many years, thousands of Rohingyas have been fleeing in rickety boats into the Bay of Bengal in the hope of reaching Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. Sometimes these countries did not accept them. More often the refugees were caught by human traffickers who sold them into slavery-like situations on construction sites or farms. Many others perished in the sea. When the new quasi-civilian government took power in March 2011, hopes were high for democratic reforms and change. However, things still got worse for the Rohingyas!
2012 and Beyond – The Crisis Escalates
In May 2012, the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist girl by Muslim men in a Rakhine village triggered a months-long cycle of violent inter-communal riots in Northern Rakhine State. Thousands of houses were burnt and hundreds of people killed, the majority of the victims being Rohingya. Since then, nearly all Muslim residents of Sittwe, around 150,000, are still living in camps outside the city. Even after the elected NLD government under Aung San Suu Kyi took power in 2016, the tense situation remained unchanged. After the previously unknown terrorist group “Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)” attacked some police posts in October 2016, a heavy-handed response of the army followed with systematic burning of villages, mass-killings, rapes etc. This was repeated after another co-ordinated attack by ARSA in August 2017. The UN called this brutality “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” , which has consequently triggered an unprecedented exodus of over 700,000 Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh. Although Myanmar and Bangladesh are discussing about their eventual repatriation, nothing indicates that the refugees will return any time soon.
Culture and Spiritual Situation
Almost all Rohingyas are Muslims who practice Sunni Islam with many Sufi folk elements, like worship of pirs (saints), shrines and magic. In recent years, there has been more fundamentalist influence through teachers who were educated in radical circles abroad. The low education level in Rakhine left many with no option but to attend religious schools. The Rohingya language is related to, but still distinct from, the Bangla dialect spoken in the southern part of Chittagong district. There is no established writing system yet for their language, though competing attempts are being made to develop one. Consequently, there is practically no literature available in the Rohingya language.
The book Operation World calls the Rohingyas “one of the most neglected and unwanted peoples on earth” ! However, God has not forgotten them. More than ten years ago, groups of Rohingya came to faith in Jesus, sometimes after supernatural encounters or dreams. Despite numerous obstacles, today several hundred Rohingyas are faithfully following Jesus, most of them now in Bangladesh’s refugee camps. One of the main challenges has been the lack of a Bible translation in their language. But several years ago, a translation project was started. Scripture portions are now being translated into Rohingya and distributed in audio and video format. In spite of these encouraging beginnings, still more than 99.9% of the Rohingyas are heading for an eternity without Jesus. A lot of prayer and efforts are needed to reach them!
For obvious reasons, there is considerable disagreement about the number of Rohingyahing-yas. Either side has an interest in influencing population figures in their own favour. However, the 2014 census provided for the first time in decades an official number of the Rohingyas in Rakhine State: “estimated 1,090,000 persons”. Due to their disputed status they were not officially enumerated in the census. However, if they are included it would result in a total Muslim population in all Myanmar of 4.3%. Compared with the previous censuses in 1973 and 1983 (3.9% each) this shows that there was only a marginal in-crease in the Muslim population of Myanmar. This clearly dismisses the claim of recent massive illegal immigration from Bangladesh as propaganda.
With a 2014 population of just over a million in Rakhine State, the question remains: How many Rohingyas are living in diaspora abroad? After decades of brutal persecution now only a fraction of the total Rohingya population remains in their homeland Arakan. In December 2017 there were only 300,000. Smith gives the total number of Rohingyas, including those in exile, as “one to two million”. The obviously biased book of Ashraf Alam states contradictory figures. He puts the population as equal to the Rakhine Buddhist, equivalent to two to three million people (both in Myanmar and abroad). Given the above stated insecurity about reliable numbers, it seems safe to claim a total Rohingya population of at least 2 to 2.5 million, of which probably less than 20% still live inside Myanmar and the rest abroad.
(updated January 2018)
” Alam, Mohammed Ashraf, “A Short Historical Background of Arakan”, Arakan Historical So-ciety, Chittagong, Bangladesh, December 1999
” Berlie, J.A., “The Burmanization of Myanmar’s Muslims”, White Lotus, Bangkok, 2008
” Ibrahim, Azeem, “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide”, Hurst & Company, London, 2016
” Yegar, Moshe, “The Muslims of Burma”, Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1972
” Yegar, Moshe, “Between Integration and Secession: The Muslim Communities of the South-ern Philippines, Southern Thailand, and Western Burma / Myanmar”, Lanham, Lexington Books, 2002