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Background of Rohingya Problem

Kyaw Zan Tha, MA


Early Muslims in the Kingdom of Rakhaing (Arakan)

The territory, controlled by the Mrauk-U dynasty (1433-1785), the last dynasty in Rakhaing
(Arakanese) history, stretched from Chittagong in the North to Thanlyin (Syriam) in the South
until it lost the whole of Chittagong down to the River Naaf (Nat River) to Mughal in 1666.1
Some Chittagonian Muslims however remained settled in the Kingdom of Rakhaing (Arakan).
These were the earliest Muslim settlers in the Kingdom of Rakhaing and known as the Kamans.
Muslim Immigration during Colonial period
During the colonial period Chittagonian Muslims or Bengalis came to the land of Rakhaing
freely to get employed in the developing cultivation there, which was part of the then British
economic policy. In Sittwe (Akyab), for instance, from a few hundred inhabitants the population
had steadily increased and even within the last decade of the 19th century the growth had been
continuous as the census figures plainly show:
Year Population
1872 1,923
1881 3,398
1891 3,7,93
1901 9,114
No importance is to be attached to the slight falling-off shown at the last census, which is
attributable to an unwanted paucity of coolies from outside at the close of the busy season in
April or May. The population is mixed one, Rakhaing of whom there are 11,531 predominating
over any other race in terms of numbers. Bamars (Burmese), Chinese, and natives of India,
mainly Bengalis from the Chittagong coast, total 18,328.2
According to a Health Ministry's report for the year 1930-31, about 40,000 Bengali coolies came
into the land of Rakhaing and some of them did not return to their homes. The British authorities,
being aware of the potential problems between the Rakhaing and the Bengali Muslims, formed a
special Investigation Commission in 1939 to study the issue of Muslim immigration into land of
Rakhaing with Commissioner (Mr. James Ester) as Chairman and U Tin Htut and Yangon
(Rangoon) University Professor Desai as members.
The Commission showed its concern and suggested to restrict the immigration of Bengalis to the
extent necessary for cultivation. Their suggestion however did not materialize due to the
outbreak of the Second World War.
When the British retreated from Burma during the war they were said to have left some of their
weapons behind with the Indians. Some Burmese nationalists considered this as an act of British
divide and rule policy. The armed Indians, mostly hosts and thus riots began.
The most severe incidents took place in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships and about 20,000
Rakhaing including Deputy Commissioner U Kyaw Khaing, an I.C.S. were killed.
There were more than 200 Rakhaing villages in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships before the
war. During the wartime riot most of the Rakhaing inhabitants left their homes due to Muslim
threat and after the war only about 60 villages were resettled by the Rakhaing, and the remaining
villages were occupied by the Bengalis and some of these villages had the growth of population
up to one or two hundred thousand Bengali Muslims.
Because of this the Bengali Muslims were very much encouraged and entered the land of
Rakhaing by all means and thus posed a great problem to the inexperienced government of the
newly independent Burma.
When they first settled in the land of Rakhaing, the Bengalis lived quite simply without creating
any trouble. However post war Muslim League's movement in the Indian Continent inspired
them with Muslim unity and when the Indian Muslims demanded the establishment of a separate
state (Pakistan), these Bengali Muslims in the land of Rakhaing also started to call as early as in
1942, for the merger of the Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships with Pakistan.

Some members of the "Jame-a-tul-Ulema-e Islam" religious association went to Karachi on a

delegation to discuss the incorporation of Buthidaung, Maungdaw and also Rathedaung
townships into Pakistan.3
The late U San Tun Aung, an AFPFL leader of Buthidaung, referring to his colleague MP. Mr.
Abdul Khai, says in his memoir4 that upon the reimposition of their rule the British inspired the
Muslims in the area to demand a separate Muslim state.
Together with the Burma independence, there emerged a large variety of insurgents such as Red
Flag Communists, White Flag Communists, White Comrade (PVO), etc.. Educated Rakhaing
were not then satisfied with the AFPFL Government's policy because they had no self-
determination as they had hoped whereas some other nationalities such as Shans, Kachins and
Karens had at least a state of their own.
As the cry for Rakhaing Statehood became very loud the Bengali Muslims in the land of
Rakhaing tried to take advantage out of the situation and said that if the AFPFL Government
granted statehood for the Rakhaing they would be at Rakhaing mercy. Then they started to
demand a separate state for themselves too and threatened to wage an armed uprising unless their
demand was met.
The AFPFL Government turned down both the Rakhaing demand and the Bengali Muslims'
demand. In response to this denial Rakhaing withdrew their support for AFPFL and voted for the
Arakan National Union Organization (ANUO) in the elections; and the Bengali Muslims
launched the armed uprising under the name of Mujahids.
As a gesture of appeasement to the Mujahids, AFPFL Government allowed the above ground
Bengali Muslim leaders to stand for the elections from the Buthidaung and Maungdaw
constituencies. Four Bengali Muslims namely, Mr. Abdul Gafar, Mr. Sulton Mohamad, Mr. Abul
Khai and Mr. Abu Bawshaw became MPs while their Rakhaing rivals U San Tun Aung (the
memoir writer) and Lawyer U Po Khaing (who did not speak Chittagonian dialect though a
Muslim himself) lost the elections.
Meanwhile the Mujahids continued fighting, hoisting the Pakistani Flag and shouting "Pakistan
Zindabhad" (Long-live Pakistan). In June 1951 they held a Conference in Alethangyaw in
Maungdaw Township and issued a "Charter of Demand of Rakhaing Muslims" asking for a
separate Muslim State in northern Rakhaing State and equal rights with the Rakhaing.
Among the postwar re-established 60 Rakhaing villages the Mujahids raided 44, setting the
houses on fire, looting the monasteries and villagers, killing the Rakhaing and raping the women.
The action taken by the Government against the Mujahids was at first very lenient. This leniency
caused great anger among the Rakhaing. The Rakhaing university students mocked the then
Prime Minister U Nu by a cartoon in the Rakhaing Tazaung Magazine.
The AFPFL Government later sent the Burma Territorial Force (BTF) headed by major Tha
Kyaw to fight the Mujahids. Then Major Tha Kyaw and his troops had to be transferred from the
border and replaced by troops headed by Major Htin Kyaw. The Mujahids including their leader
Kasim fled to the East Pakistan and their movement came to an end in 1959 while General Ne
Win's caretaker government was running the country.
During his campaign for the 1960 elections U Nu promised to grant statehood to the Rakhaing
and to the Mons respectively. When he again became Prime Minister the movements for the
formation of Rakhaing State and Mon State came into life. Meanwhile Bengali Muslim leaders
started an anti-Rakhaing State movement and asked for the same status as the Rakhaing.
When their demands were turned down on the grounds that they were not an indigenous race,
some educated Bengali Muslims began to put forward evidence (of doubtful historical value) in
an attempt to prove that they were indigenous Rakhaing Muslims. Some stories presented by
their "historians" are ridiculous. For example they say that their Arab ancestors became settled in
the Kingdom of Rakhaing after a shipwreck near the Rambre (Ramree) Island off the kingdom of
Rakhaing coast in the eighth century.5
The period 8th century was the period of Dannyawady Dynasty in Rakhaing history and the old
city site can still be seen near Kyauktaw together with its stone monuments of Buddhism
including some Buddha images and inscriptions of Buddhist scriptures. This was the city from
where the great Mahamuni Buddha Image was taken in 1784 by King Bodawpaya to Mandalay.
There may well have been contacts between the Arab world and the Kingdom of Rakhaing but
there is no evidence of Arabic culture or Islamic faith there suggesting few people settled. The
only non-Buddhist evidence found for the 7th and 8th centuries in that area was Hindu. Before
the emergence of indigenous culture in South-East Asia, the area was mainly under the influence
of Indian civilization. That is why some scholars call this area "Father India" and the City States
there "Indianized States". However, unfortunately, some Muslims with strong religious and racial
prejudice attempt to misinterpret them as Islamic States instead of Hindu ones.
Another claim of these "historians" is that Rakhaing Kings of Mrauk-U Dynasty in the 15th
century were Muslims. This statement is based on the fact that few Rakhaing Kings of early
Mrauk-U Dynasty had Muslim titles side by side with their own Rakhaing ones. Of course they
did so, but the only possible reason for this was to show their lordship over their Muslim subjects
residing, in Chittagong area, which was under Rakhaing rule until 1666 A.D.
If these kings were Muslims they would surely not have built Buddhist pagodas. However there
are so many Buddhist pagodas, in and around Mrauk-U, which were built by these kings. The
construction of the Buddha Image is diametrically opposite from the Islam faith. Therefore it is
totally impossible to suggest that the kings of Rakhaing Kingdom in the 15th century were
As a matter of fact there has never been a Rohingya race in Myanmar. There is no such name as
Rohingya in the Census of India, 1921 Myanmar compiled by S.G. Grantham, I.C.S.,
Superintendent of Census Operations, Myanmar or in the Myanmar Gazetteer, Sittwe District
compiled by R.B. Smart. Since these were written for administrative purposes, needless to say
they were objective.
Even in 1951 when the Bengali Muslims in the land of Rakhaing held the "Alethankyaw
Conference", they did not claim that they were Rohingyas. Instead they called themselves
"Rakhaing Muslims".
When General Ne WIn's Revolutionary Government came to power in 1962, the Mujahid
movement was stopped together with the statehood issues of the Rakhaing and the Mons. In
1973 when the BSPP Government sought public opinion for drafting a constitution the Bengali
Muslims submitted a proposal for the formation of a separate Muslim division with the name of
"Mayu Division"6 mentioning the "shipwreck theory" of their descent.7
Although the BSPP Government did not meet the Bengali Muslim's demands or did not even
allow them to stand for the elections for local administrative bodies, Bengali influx could not be
stopped. Moreover the Bengali Muslims gathered a large number of arms and ammunition from
the Bangladesh liberation war and an organization was formed shouting the slogan "Rohingya
National Liberation" on 15-7-1972.8
In 1978 the Myanmar Government launched Operation Nagarmin on a nation-wide scale as part
of a demographic survey. For fear of facing the immigration check, a large number of Muslims
fled to Bengladesh. Although the number of those who fled the country was set as 156,630,
Myanmar accepted back 186,965 Bengali Muslims under Decca Agreement. Then, in 1982, the
Myanmar Citizenship Act was promulgated.9
The democracy uprising in 1988 provided a great opportunity for the Rohingya activists. They
jumped on the bandwagon and participated in the demonstrations more for the interest of their
own cause rather than nation-wide democratic cause, hoisting the Rohingya banner freely
without any one to oppose them.
When the SLORC allowed the registration of the political parties they also applied to get their
parties registered. The Election Commission however turned them down. Some therefore toned
down their own cause and changed the name of the party by dropping the word "Rohingya". One
of their parties, National Democratic Party for Human Rights (NDPHR) won 4 seats in the 1990
elections, but the party has now been deregistered together with two hundred-odd parties.
Now they are emphasizing more on the armed struggle. According to Mya Win the following are
the Rohingya insurgent organizations currently activating.10
1. RSO (Rohingya Solidarity Organization);
2. ARIF (Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front);
3. RPF (Rohingya Patriotic Front);
4. RLO (Rohingya Laberation Organization);
5. IMA (Itihadul Mozahadin of Arakan).
The causes of this problem can be attributed firstly to the disregard of the area by the
governments since the colonial period down to the early days of the SLORC, with the exception
of the Operation Nagarmin launched by the BSPP Government in 1978. Even then the operation
tailed off and was replaced by the Hintha Campaign.
The British ruled Myanmar as part of their Indian Empire until 1947 when they relied for the
boost of agricultural produce mainly upon the Chittagonian Muslims. This might be partly
because of the scarcity of labour in Myanmar and partly because the Indians were more humble,
obedient and hard working than the people of Myanmar.
The consecutive government after independence was not in a position to pay equal attention to
the average development of the whole country causing the grievances of the minorities.
Some government leaders such as AFPFL Premier U Nu and U Ba Swe, in their campaign
speeches, publicly stated the recently intruded Bengali Muslims among the national races under
the name of Rohingya.
Political leaders were no scholars, but they should be aware of the real feeling and the realities of
the nationalities. They should avoid such shortsighted and irresponsible commitments became
these things are very grave concerns of the nation. The above leaders, probably without
understanding the realities, made those statements simply to win their votes. Some AFPFL
leaders of that area even granted instant citizenship to the new influx of Bengalis so as to make
them able to cast the vote for their party.
The departmental personnel, especially some of those from the Immigration Department serving
at the border area, also contributed to the emergence of the Rohingya problem by accepting
bribes and issuing National Registration Cards to the illegally immigrated Bengali Muslims.
The final cause of the problem directly concerns the Rakhaing people. The Bengali Muslims
have come into land of Rakhaing with the intention of starting a new life and are of great
vigilance and zeal whereas their Rakhaing hosts are sluggish, negligent and lethargic about their
future problems.
(A part of the cited references some facts in this article are based on the unpublished memoir of
Bonbauk Tha Kyaw.)

1. Hall, D.G.E., A History of South-East Asia, p.398
2. Twentieth Century Impression of Burma, p.396; London, Lloyd Greater Britain
Publishing House Co., Ltd., 1908
3. Khin Gyi Pyaw, Who are the Mujahids in Arakan, Rakhine Tazaung Megazine. 1959-60,
4. unpublished type script.
5. Maung Than Lwin; "Rakhaing Kalar or Roe Wan Nya People", Myawaddy Magazine
1962. And also in the Proposal of the Rohingya People to the Constitution Commission.
(Hereafter this will be referred to as Proposal.)
6. Mayu is the name of river which flows across Northern Rakhaing State.
7. Proposal.
8. Mya Win, "If we appraise the attempts made to sow enmity against Myanmar Naing
Ngan", WPD, 25-1-1992.
9. Ibid
10. Ibid