Present-day Rakhine state (also known as Arakan), is the ancient, ancestral homeland of the Rohingya. The Rohingya are a distinct ethnicity, predominantly Muslim, with their own language. The Rohingya trace back their presence in Rakhine state, on the Burma-Bangladesh borders, as far back as the 8th century.
Evidence for the long, historical and continuous presence of the Rohingya in Rakhine is well attested to by documented historical evidence. In The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, author Azeem Ibrahim notes that “The Indo-Aryan roots of the Rohingyas are manifested in inscriptions from the Hindu temples at Anandra Chandra (eighth century AD).” (p.21, The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide)
Islam, Land & Language
Rohingya scholar, Dr. Abid Bahar, writes that the Rohingya first made contact with Islam in the 8th century, due to interaction with Arab traders who settled in the area. Bahar, also mentions the linguistic influences that helped to form the Rohingya language and its various dialects:
“[From] 785‐957 Arab traders began to settle both in Arakan and Chittagong of present Bangladesh. Inter mixture with the local population led to the first Chandra‐Rohingyas of Arakan. During this time, in both Arakan and Chittagong, the influence of Sanskrit, Pali, Arabic, Persi, Portuguese combined together eventually formed the Chandra‐Rohingya dialect which is similar to the Chittagonian dialect with their slight variations. The same dialect is also spoken by the Chakmas and the Tanchaingyas of Chittagong Hill Tracts.” http://www.rohingyablogger.com/2012/07/chronologythe-timeline-of-burmas.html
Islam spread gradually among the Rohingya over a timespan of 400 years, from the 9th-14th centuries. During this same time period close ties were forged between Rakhine/Arakan region and Bengal.
From the 14th to the 18th centuries, the dynasty of Mrauk U ruled Rakhine/Arakan and became a vassal kingdom to the Sultanate of Bengal. Most of the rulers of the dynasty were Muslims, and many court officials, and soldiers in the army were also Muslims. (p. 24) Islam likely became the dominant religion among the Rohingya ancestors during this period.
The Mrauk U dynasty finally came to an end after the invasion in 1784-85 by the Burmese Buddhist king Bodapawpaya.
“Nineteenth century British reports make reference to how the local Muslims called themselves ‘Rovingaw’ or ‘Rooinga’ … More importantly, as early as 1799 Francis Buchanan made reference to ‘Rooinga’ in the area … the Classical Journal of 1811 has a comparative list of numbers in many East and Central Asian languages and identifies three languages spoken in the ‘Burmah Empire,’ including a direct reference to ‘Rooinga.’” (ibid)
British Colonial Era
British colonial rule began in the region in 1824 with the invasion of Rakhine/Arakan, and lasted until 1948. British colonialism had a lasting impact on Buddhist-Muslim, and Rohingya-Rakhine relations that is still affecting the communities up until this day.
The World’s Most Persecuted Peoples
The extensive and bountiful evidence of the Rohingya presence in their ancient homeland in modern-day Burma is indisputable. In fact, after independence from British colonial rule in 1948, the Burmese state recognized the Rohingya as one of its many ethnic minorities. It was not until the military dictator, Gen. U Ne Win took absolute control of Burma in 1962 that a state narrative denying the indigenous existence of the Rohingya began to be perpetuated.
1977-78 is often marked as the year that the first wave of genocidal violence against the Rohingya began, as the Burmese military operation “King Dragon” targeted the Rohingya, under the pretext of filtering out “foreigners.” Over 200,000 Rohingya were forced to flee to Bangladesh. It is reported that over 10,000 Rohingya lost their lives due to the operation.
The operation set a precedence for what has become a familiar pattern ever since; mass targeting of the Rohingya community in military operations leading to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya. Pogroms and military operations targeted the Rohingya in 1991, 1997, 2001, 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2017, leading to mass internal displacement and hundreds of thousands of Rohingya forced out of the country.
In 1982, the Burmese military dictatorship passed the “Citizenship Law” which officially rendered the Rohingya stateless. Over the next few decades rights and privileges that the Rohingya had exercised were eroded and denied, such as the 2015 denial of their right to vote.
Dr. Maung Zarni, a dissident Burmese scholar and activist who has done extensive research into the history and culture of Burma, notes that despite the Burmese military’s attempt at denying the existence of the Rohingya, college textbooks (such as one in Yangon) taught the long history of the Rohingya as late as 2012,
“In Northern Rakhine State close to the border with Bangladesh at Butheetaung and Maundaw townships are where the Rohinggas and Chittagarians live. These minority ethnic groups had settled in the border region since early days.”
Despite claims by extremist Buddhist movements and military generals such as Min Hlaing, the Rohingya were recognized as citizens, Lumyo, or “race:” Rohingya Muslim Issued by Board of Management of the Rangoon Post 29 July 1968 http://www.maungzarni.net/2012/08/the-official-evidence-of-rohingya.html
The claim that the Rohingya are illegal “Bengali” foreigners, is a construction of the past 40 years, and one that serves the Burmese military’s ethno-religious divide and rule policies. After being rendered stateless in 1982, the Rohingya were the main targets of the 2015 “Race and Religion” laws which were lobbied for by the extremist Buddhist MaBaTha movement. The laws restrict who the Rohingya can marry, the number of children they can have and conversion. Yale Law School and Fortify Rights both analyzed government documents that evidence a systematic effort to destroy the Rohingya. Queen Mary, the International Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, and the Holocaust Museum are among the institutions that have declared that what the systematic violence that the Rohingya are suffering is a genocide. In 2015, 7 Nobel Prize laureates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared the persecution of the Rohingya “a modern-day genocide.”
Today, there is greater international attention than ever before on the plight of the Rohingya. International media has spotlighted the Burmese military’s persecution of the Rohingya and the tepid and silent response of former peace icon and elected Burmese government leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who many consider to be complicit in the genocide against the Rohingya. Despite greater awareness there is still a lack of tangible action to stop the genocide.