Rohingya people

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Rohingya people
Flag of the Rohingya Nation
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Burma (Arakan), Bangladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Indonesia, India
 Saudi Arabia400,000
Related ethnic groups
Bengali people
Burmese Indians
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Rohingya people
Flag of the Rohingya Nation
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Burma (Arakan), Bangladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Indonesia, India
 Saudi Arabia400,000
Related ethnic groups
Bengali people
Burmese Indians

The Rohingya people (Ruáingga /ɹuájŋɡa/, Burmese: ရိုဟင်ဂျာ rui hang gya /ɹòhɪ̀ɴɡjà/, Bengali: রোহিঙ্গা Rohingga /ɹohiŋɡa/) are an ethnic group who practice Islam and speak Rohingya, an Indo-European language[10] of the Eastern Indic branch, closely related to Chittagonian and more distantly to Bengali. Their origin is disputed, with some saying they are indigenous to the state of Rakhine (also known as Arakan, or Rohang in the Rohingya language) in Burma and others contending they are Muslim migrants who originated in Bengal, today's Bangladesh,[11][12] and migrated to Burma during the period of British rule.

The Rohingya are linguistically related to the Indo-Aryans of India and Bangladesh, as opposed to the mainly Sino-Tibetan languages of Burma. As of 2012, about 800,000 Rohingya live in Burma. According to the United Nations, they are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.[13] Many Rohingya have fled to ghettos and refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh, and to areas along the Thai-Burma border. More than 100,000 Rohingya in Burma continue to live in camps for internally displaced persons, forbidden by authorities from leaving.[14][15] The Rohingya have received international attention in the wake of the 2012 Rakhine State riots.[16][17]


The term "Rohingya" comes from Rohang, the Rohingya word for the state of Arakan, where most of the Rohingya live. Though some Rohingya historians, such as Khalilur Rahma, contend the term Rohingya may be derived from the Arabic word Rahma, meaning 'mercy,' others consider this unlikely.[18] The term is supposed to have originated from a shipwreck in the 8th century CE. Allegedly, after an Arab ship was wrecked near Ramree Island,the Arakanese king ordered the Arab traders to be executed. They shouted in their language, 'Rahma'. Thereafter, these people were called 'Rahma'. Gradually it changed from Rahma to Rhohang, and finally to Rohingya.[18][19]

This tale has been disputed by Jahiruddin Ahmed and Nazir Ahmed, former president and Secretary of the Arakan Muslim Conference respectively.[18] They argue that shipwreck Muslims are called 'Thambu Kya' Muslims, and currently reside along the Arakan sea shore. If the term Rohingya was derived from that group, the "Thambu Kyas" would have been the first to be known as Rohingyas. The Ahmeds say the Rohingyas were descendants of inhabitants of Ruha in Afghanistan.[18] Another historian, MA Chowdhury argues that among the Muslim populations in Myanmar, the term 'Mrohaung' (Old Arakanese Kingdom) was corrupted to Rohang. Thus inhabitants of the region are called Rohingya.[18]

Burmese historians such as Khin Maung Saw have claimed the term 'Rohingya' was unknown before the 1950s.[20] Historian Aye Chan from Kanda University of International Studies states that the term Rohingya was created by descendants of Bengalis in the 1950s who had migrated into Arakan during colonial times. He also says the term cannot be found in any historical source in any language before the 1950s. However, he accepts that Muslim communities have lived in Arakan for centuries, many settling in there during the Kingdom of Mrauk U, when Arakan enjoyed strong political, military and trade relations with the Bengal Sultanate.[21]

Arakan history expert Dr Jacques P. Leider points out that Rooinga was in fact used in a late 18th century report published by Briton Francis Buchanan-Hamilton.[22] In his 1799 article “A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire,” Buchanan-Hamilton stated: "I shall now add three dialects, spoken in the Burma Empire, but evidently derived from the language of the Hindu nation. The first is that spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan."[23] Leider also adds that the etymology of the word "does not say anything about politics." He adds that "You use this term for yourself as a political label to give yourself identity in the 20th century. Now how is this term used since the 1950s? It is clear that people who use it want to give this identity to the community that live there."[22]


Main article: Rohingya language
A coin from Arakan used in Great Bengal minted 1554/5

The Rohingya language is the modern written language of the Rohingya people of Arakan (Rakhine) State of Burma (Myanmar). It comes from the Indo-Aryan sub-branch of the greater Indo-European language family and is closely related to the Chittagonian language spoken in the southernmost part of Bangladesh bordering Burma. While both Rohingya and Chittagonian are related to Bengali, they are not mutually intelligible with the latter, despite what is often proposed in the Burmese national narrative. Rohingya scholars have successfully written the Rohingya language in various scripts including Arabic, Hanifi, Urdu, Roman, and Burmese, where Hanifi is a newly developed alphabet derived from Arabic with the addition of four characters from Latin and Burmese.

More recently, a Latin alphabet has been developed, using all 26 English letters A to Z and two additional Latin letters Ç (for retroflex R) and Ñ (for nasal sound). To accurately represent Rohingya phonology, it also uses five accented vowels (áéíóú). It has been recognised by ISO with ISO 639-3 "rhg" code.[24]


Muslim settlements have existed in Arakan since the arrival of Arabs there in the 8th century CE. The direct descendants of Arab settlers are believed to live in central Arakan near Mrauk-U and Kyauktaw townships, rather than the Mayu frontier area (near Chittagong Division, Bangladesh), where the majority of Rohingya are populated.[25] Although some Muslim populations have lived in Arakan at least since the 14th century, historians have no consensus about whether the current minority group constitutes original settlers before British colonization or part of the migration waves during British colonial period or assimilation of both.[26] Apart from Rohingya, there are Kamein (original settlers from Mughal Empire) and Thet Muslim minorities in Rakhine who are officially recognized as indigenous ethnic groups and have Burmese citizenship.[27]

Kingdom of Mrauk U[edit]

Early evidence of Bengali Muslim settlements in Arakan date back to the time of King Narameikhla (1430–1434) of the Kingdom of Mrauk U. After 24 years of exile in Bengal, he regained control of the Arakanese throne in 1430 with military assistance from the Sultanate of Bengal. The Bengalis who came with him formed their own settlements in the region.[28][29]

Narameikhla ceded some territory to the Sultan of Bengal and recognised his sovereignty over the areas. In recognition of his kingdom's vassal status, the kings of Arakan received Islamic titles and used the Bengali Islamic coinage within the kingdom. Narameikhla minted his own coins with Burmese characters on one side and Persian characters on the other.[29] Arakan's vassalage to Bengal was brief. After Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah's death in 1433, Narameikhla's successors repaid Bengal by occupying Ramu in 1437 and Chittagong in 1459. Arakan would hold Chittagong until 1666.[30][31]

Even after gaining independence from the Sultans of Bengal, the Arakanese kings continued the custom of maintaining Muslim titles.[32] The Buddhist kings compared themselves to Sultans and fashioned themselves after Mughal rulers. They also continued to employ Muslims in prestigious positions within the royal administration.[33] The Bengali Muslim population increased in the 17th century, as they were employed in a variety of workforces in Arakan. Some of them worked as Bengali, Persian and Arabic scribes in the Arakanese courts, which, despite remaining mostly Buddhist, adopted Islamic fashions from the neighbouring Sultanate of Bengal.[28] The Kamein/Kaman, who are regarded as one of the official ethnic groups of Burma, are descended from these Muslims.[34]

Burmese conquest[edit]

Following the Burmese conquest of Arakan in 1785, as many as 35,000 Arakanese people fled to the neighbouring Chittagong region of British Bengal in 1799 to escape Burmese persecution and to seek protection from British India.[35] The Burmese rulers executed thousands of Arakanese men and deported a considerable portion of the Arakanese population to central Burma, leaving Arakan as a scarcely populated area by the time the British occupied it.[36]

According to an article on the "Burma Empire" published by the British Francis Buchanan-Hamilton in 1799, "the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan," "call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan."[23] Sir Henry Yule saw many Muslims serving as eunuchs in Konbaung Dynasty Burma while on a diplomatic mission there.[37][38][39][40] These Muslim eunuchs came from Arakan.[41][42]

British colonial rule[edit]

British policy encouraged Bengali inhabitants from adjacent regions to migrate into the then lightly populated and fertile valleys of Arakan as farm laborers. The East India Company extended the Bengal administration to Arakan, thus there was no international boundary between Bengal and Arakan, and no restrictions on migration between the regions. In the early 19th century, thousands of Bengalis from the Chittagong region settled in Arakan seeking work.[36] In addition, thousands of Rakhine people from Arakan also settled in Bengal.[43][44]

The British census of 1891 reported 58,255 Muslims in Arakan. By 1911, the Muslim population had increased to 178,647.[45] The waves of migration were primarily due to the requirement of cheap labour from British India to work in the paddy fields. Immigrants from Bengal, mainly from the Chittagong region, "moved en masse into western townships of Arakan". To be sure, Indian immigration to Burma was a nationwide phenomenon, not just restricted to Arakan.[46]

Historian Thant Myint-U writes: "At the beginning of the 20th century, Indians were arriving in Burma at the rate of no less than a quarter million per year. The numbers rose steadily until the peak year of 1927, immigration reached 480,000 people, with Rangoon exceeding New York City as the greatest immigration port in the world. This was out of a total population of only 13 million; it was equivalent to the United Kingdom today taking 2 million people a year." By then, in most of the largest cities in Burma, Rangoon (Yangon), Akyab (Sittwe), Bassein (Pathein), Moulmein, the Indian immigrants formed a majority of the population. The Burmese under the British rule felt helpless, and reacted with a "racism that combined feelings of superiority and fear."[46]

The impact of immigration was particularly acute in Arakan, one of less populated regions. In 1939, the British authorities, alert to the long-term animosity between the Rakhine Buddhists and the Muslim population, formed a special Investigation Commission led by James Ester and Tin Tut to study the issue of Muslim immigration into the Rakhine state. The commission recommended securing the border; however, with the onset of World War II, the British retreated from Arakan.[47]

World War II Japanese occupation and inter-communal violence[edit]

During World War II, Japanese forces invaded Burma, then under British colonial rule. The British forces retreated and in the power vacuum left behind, considerable inter communal violence erupted between Rakhine and Rohingya villagers. The British armed Rohingyas in northern Arakan in order to create a buffer zone that would protect the region from a Japanese invasion when they retreated.[48] The period also witnessed violence between groups loyal to the British and the Burmese nationalists.[48]

Aye Chan, a historian at the Kanda University, has written that as a consequence of acquiring arms from the British during World War II, Rohingyas tried to destroy the Arakanese villages instead of resisting the Japanese.[49] On 28 March 1942, Rohingyas from Northern Rakhine State killed around 20,000 Arakanese. In return, around 5,000 Rohingyas in the Minbya and Mrohaung Townships were killed by Rakhines and Karenni.[47]

The Japanese committed countless acts of rape, murder and torture against thousands of Rohingyas.[50] During this period, some 22,000 Rohingyas are believed to have crossed the border into Bengal, then part of British India, to escape the violence.[51][52] Defeated, 40,000 Rohingyas eventually fled to Chittagong after repeated massacres by the Burmese and Japanese forces.[53]

Post-war insurgency[edit]

The Mujahid party was founded by Rohingya elders who supported a Jihad movement in northern Arakan in 1947.[54] The aim of the Mujahid party was to create an autonomous Muslim state in Arakan. They were much more active before the 1962 Burmese coup d'état by General Ne Win. Ne Win carried out some military operations against them over a period of two decades. The prominent one was "Operation King Dragon" which took place in 1978; as a result, many Muslims in the region fled to neighbouring Bangladesh as refugees. In addition to Bangladesh, a large number of Rohingyas have also migrated to Karachi, Pakistan (see Rohingya people in Pakistan).[7]

During the Pakistan Movement in the 1940s, Rohingya Muslims in western Burma had an eagerness to separate and merge their region into East-Pakistan.[55] Before the independence of Burma in January 1948, Muslim leaders from Arakan addressed themselves to Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and asked his assistance in incorporating the Mayu region to Pakistan considering their religious affinity and geographical proximity with East Pakistan.[55] Two months later, North Arakan Muslim League was founded in Akyab (modern: Sittwe, capital of Arakan State), it, too demanding annexation to Pakistan.[55] However, the proposal was never materialized since it was reportedly turned down by Jinnah saying that he was not in a position to interfere into Burmese matters.[55]

The Rohingya mujahideen are still active within the remote areas of Arakan.[56] The associations of Rohingya mujahideen with Bangladeshi mujahideen were significant, and they have extended their networks to the international level and other countries, during recent years. They collect donations, and receive religious military training outside of Burma.[57]

Burmese juntas[edit]

The military junta which ruled Burma for half a century, relied heavily on Burmese nationalism and Theravada Buddhism to bolster its rule, and, in the view of US government experts, heavily discriminated against minorities like the Rohingyas, Chinese people like the Kokang people, and Panthay (Chinese Muslims). Some pro-democracy dissidents from Burma's ethnic Burman majority do not consider the Rohingyas compatriots.[58][59][60][61]

Successive Burmese governments have been accused of provoking riots against ethnic minorities like the Rohingyas and Chinese.[62]

In 2009, a senior Burmese envoy to Hong Kong branded the Rohingyas "ugly as ogres" and a people that are alien to Myanmar.[63]

2012 Rakhine State riots[edit]

The 2012 Rakhine State riots are a series of ongoing conflicts between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine in northern Rakhine State, Myanmar. The riots came after weeks of sectarian disputes and have been condemned by most people on both sides of the conflict.[64] The immediate cause of the riots is unclear, with many commentators citing the killing of ten Burmese Muslims by ethnic Rakhine after the gang rape and murder of a Rakhine woman as the main cause.[65]

Whole villages have been "decimated".[65] Over three hundred houses and a number of public buildings have been razed. According to Tun Khin, the President of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK), as of 28 June 650 Rohingyas have been killed, 1,200 are missing, and up to 140,000 people have been displaced.[66][67] According to the Myanmar authorities, the violence, between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, left 78 people dead, 87 injured, and thousands of homes destroyed. It also displaced more than 52,000 people.[68]

The government has responded by imposing curfews and by deploying troops in the region. On 10 June 2012, a state of emergency was declared in Rakhine, allowing the military to participate in the administration of the region.[69][70] The Burmese army and police have been accused of targeting Rohingya Muslims through mass arrests and arbitrary violence.[66][71] A number of monks' organisations that played a vital role in Burma's struggle for democracy have taken measures to block any humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya community.[72] In July 2012, the Myanmar Government did not include the Rohingya minority group–-classified as stateless Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh since 1982—on the government's list of more than 130 ethnic races and therefore the government says that they have no claim to Myanmar citizenship.[73] More than 100,000 Rohingya in Burma remain confined in IDP camps.[15]


Further information: Islam in Burma

The Rohingya people practice Sunni Islam with elements of Sufi worship. Because the government restricts educational opportunities for them, many pursue fundamental Islamic studies as their only educational option. Mosques and religious schools are present in most villages. Traditionally, men pray in congregations and women pray at home.

Human rights violations and refugees[edit]

The Rohingya people have been described as “among the world’s least wanted”[74] and “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.”[75] They have been denied Burmese citizenship since a 1982 citizenship law was enacted.[76] They are not allowed to travel without official permission, are banned from owning land and are required to sign a commitment not to have more than two children.[76]

According to Amnesty International, the Muslim Rohingya people have continued to suffer from human rights violations under the Burmese junta since 1978, and many have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh as a result:[77]

As of 2005, the UNHCR had been assisting with the repatriation of Rohingyas from Bangladesh, but allegations of human rights abuses in the refugee camps have threatened this effort.[78]

Despite earlier efforts by the UN, the vast majority of Rohingya refugees have remained in Bangladesh, unable to return because of the negative attitude of the ruling regime in Myanmar and fear of persecution. Now they are facing problems in Bangladesh as well where they no longer receive support from the government.[79] In February 2009, many Rohingya refugees were rescued by Acehnese sailors in the Strait of Malacca, after 21 days at sea.[80]

Over the years, thousands of Rohingyas have also fled to Thailand. There are roughly 111,000 refugees housed in 9 camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. There have been charges that groups of them have been shipped and towed out to open sea from Thailand, and left there. In February 2009 there was evidence of the Thai army towing a boatload of 190 Rohingya refugees out to sea. A group of refugees also rescued in February 2009 by Indonesian authorities told harrowing stories of being captured and beaten by the Thai military, and then abandoned at open sea. By the end of February there were reports that a group of 5 boats were towed out to open sea, of which 4 boats sank in a storm, and 1 boat washed up on the shore. On 12 February 2009 Thailand's prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said that there were "some instances" in which Rohingya people were pushed out to sea.

The prime minister said that he regretted "any losses", and was working to rectify the problem.

Steps to repatriate Rohingya refugees began in 2005. In 2009 the government of Bangladesh announced that it will repatriate around 9,000 Rohingyas living in refugee camps inside the country back to Burma, after a meeting with Burmese diplomats.[82][83]

On 16 October 2011, the new government of Burma agreed to take back registered Rohingya refugees. However, violence, persecution and community riots continue unabated against the minority.[84][85] On 29 March 2014, the Burmese government banned the word Rohingya and asked for registration of the minority as Bengalis in the country's first census in three decades.[86][87][88][89]

On May 7, 2014, the United States House of Representatives passed a simple resolution, Urging the Government of Burma to end the persecution of the Rohingya people and respect internationally recognized human rights for all ethnic and religious minority groups within Burma (H.Res. 418; 113th Congress), that called on the government of Burma to end the discrimination and persecution.[90][91]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]