Stateless Rohingya pushed from Myanmar, but unwanted by Bangladesh

Stateless Rohingya pushed from Myanmar, but unwanted by Bangladesh

Stateless Rohingya pushed from Myanmar, but unwanted by Bangladesh

Updated 24 September 2017, 14:45 AEST

The Muslim Rohingya who have fled "textbook ethnic cleansing" in Myanmar to arrive in makeshift camps in Bangladesh are unwanted by both countries.

Key points:

  • Evidence of Muslims living in Rakhine state area since 15th century Mrauk-U kingdom
  • British colonisation drew more than 100,000 Muslims to what is now Myanmar as labourers
  • Tensions deepened in WWII as Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingyas fought on opposing sides

In Bangladesh they are a burden; in Myanmar they are despised.

The Rohingya are not recognised as citizens by Myanmar and have lived under an apartheid system in the western Rakhine state for decades.

Most people in Myanmar see them as illegal immigrants from across the border but mainstream media usually says the Rohingya have 'lived in Myanmar for generations'.

So what does that actually mean?

Where did the Rohingya come from and where do they belong?

Kings and coins: the early days

The borderlands of the two nations have long been a frontier between Buddhism and Islam, fluctuating over time as kingdoms rose and fell. Historical evidence of Muslims living permanently in the area now known as Rakhine State goes back at least to the Mrauk-U kingdom of the 15th century.

"Some [Muslims] were serving in the court as ministers, even prime ministers — there were generals in the army, the royal army," Aye Lwin, a Muslim leader, interfaith activist and educator, said.

"Devout Buddhist Rakhine kings, they had Muslim titles … and these kings they minted coins with Arabic inscriptions," Aye Lwin told the ABC.

"So this clearly shows that these groups were intermingling," he said.

Rakhine historians see it differently.

"I never deny the existence of [the] Muslim community in the Mrauk-U kingdom before the Burmese conquest of the kingdom in 1785 … but it was a very small community," Aye Chan, professor emeritus at Kanda University, said.

Colonial rice

The Rohingya's contentious history really centres around the period when Britain colonised Burma, as Myanmar was known back then, along with the South Asian nations to the west.

Britain needed labourers to grow rice.

"A lot of seasonal workers … came in from [the] Bangal area," said Muslim leader Aye Lwin.

"It was mass migration," agreed Aye Chan.

Mr Chan said census figures show that the number of "Mahomedans" (a catch-all term for Muslims) increased from 58,255 in 1871 to 178,647 in 1911.

Colonial records show there was an influx of workers from what is now Bangladesh to what is now Myanmar; that's not disputed.

However, the facts are interpreted in two very different ways — either as evidence that Muslims have lived in Myanmar for generations or that they are relative newcomers who don't deserve citizenship.

This, as much as anything, is probably the heart of the Rohingya debate.

"These people … who are claiming the title Rohingya … are not entitled for that category," said Aye Chan.

Muslim leader Aye Lwin disagrees, saying Rohingya do have a historical claim to live in Rakhine State.

"They do have it, but having said that, borders have always been porous … elastic," said Mr Lwin.

While much of the migration occurred during the period of the three Anglo-Burmese wars (1824-1885), those porous borders have continued to see people travel both ways.

Whether you think people who have lived in a place for up to 190 years deserve to stay there depends on your politics.

Bangladesh's Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan tried to place the question in an Australian context.

"If you go back to Australian history, before 500 years, 300 years, from where the … Australian people came?" Mr Khan asked the ABC's South Asia correspondent James Bennett.

"From Europe or wherever," he said.

"These people [Rohingya] have come, from where I don't know … but hundreds of years they were in Myanmar," the Home Minister said.

"How can it be they were Bangladeshi?"

WWII, violence and an insurgent 'own goal'

Existing tensions were deepened during World War II, when the Rohingya fought with the British, while the Rakhine Buddhists sided with the Japanese, before switching at the last minute in a manoeuvre that helped deliver independence in 1948.

Over the years there have been sporadic outbursts of violence, establishing a familiar pattern for people in Rakhine State: killings, exodus, return, repeat.

There have been attempts by Muslims to fight back — notably the Rohingya Mujihadeen Rebellion from 1948-61 and the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, which formed in 1982 but started to splinter four years later.

Myanmar's 1982 citizenship law contained a list of recognised ethnic groups and the Rohingya were left out.

In recent times, hard-line Buddhist monks have stoked nationalist fervour and framed this as a battle between religions.

The contested history is reflected in modern language, with most Myanmar people referring to Rohingya as "Bengalis" or the derogatory "Kalas".

A journalist covering the issue in Rakhine State last month warned other reporters, "don't even think of saying 'Rohingya' here."

With little hope of change, rebellion stirred again.

A new insurgent group emerged last year with Saudi funding, first calling itself the Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement) but changing its name to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

ARSA's attacks against police posts in October and last month have had a devastating impact for the people it's supposed to protect, sparking a brutal crackdown.

Once again the stateless Rohingya are on the run — homeless and increasingly hopeless.