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Rohingyas: The Wretched of the Earth

by Nazir Tabassum

Who are the Rohingya? According to my own understanding, they could truly be called a species of uncertain taxonomic position. People who lived for centuries in the bordering region of Myanmar (Burma) and Chitagong, a hilly tract of East Bengal, one time East Pakistan, now Bangladesh since December 1971, but they are vehemently refused citizenship of either of these two countries. That is why no one else but only they deserve most the title “wretched of the earth”.

They are mostly concentrated in the Burmese state of Arakan; the Rohingya means “natives of Rohang”, the early Muslim name of Arakan. Nonetheless, these meanings lack international consensus over the use of this word in these meanings. And also the scholars of anthropology and sociology give little credit to the use of this term in these meanings.

However, Aye Chan of Kanda University of International Studies in Japan is of the opinion that the term “Rohingya”was innovated in 1950s by the new generation of those Bengalis who migrated to Arakan during the colonial period. Yet this term is seen nowhere in linguistic references of this period.

During the 1940s, when the movement for the establishment of Pakistan was gaining ground, the Rohingyas too created a Burmese chapter of Muslim League and addressed Muhammad Ali Jinnah demanding secession of Western part of that country and joining East Bengal which was predestined to become East Pakistan. But Mr Jinnah declined to accept their demand on the pretext that he can see no reason to interfere with the internal affairs of Burma that had by then ceased to be a part of British India.


Rohingyas have seen both good and bad times while living in Burma. At the end of colonial rule, in 1948, they were represented in the constituent assembly of that country by two Muslims named M A Ghaffar and Sultan Ahmed. Sultan Ahmed was Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry for minorities. In the general elections of 1951 in Burma, 5 Rohingya Muslims were elected to the National Assembly of that country; this time two women legislators were also elected to the National Assembly. One of these, Ms Zehra Begum, was a Rohingya Muslim. Then in 1956, 6 Rohingya Muslims were elected to the National Assembly. This time, Sultan Mahmud, a politician of the “good old period of British Raj” was elevated as Cabinet member and was assigned the Ministry of health. He suggested to the government in 1960 that Arakan should either be brought under the direct control of the Burmese Central government, in much the same way as certain territories of Pakistan are federally controlled, or, it should be made a separate state (province).

The coup d`etat in 1962 by Gen. Ne Win, resulted in the end of Rohingyas spring in that country. There were new lords, so the new laws. A citizenship law was passed that made most of the Rohingyas alien in that country where they had resided for centuries. In spite of these autumnal times, NDP (National Development Party) for human rights led by Rohingyas won four seats in the National Assembly in 1990’s general elections. The elected Rohingyas included Shamsul Anwarul Haq, U Chit Lwin Ebrahim, Fazal Ahmed and Nur Ahmed. These elections were held in the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi who was under house arrest at that time. In spite of the fact that her party won the majority in the house, she was deprived of forming government. In 1992, the military junta of Burma had banned NDP, arrested and put behind bars many of its leaders and active workers. With them Rohingyas too were incarcerated. In 2005, Shamsul Anwarul Haq was tried under Article 18 of the controversial Citizenship Law of 1982 and sentenced 47 years of gaol. Shwe Maung MP of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party was disbarred from the Burmese general elections in 2015 on the pretext that his parents were not Burmese citizens under the 1982 citizenship law.

Today, in 2017, not a single Rohingya Muslim is in the Parliament of that country as they are disenfranchised on the basis of being aliens.

Now they are facing discrimination and violence at the hands of the Buddhist majority of that country. They have few friends over this vast land of God. Even the UN takes no notice of their plight, when the rights activist organisations call their persecution as ethnic cleansing. It’s a minority numbering 1 million in total population of 52 million in Myanmar. They have been forced to migrate to neighbouring Chitagong and Cox’s Bazar of Bangladesh. Earlier, they migrated to Pakistan as well some times in 1970s. There are about one to five hundred thousand Rohingyas living in the Burmese colony of Karachi, having no rights of citizenship, barred from earning their livelihood, and left to the mercy of corrupt law enforcing agencies.

Since August 25, 410,000 Rohingyas have moved into Bangladesh. Out of these 240,000 are children. According to source of UNICEF, these children include 36,000 under the age of one year; 52,000 are under five. They are at the mercy of worst conditions of survival and are most vulnerable to waterborne diseases and poor environmental conditions. They are either lying in the open, some with a mere plastic sheet as protection, a family found refuge in a concrete pipe; others soaked and drenched in rain water. There are subject to catch cold and fever.

Even Bangladesh, who hosts these refugees in such a large number, is reluctant to give them citizenship rights. Kity McKinsay, a spokeswoman for United Nations High Commission for Refugees said in 2009: “Rohingyas are probably the most friendless people in the world. They just have no one advocating for them at all”.

Almost all of them live in the Western state of Burma called Rakhine state where military have stepped up operations since November last year, when nine police officers were killed in attacks on posts along the border with Bangladesh. The identity of perpetrators remains unclear. Rohingya villagers armed with home-made weapons resisted the troops and thus an unknown number of villagers died, along with a handful of soldiers and officials. Rohingya solidarity groups say several hundred civilians have been killed since last October.

The New York based group Human Rights watch says satellite imagery shows 1,250 houses and other structures have been burnt down.

In the last analysis of the situation, it is highly important that the erstwhile issue of settling the citizenship of Rohingya Muslims should be taken up by the UN and should be settled once for all amicably by the two governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh.


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