Better understand the Rohingya issue

Conference by Françoise Capelle, former student of the École du Louvre, Doctor in archeology.

Françoise Capelle recalls the current situation of the Rohingya, widely publicized, which led to a condemnation of the government of Myanmar by the United Nations in 2018. In the 1970s and 1980s, the military regime gradually banished them from society, by making them stateless and hardening their living conditions. In 1978, around 200.000 Rohingyas took refuge in Bangladesh. In 1992, more than 230.000 more crossed the Naf River. In 2012, after community violence, 140.000 fled, etc. In 2019, around 750 refugees are registered in Bangladesh.

Who are the Rohingyas?

The origin of a Rohingya Muslim minority in a predominantly Buddhist state is ancient but controversial by the Burmese government.
It is difficult to pin down the Rohingya identity. It is a people who inhabit today the state of Arakan (or state of Rakhine) and represents a third of a population of 3 inhabitants, mostly Buddhist. This minority practices Sunni Islam tinged with Sufism. It forms an important and most politicized community.

December 2017. © LP


The name:

It would have its origin in a term which means inhabitant of Arakan but is disputed by the Burmese who, them, call them Bengalis to justify their exclusion from Burmese space. However, the Muslims of Arakan are divided into four distinct groups more or less linked to their religion. A first group, Kaman, descends from Indians of the Mughal empire and Afghan mercenaries who came to take refuge in Arakan in 1660. This Muslim ethnicity is recognized as the indigenous population of Burma. A second group is formed by a Bengali population descended from people displaced by the Mrauk-U dynasty (1430-1784) and slaves raided in Bengal by Portuguese pirates. The third group is formed by the population of the Sittwe district, whose presence has been attested since the conquest of the kingdom of Arakan by the Burmese in 1784. The last group, the most recent, concentrated in the border region with Bangladesh, results from immigration put in place by the English after the annexation of Burma in 1890 in the British Indian Empire. These distinctions are necessary so as not to confuse the old Muslim communities with the new.
It should be noted that since the conquest of the Arakan by the Burmese, even the Arakanese Buddhists have retained a certain bitterness towards the Burmese.


In 15st s, Min Saw Mon reconquered the Arakan with the help of Nazir Shah, King of Bengal. In recognition of his vassalage he received Islamic titles and founded his capital at Mrauk-U. This era also saw the importation of Buddhist texts from Ceylon and the whole population was Buddhist. His successors enlarged their territory, annexed Chittagong to Bengal and deported 80 Bengalis to Arakan. The end of the 000thst century marks a major change in the political balance of the region. In 1760, Bengal came under British control and the Naf river became the border. In doing so, the English artificially establish a separation between the Burmese, Asian, and Indian worlds, once crossed without further question by the populations of both sides. A situation that persists today: it is still the Naf that the Rohingyas must cross when fleeing modern Burma. In 1785, the Burmese annexed Arakan. In the Southeast Asian tradition, around 20.000 people were transferred to Amarapura, the Burmese capital at the time. Some Muslims are fleeing an occupation which seems to have been particularly brutal. Then begins for them a continuous exodus towards the north. In 1811, the city of Cox's Bazar was created, on the side of what is now Bangladesh, in order to absorb this flood of refugees. The city is also still talking about it, being on the front line to welcome the Rohingyas today.
The British Indian Empire gradually annexed Burma. In 1826, the Muslim community in Arakan was around 15% of the population. In the former kingdom of Arakan, the British reversed the migratory flow, encouraging the installation of Bengali labor, deemed more suited to work in the fields. This workforce is largely made up of seasonal workers who return home after the months of work have ended. But over time, the share of workers deciding to settle increases, causing the discontent of the Rakhine populations (modern name given to the inhabitants of Arakan). The use of Rohingyas as auxiliaries in the British army during the first Anglo-Burmese war, from 1824 to 1826, made this population considered as traitor by the Burmese. These tensions will be exacerbated during the Second World War. The Japanese invaded the country under the favorable eye of a certain number of Burmese, who saw there the possibility of freeing themselves from the British colonizer. A puppet Burmese state was also created by the Japanese between 1943 and 1945. In Arakan, thousands of Muslims were killed in the South. In return, the Buddhists are massacred in the North. The two populations are fleeing to take refuge in more favorable areas, the Buddhists to the south and the Muslims to the north, concentrating in the areas where the current Rohingyas still live.

Muslim migrations in the 18th century. ©

Population movement under the Indian Empire. ©

After the return of British power in 1945, the Rohingyas returned to settle in Burma. Burmese independence in 1948 once again upset the rules of the region. Muslims, assimilated to the colonial period, are then considered second-class citizens, even if they then have the right to participate in political life. In the 1970s and 1980s, the military regime will gradually banish them from society, making them stateless and hardening their living conditions and causing waves of exodus. This exile continued over the following years. Some embark in makeshift ships, abandoned by unscrupulous smugglers, and find themselves tossed between various countries, no state in the region willing to welcome them.


Faced with persecution, the'ARSA (Salvation Army of the Rohingya of Arakan) takes, in 2016, the continuation of Harakah al-Yaqin, “Faith Movement” founded in 2012. This army of about 1000 men is led by Ata Ullah Abu Amar Junjuni born in Karachi and raised in Saudi Arabia. The movement's objective is to advance the rights of the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority. The ARSA, opposed to the Burmese army, creates a tension which could make Burma in the long term a new abscess of jihadist fixation.
It should be remembered that 70% of Burmese are Buddhists and wonder what role is played by the 500 monks? Although they do not have the right to vote, they are one of the factors of ultranationalism. The monk Ashin Wirathu, the founder of the “Association for the Protection of Race and Religion” was jailed for incitement to hatred but amnestied in 000. He is the leader of the 2010 movement, a nationalist and Islamophobic Buddhist political movement. Originally, these three numbers represented the 969 attributes of the three jewels of Buddhism: the 24 attributes of the Buddha, the 9 of the Dharma and the 6 of the Sangha. Since then, these three figures have been instrumentalized in the form of the slogan, "Buy 9", that is to say buy Buddhist and have become an incitement to boycott Muslim traders. This is in reaction to the number 969, a digital translation of “in the name of God”, used by Muslims to indicate halal food. The army used this movement which is perceived by the Burmese as a guarantor of national identity.

135 ethnic groups:

If the Western media have focused on the conflicts in Arakan, we must not forget that other centers of insurgency exist in Burma. The anti-Muslim and anti-Christian policy is aggravated by social-economic disparities; victims of racial discrimination and forced assimilation, the peripheral regions have become the scene of clashes. We must not forget that Burma has 135 ethnic groups and that if the central plain is well inhabited by the Burmese of origin, there are the Shans, the Karens (especially Christians), the Mons, etc. This situation is very destabilizing for the government, which is struggling to combine national unity and ethnic diversity.
Colonization was the source of destabilization because, after the annexation of Burma by the British Empire, the Burmese were systematically kept away from power. Senior administrative posts were entrusted to the Indians and those of the army to ethnic minorities. The central plain and delta were directly administered by the British government while the outlying areas retained the traditional system of chiefdoms, thus creating resentment among Burmese elites. After independence in 1948, Prime Minister U Nu established a parliamentary democracy, but General Ne Win's military coup in 1962 changed the situation. He ruled the country with an iron fist for twenty-six years, introducing brutal socialist reforms. In 1988, a major popular protest movement enabled a group of generals to overthrow Ne Win and establish a new military junta, the State Council for the Restoration of Law and Order. He implemented a violent Burmese policy. A reaction from certain ethnic groups ensued, forming armed groups with separatist aims.

Economic policy:

The junta exploits the natural resources of the peripheral provinces for its sole benefit. The Arakan remains one of the poorest states in the country despite its wealth of natural resources. In 2013, 44% of the population lived below the poverty line, compared to a national average of 26%. Natural gas from the Arakanese coasts is sent by pipeline to China, generating $ 1 annually in revenues for the central state but with no local spinoffs. The Arakan is also a strategic location: the Chinese have installed an oil pipeline there that directly transports oil from the Persian Gulf to Yunnan. The economic opening of Burma is not done enough for the benefit of the peripheral states. Burmese society is crossed by three dividing lines: ethnic (Burmese against minorities), religious (Buddhists against Muslims and Christians), economic (regions benefiting from openness against exploited regions).

The main different ethnic groups in Burma. Infographics. ©

Aung San Suu Kyi. © Frank Van Beek United Nations Agence France-Presse.

Rohingya village of Ohn Taw Gyi, in Rakhine State. © Arnaud Vaulerin.

Aung San Suu Kyi:

The icon of the opposition and the return to democracy, is now accused of not taking sides in favor of the Rohingya. After her election in 2015, Westerners thought that democracy was finally established in Burma and do not understand her position today, accusing her of betraying the values ​​she once defended. On December 12, 2019, she herself defends her country, accused of genocide, before the court in The Hague by refuting the charges, replying that the report is incomplete and misleading. One explanation could be that she is only a Councilor of State and that the army has retained control of three key ministries (Interior, Defense and Borders). In addition, 25% of the seats in Parliament are reserved for the military and the army can continue to act with impunity. She recognizes that what the military has done is wrong, but not the military itself. She is not a politician but a spiritual (Gandhi is her model) and still hopes that the reconciliation of all is still possible with persistence.

Return question:

Dhaka's plan was to settle 100 refugees on a desert island, Bhasan Char, located in the Bay of Bengal. Although the island is flooded with each monsoon, the government of Bangladesh has asked the British and Chinese to build accommodation. The Rohingya do not rush there just as they fear repatriation: they have no interest in returning to Arakan to be herded into camps without having obtained any recognition of their rights. The majority of the community being in Bangladesh, they have no desire to return to Arakan.

Current issues:

As has already been said, the peripheral states are coveted and exploited for their natural resources. The Arakan plays a key role as a pivot in the Bay of Bengal. Faced with the enterprising political Silk Roads, Japan is organizing together with India and Australia a strategy of associations in the Indian Ocean to occupy the ground. It has become a major partner in regional security. He launched an Indo Pacific Free and Open strategy. The game is played between China, Japan, India and Bangladesh. The Chinese navy has, in particular, set up support points along its main maritime supply route to the Middle East (including Sittwe, capital of Arakan, Chittagong, the main port of Bangladesh, Bentota in Sri Lanka, etc.). This maneuver, also aimed at encircling India, is nicknamed the strategy of Pearl necklace.
Another problem is the dissemination by the media, social networks, of anti-Muslim and anti-Buddhist propaganda, increasing resentment. The suffering of the Rohingya has been amplified by all social networks and the Western media. Each camp did not hesitate to make disinformation, this resulted in a kind of media hysteria. The more the international community supports the Rohingya cause, the more it makes them suspect in the eyes of the Burmese.

The "pearl necklace" in the Indian Ocean.

Acronym for the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

Exodus of the Rohingya. © STR / AFP.

In conclusion:

Should we send Burma back to the ban of nations? Accusing the Burmese government of genocide and ethnic cleansing only makes the situation worse. It is a war that it is, declared by the rise of local ethno-religious hatreds which have been amplifying for years. The Rohingya problem has taken on an international tone as it is amplified by its religious component and supported by all Muslims. It must be resolved in concert with that of other minorities (Mon, Karen, Kachin, etc.) who are also in rebellion because they have not been listened to. Instead of stirring up resentments, we must try to allay the tensions that have been rooted for decades and seek solutions for reconciliation and the coexistence, as in the past, of different communities. International pressure risks bringing Burma and China together, which already plays a major role (visit of President Xi Jinping in January 2020).

Burma, a distant victim of the divisions bequeathed by British colonialism which it has failed to resolve, the current victim of jihadist aims which are poisoning an unstable situation, is also the next victim of the economic and territorial appetites of its big neighbors.

To understand is neither to judge nor to excuse, it is above all the means not to poison things under the pretext of indignation and compassion, but to locate the difficulties where they are to find a path towards a lasting appeasement .


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