The Traditional Demand of the Muslim Rohingya of North Arakan
By Aman Ullah
The ethnic Rohingya is one of the many nationalities of the union of Burma. And they are one of the two major communities of Arakan; the other is Rakhine and Buddhist. The Muslims (Rohingyas) and Buddhists (Rakhines) peacefully co-existed in the Arakan for many centuries. In addition to Muslim (Rohingya) and Buddhist (Rakhine) majority groups, a number of other minority peoples also come to live in Arakan, including the Chin, Kamans, Thet, Dinnet, Mramagri, Mro and Khami who, though many are Christians today, were traditionally animists. The Kamans are Muslims and the Mramagri (Baurwa) are Buddhists. Some ethnic Burman also comes to live in Arakan since 1784 after invasion and occupation by the Burman.
Rohingyas, who trace their ancestry to Arabs, Moors, Pathans, Moguls, Bengalis and some Indo-Mongoliod people, are living in Arakan generation after generation for centuries after centuries. Their arrival in Arakan has predated the arrival of many other peoples and races now residing in Arakan and other parts of Burma. Early Muslim settlement in Arakan dates back to 7th century AD. They developed from different stocks of people and concentrated in a common geographical location from their own society with a consolidated population in Arakan well before the Burman invasion in 1784.
The Rohingyas are an indigenous people characterized by objective criteria, such as historical continuity, and subjective factors including self-identification, which need to define an indigenous people, and entitled to have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. Being indigenous peoples, they have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, economic, social and cultural characteristics, as well as their legal systems, while retaining their rights to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of State. They have not only the right to a nationality but also have the right to their lands, territories and resources, which derive from their political, economic and social structures and from their cultures, spirituals traditions, histories and philosophies.
The Rohingyas are much more than a national minority. They are a nation with a population of 3.5 million (both home and abroad), having a supporting history, separate culture, civilization, language and literature, historically settled territory and reasonable size of population and area – they consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the society. They are determined not only to preserve and develop their ancestral history and their ethnic identity, but also to transmit to future generations as the basis of their continued existence as people, in accordance with their own cultural pattern, social institution and legal system.
Since Burmese independence in 1948, the Rohingyas have been struggling for their right of self-determination upholding the principle of peaceful co-existence within Burmese federation. They have long been trying to identify themselves with the Union of Burma on the basis of equality and justice. They think that the individual rights is not enough for them; they need their collective rights as a people, as an ethnic group, as a nationality who speak different language, who practice different culture, who worship different religion and who also has different historical background and, above all, all of us have territorially clearly defined homelands and nations since time immemorial.
That’s why they want to rule their homeland by themselves They are trying to find a political and legal system which will allow them to rule their respective homelands by themselves, and at same time living peacefully together with others who practice different religions and cultures and speak different languages. In other words, they are trying to find a political system which can combine and balance between “self-rule” for different ethnic groups and “shared-rule” for all the peoples in the Union of Burma.
For this reason the Muslims of Arakan rendered their support to the British against the Japanese occupation in order to strengthen their standing in the region and encourage Muslim loyalty, the British had published a declaration granting them the status of a Muslim National Area. This entire area was re-conquered by the British at the beginning of 1945. The British set up Peace Committees and organized civilian administrations which functioned until Burma was granted independence in January, 1948. Most of the office-holders were local Muslims, Rohingya, who had previously cooperated with the British.
The principal political effect of the ‘Peace Committee of North Arakan’ was that it made the Muslims of Arakan autonomy conscious. The promise of British to create a Muslim national area doubled their desire for Muslim state. However, when the demand of Muslim State was put to Rees William Commission, the result was not good.
For this consciousness they went to Mohammed Ali Jinnah in 1947 either to fight for including north Arakan within Pakistan or pressurize General Aung San to grant autonomy to the Muslims of north Arakan. To form an autonomous Muslim State, they took arms and was demanded “To form an autonomous Muslim State in north Arakan, comprising Buthidaung, Rathedaung and Maungdaw townships from the west of Kaladan River upto the eastern part of the Naf River that will remain under the Union of Burma.”
For this reason they joined hands with Arakanese Communist Party led by U Tun Aung Pru to fight together until the fall of the AFPFL’s government with the understanding that Muslims would take the western side of Kaladan whereas the rest of Arakan would be under the control of Arakan Communist Party.
For this reason they took arms and demanded that all the injustices against the Muslims of Arakan be corrected and that they be allowed to live as Burmese citizens, according to the law, and not be subject to arbitrariness and tyranny.
For this reason the Muslims objected to the demand of the Arakan Party for the status of a state for Arakan within the framework of the Union of Burma. The large majority of the Muslim organizations of the Rohinga of Maungdaw and Buthidaung demanded autonomy for the region, to be directly governed by the central government in Rangoon without any Arakanese officials or any Arakanese influence whatsoever. Their minimal demand was the creation of a separate district without autonomy but governed from the center. The Muslim members of the Constituent Assembly, and later the Muslim M.P’s from Arakan raised this demand also during the debates in Parliament and in the press.
In the years 1960 to 1962, the Rohinga organizations and the respective Arakanese Muslim organizations initiated frantic activities with reference to the Muslim status in Arakan, and especially in the regions of Maungdaw and Buthidaung. This was in response to the promise made by U Nu on the eve of the general elections of 1960, that if his party won, he would confer the status of a “State” upon Arakan, within the framework of the Union of Burma, on a par with the “statehood” of the other integral states of the Union. After winning the elections, U Nu appointed an enquiry commission to study all the problems involved in the question of Arakan.
The Rohinga Jamiyyat al-‘Ulama’ submitted to this enquiry commission a long and explanatory memorandum on the position of the Muslims of northern Arakan. The memorandum stated that the Muslims of this region constitute a separate racial group which is in absolute majority there; it called for the creation of a special district to be directly subject to the central government in Rangoon. The memorandum also demanded that the district have a “district council” of its own which shall be vested with local autonomy. As a compromise solution, the authors of the memorandum agreed to the district being a part of the Arakan “State”; however, they insisted that the Head of “State” was to be “counseled” by the Council in the appointment of officials and in all matters concerning the district and its problems. The appointed officials would also be briefed and advised by the Council. The district would also receive direct allocations for its needs and would enjoy particular attention in matters of culture, economies, and education.
The Rohinga Youth Association held a meeting in Rangoon on July 31, 1961, where the call was issued not to grant the status of “State” to Arakan because of the community tensions still existing between Muslims and Buddhists since the 1942 riots. A similar resolution was taken by the Rohinga Students Association, with the additional warning that if it is decided, despite all protest, to set up the “State”, this would require the partition of Arakan and the awarding of separate autonomy to the Muslims.
Muslim Members of Parliament from Maungdaw and Buthidaung likewise petitioned the government and the enquiry commission not to include their regions in the planned Arakan “State”. They had no objection to the creation of such a state, but only without the districts of Buthidaung, Maungdaw, and part of Rathedaung, where the Muslims were in the majority. These districts must be formed into a separate unit in order to ensure the existence of the Rohinga. Forcing the creation of a single state upon all of Arakan would be likely to lead to the renewed spilling of blood.
The problem of the Muslims of Akyab and the other regions of Arakan, where the Muslims were in the minority, were more complicated and their position led to tensions among the Rohinga organizations. There were those who deemed it pointless to object to U Nu’s plan of “Statehood” and therefore supported the granting of the status of “State” to the whole of Arakan, including the Muslim regions. They feared that separation of these regions would redound to the detriment of the Muslims in the rest of Arakan. They of course demanded guarantees and assurances for the protection of the Muslims; to this end they insisted that Muslims be co-opted to serve as members of the preparatory committee which would deal with the creation of the “State”. In the memorandum submitted to the enquiry commission by the organization of Arakanese Muslims (of Sultan Mahmud), it was explained that they would support the “State” only on two conditions: if the Arakanese Buddhists would support their demands; and if the constitutions of the “State” would include, specifically, religious, cultural, economic, political, administrative, and educational guarantees for Muslims. The Head of State of the new “State” of Arakan would alternate: once a Muslim and once a non-Muslim. When the Head of State was a Muslim, the Speaker of the State Council would be a non-Muslim, but his deputy, a Muslim; and vice versa. The same arrangement would also be in effect in the appointments, committees and other bodies. No less than one-third of the “State’s” ministers were to be Muslims. No law affecting Muslims would be passed unless and until the majority of the Muslim Members of the Council voted for it. In the matter of appointments to jobs in Muslim areas, the Chief of State would act on the advice of the Muslim Members of his Cabinet. In all appointments to government posts, to public services, to municipal positions and the like, Muslims would enjoy a just proportion in accordance with their percentage in the population. In filling the appointments allotted to Muslims, the Muslim candidates would compete among themselves. The government would attentatively meet the educational and economic needs of the Muslims. No pupil would be forced to participate in religious classes not of his own religion. Every religious sect would be allowed training in his own religion in all institutions of learning. Every and any religious sect would be permitted to set up its own educational institutions that would be recognized by the government. Muslims would be completely free to develop their own special Rohinga language and culture, and to spread their religion. A special officer for Muslim Affairs would be appointed whose job it would be to investigate complaints and obstructions, and to report on them to the Chief of State. For a period of ten years from the date of the establishment of the “State”, the right would be reserved to every district – and especially to those of northern Arakan – to secede from the “State” and transfer itself to the direct jurisdiction of the central government in Rangoon. Those supporting these demands suggested bearing in mind the examples offered by the viable arrangements existing between the Muslims and Christians in Lebanon, between the Greeks and Turks in Cyprus, and among the Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Pakistanis in Singapore; only such just arrangements between Muslims and Buddhists could vouch for the success of the State of Arakan.
At long last, it was on the first of May, 1961, in the provinces of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and the western portion of Rathedaung the government set up the Mayu Frontier Administration (MFA). It was not an autonomy, for the region was administered by Army officers; since it was not placed under the jurisdiction of Arakan, however, the new arrangement earned the agreement of the Rohinga leaders, especially as the new military administration succeeded in putting down the rebellion and in bringing order and security to the region.
At the beginning of 1962 the government prepared a draft law for the establishment of the “State” of Arakan and, in accordance with Muslim demand, excluded the Mayu District1. The military revolution took place in March, 1962. The new government cancelled the plan to grant Arakan the status of a “State”, but the Mayu District remained subject to the special Administration that had been set up for it.