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Rakhine State

As Burma has developed into a predominantly Buddhist country, the Hindus and Muslims in its midst have had difficult roles to play. Buddhism claims a superiority over Hinduism. The great Hindu gods of Brahma, Siva, and Indra are reduced to godlings who must be reborn as Buddhist humans to achieve a release from further rebirths. One of the eight victories of the Buddha involves his teaching a Brahma that union with him is not the final goal but merely a stop on the way to final release from rebirth. The caste system is socially rejected. Hindus are referred to as kala (black people) in a derogatory fashion. Brahmin priests may have advised the kings of Burma, but they are classified by Burmans as inferior to Buddhist monks, despite their skills in astrology and other mystic arts. Memories of British troops using Indian soldiers to colonize Burma had not been allowed to fade.

Muslims have fared little better, often assigned to butcher roles, for Buddhists disdain taking the life of the animals they eat. Colonial memories die hard, and the recollections of massive foreclosures on farms by Indian moneylenders in Lower Burma were still painful in the 1980s. Currency regulations enacted in the mid-1960s undermined the dominant economic position of Indian peoples living in Burma and resulted in the exodus of tens of thousands of them. In such an atmosphere Rakhine State, bordering Bangladesh, naturally embodies certain minority tensions, particularly involving Bengali Muslims who had moved back and forth over the border.

Although Shan State represented approximately 10 percent of the nation's population in mid-i983, Rakhine State accounted for only about 6 percent. Until its capture by King Bodawpaya in the late 1700s, Arakan managed to maintain itself as an independent kingdom, speaking a variant of the Burmese language and practicing Buddhism. Bodawpaya, haunted by world emperor dreams, carted off to his capital the Arakanese Mahamuni statue of the Buddha with all its reputed powers of supernatural protection, and it resides in splendor in the Arakan Pagoda sanctuary south of Mandalay. The statue and a huge cannon were part of the loot acquired by the Burmans and were exhibited as physical proof of Burmese powers in nationbuilding, despite the formidable mountain ranges that had previously given security to the Arakanese.

Having lost the symbols of a glorious past yet retaining the massive ruins of their former capitals, the Arakanese nationalists submitted to Rangoon only because of the fickleness of history. Statehood for Rakhine was a tribute both to its historical independence and to its international position with reference to volatile relationships with nations to the west. Because many southern Chins impinged on its foothills and plains to the north, Rakhine also had the typical minorities mix of many of the seven states. Despite all these complexities, Rakhine was one of the more peaceful states, and parts of it around Myohaung and the capital of Sittwe (Akyab) had been opened in the early 1980s to foreign visitors; the beaches at Sandoway were opened by 1983. Physically separate from the Burman heartland, Rakhine was not in the mainstream of national life but like Shan State had its own history and concept of its special destiny.

The Muslim population from the Northern Rakhine State in Burma is known as Rohingya. In Burma, there are approximately 750,000 stateless Rohingya in Northern Rakhine State. According to law, the Rohingya are rendered stateless because the Burmese Government considers them illegal immigrants, consequently denying them citizenship despite the fact they have been living in the Rakhine state for generations. As a result of this status, the Rohingya face legal, economic, and social restrictions. This includes restrictions on travel outside of their village of residence, limitations on their access to education, the ability to marry, the ability to have children, and access to livelihood, food, water, and sanitation, and healthcare. And their situation is only getting worse.

Approximately 28,000 Burmese Rohingya are registered as living in two official refugee camps in Bangladesh, and more than 200,000 unregistered Rohingya live in surrounding towns and villages outside of the two camps. Malaysia hosts more than 90,000 refugees and asylum seekers, primarily in urban areas, 91% of whom are from Burma. Chin and Rohingya comprise the largest groups of this population.

The Rohingya is a Muslim minority that has been living in Arakan (today named Northern Rakhine State (NRS)) in Burma for a period of centuries. During these centuries the Rohingya have migrated in and out of Rakhine State. During the 15th Century the link between the rulers of the then Arakan and the Bengal was solidified by military cooperation, trade and religion. During the 15th and 16th Centuries the infiltration of Muslims from Bengal to Arakan took place. This constituted the beginning of the history of Arakan with two people the Burmise Rakhines and the Muslim Rohingya.

When the Japanese forces invaded Burma in 1942 it caused the retreat of the British and the flight of approx. 22,000 Rohingya to the Cox's Bazar area. The British tried to seek support from the Muslims in Arakan and promised them an independent state. In 1948 when Burma became independent a group of Muslims from Arakan began an armed rebellion demanding an independent state. The rebellion did not succeed, at the contrary it entrenched the distrust of the Burmese Government that still exists today.

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Page last modified: 19-09-2017 12:00:40 ZULU