In August 2017, more than 500,000 members of the Muslim minority Rohingya from Myanmar sought refuge in the neighboring country- Bangladesh. After a series of attacks by Rohingya militants on the security posts of the Myanmar army, the military started to react brutally. In a report, that got published in October 2017, Amnesty International speaks of a variety of crimes against humanity, including killings, deportations, expulsions, torture, rape, and sexual violence. 1)

The expulsion of the Rohingya is both terrible and incomprehensible. Why does the military in Myanmar, (what news reports suggest), pursue a policy of scorched earth, of expulsion, of “ethnic cleansing”? Why is it said so naturally and at the same time so difficult to understand that the Rohingyas are stateless? 2)

The roots of this conflict and many of the answers as well can be found in the history of colonial Asia, in the 19th and 20th centuries. It began with the conquest of the Muslim ‘kingdom of Arakan’ by the neighboring Buddhist kingdom of Burma, today’s Myanmar. Arakan was also known by the name of Rohang, that’s why the inhabitants there are called Rohingya today. Their land constituted from the kingdom of Arakan to the southeast of present-day Bangladesh. After the conquest, thousands of them were abducted to the midland of Burma to work as slaves. 3)

In the 19th century, the British waged a victorious war against Burma and smashed it into their Indian colonial territory. Both the Rohingya and the Burmese fell under their colonial rule. The demographic, social, and economic upheavals of that time led to migrations — workers of all kinds from India came to Burma. In present-day Rakhine Province, vast tracts of arable land were leased to Muslim landlords in Bengal, also part of British India. As a result, much of the Rohingya probably descended from these labor migrants. Therefore, calling them “immigrants” today is doubly misleading. First, because their “immigration” was a long time ago, and secondly, because they did not move from one state to another, but from one province of the Empire to the next. 4)

In the twentieth century, this Indian-imperial migration became a focal point of Burmese nationalism: a symbol of alleged infiltration. The dream of a Burma, ethnically pure and religiously united in Buddhism, was opposed to this alienation. A pamphlet dating back to 1938 is outraged by the fact that one has to deal with “strangers” everywhere — from the shoemaker to the judge. Even before, there were riots between Indian and Burmese dockers in Yangon. In the west of the country, the increasingly agitated and hostile populations finally used the Second World War as an opportunity for mutual raids and expulsions. 5)

The British allied themselves with the Rohingya rebels to stabilize their Christian rule. The Burmese joined Japan in return — this alliance forced the British to withdraw in 1942. The Rohingya were subsequently plundered, tortured, and raped by the Burmese. Its commander-in-chief was Aung San, father of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and leading politician Aung San Suu Kyi. During this time, on particularly bloody days, such as March 28, 1942, up to 5,000 Muslims were killed. 6)

With the temporary return of the British, the massacres ended — but only until they disbanded their South Asian colonial empire in the late 1940s. The Rohingya did not want to join the now independent Buddhist Burma, but the eastern part of the newly created Muslim Pakistan, now Bangladesh. However, after this plan failed and the majority of Arakans now belonged to Burma, the Rohingya became a completely unprotected, illegitimate, and now even more despised minority. This minority tried to defend itself and explained to its oppressors the holy war (jihad), which for the time being, sometimes more or less intensive, lasted until the year 1978. In this year, the military dictatorship of Burma made several attempts to finally break the resistance of the Rohingya. Countless Muslims were killed with pure violence and brutality in the “King Kong” operation and more than 200,000 people of the Muslim minority fled to Bangladesh. Many refugees found shelter in the coastal town of Cox’s Bazar, which was formerly part of Arakan. The Rohingya, who remained in Burma, fell victim to arbitrary collective shootings, mass rape, and total exhaustion from forced labor. 7) 8) 9)

The resistance provoked further military action. At the beginning of the 1990s and in 2012 massacres took place and again thousands of Rohingya fled to Bangladesh. Even after the overthrow of the military and the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi to a new, eagerly welcoming government, systematic contempt never ceased. Introduced in 1982 and still in force today, the discriminatory citizenship restriction limits full citizenship to ethnic groups residing in the country before 1824, before the beginning of British colonial rule. For this reason, this Muslim minority is still stateless today. They are not allowed to own land, travel freely, and have to sign up in writing to have no more than two children. All this makes it easy for extremist groups to find followers. Some Rohingya recently formed the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). According to its leader Ata Ullah, the rebel group is conducting a war over the rights of the Rohingya and planned the attack on the security posts in Myanmar at the end of August 2017. The fact that not all Rohingya are behind the ARSA plays no role in Myanmar’s military. 10) The Rohingya are the last orphans of imperialism. Historically stranded, left over from a time when nation-states did not yet exist, borders were unclear and permeable, and people in large empires were mixed up. The xenophobic purity thinking in Myanmar is a backlash to the externally imposed pluralism of the colonial era. In today’s world of aggressive nationalism and conflicts between different religious communities, the minority has found no place today. 11)

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