The Rohingya are a minority group living in the Rakhine State of western Myanmar (or Burma). Rakhine, previously known as “Arakan” is one of the 21 administrative divisions of the country of Myanmar. The Rohingya are particularly concentrated in the northern part of the Rakhine State, where they make up the vast majority of the population. Unlike 80% of the total population of Myanmar, who are adherents of Theravada Buddhism, the Rohingya are Muslim, who make up only 4% of Myanmar’s population. They speak the language also called “Rohingya”.
The origin of the Rohingya people is complex and disputed. Many Rohingya and some scholars claim that they are indigenous to the Rakhine area, tracing their Islamic identity to Arab traders hundreds of years ago. Other scholars, as well as the government of Myanmar, claim that they are simply Bengali (from Bengal, a state in India, and Bangladesh) Muslims living in Rakhine. What does seem clear is that Muslims have been living in the area since at least the 1400s when Min Saw Mon, an Arakan conqueror, retook control of Arakan with the help of Bengali soldiers, some of whom then settled in Arakan. However, it seems as though the Muslim population in Rakhine still remained relatively small until British rule of Myanmar in the 19th and 20th centuries. Because the British controlled what is now India, Bangladesh, as well as Myanmar, they encouraged many Bengalis to migrate east to Rakhine as farm workers, which greatly increased the Muslim population of the area. This began the ethnic tensions between the local Buddhists, the majority in Myanmar, and the Rohingya.
During WWII, the British left Myanmar, which resulted in many violent clashes between the Rohingya and the Rakhine Buddhists, who were supported by the Japanese. Many Rohingya fled west into British India as refugees to escape the persecution. In part because of these events, during the partition of India and the Pakistan independence movement in the 1940s, a separate independence movement in Rakhine was started by Rohingya in an effort to become part of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and then to become an independent Rakhine Muslim State. The Burmese government cracked down on the movement, and more Rohingya fled to Bangladesh and other areas as refugees.
The Rohingya are considered by many to be one the most persecuted minorities in the world. They are denied citizenship by the government of Myanmar and are not even listed as a minority group in the country. They are listed as Bengali Muslims and are officially classified as foreigners. Many Rohingya that claim to be indigenous to the Rakhine area deny their Bengali heritage, while the state of Myanmar and other scholars claim this has been fabricated to give their independence cause legitimacy. In 2012, riots ensued as Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists engaged in continuous retaliatory attacks, creating over 100,000 refugees who have attempted to flee into other parts of south and southeast Asia.
Today, the Rohingya Mujahideen still operates within areas of Rakhine. In 2012, a group of Rohingya separatists proclaimed the northern part of Rakhine to be the Islamic Republic of Rahmanland. However, this movement has not gained much traction with the incessant turmoil in the region.
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