Ethnic Cleansing of Arakan Muslims

In Maynamar muslim Rohingyas are called Bengalis for their Bangla language, separating them from the majority Burmese community. Rohingyas are a stateless ethnic minority with strong historical cultural ties with muslims from Arabia, Persian Gulf and Central Asia. The fault line between the Burmese and Rohingya communities is undoubtedly religion, referring a fact that Rohimgyas survived with a distinctly muslim identity for centuries linking their cultural and linguistic roots with Islam. According to international agencies Rohingyas are one of the most marginalized ethnic communities in the world. Around 800,000 Rohingyas live in Myanmar without equal citizenship rights. They had to take shelter in Bangladesh after violent ethnic clashes erupted in 1978 and 1992. Reluctant to take back refugees Myanmar claims Rohingyas belong not to Burmese culture but to Bengali muslim civilization. Bangladesh cautioned of rising financial stress from influx of refugees and has so far declined to provide further asylum after another sectarian riot recently claimed two dozen lives already.

Humanitarian concerns beg to sympathize at the awful site of women and children struck by the fear of death pleading for mercy at the border. Denied safety for their lives they will be utterly helpless in the midst of deadly violence as they turn back to their Rakhine state. For options, local and international agencies may begin to look at the situation from a cultural and civilization aspect before escalating the political part. And Bengalis might discover an untold story of a Bangla community that survived centuries boasting of historical common connections with culture, language and religion.

Rohingaya community settled in Myanmar much like most other Muslim communities in East Asia, through the commercial interactions of Arab muslim traders. After the rapid expansion of Islam in the 7th century, according to Dr. Moshe Yegar, “Colonies of Muslims, both Arab and Persian, spread all along the sea trade routes… As early as the middle of the 8th century, a sizable Muslim concentration could be found in along the southern coast of China, in the commercial ports of southern India, and Southeast Asia…. Merchants brought silk, spices, perfumes, lumber, porcelain, silver and gold articles, precious jewels, jewelry, and so forth from these countries, and some of the trade made its way to Europe.” “Because sailing ships were dependent on monsoon winds and seasons, it was essential for Arabs and other Muslim traders,” writes Yegar, “to set up domiciles in ports that were located in the heart of local communities. Muslim settlements spread rapidly in Asian port cities as Muslim merchants became vital to the economy of the local communities.”

As noted by renowned historian Professor Abdul Karim, “The important point to be noticed about these shipwrecked Muslims is that they have stuck to their religion, i.e. Islam and Islamic social customs. Though they used Burmese language and also adopted other local customs, they have retained the language of their ancestors (probably with mixture of local words) in dealing among themselves. Another point to be noted is that the Arab shipwrecked Muslims have retained their religion, language and social customs for more than a thousand years.”

These shipwrecked Arab Muslims became the nucleus of the Muslim population of Arakan; later other Muslims from Arabia, Persia and other countries entered into Arakan.


Dr. Moshe Yegar says, “Beginning with their arrival in the Bay of Bengal, the earliest Muslim merchant ships also called at the ports of Arakan and Myanmar proper… Muslim influence in Arakan was of great cultural and political importance. In effect, Arakan was the beachhead for Muslim penetration into other parts of Myanmar even if it never achieved the same degree of importance it did in Arakan. As a result of close land and sea contacts maintained between the two countries, Muslims played a key role in the history of the Kingdom of Arakan.” It is no accident that Akyab (today’s Sittwe, the capital of Arakan state of Myanmar, situated on the south-eastern bank of the Naaf River) is a Farsi name, as are so many other towns and villages named, and how over the centuries most of these local inhabitants along the coastal towns and villages, tired of a corrupt form of their ancestral region, would convert to Islam. And this happened centuries before Muslim rulers governed some of those territories.


Professor Enamul Haq and Abdul Karim Shahitya Visarad wrote: “The Arabic influence increased to such a large extent in Chittagong during mid-10th century AD that a small Muslim kingdom was established in this region, and the ruler of the kingdom was called ‘Sultan’. Possibly the area from the east bank of the Meghna River to the Naaf was under this ‘Sultan’. We can know about the presence of this ‘Sultan’ in the Roshang [Mrohang, the capital Arakan during the Mrauk-U dynasty] national history. In 953 AD Roshang King, Sulataing Chandra (951- 957 AD) crossed his border into Bangla (Bengal) and defeated the ‘Thuratan’ (Arakanese corrupt form of Sultan), and as a symbol of victory setup a stone victory pillar at a place called ‘Chaikta-gong’ and returned home at the request of the courtiers and friends. This Chaik-ta-gong was the last border of his victory, since according to Roshang national history – ‘Chaik-ta-gong’ means ‘war should not be raised’. Many surmise that the modem name of Chittagong district originated from Chaik-ta-gong.” If the story of Arakanese king moving into Chittagong can be believed, in southern Bangladesh, especially in Chittagong, not only was there a Muslim community present but also a Muslim Sultanate ruling there in the 10th century.


The restoration of the deposed king Narameikhla (Mong Saw Mwan) to the throne of Arakan by the Muslim Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah of Bengal, thus ushering in the Mrauk-U dynasty (1430-1784 CE), is a turning point in the history of Arakan. From this time onward, many of its rulers, indebted to the Muslim Sultan adopted Muslim names (and may even have converted to Islam), a practice that would continue for the next two centuries, until 1638 CE. It is worth noting here that when Narameikhla was dethroned in 1404 CE by the Myanmarn forces, he chose to flee to Muslim Bengal instead of either the Buddhist-ruled Tripura or the Hindu-ruled territories of India. When the king Naramikhla reached the capital, he was widely acclaimed by his people. He was aided by two contingents of 50,000 Muslim soldiers (first under General Wali Khan and later under Sandi Khan) many of whom later settled in Arakan. They became his advisers and ministers making sure that the territory was not lost again to the Myanmarns.


The first thing Naramikhla did after regaining his throne was to transfer the capital from Launggyet to Mrohaung, which in the hands of Bengali poets and people became Roshang (Rohang). Those Muslims established the Sandi Khan Mosque in Mrohaung. Their descendants, as noted by the Bengali poets of the 17th century, held high positions during the Mrauk-U dynasty. During the successive centuries the Muslim population in Arakan grew in large numbers as a result of inter-marriage, immigration and conversion.


When the Mughal Prince Shah Shuja, the Governor of Bengal (1639-59), chose to take asylum in 1660 CE instead of submitting to the authority of Aurangzeb – the new Mughal Emperor, he chose Arakan, which already had many high ranking Muslims serving the king of Arakan. He was accompanied by his family members and retinues, which included hundreds of bodyguards. Shuja escaped the persecution of Maghs and crossed to Myanmar. The king of Ava settled them in Ramethin, Shwebo, Maydu and Meiktila. Their descendants can be found today in these places.


The Muslims of Arakan, therefore, are an amalgam of new migrants – Shaikhs, Syeds, Qazis, Mollahs, Alims, Fakirs, Arabs, Rumis (Turks), Moghuls, Pathans – from various parts of the Muslim world that settled during and before the Mrauk-U dynasty, including the captives (the so-called Kolas) brought in from various parts of Bengal and India, and the indigenous Muslims (the children of Bhumiputras who had converted to Islam over the centuries). They created the genesis of what we call the Rohingya Muslims.


In the recent ethnic clashes the role of security forces were questioned for suspected bias against Rohingyas. The sectarian issue could potentially explode and drag big and powerful countries into the conflict. China has the most important relationship with the Myanmar government, followed by India, none of whom would like to see external intervention. US has also moved in to build bridges with the military rulers hoping to establish international financial and monitoring institutions to help Myanmar shift towards a pro western democracy. It must be noted that all three ‘friends’ of Myanmar are nuclear superpowers, with varying degrees of ambitions, well aware of the dangers of growing radicalization amongst neglected ethnicities. The risks are heavily tipped against the great plan for strategic control in the South Asian political map.

Bangladesh foreign ministry is faced with a demand to write a long term policy paper clarifying its stance on humanitarian issues involving ethnic minorities, especially of the Rohingyas. We can take a leadership role to approach the OIC to apply international pressure on the Myanmar government to recognize Arakan muslims as equal citizens of the state with respect to their cultural heritage. The OIC exists as a platform for drawing international support to reinstate justice for oppressed ethnic minorities (of any denomination). The Rohingya issue is an international problem and the OIC will hopefully play an active role in the international stage.

Bangladesh Defending its Maritime Rights

Paul Reichler “is one of the world’s most respected and experienced practitioners of Public International Law, specializing for more than 25 years in the representation of Sovereign States in disputes with other States, and in disputes with foreign investors. He belongs to a select group of elite lawyers with extensive experience litigating on behalf of Sovereign States before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea in Hamburg,” (Chambers Global 2010).

Among many other clients and cases, he was Counsel and Advocate for Nicaragua in the historic case of Nicaragua v. United States of America (1984-1986), regarding the illegal use of force in international relations, and for Uruguay in the landmark case of Argentina v. Uruguay (2006-2010), concerning international environmental protection and sustainable development.

He has particular experience representing and advising Sovereign States in land and maritime boundary disputes with neighboring States, including Bangladesh in its maritime delimitation case against Myanmar before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (2009-present); and Bangladesh against India (2009-present).

Bangladesh can rejoice at the legal victory it won over Myanmar, securing 200 nautical miles of coastal territory in its exclusive economic zone. Reaction from Myanmar is yet difficult to gauge given the country’s secrecy in information under the military juntas.

Initial reports are however not discrediting a military response as a choice of last resort. In the past one decade Myanmar has expanded its defense resources and is ready to be tested in battle.

It was reported that Myanmar has massed its soldiers along the Tumbru and Ghundum border opposite Naikkongchhari upazila in Bangladesh. An estimated 2000 soldiers are said to be in that area of tension. Myanmar has already brought together nearly five battalions of soldiers in Unciprang, Dhekibonia and Mehdai areas near Bangladesh border. Myanmar has also initiated naval exercises with Vietnam using its two destroyers. The reading however does not paint an angry Burmese community ready to pounce on its neighbor. At least not yet.

On India, Bangladesh has not forcefully lobbied as effectively as it did with Myanmar. The president of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), Judge Jose Luis Jesus, has appointed three arbitrators for an arbitral tribunal to resolve the maritime boundary dispute between Bangladesh and India. On 13 December 2009, Bangladesh approached the president of ITLOS to appoint an arbitral tribunal under article 3 of Annex VII as part of the dispute resolution clause of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The three members of the tribunal were chosen on 12 February 2010, but a press release was not given by ITLOS until 8 March 2010, possibly to allow both Bangladesh and India to appoint their ad hoc members. The five-member arbitral tirbunal with include Judges Rudinger Wolfrum (Germany) as president, Tullio Treves (Italy) and Ivan Shearer (Australia). Two additional members of the tribunal have been nominated by the two parties with Bangladesh chosing the international jurist Professor Vaughan Lowe and India chosing P. Sreenivasa Rao, a former legal advisor to the ministry of external affairs.

Although ITLOS has clearly played a role in constituting the arbitral tribunal between Bangladesh and India, the arbitral tribunal itself will be an independent judicial body. The timescale for pleadings and hearings has not yet been set but reports suggest that both sides have pressed for a speedy resolution. Bangladesh had also approached ITLOS to resolve its maritime boundary dispute with neighbouring Myanmar and a timetable was set for pleadings in 2010 and 2011.

Bangladesh government remarked that it wanted a “bi-lateral” solution to the maritime issue when the matter had reached  multi-lateral institution for arbitration. It’s an example of asymmetric negotiation between a superpower and a low-mid income developing country. Assuming that once again Bangladesh receives a favorable decision against India will it have the means and resources to enforce the writ against the will of its biggest neighbor?