LOCATION: Western Myanmar (Burma)(
POPULATION: Estimated 1.5 million in Myanmar
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim)
The Rohingya people of western Myanmar (the country called Burma until 1989) are closely related to the Bengali people of neighboring Bangladesh and India. Like those in Bangladesh, the Rohingyas are Muslims. In addition to their Bengali heritage, the Rohingyas are thought to have descended in part from Persian, Moorish, and Arab seafarers. A coastal people on the trade route between Arabia and China, the Rohingyas converted to Islam around the 12th century. Their knowledge of science and the arts influenced the Buddhist Rakhine kings of Arakan in past centuries, when Bengal and Arakan were allies. The Muslims and their Buddhist Rakhine compatriots generally coexisted peacefully.
During British colonial days, northern Arakan was at first part of India's Bengal province, but then the British decided that Arakan was to be part of Burma. When World War II reached Burma, the Rohingyas helped the British to fight their way back into Burma through Arakan and to repel the Japanese invaders. Anti-Muslim rioting broke out in Arakan in 1942, causing tens of thousands of Rohingyas to flee across the border to Bangladesh (then called East Pakistan). At Burma's independence in 1948, the Rohingyas hoped for their own Muslim state, but they were combined with predominantly Rakhine areas in Arakan State. Tensions between Rakhines and Rohingyas, unresolved from World War II, continued, and government discrimination against the Rohingyas, in terms of travel restrictions within Burma and citizenship laws, commenced.
With the 1962 military takeover of the central Burmese government, conditions worsened for Arakan's Muslims. They were viewed as a threat to the predominantly Burmese (Burman) power structure and a holdover from colonial times when the British brought many workers from India to Burma. In 1978, Operation Nagamin ("Dragon King") took place. It was a systematic campaign of human rights violations by the government military against the Rohingyas, who were declared "illegal immigrants." Over 200,000 fled across the border to Bangladesh. Thousands starved to death in deliberately under-supplied refugee camps until the survivors were forced to return to Burma.
After the suppression of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising throughout Burma, Muslims were again targeted for mistreatment. A government military build-up in northern Arakan in 1991 was accompanied by murder, land confiscation, rape, torture, destruction of mosques, and large-scale forced labor. Again, this led to a huge flight to Bangladesh. Over 250,000 Rohingya refugees sought sanctuary in border camps this time. Eventually, most were convinced or coerced to return to Arakan, although forced labor and other forms of abuse have continued there. The estimated 27,000 Rohingya refugees who remain in the official camps in Bangladesh endure miserable conditions, and there is a constant influx of new arrivals who struggle to survive outside of the camps.
Exiled Rohingyas promote the preservation of cultural identity and support democracy for Myanmar, and a small group of insurgents still fights for political autonomy. Rohingyas have also become "boat people" in recent years, fleeing Arakan by sea for Thailand or Malaysia. In 2008 Thailand's Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej proposed confining all Rohingya migrants on an island detention camp. Rohingyas in Malaysia (a predominantly Muslim country) have been a useful part of the workforce making up for that country's labor shortage, but are subject to abuse, detention and forced repatriation, as they are considered illegal immigrants.
A "third country" program has had some success in sending Rohingya refugees from the Bangladesh camps to other countries, particularly Canada. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency overseeing the camps in Bangladesh, announced in May 2008 that an agreement with the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar to repatriate the remaining occupants of official camps back to Myanmar would be revived. With other regions of Myanmar devastated by Cyclone Nargis that month, and the whole country facing a rice shortage, there was some question about the practicality of such a mass repatriation.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
There may be as many as 1.5 million Rohingyas in Myanmar, but no reliable census figures exist for them or other ethnic minorities. Hundreds of thousands more Rohingyas live in exile. At least 127,000 live in Bangladesh, inside and outside of established refugee camps. An estimated 200,000 reside in Pakistan, another 200,000 in Saudi Arabia, and thousands more in the Persian Gulf states and Jordan. Tens of thousands of Rohingyas live as illegal immigrants in Malaysia. Besides the Rohingyas, Myanmar has other Muslim populations of Chinese, Indian, and Burman lineage.
The Rohingya homeland is at the northern tip of Arakan State, bordering Bangladesh's Chittagong and northeast India's Tripura. The main towns are Buthidaung and Maungdaw, a river port. Most Rohingyas live in villages surrounding them. Others live in and around the cities of Akyab and Rathedaung, to the south in Arakan and on islands in the Bay of Bengal. In recent years, the Myanmar government has brought in families of Buddhist settlers, often poor people from other parts of Myanmar, to farm land confiscated from Rohingyas or abandoned by those who left as refugees.
The Kaladan, Mayu, and Seindaung Rivers run through flat farmland surrounded by mountains and the Bay of Bengal coastline. The Naaf River forms Arakan's border with Bangladesh. Forests of bamboo and mangrove exist, but they have greatly decreased due to logging and the government's shrimp farming projects.
The Rohingyas' language is closely related to the Bengali dialect spoken in Bangladesh's southern Chittagong Province and has some Persian and Arabic influences. The written language is close to that of Bengali.
The usual Rohingya greeting is to ask "How are you?": Ken ahsaw? with the reply, Balah aasee, ("I am fine"). "Thank you" in the Rohingya language is Shu kuria.
Because of their adherence to Islam, the Rohingya people tend to reject the serious belief in ghosts and nature-spirits prevalent elsewhere in Myanmar. People do enjoy the "Arabian Nights" fairytales, though, translated into Bengali. Local customs include considering it impolite to point your feet at people or objects and not leaning your forehead on your hands, as this is considered a sign of severe depression.
From the 8th to 14th centuries, Islam took hold in northern Arakan. The Rohingya people are a traditionalist Sunni Muslim society, believing that Allah is the only God and adhering to the code of morality set down by his prophet Muhammad. While not obviously "fundamentalist" or "militant," for most Rohingyas, life revolves around the practice of their faith. Daily prayers and study of the Quran are of great importance, although many religious schools have been closed down by Myanmar's military government. Each community would normally have a mosque, but many have been destroyed in recent years by the government. Communities donate money and materials to build and maintain the mosques, which are built of wood, or in larger communities, whitewashed cement, but it is very difficult to get the necessary government permission to make repairs. Each functioning mosque has an Imam, in charge of worship, and a Muezzin, who calls the faithful to prayer. They are paid support by the community. The government has banned amplified calls by the Muezzins. The traditional Muslim pilgrimage, the Haj, to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, is nearly impossible for most Rohingyas due to the cost and government travel restrictions.
Rohingyas observe the Ramadan fast of Islam (according to the lunar calendar) during the first half of the year, when they consume no food or drink during daylight hours for one month. At the end of Ramadan, the celebration called Eid Al Fitr takes place. People who can afford to do so buy new clothes and provide food for visitors who drop in. Children go from house to house with bags to collect small gifts of money. Seventy days after Ramadan, Eid Adha is celebrated. Animals, usually goats, are bought by those who can afford them. The goats are sacrificed and a third of the meat is given away to the poor. The rest is shared with family, friends, and neighbors.
RITES OF PASSAGE
Rohingya mothers usually give birth at home, assisted by a midwife. Traditionally, the new mother would stay by a warm fire for several days after the birth. For about 40 days she stays at home and sleeps apart from her husband. Within a week or two of the birth, the baby's head is shaved. Children who are sick with fever sometimes have their head shaved because the parents believe the illness will make their hair fall out and shaving will help it to grow back properly.
Boys and girls from ages 4 to 12 attend mosque schools called madrasahs to learn to read the Quran in Arabic. From their early teen years, they work alongside their parents, in the home if girls, or farming and fishing if boys. Because of increasing economic hardship, child labor has become common as well, and children have been used for forced labor on military projects such as road or barracks building.
When Rohingyas die, they are, according to Islamic tradition, buried. The funeral is simple, and those who can afford to mark the grave with a stone bearing the deceased's name. After seven days, recitations of the Quran are held to honor the dead, and families who can afford to sacrifice an animal and give part of the meat to feed the poor.
Rohingyas greet each other by shaking hands, and family members hug each other. People remove their shoes when entering a Rohingya house. The host will bring tea or other refreshments to a guest, without asking, as an inquiry such as "Would you like some tea?" would receive a polite refusal.
Shoes are always taken off, and a person's head is kept covered when visiting a mosque. Men and women occupy separate sections of the mosque, with a curtain between them.
Throughout Arakan, living conditions are hard; this is particularly so for Rohingyas, who, viewed as less than full citizens, tend to lack access to education, medical care, and other social services. Some outside help from the United Nations and a few foreign voluntary agencies has been allowed as part of the agreement to resettle Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh back in Arakan. Malaria, dysentery, and other tropical diseases are widespread among the Rohingyas, as is malnutrition.
In normal times, most Rohingyas live in thatch-roofed oneor two-story houses built of wood and raised up on stilts. They use chairs and tables in their dining areas and sleep on platform beds, with mosquito nets if they can afford them. The displaced people built bamboo huts with plastic sheets for roofing material to keep out the monsoon rainfall.
Many Rohingyas have lost the land left to them by their families because of outright confiscation by the military, forced resettlement of Rakhine villagers onto Rohingya land, or the inability to prove ownership because papers got lost during the escape to Bangladesh. A council of elders called the Samaj traditionally made important decisions in Rohingya villages, but such authority has now been taken over by Burmese military officers from bases established in the area.
Transportation for Rohingyas is mainly on foot or on small riverboats. Bicycles are a luxury owned by some. Arakan has no railway, and the few roads are in poor condition. Travel for Rohingyas within northern Arakan is difficult because of military checkpoints, and their access to the rest of Myanmar remains restricted.
Under normal conditions, Rohingyas tend to marry and start a family in their late teens or early twenties. Marriage is usually arranged by the parents, so dating is rare and is usually kept secret. If a couple falls in love without parental consent, they might elope. Some couples never meet at all before their wedding. The relatives negotiate for jewelry, usually gold if they can afford it, to be given to the bride by both sides of the family, as the newlyweds' "bank account." On the morning of the wedding day, the bride's relatives attend a lunch and bring gifts for her, and then the groom's relatives attend a dinner in the evening. In Arakan, the Rohingyas are subject to marriage restrictions, as a bride and groom must apply for marriage permission from several government agencies. That permission is often denied, and there are many cases of arrest for illegal marriage between consenting adult Rohingya men and women in Arakan.
Divorce is rare and is considered shameful for women. The children are often raised by the husband's mother in cases of divorce. Widows are looked after by their own family and their husband's family.
Five children is an average size for a Rohingya family. Infant and child mortality rates, due to diseases and malnutrition, are high. Ideally, a Rohingya household is self-sustaining, with its own rice paddy, vegetable garden, and domestic animals such as chickens and goats. Cats and songbirds are popular house pets, and dogs are kept outside to guard the house.
Rohingyas wear ankle-length cotton sarongs. The men's sarong is called a longi and is knotted in front, and the women's is called a thain and wraps tightly around the waist. Cotton shirts and blouses are worn with the sarongs. Women have pierced ears and wear bangle bracelets of gold, glass or plastic. Some married women wear a gold ring called a Nag-pool ("nose-flower") in one nostril. In former times, Rohingya women always wore full veils when outdoors. Now, women and older girls generally wear a large scarf that covers most of their hair and wraps around the shoulders. The scarves are often quite colorful, except for those of older women, who wear white. Men over age 40 or so grow beards.
Being Muslims, Rohingyas do not eat pork. They also have their own taboos against eating hawks, eagles, and (from the sea) rays. Many Rohingyas are fishermen, and a variety of river fish are available. Chicken and goat are favorite curries, always served with rice. Common vegetables include potatoes, tomatoes, okra, and eggplant, with chili peppers for flavoring. Rice is served twice a day by those who can afford it, for lunch and dinner. In the morning, tea or coffee is served with flat bread called roti or other types of bread and biscuits. Biryani , an Indian spiced rice dish with goat or chicken, is a favorite dish for weddings and other celebrations. Rohingyas eat cakes, cookies, and rice puddings, often made with coconut. Fried garbanzo beans are sold as a snack.
Aside from the religious schools where boys and girls learn the Quran and some higher-level religious training for men, education in Arakan consists of government schools, where instruction is conducted in the Burmese language. Very few Rohingyas are able to continue their education past primary school, and only 5%, nearly all male, go on to study after high school. The cost of education, the difficulty of going away to school due to travel restrictions, and discrimination against Rohingyas contribute to the current shortage of highly educated people.
As early as the 7th century, small mosques known as Badr Moqam were built along the Arakan coast as shrines to a Muslim saint. Important mosques were built in Arakan during the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. The largest mosque in Akyab, the Musa Dewan, and the Jam-e-Mosque of Akyab, which has many domes and spires, were constructed in the 17th century.
Rohingya literature blossomed in the ancient courts of Arakan, when Muslim poets including Daulat Qazi, Magan Siddiqi, Mardan, and Shah Aloal wrote in Bengali, Persian, or Arabic. The 17th century poet Shah Aloal, who led an adventurous life as a warrior, scholar, and scientist, is considered one of the great poets of Bengali literature. He translated and adapted romances and epics from Hindi and Persian, and composed his own lyrical and mystical poems as well. "Poetry," he wrote, "is full of fragrance. It brings the faraway near, and takes the near to the distant." His romantic poems are noteworthy for being realistic depictions of human emotions rather than the spiritual allegories prevalent at the time. Shah Aloal wrote, "After sifting all matters, I find that love can be compared to nothing. Full of sharp pain is love, yet blessed is he who has been fortunate to experience it."
Little is being written in the Rohingya language at present, although exiled Rohingya dissidents in Bangladesh have been researching the history of their ethnic group. Likewise, Rohingya art, architecture, and music await historical research and contemporary revival. Rohingya exiles have devised a way to write their language in the Roman alphabet for computer use, and have established the Bangladesh-based Kaladan Press Network, which reports news of Arakan online.
The Rohingyas are mostly rice farmers and fishermen. Some own cattle for plowing or for meat and milk. Rohingya entrepreneurs run small shops and river transport services. Boat-building is a skilled trade in northern Arakan, producing small wooden vessels to be rowed with oars, for the most part, and some sailboats. The few Rohingyas who have achieved higher education work as doctors, lawyers, and business persons, mainly overseas. Rohingya women are far less likely to work outside the home than those of other ethnic groups of Myanmar.
Soccer and volleyball are the most popular sports for Rohingya young people to play or watch. Arakan's climate is often very hot, so children particularly like to go swimming in the rivers.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
In Arakan's towns and cities there are movie theaters and small "video parlors" where Burmese, Indian, and other films are shown on disc. In the villages, people like to go for an evening stroll after dinner and gather on a soccer field or other open space to listen to music, usually Indian pop songs, on portable compact disc players. Old folk songs are sung while working in the rice fields or vegetable gardens. Many communities have tea shops where men gather in the morning or afternoon to talk.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Rohingyas make baskets from cane and bamboo and weave straw mats for their houses. Rohingya women knit, or embroider their clothing. Some of the mosques in Arakan have ornamental tile-work.
The Rohingyas have had to endure a concerted campaign of human rights abuse by Myanmar's military government, denial of full citizenship rights, and even routine discrimination by other ethnic minority groups that are otherwise democratic in nature. Mosques and other Islamic religious sites have been burned or desecrated by the government forces and access to Islamic texts and pilgrimage severely restricted. The traditional rural society has been thrown into chaos by demands for forced labor, crop and property confiscation, and the flight to temporary sanctuary in Bangladesh. Rice goes unplanted and children go unfed. The Rohingyas' present poverty and the pattern of risky escape to other countries have made the survival of the Rohingyas in Myanmar very precarious. Even if this ongoing crisis is resolved, relations with the Rakhines, with whom the Rohingyas share geography and history, must be greatly repaired for Arakan to return to any level of peace and prosperity. Government programs settling Buddhist families in Rohingya areas have increased friction between the religious/ethnic groups, rather than understanding or acceptance.
Rohingya women tend to live more homebound lives than most women in Myanmar. Men work in the fields and sell goods in the market, while women take care of children, the home, vegetable gardens, and domestic animals. After age 12 or so, girls mostly stay at home except when they are attending school. Few Rohingya women in Myanmar have gone on to higher education, but some have become teachers and nurses. In recent years, according to documents by human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Rohingya women and girls have been targeted for rape by Burmese government troops. Such use of rape as a military tactic appears to be intended to humiliate the ethnic minority group and instill fear of the uniformed authorities. This danger adds to the tendency of Rohingyas to keep girls at home and even to keep them out of school.
Homosexuality is generally disapproved of in the conservative Islam that is intrinsic to Rohingya society. However, gay and transgendered individuals are often treated with tolerance and acceptance in Rohingya households.
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—by Edith Mirante