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Rohingyas are Emigrants nor Illegal Immigrants

By Aman Ullah

Rohingyas are descended from local indigenous tribes who lived in Arakan since the dawn of history. The Arabs arrived in Arakan in the late 7th century AD, settled there and intermingled, intermixed and intermarried with the local people and converted a number of local populations including local Buddhists. The appearance of the Arab in Arakan in the 7th century was for more of a cultural phenomenon than ethnic one. The Persians, Truks, Pathens and other Muslim migrant who came into Arakan in the course of time were also merged with the local populace. These various migrations and local converts led to form one common racial and linguistics classification as “Rohingya”; a term derived from Rohang, the ancient name of Arakan.

They have a more than 1300 years old tradition, culture, history and civilization of their own expressed in their shrines, cemeteries, sanctuaries, social and cultural institutions found scattered even today in every nock and corner of the land. By preserving their own heritages from the impact of Buddhist environments, they formed their own society with a consolidated population in Arakan well before the Burmese invasions of Arakan in 1784.

Jacques Leider, in his article, ‘Between Revolt and Normality: Arakan after Burmese Conquest’ mentioned that, “we admit of a total population of Arakan of circa 250,000 in the time of (the Burmese) conquest, the country steadily lost up to 50% of its population. English observers estimated the Arakanese population at about 100,000 at the time of the British conquest.”

Eaton in his book ‘The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier’ mentioned that “Perhaps up to three-quarters of Danra-waddy’s population by the 1770s may have been Muslim.” But According to Professor Michael Charney of University of London, “Although there is very little evidence of a rural Muslim community in Arakan prior to the 1570s, they clearly made up a substantial proportion of the population in the 1770s, prior to Burman rule.

According to the British government document on the cultures and inhabitants of Arakan by the Secret and Political Department, Fort William dated 26th April 1826, “The population of Arracan and its dependencies Ramree, Cheduba & Sandaway does not at present exceed 100,00 souls, may be classed as — Mughs six tenths, – Mussalman three tenths, – Burmese one tenth, Total 100,000 Souls–.” As to Mr. Paton, Sub Commissioner of Arakan, who submitted this report from Akyab, “The extent of the Population has been tolerably well ascertained, proved a census taken by Mr. Robertson, and myself, and may be considered as approximating very nearly to the truth.”

That’s means that among the 100,000 souls; Mughs 60,000, Muslims 30,000 and Burmese 10,000. According to Professor Michael Charney, “When we adjust for the absence of large numbers of Muslims in Rama-waddy, Mekha-waddy, and Dwara-waddy, however, the proportion of Muslims in the Danra-waddy zone’s population was probably much higher.” So in the date of conquest of Arakan by the British, there remained thirty-thousand Muslims and these thirty thousand Muslims were living there from before, now their descendants and successors have increased leaps and bounds.

According to the censuses of both 1921 and 1931, it has clearly mentioned that, ‘There was a Muslim community in Arakan, particularly in Akyab District, who prefers to call themselves Arakan-Mahomadens and were quite distinct from the Chittgonians and Bengali immigrants to Arakan.’ ‘According to Baxter report of 1940, paragraph 7, “This Arakanese Muslim community settled so long in Akyab District had for all intents and purposes to be regarded as an indigenous race.”

Indigenous peoples were the descendants of those peoples that inhabited a territory prior to colonization or formation of the present state. Hence, these Muslims of Arakan, who identify themselves as Rohingya, are for all intents and purposes to be regarded as an indigenous race and are also a racial group who had settled in Arakan/Union of Burma as their permanent home from a period anterior to 1823 A. D. (1185 B.E.).

Being one of the indigenous races and bona fide citizens of Burma, the Rohingyas were enfranchised in all the national and local elections of Burma except 2015 election: – during the later colonial period (1935-1948), during the democratic period (1948-1962), during the BSPP regime (1962-1988), 1990 multi-party election held by SLORC and 2010 General Election held by SPDC. Their representatives were in the Legislative Assembly, in the Constituent Assembly and in the Parliament. As members of the new Parliament, their representatives took the oath of allegiance to the Union of Burma on the 4thJanuary 1948. Their representatives were appointed as cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries.

Legislative Assembly Election of 1936

The first and only election held under the Government of Burma Act 1935 that took place in November 1936. Before 1937, Burma was a province of British Indian Empire. In 1937 Burma was separated from India under the British Administration. A new constitution came into effect. Under its provisions the people of Burma were given a bigger role to play in the running of their country.

Under the 1935 Act there were 132 seats in the House of Representatives, 91 of the seats were general non-communal seats and the remaining 41 being reserved for communal and special interest groups of which 12 were reserved for Karen (of Ministerial Burma), 8 for Indians, 2 for Anglo-Burmans, and 3 for Europeans. But, according to Martin Smith, ‘there was no separate representation for the Mons of Lower Burma; the question of seats of the Southern Chin, the Arakanese Muslims including Kamans and Myedus, the Zerbadis from the mixed Burma Muslims union. The single exception has been North Arakan, where Muslims from distinct majority constituency in several districts along the Bangladesh border.’ {Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity 1999} Thus, the Rohingya Muslims of Akyab district North constituency, a non-communal rural constituency, were recognize as children of the soil and in the first time taken as eligible to vote or to stand for election on the ground of their being one of the indigenous communities of Burma. Mr. Ghani Markin returned on the votes of those Rohingyas as a Member of Legislative Assembly.

Constituent Assembly election of 1947

The second election was held under the Aung San-Atlee Agreement that was signed on 27 January 1947. According to that agreement, which said, ‘in order to decide on the future of Burma a Constituent Assembly shall be elected within four months instead of Legislature under the Act of 1935. For this purpose the electoral machinery of 1935 Act will be used. Election will take place in April 1947 for the general non-communal, the Karen and the Anglo-Burman constituencies as constituted under the Act of 1935, and each constituency two member shall be returned. Any Burma nationals defined in the ‘Annex A’ of the Agreement registered in a general constituency other than one of those mentioned above shall be placed on the register of a general non-communal constituency.’

According to ‘Annex A’ of the Agreement, ‘A Burma National is defined for the purpose of eligibility to vote and to stand as a candidate at the forth coming election as British subject or the subject of an Indian State who was born in Burma and reside there for a total period not less than eight years in the ten years immediately preceding either 1st January, 1942 or 1st January 1947’.

Immediately before the last election, the Muslims of Akyab district North constituency were recognized as children of the soil and first taken as eligible to vote or to stand for election on the ground of their being one of the indigenous races of Burma, but when the Aung San – Atlee Agreement was out, the government misunderstood the position and it was notified that unless they declared themselves as Burma nationals, they would not be eligible to vote or to stand for election to the constituent Assembly.

The Muslims of that constituencies made strong protest against this decision on the ground of their being one of the indigenous races of Burma. The government withheld the first decision and allowed the Muslims to vote or stand for elections held in March 1947. Mr. Sultan Ahmed and Mr. Abdul Gaffar returned on the votes of this Muslims as members of the constituent Assembly. They continued in their office, representing the Akyab district North constituency till Burmese independence and took the oath of allegiance to the Union of Burma on the 4th January 1948 as members of the new parliament of the Union of Burma.

Parliamentary Elections during 1948-1962

Since the holding of the constituent Assembly till 1962 military took over, three general elections were held for both Chambers of the Parliament in 1952, 1956 and 1960 respectively. The Rohingyas had enjoyed the right to vote and the right to be elected in all the elections. In 1952, Mr. Sultan Ahmed, Daw Aye Nyunt (a) Zohora Begam, Mr. Abul Bashar and U Poe Khine (a) Nasir Uddin were elected as members of the Chamber of Deputies and Mr. Abdul Gaffer was elected as a member of the Chamber of Nationalities. In 1956, Mr. Sultan Ahmed, Mr. Abul Khair, Mr. Abul Bahsar and Mr. Ezahar Mian were elected as the members of the Chamber of Deputies and Mr. Abdul Gaffer remained as a member of the Chamber of Nationalities. A by-election was held for the Buthidaung North Constituency in 1957 as the election of Mr. Ezahar Main was challenged and the verdict was given against him. Mr. Sultan Mahmood was elected and he was inducted in the cabinet of U Nu as a Minister of Health. In 1960, Mr. Rashid Ahmed, Mr. Abul Khair, Mr. Abul Bahsar and Mr. Sultan Mahmood were elected as members of the Chamber of Deputies while Mr. Abdus Suban was elected as a member of the Chamber of Nationalities.

General Election during 1962- 1988 in BSPP Regime

During the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) regime, four general elections for the People’s assembly and People’s Council at different levels were held in 1974, 1978, 1982 and 1986 respectively. These elections had been held on the basis of the 1974 Constitution.

Under the 1974 Constitution and 1973 Election Law, ‘citizens born of parents both of whom are Union nationals and citizens born of parents both of whom are Union citizens, have the right to be elected people’s representatives to the People’s Assembly or People’s Council at different levels. Persons who are not citizens of the Union of Burma have no right to vote.’

According to the 1974 Constitution, ‘citizens are those who are born of the parents whom are nationals of the Socialist Republic of Union of the Burma and who are vested with citizenship according to existing laws on the date of this constitution comes into force.’

Former Minister for Mines Dr. Nyi Nyi and Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Minister U Win Ko had to resign from the position of the members of cabinet and People’s Assembly, as they could not fulfill the requirement of the said law.

The Rohingyas had enjoyed the right to vote and the right to be elected as people’s representatives to the Organ of State power at different levels. No Rohingya who had either been elected or who had applied for the nomination had neither been challenged nor barred from participation or asked to resign after being elected.

Multi-Party Election of 1990

SLORC held multi-party general election in May 1990. The Rohingya were not only allowed to vote but also, in their exercise of franchise, elected four Rohingya members of Parliament. U Chit Lwin (a) Ebrahim, Mr. Fazal Ahmed, U Kyaw Min (a) Shomshul Anwarul Haque, and U Tin Maung (a) Nur Ahmed have been elected as members of the Parliament.

1990 election was held in according to the 1982 Burmese Citizenship Law. Under the1989 election law ‘all citizens, associate citizens and naturalized citizens are permitted to vote, but only the citizens are allowed to stand for election. No foreign residents were allowed to vote.’ Thus, allowing taking part in the national elections must be upheld as a measure of recognition for the Rohingyas as full citizens even under 1982 Citizenship Law.

In fact the Rohingyas were not only permitted to vote but also to form their own political parties during the May 1990 election. Two parties were formed the Students and Youth League for Mayu Development and the National Democratic and Human Rights (NDPHR). The NDPHR won all four seats in Maung Daw and Buthidaung constituencies, and in each constituency votes for the two parties counted for 80 per cent of the total votes cast. Moreover, the turnout in both constituencies equaled the national average, at 70 per cent of eligible voters. The NDPHR also fielded candidates in four other constituencies; Kyuk Taw-1, Minbya-1, Mrauk U -2 and Sittwe -2, and they gained an average of 17 per cent of the votes while the Government- backed National Unity Party got only 13 per cent.

Although the name of Rohingya was not permitted to use in the party title, the NDPHR was allowed to produce a booklet in Burmese called ‘Arakan and the Rohingya people: a short History’ on August 31, 1991.

General Election held by SPDC in 2010

A general election was held in Burma (Myanmar) on 7 November 2010, in accordance with the new constitution. This constitution was approved in a referendum held in May 2008, which was held in the midst of Cyclone Nargis.

Since 2008, Brig-Gen Phone Swe, Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, was assigned for the assessment of North Arakan situation and to organize the peoples residing there for the constitutional referendum. Brig-Gen Phone Swe managed over whelming support from Rohingyas 2008 constitutional referendum to the satisfaction of the junta. They want the same support and cooperation from Rohingyas at the coming 2010 election with joining Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) a political affiliate of SPDC.

A total of 37 political parties contested in this election, which included two Rohingya political parties also contested – – National Democratic Party for Development (NDPD) and National Democratic and Peace Party (NDPP). Some independent Rohingya candidates also contested in the election.

Out 33 Rohingya contested in the polls, 21 contested with NDPD ticket, 6 with USDP ticket, 3 with NDPP ticket and 3 independent candidates. U Htay Win (a) Zahidur Rahman with USDP ticket was elected for the Nationalities Parliament. U Aung Zaw Win (a) Zakir Ahmed and U Shwe Maung (a) Abdul Razak both with USDP tickets were elected for the People’s Parliament. U Aung Myo Myint (a) Jahan Gir with USDP ticket, U Aung Myint (a) Zahiddullah and U Bashir Ahmed both with NDPD tickets were elected for the State Parliament. The Rohingyas of North Arakan were overwhelmingly gone to vote with average turnover of more than 90%.

The citizenship issue was a settled issue and the Muslims of Arakan who identify themselves Rohingya are citizens by birth. As they, their parents and their grandparents were born and bred in Burma and most of them were indigenous, under the sub clauses (i), (ii) and (iii) of Article 11, of 1947 Constitution of Union of Burma. These are fundamental rights of a citizen and the 1947 constitution provided safeguard for fundamental rights. Under this constitution, the people of Burma irrespective of ‘birth, religion, sex or race’ equally enjoyed all the citizenships rights including right to express, right to assemble, right to associations and unions, settle in any part of the Union, to acquire property and to follow any occupation, trade, business or profession. Rohingyas never be illegal immigrants rather they are emigrants from Burma who are illegally staying in deferent parts of the world.

In spite of the Rohingyas, being one of indigenous races of Burma, had enfranchised in all the national elections of Burma from later colonial period to present Then Sein regime, today they were barred from the recent election deliberately being branded as aliens.


About Author:
Mr. Aman Ullah, a Rohingya historian based in Bangladesh and he was a former school teacher in Ann township and the southern part of Maungdaw, Arakan State, Myanmar, who has contributed in the field of Rohingya history and humanitarian stance.