Current News

Rohingya and Their Struggling for Their Right to Self-Determination

By Aman Ullah

“All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” UN Resolution 1514 (1960)

The world today is about the individual, not the state. It is about self-organization, just business has experienced the shift to self-management. The world is being run by the collective judgments and actions of individuals. The deployment of power is shifting from state to individual, from vertical to horizontal. Politics will reemerge as the engine of individualism.

The world’s trends point overwhelmingly toward political independence and self-rule. The new era is an ear of self-rule for the peoples around the world. Self-rule is the pillar of democracy. People all over world are beginning to seize that opportunity. Many people of the world today want self-rule and everyday they see others getting self-rule, or moving toward it.

The Union of Burma became independent in 1948 only after extensive negotiations led by General Aung San, who convinced most ethnic minority groups to join the new union. The Panglong Agreement of 1947 outlined minority rights and specifically gave the Shan and Karenni peoples the option to secede from the union a decade after independence. Yet these constitutional guarantees were never fully respected. The identities and equality of the ethnic people were slowly eroded away. Nationalism, Burman control, and Buddhism have continued to be essential elements of political legitimacy and the endeavor to create national identity under all regimes. Almost immediately upon the independence, Burma was thrown into a series of brutal ethnic wars that have continued with varying intensity to this day. Thus, the Union of Burma today is facing unprecedented crisis- economic, social and political. Even the survival of the Union is also at stake.

The crisis in the Union of Burma today is rooted in political problem, specially a constitutional one that rooted in question of self-determination for non-Burman nationalities. Thus, these differences can be resolved through political means and through political process, i.e. through political dialogue, negotiations and compromise, and through establishing a genuine Federal Union of Burma, which will guarantee democratic rights for all citizens, political equality for all nationalities and the rights of self-determination for all member states of the Union. A federal system that combines and balances between “self-rule” for ethnic national homelands and a “shared-rule” for the Union is federal system.

Arakan, also known as Rohang, was long famous and widely known to Arabs, Dutch, Portuguese and British traders as a center of international trade and commerce and is situated in the tri-border region between modern day –Burma, Bangladesh and India. Arakan holds a major geopolitical position: apart from being at the outermost bounds of the Indian sub-continent and of South-east Asia, Arakan also represents a meeting point between a Muslim and Hindu Asia and a Buddhist Asia, as well as between the Indian and Tibetan-Burmese populations. Arakan, now incorporated into Burma/Myanmar,

The ethnic Rohingya is one of the many nationalities of the union of Burma. And they are one of the two major communities of Arakan; the other is Rakhine and Buddhist. The Muslims (Rohingyas) and Buddhists (Rakhines) peacefully co-existed in the Arakan for many centuries. In addition to Muslim (Rohingya) and Buddhist (Rakhine) majority groups, a number of other minority peoples also come to live in Arakan, including the Chin, Kamans, Thet, Dinnet, Mramagri, Mro and Khami who, though many are Christians today, were traditionally animists. The Kamans are Muslims and the Mramagri (Baurwa) are Buddhists. Some ethnic Burman also comes to live in Arakan since 1784 after invasion and occupation by the Burman.

Although it is made a part of Burma now, it had never been in the past. Culturally, socially, economically, and politically the people of Arakan were independent for many centuries. Arakan history as an independent and sovereign kingdom came to an end by the invasion and occupation of Burman in 1784. However, before Bodawphaya could consolidate his power over Arakan, the British occupied and annexed it in 1824 to the British India. When Burma was separated from India in 1937 in according to the 1935 Burma Act Arakan was made a part of British Burma against the wish of its people and finally it became a province of Independent Burma on January4, 1948.

By transferring the sovereignty of Arakan to the Union of Burma the peoples of Arakan lost their legitimate right to self-determination, which is an individual and collective right to “freely determine . . . political status and [to] freely pursue . . . economic, social and cultural development.” And the right to self-determination of the people of Arakan is also defended by the principle that the determination of the political future of a colonized people made either by the colonial power itself or a “ruler” established by the colonial power is repugnant to the process of de-colonization and the principle of self-determination.

In fact, the British while de-colonizing Burma should not transfer the sovereignty of Arakan over Burma without the native people’s consent, which is violation of the UN resolution 1514-XV. The sovereignty over a colonial territory resides with the people of that colony and not with the colonialist power. It is also clearly violated the Resolution 2625-XXV of the General Assembly of the United Nations, which stated that all colonial territories have juridical status that is separate and distinct from the colonialist country, and from other colonial territories, and is separate juridical status remains as long as the people of each of this colonial territory have not yet exercised their right of self-determination.

British’s transfer of ‘sovereignty’ over Arakan to Burma was, therefore, downright illegal and it was a forcible annexation to the Union of Burma. There is no legality and juridical values of the Treaty on the transfer of ‘sovereignty’ between British and Burma signed on October 7, 1947, especially concerning the transfer of ‘sovereignty’ over Arakan to Burma. Firstly, the Treaty clearly violated the decolonization principles of the UN and the right of self-determination of the people of Arakan. Secondly, the Treaty was signed neither by representation of the people of Arakan nor got mandate from the people of Arakan to do so. Thirdly, the power and authority of the people of Arakan was arbitrarily ignored in the Treaty. Finally, the transfer took place without consulting the people of Arakan by plebiscite or referendum, and doing it outside all the established international norms and procedures.

The letter of Panlong and spirit of Panglong was not related to the people of Arakan. It was neither delegated nor represented by the people of Arakan. There was no cooperation or participation from the people of Arakan except a few Rakhine political leaders who were under the AFPFL flag participated there as the member of the AFPFL.

The Arakanese helped the Allied Forces in their offensive to drive the Japanese out of Burma. As a matter of fact, the Arakanese had been given to understand that they would become independent separately according to Atlantic Charter which promised independence to the colony which helped the Allied Forces to win the war. However, the dream to become an independent of the Arakanese was never come to true.

Thus, nothing else was changed in Arakan after ‘independence’ except change of hands. The portion of time preceding Burmese independence was very dark for the people of Arakan. The people of Arakan hardly believe that Burman governs them, but they strongly feel that they are colonized. After being integrated into Burma the people of Arakan have been a part of unitary of Union of Burma during which time they have been subjected to brutal and inhuman treatment; human rights abuses, killings, rapes, ignorance, poverty and social injustice and have been subjected virtual ethnic and cultural genocide.

Rohingyas are Muslims who have been living in Arakan for time immemorial. They trace their ancestry to Arabs, Moors, Pathans, Moguls, Bengalis and some Indo-Mongoliod people. They are living in Arakan generation after generation for centuries after centuries and their arrival in Arakan has predated the arrival of many other peoples and races now residing in Arakan and other parts of Burma. Early Muslim settlement in Arakan dates back to 7th century AD. They developed from different stocks of people and concentrated in a common geographical location from their own society with a consolidated population in Arakan well before the Burman invasion in 1784.

Rohingyas are much more than a national minority. They are a nation with a population of 3.5 million (both home and abroad), having a supporting history, separate culture, civilization, language and literature, historically settled territory and reasonable size of population and area – they consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the society. They are determined not only to preserve and develop their ancestral history and their ethnic identity, but also to transmit to future generations as the basis of their continued existence as people, in accordance with their own cultural pattern, social institution and legal system. By history, by tradition, by culture and civilization, the Rohingyas are as much citizens of Burma as anyone else in the Country. They are equal in every way with other communities of the country.

The Rohingyas are an indigenous people characterized by objective criteria, such as historical continuity, and subjective factors including self-identification, which need to define an indigenous people, and entitled to have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. Being indigenous peoples, they have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, economic, social and cultural characteristics, as well as their legal systems, while retaining their rights to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of State. They have not only the right to a nationality but also have the right to their lands, territories and resources, which derive from their political, economic and social structures and from their cultures, spirituals traditions, histories and philosophies.

The Rohingyas are a social group, characterized by objective elements of common language, acquire subjective consciousness of oneness and have, in addition, enduring relationship to a defined territory, so, they constituted a ‘PEOPLE’ in international law having their right to self-determination.

Article 1 in both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) reads: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. “The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights article 15 states that everyone has the right to a nationality and that no one should be arbitrarily deprived of a nationality or denied the right to change nationality.

A “people” is a group of individuals who unanimously choose a separate state. If the “people” are unanimous in their desire for self-determination, it strengthens their claim. There is not yet a recognized legal definition of “peoples” in international law and present international law does not recognize ethnic and other minorities as separate peoples, with the notable exception of cases in which such groups are systematically disenfranchised by the government of the state they live in. Criteria for the definition of “people having the right of self-determination” was proposed during 2010 Kosovo case decision of the International Court of Justice: 1.Traditions and culture 2.Ethnicity 3.Historical ties and heritage 4.Language 5.Religion 6.Sense of identity or kinship 7.The will to constitute a people 8.Common suffering.

In spite of that, since 1948, Series of armed operations, with frequent state patronized communal riots, have been engineered one after another, resulting in massive drive of Rohingyas from their homeland of Arakan. As a result, since 1948, about 2 million Rohingyas have been expelled or have to flee their ancestral homeland for their lives.

The successive Regimes were busy to make the whole Rohingya people forcible dispossession of their population and expulsion from their homeland by means of murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, executions, rape and sexual assault, military and paramilitary attacks on civilians, robbery and extortion, destruction of cultural and religious buildings and monuments, destruction of homes, confinement of civilians in camps, purposeful starvation, and some others in the most inhuman manner.

Successive Regimes dehumanized the Rohingya in their official propaganda and depicted as amoral or dangerous to society. Officials falsify history and present justifications for why the entire
group, to include the elderly, women, and children, must be viewed as guilty. They always try to deny and to reject the Rohingya not only as one of the country’s indigenous peoples but also their citizenship rights although the presence of Rohingya in Arakan was prior 1780s.

The Burmese successive military governments have singled out the Rohingya as a ‘threat to national security.’ The country’s military, the backbone of all governments since 1962, has pursued varied and evolving strategies to reduce, remove, replace, relocate and otherwise destroy the Rohingya. The state’s strategies range from framing the Rohingya as ‘British colonial era farm coolies’ from the present day Bangladesh who came to British Burma only after the 1820s to painting the impoverished and oppressed Rohingya as potential Islamists intent on importing terrorism from the Middle East. From formulating and spreading the view of the Rohingya as aliens to enacting a national citizenship law to strip the Rohingya of their right of belonging – citizenship – to Burma. Even since 2012, they have lost not only their right to citizenship but also their right to self-identification and their right to enfranchise. Even their right to live is also at stake.

In spite of the above reality, ever since Burmese independence in 1948, the Rohingyas have been fighting for their very survival as a people. They have been struggling for their “ Rights of self-determination”: which will guarantees their collective rights; the right to rule their homeland by themselves, the right to practice their religious teaching and culture freely, the right to teach, learn and promote their language freely, and the right to up-hold their identity without fear and live peacefully together with others. They have long been trying to identify themselves with the Union of Burma on the basis of equality and justice. They have long been searching a political and legal system which will allow them to rule their respective homelands by themselves, and at same time living peacefully together with others who practice different religions and cultures and speak different languages. In other words, they have long been searching a political system which can combine and balance between “self-rule” for different ethnic groups and “shared-rule” for all the peoples in the Union of Burma.


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.