Like so many of South Asia’s flashpoints, the Rohingya crisis has roots in the bloody Partition of 1947.
As Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) celebrated 70 years of independence in January 2018, the “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing unfolding in the northwestern part of the country continued. The plight of the Bengali-speaking Muslim population of Rakhine state (formerly Arakan province), which can be traced back to the 19th century, follows the larger pattern of violent ethnic conflicts rooted in religion, language, and mass migration that have plagued the Indian subcontinent immediately prior to and soon after its 1947 Partition.
Where does the Partition fit in terms of the persecution of the Rohingya population, and to what end?
Integral to the southern Silk Road, the Arakan region played host to Arab traders since the 8th century A.D., when its first Muslim inhabitants arrived. Later, the Mrauk-U Buddhist kingdom (1429-1785) emerged in the region concurrent to the neighboring Bengal Sultanate. After the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26), when the Arakan region first came under British control, the colonial administrators began to encourage the migration of low-skilled Bengali-speaking laborers — mostly poor Muslims and some Hindus — into the tea and rubber plantations of Arakan as a cheap workforce, thus further expanding the local Muslim population.
By the Third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885, when Burma officially became part of the British India, migration from the Bengal presidency to Arakan reached its height — so much so that in the 1920s and 1930s, the large size of the Bengali-speaking Muslim population threatened the majority Buddhist Bamar population, leading to violent agitation. Burma did not remain a part of British India for long, and under the 1935 Government of Burma Act, it became a separate crown colony in 1937. This had serious political and military repercussions within a few years, when the British were compelled to wage their longest military campaign of World War II in that very region.
The Burma Campaign (1941-45), often hailed as the “forgotten war,” not merely brought international geopolitics at the doorstep of British India but also transformed the Bengali-speaking Muslims of Arakan into willful strategic players. With two colonial powers locking horns in Burma — Japan promising independence and Britain struggling to retain control of its crown colony — the Rohingyas cooperated with the British in the hope that they would be granted administrative autonomy. After the British retreat in early 1942, the northern Arakan region erupted in retributive communal violence against pro-British Rohingyas perpetrated by the pro-Japanese Buddhist population. During the three British-led Arakan Campaigns, the Rohingyas were recruited as part of the “V Force” — the wartime British intelligence-gathering guerilla group— against the Japanese.
By late 1944, the pro-Japanese Burmese military units had grown disillusioned with the Japanese and Tokyo’s promise of Burmese independence. Aung San, the military leader of the Burma National Army and father of Aung San Suu Kyi, decided to switch loyalty to the British, leading to the 1945 Kandy Conference at the Allied headquarters of the South East Asia Command in present-day Sri Lanka. The Kandy Conference established ethnically homogenous class battalions in Burma to keep peace in the military ranks but initiated no effort to develop a unified civilian government. British colonial administrators found that problematic but were overruled by the Supreme Allied Commander of the South East Asia Command, Lord Louis Mountbatten.
In February 1947, Mountbatten would become the Viceroy of India, and together with Cyril Radcliffe oversee the hasty and violent Partition of the British Empire in South Asia into India and Pakistan. That Partition would lead to about a million deaths and displacement of around 20 million people.
In postwar British Burma, the colonial rulers conferred on the Rohingyas significant administrative posts in Arakan as reward for their wartime participation in the British military efforts against the Japanese. The Rohingya leaders used their newly found positions of leverage to seek administrative autonomy, but in vain. As the Partition of British India loomed large, the Rohingyas hoped to join the future Muslim-majority province of East Pakistan. In May 1946, they sent a group of leaders to meet with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the soon-to-be founding president of Pakistan, requesting that the two Muslim-majority townships of Buthidaung and Maungdaw be incorporated into the new Muslim country. Carving East Pakistan out of Bengal was posing its own complex demographic challenges. Understandably, Jinnah refused to interfere in what he considered the internal affairs of Burma.
Ethnic minorities were not unique to the Arakan region: there were the Karens, Chins, Kachins, and Shans among others, who were also distinct from the majority Buddhist Bamar population. The Rohingyas were the only Muslim group. It is perhaps to keep peace in the ethnically heterogeneous country that the September 1947 Burmese constitution, which entered into effect with the country’s independence, incorporated the right of provinces to secede from the Union of Burma within the first ten years.
After Burmese independence in 1948, the mistreatment of Rohingyas by the Burmese military led to admonition by neighboring Pakistan. Many Rohingyas were fleeing to what was then East Pakistan, where they found a population not only receptive to their plight but also responsive through economic and military support for the persecuted. While much has been claimed about the Islamization of the Rohingyas, their mujahideens or freedom fighters waging a jihad or holy war against the Burmese state go back to the 1950s. Despite the similarity in terminology, the Rohingya rebels were distinct from the transnational Islamist terror networks of the 1970s. Since the Rohingya rebels often sought and found support on the other side of the border, the Burmese government of U Nu directed Pe Khin, the Urdu-speaking Burmese ambassador to Pakistan, to seek an understanding that Pakistan would no longer aid the Rohingya rebels. By that time, the tide had turned in Pakistan: it, too, faced a separatist challenge in its eastern province, where language-based nationalism had taken root calling for a free “Bangladesh” for Bengali-speaking Muslims, independent of Urdu-speaking West Pakistan.
Bengali nationalism in East Pakistan reached its height in the aftermath of police brutalities against protesters at the University of Dhaka on February 21, 1952. In 1954, Cassim, the leader the Rohingya rebels, was arrested in Chittagong by East Pakistani authorities. Until the 1971 war leading to the creation of Bangladesh, the cause of the Rohingyas oppressed by the Buddhist majority of Burma was not dissimilar to the struggles of the Bengali Muslims repressed by Urdu-speaking Pakistan. Operation Nagamin of 1978 and the 1982 Citizenship Act by the Ne Win government completed the political and legal otherization of the Rohingyas as we understand today. The former was a Burmese military-led ethnic cleansing leading to over 200,000 fleeing to newly independent Bangladesh using similar routes as those of the refugees in the current conflict. The latter made it impossible for Rohingyas to establish their citizenship in Myanmar till this day.
Borderlands and Nation-States
The 1947 birth of the two nation-states of India and Pakistan was bloody and disruptive, and the heartaches of Partition are yet to heal after 70 years. The borderlands — Balochistan, Northwest Frontier Province, Kashmir, Chittagong Hill Tracts, Assam, Nagaland, Arakan, and elsewhere — have kept bleeding since. The permeable borders, overlapping ethnic loyalties, and resource scarcity have transformed these transnational conflicts into direct threats to the survival of the new nation-states that have sprung up since the latter half of the 20th century.
Today, the basic pattern of ethnic conflict involving the Rohingyas in Myanmar — Bengali-speaking Muslims (and some Hindus) of South Asian heritage vs. Buddhists of Sino-Tibetan heritage — is observable in violent localized conflicts experienced across multiple nation-states in South Asia. This includes the Indian states of West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Nagaland, and Mizoram, the Chittagong region of Bangladesh, and the Arakan or Rakhine state of Myanmar. Ethnic conflicts and related mass migration have led to multiple standoffs, including the 1979 Marichjhapi incident in West Bengal, the 1980 Kaokhali massacre in Chittagong, and the 1983 Nellie massacre in Assam, among others.
The insurgencies against nation-states that have plagued these borderlands have benefited from popular sympathy, benign neglect, and even active government support on the other side of the border. The informal economies of the borderlands, characterized by smuggling and criminal networks, have offered a steady supply of weapons, people, and money, thus leading to a thriving ecosystem of insurgencies, Islamist and otherwise. The Mizos and Nagas fighting for secession from the Indian state continue to have operational bases in northern Myanmar. The “Shanti Bahini” (literally meaning Peace Army) of the Chakma tribe fighting the Bangladeshi state since the 1970s in the Chittagong Hill Tracts had bases in the Indian state of Tripura. The Rohingya Solidarity Organization formed after the 1978 Operation Nagamin had bases near Cox’s Bazar in the Chittagong district of Bangladesh, as does the present-day militant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
While there are concerns about radicalization of the Rohingyas in refugee camps in Bangladesh, little substantive evidence exists to implicate the ARSA with ties to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. ARSA’s recent pledge to fight the Myanmar government, and the Myanmar military’s admission to killing Rohingyas, whose bodies were discovered in a mass grave, mean that this will be a protracted violent conflict.
No 1971 Redux
The December 1971 intervention by the Indian military in East Pakistan on behalf of the Bengali-speaking Muslims facing genocide by the Urdu-speaking Pakistani military did not generate support in the international community as a humanitarian intervention. The 13-day event led to the military defeat of Pakistan at the hands of India, and the consequent creation of the sovereign country of Bangladesh. The international community was as indifferent then to the genocide of East Pakistanis as it is now to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas. So, if military action under what we now call the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) were to take place it would have to be singularly undertaken by Bangladesh — it has an international border with the Arakan/Rakhine state and is host to the largest number of Rohingya refugees — or together with India, which is militarily superior, host to about 40,000 Rohingya refugees itself, and has a sizeable Bengali-speaking population of its own in the states of West Bengal and Tripura. But, is such an R2P intervention at all likely?
Three main factors prevent a 1971 redux. First, unlike 1971, when there was an outpouring of support from Hindu Bengalis in the Indian state of West Bengal for East Pakistan, no such solidarity exists for the Rohingyas. Furthermore, in resource-scarce developing countries, refugees fleeing violence compete with locals for already strained socio-economic assets. As a result, despite initial empathy, the welcome by the locals wears out fast. For example, only months prior to the 1971 war, violent clashes broke out between refugees and locals in West Bengal causing instability, and within days of the end of the war even before the situation had completely stabilized, refugees from camps in West Bengal were sent back in large numbers to newly created Bangladesh.
Second, the transnational nature of multiple insurgent networks that operate against the three countries — India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar — makes it hard for Dhaka and New Delhi to adopt a strong stance against Naypyidaw. Both India and Bangladesh need the cooperation of Myanmar to ensure that the Chakmas, Assamese, Mizos, and Nagas do not cause further destabilization within their own territories. The transnational character of separatist militancy in the region often leads the nation-states in the region to speak with one voice. Soon after the 1971 war, New Delhi helped the Mujibur Rehman government of Bangladesh to tackle the separatist challenge in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, which Indian diplomat, K.P.S. Menon, defended in the following words: “Bangladesh asked for help in combating armed and hostile Mizos. We responded.” This “should not be construed as instability of Bangladesh or of its Government. Almost every country has similar problems e.g. India with Nagas, but that does not mean that India is unstable nor that its Government is not in firm control of the country.”
Third, the elephant in the room is the Sino-Indian rivalry in the region, which Myanmar stands to benefit from. Although China had been a long-term partner of Myanmar’s military junta, Beijing’s clout had witnessed a gradual downturn since Myanmar’s democratization. Moreover, between 2015 and 2017, there have been numerous violent clashes between the Indian military and Naga insurgents along India-Myanmar border, including a surgical strike inside Myanmar in 2015. Given the recent rise in Naga insurgency, New Delhi’s military partnership with Naypyidaw has increased several fold, leading to peacekeeping drills, India’s criticism of the Rohingyas as Islamist terrorists, and a pledge of $25 million by New Delhi to ensure the return of the Rohingyas in the Rakhine state of Myanmar.
A humanitarian intervention for the Rohingyas under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter is not likely either. China is still a friend of Myanmar, and to curry favors with the Tatmadaw would veto any United Nations Security Council Resolution that threatened Myanmar’s sovereignty. India has made its position quite clear in opposing the cause of the Rohingyas and calling them a national security threat, which leaves us with Bangladesh. Dhaka lacks both the popular support and the military wherewithal to pull off a 1971-like intervention. Last but not the least, Soviet support of India was pivotal in the Indian military’s daring action in 1971. No great power interests are going to be served in saving the Rohingyas. So, help is improbable. It will be a Rwanda, not a Kosovo.
Jayita Sarkar is assistant professor of international relations at Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies.