A short history of Rakhine State (Myanmar)

By Ali MC
Ali MC

While nearly one million Rohingya people remain stateless in Bangladesh, across the border in their home of Rakhine State, a relatively unknown civil war is flaring up – again. News reports state that fighting between the insurgent group known as the Arakan Army and the Myanmar armed forces have caused around 4,500 civilians to be displaced.

Fighting erupted on 4 January 2019, Myanmar’s Independence Day, when a series of police outposts were attacked. In response, the military launched a number of retaliatory attacks against the ‘rebels’. So, who are the Arakan Army? And what is the fighting all about?

In 2016, when I travelled to Rakhine State, it was relatively open to foreigners. My aim was to learn more about the conflict in the region, in particular the oppression of Rohingya people, but also about the separatist movement by the Arakan Army and related political parties. To better understand the region, one must delve briefly into its history. Prior to British colonisation in 1824, the region once known as Burma was a series of culturally and linguistically diverse independent areas, including the Kachin, the Karen, the Chin, and the Arakan Kingdom (present-day Rakhine).

The Bamar people – who lived in the low lying riverine area on the lower Irrawaddy – were thrust into a position of power by the British due to the policy of indirect rule. This meant that a colonial power would find a particular ethnic group and arm them to dominate and quell any subversion from other ethnic groups. The Bamar (from which the term ‘Burma’ originated) retained power after the collapse of the British Empire in 1948, including the central government and armed forces. Since then, they have remained at war with the various ethnic groups, many of whom continue to fight for independence. Today, the government and military forces remain predominantly made up of ethnic Bamar Buddhists.

Before colonisation, Rakhine used to be known as the Arakan Kingdom, and very much had its own distinct culture. Given its isolation from the rest of Burma, forced by a large mountain range, the area saw a vast amount of trade and migration from the area now known as southern Bangladesh. The two regions are separated only by the River Naf. As such, the Muslim Rohingya – who originated from Bangladesh – had migrated to Arakan for centuries and lived among the Buddhist Arakanese; they married, they had children and lived harmoniously together.

However, the creation of the nation-state ‘Burma’ by the British meant the collapse of the independent Arakan Kingdom, and brought the dominance of the Bamar ethnic group to the region, which was renamed ‘Rakhine’. Today, this dominance continues, and many Arakanese people want independence from the central Myanmar government. This includes both the insurgent Arakan Army and some legitimate political groups such as the Arakan National Party (ANP). Rakhine State is also one of the poorest areas in Myanmar. This is despite the fact that it is rich in natural resources, which are largely siphoned out of the region with little to no return investment, fuelling contemporary resentment and the rise of armed groups such as the Arakan Army.

The stateless Rohingya are caught in such divisive and violent tensions, and sadly, the ethnic divisions resulting from colonisation have meant the Rohingya have no ally in the Buddhist Arakanese. In 2012, 140,000 Rohingya were interned in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps near the capital Sittwe, and were separated into Rohingya-only villages, with strict restrictions placed upon them.

Then, in August 2017, rampant military attacks against Rohingyan villages in the regional areas resulted in the mass exodus across the river into Bangladesh. These attacks have been officially termed a genocide by the United Nations. The recent attacks by the Arakan Army indicate that conflict in the area has not subsided, and may in fact be increasing. And with Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration calling on the Myanmar armed forces to “crush” the Arakan Army after the latest flare up, it would appear that peace in the region is a long way off.


  • Thein Maung

    a very selective perspective of the problems in Yakhine State by Ali MC, Burma (Myanmar) it should be considered:
    1. before colonisation and the period one selects is confusion confounded with at any one period the control by the Bamars, were from Manipur and even portions of todays Bangladesh right within regions in Thailand.
    2. the period as of colonisation of the Indian Peninsula and including Burma would be convenient as in fact all of Burma was a Province within the then British India and was only separated in 1937 from India.
    At the time of the British Burma Period Muslims in Yakhine Sate were in Census Records referred to as Indian Muslims ( never Rohingyas), inasmuch as the Muslims in India were referred to as Indian Muslims too. Commonly Indian Muslims were called Chittagomians in Yakhine Sate because of there very similar features, dress, religion( Muslims) and close language similarity as opposed to be totally different to the spoken Burmese and or Yakhine dialect.
    3. 1931 census of Arakan: 100,000 Indian Muslims
    1947 Record by Mr. Abdul Gaffar MP Maungdaw: 400,000 Indian Muslims ( at the same period, Mr. Gaffar submitted to the Govt. of Burma to
    refer to the Muslims of Arakan as Rohingyas!!!
    4. 1946/47: period of similarity and coincidence: India was partitioned into Hindu Majority India and East & West Pakistan Muslim Majority. At the same time, the Muslim Leaders in the Yakhine State petitioned Mr Jinnah of Pakistan to incorporate portions of the Yakhine State within the then East/West Pakistan ” TO BE WITH THEIR MUSLIM BROTHERS” – the very beginning of the seeds of division and like it or not the Muslim/Buddhist problems. Fortunately Mr. Jinnah in his wisdom declined, failing which the Muslim Leaders and most likely with the support of the Muslims in Yakhine began the Mujahideen Insurgency, which has been going on for the last 70 years or more with the very recent 2016/17 mass exodus of Muslims from Yakhine State to Bangladesh ( approx. 1,000,000 -1million +/-)
    5 hereagain for reasons best known to Ali MC, no mention ever made to where the current estimated 3.5 Million ( according to UN statics) Rohingyas have appeared from? other than:
    In 1971: the Bangladesh War of Liberation, more than 500,000 Bangladesh Muslims took refugee in Yakhine State and have been there right up to the 2016/17 period – a period of 45/46 years or so, living of the generosity of the people of Myanmar and of course like all faithful Muslims increasing and multiplying like God only knows what, that the UN figure of 3.5 million is probably arrived by through those efforts and off the land of Suvannabumi.
    6. I put it to Ali MC can you in confidence accept the claim of all the refugees in Bangladesh and those elsewhere outside of Myanmar as being entitled to Myanmar Citizenship, leave alone calling themselves Rohingyas.
    7. As for the Authorities and the UN, Human Rights and all and sundry DO GOODERS go back and do your homework and come back with a responsible answer.
    The writer (90 years old) born in Myanmar, can claim inside knowledge of the situation having served in the Arakan 1956 – 60 period and first hand knowledge of the Chittagonians that were employed exclusively by the Irrawaddy Flotilla in Burma Proper and the Arakan Flotilla in Yakhine State, with no personal animosity against Muslims,other than the misguided and misinformed Leaders of the Yakhine Muslims and the people like the ill informed/biased UNHCR, Human Rights ..etc all like Mr. Ali MC very selective of the fact, figures and period.
    Myanmar defends her territory against insurgents from within and without and is more than entitled to use ” ALL IS FAIR IN LOVE & WAR” and any loss of life on the other side, to borrow a western coined phrase COLLATERAL DAMAGE is the result of any war. NOT GENOCIDE – that my Dear friends is what BANGLADESH have suffered at the hands of FELLOW BROTHER MUSLIMS – not at the hands of BUDDHISTS.
    I stand to be corrected and trust that the detractors have the backbone to be honest and call a Spade a Spade.