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A Tragic Legacy: the Rohingya Genocide and the Partition of Burma / Myanmar - Online Partition Museum

A Tragic Legacy: the Rohingya Genocide and the Partition of Burma / Myanmar

Rohingya people in tents in a refugee camp (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The modern history of Burma, now Myanmar, has been marred by political upheavals, ethnic tensions, and humanitarian crises. One of the darkest chapters in this narrative is the Partition of Burma in 1937, which laid the foundation for the Rohingya crisis that continues to unfold today. This blog post delves into the historical context of the Partition and examines how it sowed the seeds of the Rohingya crisis, shedding light on the plight of not just the Rohingya people that live in the Rakhine state of Myanmar.

The Partition of Burma (1937)

The year 1937 marked a critical juncture in Burma’s history when it was separated from British India, becoming an autonomous entity. This shift in political dynamics had far-reaching consequences for the diverse ethnic groups within the region, including the Rohingya people who are Muslim. The majority population in Burma is Budhist. Primarily concentrated in the coastal Rakhine State, the Rohingya have a distinct cultural and historical identity that has, unfortunately, become entangled in the complex web of Burma’s post-colonial challenges.

The Rohingya people found themselves marginalized in the new nation and subjected to discriminatory policies by the Burmese authorities. Despite being one of the ethnic majority groups in Rakhine State, the Rakhine people faced their own set of challenges, including restrictions on cultural practices and limitations on political representation.

The Burma Conference and the Forgotten Partition (1931-1932)

The Partition of Burma was not a singular event but was a result of deliberations during the Burma Conference convened in London between November 1931 and January 1932. The conference aimed to devise a constitution that could alleviate the concerns of anti-separatist elements. One significant outcome of these deliberations was the creation of “Excluded Areas” as a permanent feature for ethnic minorities in Burma.

The Arakan Hill Tracts were designated as an Excluded Area under the Government of Burma Act, while the rest of Arakan was integrated with Burma. When Aung San, the premier of the British Crown Colony of Burma, concluded the historic Panglong Agreement in February 1947 for a new federal arrangement, only representatives from Shan, Chin, and Kachin Excluded Areas were signatories to the agreement.

Anticipating their exclusion from political life, Arakanese Muslims petitioned Muhammad Ali Jinnah in May 1946 to annex the Maungdaw region of Arakan to East Pakistan. However, Jinnah rejected the idea, emphasizing that the 1937 separation had firmly placed Arakan within Burma.

The colonial instrument of separation, enacted 85 years ago, though forgotten, remains consequential not only for Burma but also for the rest of South Asia.

Statelessness and Discrimination of Rohingya

The Rohingya people’s struggles became particularly pronounced as Burma’s military regime implemented policies that targeted minority groups. The introduction of the 1982 Citizenship Law further exacerbated their situation. This law effectively rendered the Rohingya people of Rakhine stateless by denying them citizenship, perpetuating a cycle of exclusion and discrimination.

For the Rohingya people, this marked the beginning of their status as a stateless population. Denied citizenship and facing systemic discrimination, they found themselves caught between the policies of an oppressive regime and the complex tapestry of ethnic and religious tensions within the region.

The Rohingya Genocide

Injured Rohingya woman and child in a refugee camp (image from Wikimedia Commons)

While the Rohingya have faced a systematic genocide and borne the brunt of persecution and displacement, they have also faced significant challenges due to their marginalized status. The interplay of historical grievances, political instability, and discriminatory policies has fueled tensions between various communities in Rakhine State, contributing to the complex landscape that gave rise to the ongoing Rohingya genocice since 2016.

The Extensive Use of Rape as a Weapon

It is crucial to acknowledge the horrific reality that the Rohingya crisis involves extensive use of rape as a weapon of war. Reports and investigations have revealed the systematic and widespread sexual violence perpetrated against Rohingya women and girls. This abhorrent tactic has not only resulted in immense physical and psychological trauma but also contributes to the broader pattern of ethnic cleansing and genocide.


The Rohingya crisis is a tragic consequence of historical factors set in motion by the Partition of Burma in 1937. As we examine the roots of this crisis, it is essential to recognize the broader context that includes the plight of the Rakhine people, who, like the Rohingya, have faced statelessness and discrimination. Addressing the complex web of ethnic and religious tensions in the region requires not only immediate humanitarian assistance but also a comprehensive approach that acknowledges the challenges faced by all marginalized communities, fostering a path towards inclusivity and justice. The international community plays a crucial role in holding the Burmese government accountable and working towards a sustainable and inclusive future for Myanmar and its diverse populations.