The Rohingya

In January this year, following a visit to Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, the UN’s Human rights envoy to Myanmar said,

“There are more than a million Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar deprived of some of their most fundamental rights. This is a million too many.”

She met privately with Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw to discuss the future of the Rohingya.

These people have rightly attracted the attention of the International community. They are abandoned and rejected, and many have tried to escape by boat to nearby States. In Myanmar, they are seen as a “self-defined” an unregistered Islamic community with a militant past, at a time of growing anti-Muslim prejudice. The Rakhine province, isolated by a range of mountains from the rest of Burma, was independent before it was annexed in 1785, and the only text from before the late 20th Century to mention the Rohingya by name dates to just 14 years after this annexation. Rakhine was then a stronghold of Buddhism, with a celebrated Statue of the Buddha, the Mahamuni image, which was later transported to Mandalay. Maybe there is a sense that the State has been sidelined and this is shared by both the Buddhist and Islamic communities. Today, certainly, Rakhine Buddhists say they feel vulnerable.

Aung San Suu Kye on the TODAY programme 24th October 2013

What appears to be a simple humanitarian issue shown in the 2013 Meiktila campaign, the deaths and destroyed homes that followed, the atrocities in Mandalay in 2014, the rise of 969 and in the grotesque camps of Sittwe, and an appalling example of State brutality is by no means straightforward. It is compounded by support for Aung San Suu Kyi who seems to follow an agenda in this instance that is comparable to the Nationalist agenda of her father. In a shocking interview with Mishal Husain that she gave to the BBC’s Today programme in October 2013, she justifies the exclusion of the Rohingya community in terms of the war on terror (what she calls “worldwide perception”) and allegedly commented afterwards, “no one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim”. Her comments on and off record seem to suggest that (a) Aung San Suu Kyi is herself prejudiced and (b) that if she wanted to do something to help the community, she could. Significantly, however, she does not deny the rights of the Rohingya to live legitimately in Myanmar. She simply denies that muslims have been subject to a form of ethnic cleansing and goes on to say that

“Muslims have been targeted but Buddhists have also been subject to violence.”

In that interview, she suggests that the violence suffered by the Rohingya is about adjusting to the demands of becoming “a genuine democratic society.” Yet at the same time, she makes no offer to award the Rohingya any citizenship.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s views are actually supported academically by people like Christian Fink, an anthropologist who admits that the Rohingya have been denied citizenship, but also notes the “Buddhist Rakhine population’s fears of a Muslim takeover.” (“Living silence”). This is no reason to deny healthcare, education and citizenship. It also does not address the historical record that the Rohingya voted in the first Constituent Assembly Elections of an independent Burma in 1947. If they were accepted then, it does not really make sense that they are excluded now.

aung san suu kyi by tim.jpgMuch was expected of Aung San Suu Kyi and in 2015, the Dalai Lama observed, “It’s very sad. I mentioned about this problem and she told me she found some difficulties, that things were not simple but very complicated. But in spite of that I feel she can do something.” The Pope has joined criticisms observing that the Rohingya are targeted “simply because they want to live their culture and their Muslim faith.”

Official Silence and Actual threats

Since this interview, Aung San Suu Kyi has failed to take action, and remained silent about the Rohingya, whose plight has simply got worse. This has involved a rise in hate-speech, travel controls, population control, signed by the then President Thein Sein, to restrict the number of children as well as a migration, now thwarted on rickety boats to Thailand and Malaysia. The few refugees who today make it through, are left in no doubt about their country of origin. whiteboards declare them to be from Burma. In October 2016, Benedict Rogers notes that 2000 Rohingyan villagers were held in fields by the army.

This is what John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, said:

“Right now, it is routine for Burmese politicians, Burmese people in all walks of life, to say extremely reactionary and hateful things about the Rohingya population of Burma. Nobody is standing up and saying, ‘No, this is not what democracy is, what modern pluralistic societies are like. Aung San Suu Kyi could have been that person, and she failed to do that.”

The militant monks

The Rohingya face the rising popularity of demagogue monks, among them Ashin Wirathu, Ashin Wimala, and Ashin Parmoukkha who stretch the pacific image of Buddhist monasticism to breaking-point, though arguably it is nothing new (cf U. Ottoma also from Rakhine). They also face political discrimination from a topsy-turvy understanding of law, like Section 295 designed to prevent inter-religious conflict, now used to silence any criticism of Buddhist Nationalism. A new law purporting to be for the Protection of Race and Religion forbids conversion and inter-marriage.

Anti-Muslim propaganda, as well as Rakhine Buddhist fears threaten even greater violence that may entrench community divisions and deepen hostility. This may well explain Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence as, after 50- years of military rule, Myanmar is finally moving towards democracy. While the local population is broadly behind the Democracy movement, it does not seem sympathetic to efforts by the international community to solve the Rohingya problem. The muslim population of Myanmar, of which the Rohingya is now the majority, makes up only 4% of the whole population. In 2015, following the rescue of 1000 refugees off the coast of Ayeyarwady Region, protestors led by monks, demanded the expulsion of what they called the “bengalis”. Initial slogans critical of the UNHCR were removed but slogans demanding that “INGO/NGO respect the truth” remained. The truth they wanted to assert is that the Rohingyas have no right to be in Myanmar at all.

The Union Citizenship Act of 1948

This act, following an earlier act the previous year, and coming just a few years after a serious massacre of the Rohingya by “the Rakhine Maghs”, restricted citizenship to any person “from ancestors who for two generation at least all made any of the terriories included within the Union of Burma their permanent home and whose parents and himself were born in any such territories.” (Section 11 iv) Following this, many Rohingyas were formally registered, given identity cards (NRCs) and allowed to vote. (under section 30 of the 1950 Burma Population Registration Rules states that no foreigner may be thus registered). One wonders, incidentally, how long a foreigner needs to be resident before he or she qualifies for citizenship, of course! This is what MA Gaffer, a member of Parliament, said at the time,

“Though Rohingyas resemble a little with the people of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), their literature, names and tittles, dresses, languages, customs and cultures are as difference as the sky and the earth. Therefore to regard Rohingyas as Chittagonians is a grevious hurt to Rohingyas and a matter of tragedy and a great blow to Rohingya and far from actual history.”

“Although Rohingya’s culture, tradition, history and civilization are not inferior to that of other indigenous races of Burma, Rohingyas are always victims of persecutions, specially, the immigration used to arrest them. In June 1959, 76 Rohingyas were rounded and arrested in Akyab and Mayu districts by the  immigration and were sent to Rangoon by steamer for ultimate dispatch to Gawdu-thoung in Pyapon District.”

“…Section 4(2) of the Union Citizenship Act. also pointed out that those persons whose ancestors had made Burma for two generation as their home and who and whose parents were born in Burma were also citizens of the Union. It had been observed by the court that in Union of Burma there were races who could not speak the Burmese language and who nevertheless were citizens of the Union of Burma.”

In the early 1950s, Government officials, including the Prime Minister of Burma, U Nu, and the Defence Minister U Ba Swe confirmed the identity and rights of the Rohingya. This is what UBa Swe said in November 1959,

“The Rohingyas are equal in every way with other minority races like the Shan, Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Kayah, Mon, and Rakhaine. They have lived in Myanmar Naing Ngan for ages, accordingly to historical facts. They are of the Islamic faith. There is historical evidence that they have lived faithfully and harmoniously with other races of the Union.”

Confusion over 1973 census

There are two approaches to the historical evidence: the first is to establish the origin of the Rohingya peoples and the second is to establish the use of the name “rohingya” itself. the two issues, however, are often (deliberately?) confused by people on both sides of the debate. Certainly, the modern term is a political construct while the weight of evidence suggests that the Rohingya have been in Myanmar for about seven centuries, though there is some confusion about nomenclature.

In the 1973 census, though, they were recognised along with 142 other ethnic groups. This put into law the statement by the Prime Minister in 1960 on Sept 25 that the Rohingya of Arakan were one of the ethnic races of Burma.

However, this was later delisted, admitting only the Kamen to the number of recognised Muslim groups. While this effectively made the Rohingya “foreigners” in Arakan, local Government records at the time do not note an increase in the number of registered aliens. Indeed, in 1972 there are 1192 foreigners recorded by the Arakan Divisional security and administration committee, while in 1975-6, there are 1037 people recorded in the three monthly report by the Arakan State people’s council. No adjustment is allowed for the thousands of Rohingya excluded in the delisting.

1982 Citizenship law

The Rohingya appear today to be utterly displaced, rejected both in Bangladesh and in Myanmar.

“There is after all, very little in common – except common religion – between the Rohingya of Arakan and the Indian Muslims of Rangoon or Burmese Muslim of the Shwebo district. These are different groups that do not identify with each other, do not share the same goal and aspiration.” Moshe Yegar, The Muslim of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group  p. 111

But I believe the Political key to their future lies in the repeal of a fairly recent 1982 Citizenship law which defined citizens as Kayah, Karen, Chin, Burman, Mon, Rakhine, Shan and other ethnic groups settled within Myanmar before 1823. At the same time, this law accepts the Rakhine historians’ claim that the Rohingya were slaves settled in Myanmar after the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1824 and therefore foreigners. (It is this law that effectively brands the Rohingya as foreign, non-indigenous and/or “illegal immigrants” without cultural, religious or social ties to Myanmar) But even so, aliens should be given proper human rights.

Moreover, if the law were quite as clear as it appears, I do not understand why the Myanmar government repatriated so many refugees from the 1992 Rohingya exodus.

The 2 groups

The issue is complicated by the existence of two lists of ethnic groups that underpin the 1982 Citizenship law, one of 101 groups, that is pre-colonial, and a later one that includes 135 specific groups. Neither list mentions the Rohingya. It seems that any legal advance must involve a review of these lists and a recognition that the strict definitions of the past need to be loosened today. In other words, a solution to the Rohingya problem should involve change throughout the country. Some observers question whether it is even right to talk about “national races”.

Defining a group

It is certainly not clear how any of these groups were ever actually defined- is this by self-awareness, language, political affiliation, or some sort of (dare I say?) colour-coding? There is a fundamental, legal and philosophical question that underpins this: Is ethnic identity something we choose for ourselves or something that is imposed on us? Identity is often contested; it is actually fairly fluid and becomes more so as one group is exposed, intermarries and interacts with another.

This is what a British writer in 1945 records,

“The Musulman Arakanese generally known as Bengalis or Chittagonians, quite incorrectly…To look at, they are quite unlike any other product of India or Burma that I have seen. They resemble the Arab in name, in dress and in habit. The women and more particularly the young girls, have distinctive Arab touch about them.. .As a race they have been here over two hundred years.” Anthony lrwin, Burmese Outpost (London: Collins, 1945) p.22.

Just to draw an uncomfortable parallel here- The concept of Jewishness may have seemed clear to the Nazis, but it would not be a definition shared by the average Jewish beth din. In other words, identity is by no means a clear-cut issue.

A solution today?

International Observers today tend to favour the government granting full citizenship and rights to the Rohingya community, but this solution also overlooks the growing tension on the ground. A solution “from above” or from outside the country itself would be unlikely to sort out the tension between the communities, and given the jigsaw of differing ethnic groups that make-up modern-day Myanmar, a solution that is rejected by the Buddhist majority threatens to tear apart this newly emerging Nation.

De facto recognition from 1961-1964

In this historic process of ethnic categorization, the Rohingya has been a largely illiterate group, now denied basic education, that falls by the way. Nevertheless, there is a collective understanding among the Rohingya that they have lived together in the North of Rakhine state for many generations.

Indeed, from 1961-1964, under the “Mayu Frontier Administration” (MFA)there appears to have been some sort of de facto recognition of the community which was governed as a separate province from the rest of Rakhine by the Burmese army. Rohingya language programmes were broadcast on the radio from May 1961-March 1965.

The name “Rohingya”

There are four distinct etymologies that I can find.

The first is that the name Rohingya appears to be an indian form of Rakhine. Bluntly, the term Rohingya could mean simply the people who live in Rakhine. The second, that it derives from the terms Rohai and Roshangee which denote Muslim peoples in old Arakan. It could be a version of the word “Roshanga”, used in Bengali literature in the Chittagong region. Thirdly, it is suggested that it is a corruption of the arabic term Rahim (blessing) or Raham Borri, meaning the Land of God’s blessing.

The fourth etymology is most interesting because it suggests the word derives from the Magh language and refers to the Pathan General Wali Khan and General Sandi Khan who helped to restore Narameikhia to the throne of Longgeret, setting up the Maruk-u-Dynasty in 1433. Narameikhia had formerly been in exile in Bengal.

It is clear that from the 1950s, the Rohingya has emerged as a political and military unit (the RLP and from 1974, the RPF led by Muhammad Jafar Habib and the RSO, disbanded in 1998) with an aim to defining a homeland within Myanmar. The community represents today the “largest Muslim community in Burma” (Andrew Selth 2003). The Rohingya appears to have defined itself in the 1950s but that does not rule out a clear historical record of the community in Myanmar that goes back much further. Three issues are linked: the legal status of the group, the humanitarian crisis and human rights’ violations. The Buddhist Rakhine community have, for the last 30 years contested the legitimacy of the group and it is not immediately clear from the modern debate whether there is a culturally distinct muslim identity but the same debate also confirms the view that the Buddhist majority is the aggressor and the Muslim minority the victim.

“A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire” by Francis Buchanan 1799

History is about perception and, in this case, there are 3 competing historical narratives, from Arakan, Burma and the Rohingya.

The documented history of the Rohingya -“the people that call themselves Rohingya” as David Steinberg (OUP) in 2009 classifies them- begins with an 18th Century reference which is worth examining. That single instance seems to establish both the existence of the community in Myanmar as well as its own claims to a unique and geographical identity. The 18th Century source, admittedly Colonial, specifically deals with the dialect employed by the Rohingya. In the text, Hamilton says that this is one of the dialects of the Burma empire “spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan.”

Claims to earlier communities from 8th Century

There is an argument that the Rohingya community today is the remnant of a much older Bengali settlement that might even predate the arrival of the Buddhist communities. DGE Hall writes, “The Burmese do not seem to have settled in Arakan until possibly as late as 10~ century AD. Hence earlier dynasties are thought to have been Indian, ruling over a population similar to that of Bengal. All the capitals known to history have been in the north near Akyab.”(M.S. Coilis and San Shwe Bu, “Arakan’s Place in the Civilization of the Bay,” Journal of the Burrma Research Society, 50th Anniversary’ Publication, No. 2, Rangoon, 1960, p.486. Hall, D.G.E., A History of South East Asia. (London: Macmillan, 1958) pp328, 389.) and there is a record of Muslim trading in the area  going back to the reign of King Mahatyaing Chandra (780-810). Shipwrecked muslim sailors are said to have settled in villages in Arakan by decree of the Arakanese king. (Sir Arthur P. Phayre, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol. XII, Part I, 1844, p.36. SLORC Government, Thathana Yong War Hmn Zay Poh. Rangoon, 1997, pp. 65-70. M.A. Rahim, Social & Cultural History of Bengal, Vol. I, Karachi, 1963, p.37. U Kyi, B.A. (History Distinction), Myanmar Jazawin Thi Hmet Bweya Apyapya, pp 156-157. The Glass Palace Choronicle, Vol. 2, p. 186.) Ceratinly, tehre is evidence of a large number of captives taken back to Arakan after the rebellion in Chittagong in 1246. As Bengal became Muslim in 1203, it is reasonable to assume that these captives were predominantly Muslim.

The kings of Arakan acquired Muslim titles from their association with Bengal. A stone inscription from 1442 speaks of Muslim kings of Arakan. It is certainly not clear that these were Muslim kings as is sometimes claimed.

19th Century observations of a distinct Muslim group in Rakhine

A protestant missionary, JC Fink who omits the term Rohingya but can hardly be describing another community says, “They were not Mughs converted to the Mahomedan faith, but bona fide Musulmans whose ancestors had been imported into the province from Bengal… Many still retain the language and habits of their forefathers;”

In 1834-1844, another Missionary, Cormstock records “within a few years past, many BengaleeMusselmans have immigrated to Arakan, to get higher wages and better living, than they could procure in Chittagong” (Notes on Arakan) and Charles Paton estimates the size of the Rohiongya population in Rakhine to have been about 1/3 of the total population. The Reverend Comstock puts it at a more moderate 10%. By 1869, when a more reliable census was conducted, it appears to be 5% rising to 30% in 1912. In James Baxter’s report on Indian Immigration in 1941, he estimates that 1/5 of the Rakhine population was of Indian origin. Much changed the following year when Burma was invaded by the Japanese.

It seems that a report published in The Scotsman, and reprinted on the same day in the Hindustan Standard in 1949 established the current attitude in Myanmar to the Rohingya. It reads:

“the great majority of Arakan Moslems are said to be really Pakistanis from Chittagong, even if they have been settled here for a generation. Of the 130,000 Moslems here, 80,000 are still Pakistani citizens.”

While a number of authors have confidently asserted like Andrew Selth, that “most Rohingyas arrived with the British colonialists in the 19th and 20th Centuries” (Burma’s Muslims:Terrorists or terrorised?”), there seems little further evidence to confirm this claim. Until the 1990s, in Myanmar, the same group that is identified in the 18th Century and is possibly enlarged by Colonial movements in the 19th and 20th Centuries is routinely been referred to by non-muslims in Burma/Myanmar as “Bengalis” or, during the Colonial time, as “Chittagonians”. In modern Burma, there are a range of often derogatory terms used to describe any Muslims, from “kalar” and “mus” and “Bengali”. To further confuse the issue, it is indisputable that a number of migrations from Bangladesh have swelled the Rohingyan numbers considerably, after 1971 and then again in the early 1990s.

Human Rights watch 1993 refers to “Burmese refugees from Arakan”; an account in 1995 by Martin Smith notes a distinction between

“those who have traditionally described themselves as ‘Arakanese Muslims’ as a religious group within the Arakanese people- and those Muslim nationalists, largely concentrated in the north, who prefer to call themselves ‘Rohingyas’.” (The muslim Rohingyas of Burma 1995)

In contrast, it is also well-documented that the Rohingya are not recognised as such in Burma/Myranmar. So, “the muslim Rohingya in Arakan State are not recognised as an ethnic group by the SPDC but rather are labelled as ‘illegal immigrants'” (Mikael Gravers 2007). Indeed, recent reports from Al Jezeera suggest that if Rohingya are prepared to accept that they are immigrants and have not lived for generations in the State, then they might stand a chance of getting residence permits. I fear this is simply a ruse to get Rohingya to confirm their status as aliens and to abandon their claims to a homeland.

A number of Burmese writers beginning with KhinMaung Saw have written a good deal to establish that there is not a reliable record of the term “Rohingya” in use before 1950. Indeed, the name itself is missing from the 1951 “charter of the Constitutional Demands of the Arakani Muslims”. But this is by no means a secure way to establish or deny an identity. Even the fact that there have been official acknowledgments of Rohingya rights at various times over the last 70 years should be enough to guarantee those rights today. More than that, a group and individuals confirming residence in the country for so many years should not be denied rights.



About a month ago, the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson visited Myanmar, following up a visit by David Cameron in 2012. Although the military retain control over key ministries, and new laws about foreign relatives prevent Aung San Suu Kyi from taking up her rightful position as President, but even as Foreign Secretary, she is the effective leader of the country. There remains a significant exodus from Rakhine, with 66000 fleeing to Bangladesh because of a military crackdown since October. 65000 are registered as living in camps. There are stories emerging of brutality, arson, rape, murder and infanticide. This is unacceptable. But while condemning the violence, we must also condemn the “delisting” of the Rohingya and demand that they are given proper recognition. It is their lack of citizenship and questions about their identity that has encouraged such brutality. What is clear from even a quick review of the history of the Rohingya is that they have had rights to citizenship in the past and there are no reasons for the current Myanmar government to refuse these same rights today. Rather than silence or petulance about who interviews her, Aung San Suu Kyi should be giving proper leadership on this issue. She needs to ensure that ships offering humanitarian help are routinely supported, that a political solution is found, and that proper education and representation is provided to the Rohingya peoples and their Buddhist neighbours. This is an opportunity to empower the State of Rakhine as much as it is a demand that Myanmar observe international norms and demonstrate that prejudice and discrimination have no place in modern democracy.

Some other references

Aye, Sumon and Aung Ye Maung Maung. “Myanmar Arrests Hundreds After Mandalay Violence.” Voice of America, July 7, 2014, News/Asia.

VOA News. “Myanmar Police Break Up Buddhist Mob.” Voice of America, July 2, 2014, News/Asia.

Reuters. “Myanmar Buddhists Threaten to Kill Muslims.” Voice of America, July 4, 2014, News/Asia.

The fact that a colonial power does not acknowledge the identity of a particular group or calls it something else should not be the basis on which the same group is treated in post-colonial times. Nor indeed has it always been in Myanmar. While local prejudice may have been on-going, it is only relatively recently that this has been compounded by National “delisting” and institutionalised Islamophobia.

 the designation “Rohingya” was completely unknown to the British who administered Arakan from 1826 to 1948. It is not to be found in any of the eight censuses compiled between 1872 and 1941. Nor does it appear in any gazetteers, reports or other official documents, nor yet in private reminiscences and correspondence. This total absence of any British record has readily been acknowledged by the Muslim politician U Kyaw Min, who was only released from prison in January 2012 and has a brilliant pedigree as a fighter for freedom and democracy, a former member of the Committee Representing the People’s Parliament during the dark days of the military regime, and currently chairman of the Democracy and Human Rights Party.

But U Kyaw Min went on to say: “Then what about some present-day Rakhine state ethnic peoples: Mramagyi and Dai-net who are also not found in British censuses?” The implication is that the British did not really know what was going on…” DEREK TONKIN 17th Aug 2014

Richard Hering (TV Journalist who has worked with indiginous people- “Plunder for Profit: the UK and Brazilian mahogany trade”) writes:

Colonial records can be a dubious source for establishing the history of an ethnic group, for all kinds of reasons. For instance, the favouring of one cooperative group over another may result in the mis-characterisation of the latter for political reasons, as happened in Kenya. The Belgian empire in Rwanda classified two inter-related and -married groups as Hutu or Tutsi based on their appearance, again for reasons of control, with genocidal consequences later. Often names are simply misunderstood or mis-translated, for instance the group known as the Kayapo in the eastern Amazon do not call themselves that name – it’s actually a rude name given them by other groups (“those who look like monkeys”). Also many indigenous peoples have in recent decades started to use again older names so as to revive or preserve their identity, or have taken an ancient name which does not have a strict continuous lineage, nor even necessarily an unimpeachable historical source, in order to argue for their rights as a people.

It is important also to see also this rebuttal of Tonkin:

The ethnogenesis of the Rohingya which I have tried to sketch out in this article does not make it a more “artificial” or “invented” ethnicity than any other, but it does not fit easily in the all too narrow concept of “national races” as is currently understood in Burma: ethnic groups which were already formed as we know them now in pre-colonial times. Others, perhaps the Kachin or the Chin, would also fail the test, because the test itself stems from a misunderstanding of ethnicity and group formation, but it is the political context that has determined that the Rohingya, and the Rohingya alone, should fail it. Their mere existence as a people is a serious challenge to the weak mainstream historical narrative imposed by the military regime.

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