Oppression, marginalization, violence, propaganda – none of it is new. What is new, however, is the mere scale, frequency and omnipresence of disinformation, especially when it is propagated by a powerful group that runs at the state level with the goal to eliminate a small minority that is different than the dominant group’s identity by race, ethnicity, language, religion, customs and culture. Nowhere in our time is this issue perhaps more acute than in Myanmar where the Rohingyas are victims of a carefully crafted genocidal program that has become a national project there, enjoying full support from top to bottom of every rung and corner of the Buddhist society – from a military man in uniform to a monk in a saffron robe, from a peasant in the paddy field to a politician wearing a longyi.
The decades of disinformation campaigns against the Rohingya people have robbed the persecutor of its moral teachings about what defines our humanity, and the values of compassion and empathy for a fellow human being. Even the R-word is a forbidden word in Myanmar. Suu Kyi won’t utter the word, nor would her now-ousted government officials. To them, Rohingya is an “invention” that is concocted by “Chittagonian Bengalis (Bangladeshis)” to grab Buddhist land.
In so doing these chauvinists forget that the history of the geographical region commonly known as the South Asia and South-east Asia has no one beginning, no one chronology, no single plot or narrative. This gargantuan fact is recognized by all great historians of the past and the present (e.g., Professors David Ludden, Abdul Karim, Richard Eaton, Romila Thapar, R.S. Sharma, Juan Cole, Michael Charney and many others) who spent their lifetimes to study the region. To these unbiased and genuine historians of the ancient world, the region did not have a singular history, but many histories, with indefinite, contested origins and with countless separate trajectories that multiply the more we learn about the region.
Myanmar, bordering south Asian countries like Bangladesh and India in the west, is no exception to that general rule.
Today’s Buddhist-majority Myanmar (formerly Burma) is surely different than it was a decade ago, let alone a century or a millennium ago. Today, the country is estimated to have a population of 57 million (the 2014 government national census estimates 51.5m) of which the vast majority is Burman (Bamar), comprising roughly 68% of the population. They are considered the “first class” citizens in this country of more than 135 indigenous ethnic groups.
The minority Muslims belonging to the Rohingya ethnic group, who live mostly in the north-western Rakhine state (formerly Arakan), bordering Muslim-majority Bangladesh, is not recognized as part of this Myanmarese apartheid state. Denied citizenship (since 1982), they are depicted as aliens, outsiders, illegal immigrants, and even “influx viruses” by the Buddhist population. Their presence in the Buddhist-majority country is seen with much suspicion and hatred.
Let’s look at some examples:
- South China Morning Post reported in 2009 that the Burmese Consulate-General Ye Myint Aung wrote to foreign missions in Hong Kong insisting that the “Rohingya” should not be described as being from Burma. “In reality, Rohingya are neither Burmese people nor a Burmese ethnic group,” he said, contrasting their “dark brown” complexion with the “fair and soft” skin of people from Burma. “It is quite different from what you have seen and read in the papers. (They are as ugly as ogres),” he was said to have written (The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Feb. 2009). The remark did not hurt his career; the military government later appointed him ambassador to Switzerland.(1)
- Referring to Rohingya as “Bengalis,” General U Min Aung Hlaing, who has been serving as Chairman of the State Administration Council of Myanmar since 2 February 2021, a position which makes him the country’s de facto leader, said in 2018 that they “do not have the characteristics or culture in common with the ethnicities of Myanmar.” [Speaking at a military gathering in northern Kachin State in March 2018]
- To hatemongering monks like Wirathu (spiritual leader of the 969 movement and head of Ma Ba Tha), Rohingyas are “Kalars” (a derogatory term for Muslims) (2), who simply “don’t exist”. (3) On the allegations that Rohingya women have been abused and raped by the military, Wirathu laughed: “Impossible. Their bodies are too disgusting.” (4) (The mind of a racist and bigot is written all over his statements.) Wirathu, by the way, is not alone in entertaining a racist mindset. When a Rakhine state lawmaker Aung Win, MP, was asked by a BBC journalist about soldiers sexually assaulting Rohingya women, he giggled. Local Buddhist men and soldiers could not have committed mass rapes, he explained, because Rohingya women were “very dirty”.
- To many Buddhists, the Rohingyas are “Bengali Terrorists” or “extremists.”
- The Rakhine extremist academic Dr. Aye Chan depicts Rohingya as “Influx Virus” – illegal Muslims of Arakan [Influx Viruses: The Illegal Muslims in Arakan By U Shw zan and Dr. Aye Chan].
- Another Buddhist extremist Khin Maung Saw depicts Rohingyas as the “camel” in a Burmese fable that dislodged its owner from his tent, warning fellow Arakanese Buddhists against the Rohingyas whom he calls as “Chittagonian Bengalis” (“the guest who want to kick out the Host from his own house”).
- Myanmar’s army commander Senior General Min Aung Hlaing made it clear when, on September 16, 2017, he posted to Facebook a statement saying that the current military action against the Rohingya is “unfinished business” stemming back to the Second World War. He also stated, “They have demanded recognition as Rohingya, which has never been an ethnic group in Myanmar. [The] Bengali issue is a national cause and we need to be united in establishing the truth.” (5)
Some 16 years ago, when Dr. Shwe Lu Maung, a Burmese dissident, wrote his book, “The Price of Silence: Muslim-Buddhist War of Bangladesh and Myanmar”, there were at least two million Rohingyas living inside the Rakhine state. Thanks to Myanmar’s genocidal campaigns, part of a national project to de-populate the Rohingya, today, there are only about 600,000 Rohingyas, living inside the country, mostly in government-controlled camps and enclaves, with no rights of their own. More than a million of them were forced to flee the Apartheid Myanmar in 2017 for Bangladesh where they live inside refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar and Bhashan Char Island. (Another two million Rohingyas had fled Myanmar before the pogroms of 2012.)
Denied each and every one of the 30 rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Rohingyas are described, and rightly so, the most persecuted people in our time in our planet. They are the victims of genocide, perpetrated by a regime with wide support enjoyed inside the country. Since Aug. 25, 2017, according to a report by the Ontario International Development Agency, nearly 24,000 Rohingyas have been killed by Myanmar’s state forces while more than 34,000 thrown into fires, over 114,000 others beaten, as many as 18,000 women and girls raped and at least 115,000 homes burned down. (6)
And all these latest crimes against humanity happened under the watchful eyes of Suu Kyi, once touted as the democracy icon in the West. What a travesty of the Noble Peace prize.
As can be noticed, at the center of the Rohingya Crisis is a question about the group’s origin. It is in this identity and the contrasting histories and narratives, as duly recognized by the Tanenbaum organization (combating religious prejudice and violence), where religion and politics collide.
The Narrative of the Rohingya:
The Rohingya version of their historical narrative in the region reflects 5 main points:
1. The forefathers of today’s ethnic Rohingyas have lived in Arakan (today’s Rakhine state) since time immemorial. (7) They are the descendants of the first settlers of the territory, even before Islam arrived in the region at the end of the 8th Century (during the reign of Mahatong Tsandaya (788-810 CE)). Mixed with later migrants of seafarers, sailors, preachers, traders, soldiers (esp. since 1430) and kidnapped/enslaved Bengalis (brought to Arakan by the Magh pirates), and Shah Shuja’s entourage (1660) they formed the nucleus of what would later be self-identified as the Rohingya. Genealogically, Rohingyas are Indo-Aryan descendants. Genetically, they are an ethnic mix of Bengalis, Indians, Moghuls, Pathans, Arabs, Persians, Turks, Moors and central Asians. They are South Asian in appearance, in contrast to Southeast Asian, and have developed a separate culture and a mixed language, which is absolutely unique to the region, reflecting this geographic reality and trueness of Arakan. (8)
2. The Rohingya language and culture was dominant in Rakhine during its rule by Mrauk U Dynasty from the 15th to the 18th centuries before the territory was annexed by the Burman king Bodawpaya in 1784 whose rule epitomized bigotry and intolerance. The Burmese invasion killed tens of thousands of Arakanese Muslims and Buddhists, and led to the imprisonment of 20,000 Arakanese Muslims and Buddhists, and the forced exodus of some 200,000 of the inhabitants (Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists) of Arakan to flee to Bengal (in British India).
3. Nearly a third (30%) of the population of Arakan was Muslim when the East India Company captured the territory in 1826 when the Rohingyas became British subjects. (9)
4. During WWII, the Buddhist majority in Arakan and Burma collaborated with fascist Japanese forces, which led to Japanese occupation of Burma and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people inside Arakan (1942-45). 294 Muslim villages were destroyed by Buddhist fascists, Muslims were pushed out of southern Arakan, more than a hundred thousand Rohingya Muslims were massacred during the pogroms of 1942, another 80,000 Rohingyas fled to Bengal in British India. Rohingyas, on the other hand, joined the British Army and fought against fascism and the Japanese invaders in a guerrilla war. The Rohingya contend that the British promised them an independent state in the northern part of Arakan (Mayu Frontier Region) after the war, but that promise was broken and the Muslim-majority parts of the northern Arakan was made part of the new state of Burma.(10)
5. Rohingyas have every right to self-identity themselves.
The Narrative of the Rakhine and Bamar Peoples:
The Bamar and the Rakhine Buddhists contend the following:
1. Islam had only a small presence in Arakan during the Mrauk U Dynasty’s rule (1430-1784 C.E.), which was Buddhist, not Muslim.
2. The Rohingya are not native to Arakan. Rather, they are Bengali migrants, or “Chittagonians,” who arrived in 1826 after the British conquest of the territory.
3. The small number of Muslims who lived in Arakan before British colonialization are not the ancestors of the modern Rohingya.
4. The Rohingya benefited from British colonialization and used the World War II to consolidate their strength in Myanmar.
What Do the Scholars Say?
Here below I provide a brief summary:
1. Similar to the origin of the Bengali speaking Muslims of Bangladesh, the Rohingya are an amalgamation of peoples, from native Muslim Arakanese who lived in Arakan for many centuries, to Indian/Bengali Muslims who settled after putting exiled Arakanese king Min-Saw-Mun to the throne in 1430 CE to the Bengalis enslaved in the 16th-17th centuries by the Rakhine Maghs and Portuguese pirates, to a very small group of workers who arrived in Arakan in the 19th century. (11)
2. Islam had a strong influence in Arakan before its colonialization by both Burma (1784) and Britain (1826). The Mrauk U Dynasty in particular sought and held Islamic titles. (12)
3. Regardless, there is further evidence that the Rohingya community existed in Myanmar before British colonialization. In 1799, 25 years before the British invaded Myanmar, Francis Buchanan, a surgeon employed by the British East India Company, traveled throughout Burma and documented the existence of a Muslim ethnic group “who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves ‘Rooinga’, or natives of Arakan.” (13) Bengali poets of the 17th century also mention of the existence of the Roshang (or Rohang in local dialect) in their poems.(14)
A British writer, Major R.E. Roberts of the East India Company also noted in his “Account of Arakan” in 1777 that: “Almost three fourths of the inhabitants of Rekheng [Arakan] are said to be natives of Bengal, or descendants of such, who constantly pray that the English may send a force to deliver them from their slavery, and restore them to their country; in that case they have agreed amongst themselves to assist their deliverers to the utmost of their power.” (15) [Emphasis this author’s]
4. Even after the Burmese annexation of Arakan, there was a sizable amount of Arakanese Muslims who had survived. In the nineteenth century, after the British annexation of the territory in 1826, Sub-Commissioner Charles Paton published a “Historical and Statistical Sketch of Aracan” in 1828 – the main part of a Secret Report dated 1826 in which he estimated (the same sentence in both reports) the population of Arakan thus: “The population of Aracan and its dependencies, Ramree, Cheduba and Sandoway, does not, at present, exceed a hundred thousand souls, and may be classed as follows: Mugs [Rakhine], six-tenths, Musselmans [Muslims], three-tenths, Burmese, one-tenth: Total 100,000 souls.” (16) [Emphasis this author’s]
5. According to Rangoon University Professor Bertie Pearn, who in 1949 joined the UK Foreign Office as Head of South East Asia Research: “By the year 1798, two-thirds of the inhabitants of Arakan were said to have deserted their native land. In one year, 1798, a body of no less than ten thousand entered Chittagong, followed soon after by many more; and while their compatriots who had been longer settled there endeavoured to assist them, they were nevertheless reduced to a condition of the direct poverty, many having nothing to eat but reptiles and leaves.” (17) [Emphasis this author’s]
It is undeniable that some descendants of Arakanese refugees who had taken shelter in Bengal since 1784 later chose to return from Bengal to Arakan during the British occupation of Myanmar from 1826 to 1948. The British labeled these immigrants either “Mahomedan” or “Chittagonian,” and they became an important part of the colonial workforce and bureaucracy.
6. World War II enflamed tensions between the two communities as both the Japanese and the British took advantage of underlining sectarianism to win the war. The Japanese recruited Buddhist Rakhine into the “Patriot Arakan Force,” while the British recruited the Rohingya into “Force V.” Violence occurred between these two communities even after the World War II ended. Initial attempts by the Muslims in Rakhine to carve their own state, and later to join East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), failed. All of Arakan became part of an independent Burma in 1948.
7. According to Dr. Shwe Lu Maung, “The Burmese, especially the Rakhines, due to lack of knowledge of historical materialism, view that the Muslim elite invented ‘Rohingya’. Nothing can be more wrong than this view. No, it was not an invention but it strongly signifies the Rohingya’s coming to the age from their abyssal existence, an event of the emergence of a Fourth World. The Rohingyas were simple commoners who never minded who the king, the ruler, or the lord was. They just cared their farm and fishing gears and kept moving for the better land and fishing water, just like in the good old days of the ‘out-of-Africa’ migration!”
What did other leaders of Burma say about the Rohingya?
- In 1946 General Aung San, father of Suu Kyi, assured full rights and privileges to Muslim Rohingya Arakanese as an indigenous people saying: “I give (offer) you a blank cheque. We will live together and die together. Demand what you want. I will do my best to fulfill them. If native people are divided, it will be difficult to achieve independence for Burma.”
- “I understand that during the time of the Constituent Assembly in 1947 after the signing of the Panglong Agreement that February & before the Union of Burma came into being in January 1948 – my father Sao Shwe Thaike was asked if the Rohingyas of Arakan are indigenous Peoples? My father, who is a Shan as am I, replied – “if the Rohingyas are not indigenous, nor am I“.” – wrote Han Yawnghew (son of Sao Shwe Thaike who was appointed Counsellor to the Governor, later he was elected the first President of independent Burma in 1948–52). (http://dbyouths.blogspot.com/2007_07_01_archive.html )
The above brief review shows that what is promoted by ultra-racist and bigot monks like Wirathu of Myanmar, and ultra-nationalist and chauvinist revisionist politicians and their fanatical followers, and pseudo-historians as the single tree of their culture, rooted in their racial and religious myths, is actually more like a vast forest of many cultures filled with countless trees of various sizes, shades, ages, colors and types, constantly cross-breeding to fertilize one another. The profusion of cultures blurs the boundaries of the forest. According to Professor Ludden, “the so-called cultural boundaries of our time are more like an artifact of modern national cultures than an accurate reflection of pre-modern conditions.” (19)
I would like to conclude my talk with a statement from Dr. Shwe Lu Maung, “Therefore, the Myanmar government assertion that the Rohingyas are the British era settlers is nothing but a cover up of Burmese atrocities and colonialism over Arakan from 1784 to 1826. Myanmar government has given citizenship to the Pakistani and Bangladeshi Rakhines of Arakan who returned to Myanmar after 1948 but denies citizenship to the Rohingyas on the ground of race and religion. (20) This double standard is against the philosophy and ideology of we-the-people.”(21)
- Human Rights Watch, “Crimes Against Humanity by Burmese Security Forces Against the Rohingya Population,” September 26, 2017. https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/supporting_resources/burma_crimes_against_humanity_memo.pdf.
- https://www.dhakatribune.com/world/south-asia/2018/08/17/study-claims-an-estimated-24-000-rohingya-murdered-in-myanmar; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/326912213_Forced_Migration_of_Rohingya_The_Untold_Experience.
- Nemoto, Kei. “The Rohingya Issue: A Thorny Obstacle between Burma (Myanmar) and Bangladesh.” (1991). http://www.burmalibrary.org/docs14/Kei_Nemoto-Rohingya.pdf.
- Abdul Karim, The Rohingyas: A short account of their history and culture. Arakan Historical Society, Chittagong (2000)
- Nemoto, op. cit..
- Gregory B. Poling, “Separating Fact from Fiction about Myanmar’s Rohingya,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, February 13, 2014. https://www.csis.org/analysis/separating-fact-fiction-about-myanmar%E2%80%99s-rohingya. ‘
- A. Karim, op. cit.
- Roberts, R. E. “An Account of Arakan.” Asiatick Miscellany 1 (1785): 316-326. https://www.burmalibrary.org/docs/primarysources-mc.2002-07-25.pdf
- Paton, Charles. “Historical and Statistical Sketch of Arakan.” Asiatic Researches 16 (1828): 353-381. https://www.burmalibrary.org/docs/primarysources-mc.2002-07-25.pdf
- B.R. Pearn, “King-Bering”, in Journal of the Burma Research Society, 1933, vol. 23, no. 2.
- Shwe Lu Maung, Burma Nationalism and Ideology, University Press Ltd., Dhaka, 1989, Chapter 9, pp. 103-111.
- As cited in Habib Siddiqui, Muslim Identity and Demography in the Arakan State of Burma (Myanmar); https://www.amazon.com/Muslim-Identity-Demography-Arakan-Myanmar/dp/1791784798
- Dr. Aye Maung, a Member of Parliament (Upper House or Amyotha Hluttaw) and the Chairperson of Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, may not be a Myanmar citizen in light of the Burma Citizenship Act 1982.
- Shwe Lu Maung, The Rakhine State Violence Vol. 2. https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-rakhine-state-violence-vol-2-dr-shwe-lu-maung/1121079303