The long burning issue of the Rohingyas in Myanmar has recently become a point of debate in India, with the government insisting on their deportation for the sake of national security. Perceived threats to India’s national security is based on intelligence reports that connect radical Rohingya groups to Jihadist organisations. In their bid to get rid of the Rohingya refugees, the centre in India has been asking the Myanmar government to show restraint against the Rohingyas and to take them back.
India’s claim to send the Rohingyas back to Myanmar rests on the notion that the refugees are of Burmese stock. However, the issue at hand is that the Burmese do not consider the Rohingyas as their citizens and consider them to be immigrants who were brought in from Bangladesh during the British colonial rule. Further, Bangladesh, which remains the favourite destination for the Rohingyas facing atrocities in Myanmar, is of the opinion that they are natives of the Burmese state and should be protected there. The passing around of the responsibility of the Rohingyas from one state to another has resulted in this group of around one million floating in mid air to be coined ‘stateless’ by the United Nation.
While the issue of the Myanmar military’s crackdown upon Rohingyas has gained much international attention, the burning question underneath the entire crisis is who the Rohingyas really are. While on one hand claims of historical legitimacy in Myanmar by the Rohingyas have been thoroughly opposed by the majority Rakhine Buddhists, to the extent of denying them citizenship rights, on the other hand the scant historical substance being available to testify the precise origins of the Rohingyas in modern day Myanmar has further exacerbated the problem. What remains undisputed though is the inhabitation of Muslims in the Arakan region of Myanmar since the 15th century. When and how they transform their identity to the ethnicity of Rohingyas has been a matter that historians and anthropologists have been trying to decode for a long time now.
History of Islam in the Arakan region of Myanmar
The Rakhine (previously called Arakan) region of Northern Myanmar, which is largely believed to be the original home of the Rohingyas, has shared a porous border along the Naaf river with Chittagong in Bangladesh. Before the modern state of Myanmar came into being, this border was not exactly known to be a line of division between two separate communities and historical evidence shows a frequent movement of people across the border.
In pre-colonial days, the region of Arakan was an independent kingdom, separate from both the Burmese kingdoms and the Mughal empire in India and Bengal. In 1459, the Arakan king is believed to have conquered Chittagong which had a dense Muslim population. In the years that followed, the Arakanese control in Chittagong led to an intimate relationship developing between the Muslims and the inhabitants of Arakan. Farzana Kazi Fahmida, an authority on humanitarian issues in South and South East Asia is of the opinion that “the Muslim influence in Arakan was so predominant that the Arakanese kings though Buddhist in religion, became somewhat Mohammedanised in their ideas.”According to Fahmida, the development of strong bonds between the Bengali Muslim and Arakanese population is the reason behind the influence of Bengali in Arakan.
In 1784, Burmese King Bodawpaya conquered the Arakan region and brought it under the control of the kingdom of Ava in central Burma. What followed was severe oppressive measures taken by the Burmese ruler against the Arakanese population and the latter rebelling against them. Thereafter, a large number of Arakanese (both Buddhists and Muslims) fled to the neighbouring territory of Bengal which was by now under British rule.
When the British colonised Burma, they immediately brought Arakan under their full control. Since the Arakanese were facing severe persecution under the Burmese, they were happy to back the British, thereby further creating a sense of mistrust against them among the Burmese. Further, the British brought in a large number of farm labourers from present day India and Bangladesh, majority of whom belonged to Chittagong. This was done more as a measure to drown out any kind of resistance against British rule by the Burmese.
The large numbers in which Indians, particularly the Bengalis, were brought into Arakan was a cause of great resentment to the Burmese population, who were now also in the process of developing strong nationalist feelings. After the Second World War, when the British left Burma, large sections of the Indian population followed. Those who were left behind were in any case in the bad books of the Buddhist Burmese population and soonafter a large number of communal clashes started taking place between the two groups. While the Arakanese Muslims, largely inspired by the formation of Pakistan along religious lines, started demanding an autonomous region for themselves on ethnic grounds, the independent government of Myanmar continued discriminating against them and later ensured that they do not receive legal citizenship status in the country.
The confusion over the ethnicity of ‘Rohingya’
The history of movement back and forth between Chittagong and Arakan forms the context for the development of a complex and fluid ethnicity which has over time acquired the name ‘Rohingya’ for itself. To a large extent the conflict between the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims is based on a debate between the two groups over the historicity of the Rohingya identity in Burmese land.
Majority of the Rakhine Buddhists believe that ‘Rohingya’ is a fabricated religious identity. They go on to cite historical documents to claim that the Burmese past never had any community called Rohingya and that those who refer to themselves by the name are basically immigrants from modern day Bangladesh who were brought in by the British.
The Rohingya Muslims on the other hand, are of the strong belief that their community has had deep rooted existence in Burmese past and that they are indeed original inhabitants of Rakhine. As part of her project to understand the Rohingya’s sense of identity, Farzana Kazi Fahmida carried out an extensive research project in the South East corner of Bangladesh that currently houses a large number of Rohingya refugees. Her interactions with the refugees revealed that the Rohingyas, in their socio-cultural space exhibit a strong sense of identity rooted in the Burmese homeland.
However, the Rohingya claim of having a Burmese past is disputed not just by the Rakhine Buddhists but also by scholars who claim that the word ‘Rohingya’ cannot be found in any historical source, except a single late 18th century text. What is undisputed though is that the term ‘Rohingya’ gains popularity among the Muslims of Rakhine from the 1950s and 60s, the moment in time when the Mujahid rebellion against the Burmese government demanding a separate state for the Arakanese Muslims was at its inception. Jaques P. Leider, an authority on South East Asian history writes in his work that “until the 1990s, ‘Rohingya’ was recorded in most media not as an ethnic or religious denomination but as an appellation of insurgents that resisted the Myanmar government and sought the creation of an independent Muslim state near Bangladesh.”
Those who claim to be Rohingyas have a key proposition about their identity, that they are Muslims with Asian and Middle Eastern roots belonging to Rakhine since the first millennium and that collectively they should be referred to has ‘Rohingyas’. Historical evidence on the other hand shows that there was no single unified Muslim community in precolonial and colonial days, but that majority of the Muslims in the region were those who had been brought in from modern day Bangladesh. Remarking upon the disparity between the Rohingya claim and the historical evidence, Leider notes in his work that “when anything ‘Muslim’ in Arakan history is qualified in the Rohingya discourse as ‘Rohingya’, the words ‘Rohingya’ and ‘Muslim’ become dogmatically fused in a single meaning where the connotations of ethnic Muslim plurality, which were typical for the region during the early modern period are disappearing, or become, at least blurred.”
While the historicity and identity of the Rohingyas was at the heart of the conflict between them and the Burmese state, the cases of humanitarian assault on the community by the Myanmar military has turned it into what is being referred to as an instance of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Over time the Rohingya issue has transformed into that of a refugee crisis, with Myanmar, Bangladesh and India brooding over their origins and destination. What has been largely overlooked so far is the case of a fluid, complex ethnic identity, with multiple roots, that as a result of modern day politics solidified into a single umbrella term called the ‘Rohingyas’.
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