Why not Rohingya an antiquity? [Part 2]: An assessment on Rohingyas’ genuineness
By U Kyaw Min
April 30, 2014
At a time when I have been preparing to write a short but precise treatise on Rohingya’s identity coincidently I came across an article “The Rohingya’ identity - British experience in Arakan 1826-1948” dating 9 April 2014, written by Mr. Derek Tonkin, an ex-British diplomat. His article superficially seems very interesting and fantastic, mostly because it was written by a diplomat of former colonial power. It really will have some negative impact about Rohingya in the mind of the readers.
In essence there are a lot to censor or argue. I changed my mind not to write my original treatise and focus a commentary on the above article. Intended or not the article has obscured the legitimacy and historicity of Rohingya identity. In his articulation the writer tried to bring the implication that Rohingya’s ancestry goes to Bengali, the same attempt one Dr. J.P. Leider has been doing for years.
Indeed Arakan and Bengal are two contiguous regions, in most part of history both were under the same rule. It is a consensus of all historians a branch of Barman from Pagan overran Arakan in mid eleven century A D. Before then it was an Indian Land, ruled by Indians century after century. Yangon university former professor D.G.E. Hall narrated, “Before 10th century Arakan was ruled by Indian dynasties’ and its population was like that of Bengal (D.G.E. hall, Burma, 1944)
Research paper of Dr. Pamela Gutman from Australia says “almost all inscriptions of ancient Arakan was in Nagri script (the one then used in Bengal)”. In practice the Language on the inscriptions are akin to Rohingya language; different from Rakhine’s. She said the dialect of people in the north Arakan seems to have similarity with the inscriptions. Again Major R.E. Robert’s essay “An account of Arakan” written at Islamabad (Chittagong) in June 1777 said three fourth of the inhabitants of Rekkeng are said to be native of Bengal or descendants of such - - - (see: in Aseanie 3, 1999, P-142,150)
By observing this, we can assume that Rohingya’s progenitors might be Bengali of ancient Arakan: Danyawaddy, and vessali. But in mediaeval age there we found the settlements of Arabs, Persians, Pattan, Afghan and Many other Afro-Asians. When Mughal king Akbar occupied Bengal from Afghan-Pattan king in 1572, hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Pattan ran into Arakan where they were recruited in Arakan army and employed many others as high ranking officials.
Dr. Thant Myint U, a Burmese American writes: In 1430 after nearly decades in exile, he (Naramitla, the Arakan king) returned at the head of a formidable force, largely made up of Afghan adventurers, and swiftly overcame local opposition. This was a start of a new golden age for the country. - - - a period of power and prosperity and a creation of remarkably a hybrid Buddhist- Islamic court, fusing tradition from Persia and India as well as the Buddhist world in the east. The inhabitants were a mix of Arakan, Bengali, Afghans, Burmese, Dutch, Portuguese, Abyssinians, Persians and even Christian Japans. (Dr. Than Myint U, The River of lost Footsteps, 2006)
According to Rakhine writer Pandit U Tha Tun Aung and Dr. J.P. Leider, during the rule of 9th up to 12th Mrauk-U king, due to Indian missionaries a lot of people village wise converted to Isalam. So king Minbargyi 12th king of Maurk U had to prohibit the missionary works. (see U Tha Tun Aung, Rakhine Maha Razwin 1927).
What we can assess here is Arakan Muslim population is not from a single root. They were a mix up of Bengali, Arabs, Persians, Afghans, Pattans and other Afro-Asians and Lately of Rakhine too. Arab and Persian culture had a deep influence there. Persian became local people’s writing Language too. Dr. J. Leider said the retinue of Naramikla (above) comprised of ten thousand armed personnel. According prominent Rakhine politicians, writers and historians such as U Hla Tun Pru and Dr. Aye Chan (an arch opponent of Rohingya today), this retinue was resettled around Maruk-U, to defend it from the attack of adversaries then J. Leider in his “traders and poet in Mrauk U court in 17th century 2011” writes Persians was administrative as well as diplomatic language of Mrauk-U court”. Most official designations were in Persian.
The Muslim community in Mrauk-U Kingdom derived from this various ethnic roots, but in course of age evolved into a distinctive race that we call today Rohingya. (for etymology and historicity of Rohingya see “Why not Rohingya an antiquity [Part 1]”- on 22 April 2014 Rohingya Blogger webpage.)
About this distinctive community, war time British commander Anthony Irwin remarked!
“The Arakan Muslims are generally known as Bengalis or Chittagonians, quite incorrectly. - - - They resemble the Arabs is names, in dress, and in habits. - - - As a race they have been here for over two hundred years (i.e. since Rakhine period) and yet survived. They are perhaps to be compared with the Jews, a nation within a nation. Ambassador Derek Tonkin writes the word Rohingya is not found in any British report, regional gazetteer, census, legislation, private correspondence or personal reminiscence”. True, quite correct! Then what about some of present day Rakhine state ethnic peoples: Mramagyi and Dai-net who are also not found in British censuses? In contrast, what we cannot deny is there was a large Muslim community of distinct characteristic in Maruk-U. James Baxter head of the inquiry commission on Indian immigrants reported in 1940 “that there was indeed” an Arakan Muslim community settled for long in Akyab (Sittwe) district that has for all intents and purposes to be regarded as an indigenous race”.
In British censuses until 1921 Arakan Mulisms were categorized as shaikhs, Syyeds, Mughals, Pattans as like in the Indian censuses. If census is so important, then do we call this Muslim Sheikh or Syyeds?
In fact, British time censuses were bereft of reality and accuracy. In 1871 census Burmese Muslim figure was shown as 99846 where in 1891 it became 24647. Can we say it is reliable? Burma expert Martin Smith explained British censuses were so unreliable that ethnic peoples in Burma changed their ethnicity just like they changed their clothing. Ethnicity then was defined on the language they spoke at home. Thus many Mon, Shan, Karen became Burma. (Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the politics of ethnicity, second edition 1999)
In Arakan also only Rakhine speaking Muslims were classified as Arakan Mohammadans. Native Muslims who preserved their ancestral (Rohingya) language for many centuries happened to be in the category of Indians or native Indians. If these natives were enumerated as Arakan Mohammadans the figure would have been three or four times bigger.
Muslim was not aware of the importance of their ethnicity. They were just satisfied to be categorized as Muslims. Census taking was the job of British. People did not know what it was. Besides Arakan Mohammadans, there were Kaman and Myeidu. Their number then was very small.
Major races in Myanmar have region wise different sub racial names: different Shans, different Karens and different Bama even. Hence Rohingya may have some sort of cultural affinity with Bengali but due to geo-political difference and separation they have evolved into their own national identity. If Rohingya identity is undesired, they should not have been given indigenous recognition during parliamentary and early revolutionary council period. To reject their identity after sixty years is not fair. It is a foul play.
So called Bengali or Chittagonians in British census were mostly foreigners. Except business related persons and official staffs most of them were seasonal laborers, who did not bring their spouses. These foreigners were also included in British censuses. Professor Dr. Than Tun named them as floating population. Once the working season is over, they returned to their native land. Rohingya has nothing to do with them. (R.B. Smart: Akyab district gazetteer vol-I) Seasonal laborers were mostly male workers. So their males outnumbered the females as cited by Mr. Derek Tonkin.
I think Mr. Derek Tonkin’s attempt is just to appease his Myanmar friends in his working environment. But a learned, experienced diplomat should not allow himself to be a tool to kill the identity and citizenship of about three million Rohingya.
The quest of identity is a worldwide phenomenon. It is peoples’ birth right to choose their own identity. Government, parliament or a section of public has no right to reject another people’s identity. Many peoples in the past in Burma had changed their ethnic identity: Talaing to Mon; Taungthu to Pa O; Karen Ni to Kayar; Burma itself is adopting as Myanmar. At present census many ethnic peoples are arguing that their present ethnic names designated by the government are not right. So ethnicity is not fixed or constant; it is a dynamic phenomenon in the world.
Many ethnic people in the border area have their clans across the border. Their names are different country wise. A community called Bruwa in Bangladesh is Myamar gyi in Burma. Another group, so called Chakma in Bangladesh is Dai-net in Burma. Why not this logic is used in case of Rohingya, who have more deeply rooted historicity in Burma? From our perspective claiming Rohingya means distancing from Bengali and adapting to Myanmar ethnic family.
In British deputy commissioner Charles Paton’s 1826 report Muslim population of Rakhine period was half of Rakhine’s. Today official Muslim population of Arakan is one third of the total. Muslim (officially Bengali) population has decreased. Yet there is accusation of illegal immigrants and highlighting of threat of Muslim over growth. These accusations are just pretext to persecute the Muslim or Rohingyas. The fact is that over 1.5 million Rohingya left to escape from the persecution in their birth place and now living in many countries as a Diaspora community. Myanmar Bangladesh border has been strictly controlled by a harsh, heavy handed and highly empowered border immigration check force with about 30 stations along the border for last 2 decades. How can illegal immigrants enter into Myanmar?
Here we can see Rohingya or Muslim or Bengali; what so ever, they were there in Rakhine kingdom before Burmese occupation in 1785 and British occupation in 1824. They are bona fide indigenous people. So one honorable Nobel Laureate, Harvard professor, Amartya Sen recently in a Harvard conference told, “It is not the Rohingya who went into Burma: it is Burma that came into Rohingya (land).”
Actually this community was never a minority in Arakan. In course of history, there were several occasions when Muslim from Arakan had to flee. As far as I can study the first exodus of Muslim was during the armed conflict between exiled prince Shah Shujah and Arakan king Canda Suddamma in 1662. The second exodus was during the Muslim insurrection in AD 1738 when Muslim king Sultan Katera in Maruk-U was deposed. (See; Nat Myit Sann Aung, Rakhine Tasaung vol-15 1977-78 P-142). The third exodus was when there broke out insurrection during Myanmar king’s occupation 1785 and on. The fourth exodus was when British withdrew from Arakan in early 1942, Rakhine organized militants attacked the Muslim, burned their villages, looted their properties and killed hundreds of thousands of armless people. Then after independence came series of forced expulsion of Muslims from north of Maungdaw, which was later followed by Daragon operation in 1978 and Pyithaya operation in 1991.Under all these episodes nearly half Rohingya were evicted from their hut and homes.
But to the irony of them in British records Rakhine were said to be returnees where Mulism are remarked as immigrants. Provided this Muslims were also regarded as returnees in British period census Arakan Mohammadans would have been three or four times bigger than the existing records. British always tried to appease the Rakhine.
If the word Rohingya has no credible historical evidence and no serious historical validity prior to independence in 1948, as pointed out by Mr. Derek Tonkin, why Rakhine intellectuals, despite their denial of the term in the past, today asserting the notion that Rohingya is a term, Bengali used for Rakhine. There may not be official records for Rohingya but there is mountain of historical evidence that forced Rakhine people to accept the historical term: Rohingya.
Mr. Tonkin referred Rohingya equivocally as aliens. Reality is that Rohingya have never been an alien community. They are the one who established Mrauk-U. They are the developers and vanguards of Maruk-U. According to Dr. J. Leider they were a well-respected and influential community in Maruk-U. They have no Zat or Caste as Mr.Tonkin cited in his article. Mr. Tonkin shows 1597 Arakan Muslim in Kyauk Phyu and 1658 in Sandoway in British census. These figures are not correct. Rakhine authentic chronicles such as Danyawaddy Areydawpon, Rakhine Mahazwin say king Min Ba 1532-1538 and king Razagyi 1592-1615 alone had donated thousands of war captive from Bengal to Candaw and Andaw zaties in Sandawway. What about other category of Muslim? Mr. Derek Tonkin further emphasized; “That the Arakanese are being pushed out of Arakan before the steady wave of Chittagonian immigration from the west is only too well known”. He cited deputy commission R.B smart’s Akyab gazetteer. It is not our Gospel. R.B. smart is not prophet of Arakan history. There in his works are a lot of inconsistencies and factual wrongs. He described Rakhine as Mug. Do Rakhine accept Mug because it was designated by Deputy Commissioner R.B Smart? No Arakanese was pushed out of Arakan .So called Chittagonian immigrants never took permanent settlement, only natives who formerly left Arakan came back and settled in their original places.
If Rohingya is a word of geographic locator rather than an ethnic designation as assumed by Mr. Tonkin, Rakhine should also be assessed in the same logical sense. Rakhine are part of Burma. Burman call to their own clan as Anyathaa, Einnthaa, Aukthaa, Rakhinethaa and so on. Rakhine according to British records, especially R.B Smart’s is Mug.
Let Mr. Derek Tonkin rest assured! There are hundreds and thousands of Rohingyas who can provide historical documentations and assert in the way of President Kennedy “lch bin ein Arakanar”? Rohingya are ready to face a litmus test and prove their genuineness. If Mr. Derek Tonkin arranges such a neutral and fair inquiry panel of experts and come into Arakan, Rohingya will welcome and heartily co-operate.
According to Mr. Derek, self-identification seems a principle under generally accepted international practice and it’s a right of people, then why is a section of people seriously rejecting it. He quotes 1982 citizenship law. What can we expect from it? I think he knows it. After repatriation of refugees in– 1978-79, that law was intentionally enacted to taken off Rohingya’s citizenship
In Arakan Rohingya is Muslim; Muslim is Rohingya. This two are synonymous. It is westerners and the British who extravagantly use the term “Muslim” for Rohingya, To Rohingya the term Muslim is not derogatory.
His assessment that Rohingya is a post second world ware political label is a misjudgment. Despite Mr. Tonkin’s negative view, Rohingya hope their designation will be recognized as before once the government accepts the democratic norm and principle, discarding its racist mindset.
U Kyaw Min is chairman of Democracy and Human Rights Party based in Yangon, Myanmar. This is his own assessment and not of the party.