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Identity Classification of Rohingya

By U Kyaw Min
RB History
November 24, 2014

Identity Classification of Rohingya | Chapter 5

In the course of centuries, living in a separate region with different political, economic and cultural environment this Muslim community in Arakan grew up as a distinctive entity. The figure of their population vary author to author census to census. Actually their population dwindled due to suppressive state policy of Myanmar. Discrimination and prejudices compelled Rohingya to flee the land. Actually Rohingya were majority in Arakan period. 

Major R.E Roberts in his report “An account of Arakan”, at Islamabad (Chittagong) in June 1777, noted almost three fourth of the inhabitants of Rekheng are said to be natives of Bengal or descendants of such who constantly pray that English may send a force to deliver them from their slavery and restore them to their country (See; in presentation et commentaries, Ascanie 3, 1999. P 125,149) As I write in chapter (8), in Arakan it was a time of political chaos.

In early British census they were named as Syead, Sheikh, Mughal, Pattan and so on as it was the case with British census in India. Later Arakan Muslim were put in the same category of Indian Muslims. Despite hundreds of different races in India, entire population of India was classified as forty just adding all sisterly language groups into one race. In Arakan Rohingyas whose language has some similarities with Chittagonians were grouped as the Chittagonians. Only Rakhine specking Muslims were, in the censuses mentioned as Arakan Mohammedans in the late British censuses. This was also objected by Rakhine then. What Rakhine even in British period wanted was to make all Muslim aliens.

One BCN report, “Burma policy briefing 14” says; The colonial era perceptions of race long since challenged in many other post-colonial setting in Africa and Asia, still endure in Myanmar. Such a legacy becomes particularly problematic in discourses about identity, ethnic politics and citizenship. -- The label and number of racial categories, however shifted from one census to another as did the methodologies for identifying types of people.

Heavily influenced by 19th century social Darwinism, colonial officials regarded race as a scientific, objectively verifiable category. -- census and other population reports advanced many theories of migration, conquest, absorption of races and by 1931 had adopted a classification system for races that is the same as that for languages. [Here Rohingya’s addition to Indian speaking group, rather than Rakhine speaking was a mistake.] 

-- J.J. Benison superintendant of the 1931 census and author of the narrative that accompanies the statistical report, admitted the unreliability of the counts. He noted the extreme instability of language and racial distinction in Burma. -- Of the entire census reports, Bennison wrote, “apologies are due for lack of style, defective arrangement and repetitions. Many of the statistics are unreliable.” [See. BCN, Burma Centrum Nederland, Burma policy briefing (No.14, Fed, 2014, P.7-10)]

If we go through census, we will find the population of Maung Daw and Buthidaung more than many hundred thousand in 1953 partial census. In the report of Mayu frontier administration in 1961, it is about five hundred thousand.

In 1953 and 1954 partial census, in the village of Arakan included in the census 56.75 percent Buddhists were found and 41.70 percent Muslims. (Moshe Yegar 1972, P-12) In 1973 census report Rakhine state population was 1700506: on religious basis; Buddhist 68.7% and Muslim 29.2%; On citizenship basis, total population was 1700506, where Myanmar citizens are 99.7%. In number it is 1695190. The figure for Pakistan is 0.1% for Bangladesh 0.2% both of which number was 5316. Here we can say the above 29.2% Muslims were included in 99.7% citizen and thus recognized as Myanmar citizens. In term of race there were neither Bengali nor Rohingya nor Muslims. The census figure shows non-Rakhine (Muslim) as Indians and Pakistanis both combined was 201044 and there another figure in the name of other foreign race was 271017.

It is not mentioned from which country they were I think today’s Rohingya or Muslims were divided into those two categories just to complicate Rohingya’s identity. In fact there were no Indian and Pakistanis in 1973 and around. The census Figure for Muslims was not real. It was always under counted. Foreign population was 5316 only. Here how can present day Muslims of Arakan be foreigners? 1983 census report, table A.3, shows percentage distribution of total population by race and sex; Rakhine comprised 67.8%.Indian 2.4%, Pakistani none, and Bangladeshi 24.3%. Here categorization is irrelevant. In 1973 census there was no Bangladeshi. Here Bangladeshi meant, I think, Muslim of Arakan. A big figure of Indians of 1973 census disappeared. It shows only 2.4%. In this census report there no citizenship Category. But in religion wise distribution Buddhists constitute 69.7 % and Islamic represent 28.5 % of total population In both 1973, and 1983 census Rohingya self-identified their name but reports did not carry their identity. It shows the intention of the
Government from 1973 was to deprive Rohingya of their identity.

The report itself says “The 1983 census was the first nationwide census to adopt the sampling technique to collect population data. --- Thus, all estimates based on sampling. The 20% enumeration of the 1983 census are subject to sampling error. (See chapter 3, Assessment of quality of census data, in 1983 census report) 

In this census Rakhine state total population is 2045559: Buddhist, 1425095 and Muslim, 583944 (Sunni) and 574 (Shiate). Note: Here the figures in various tables in the census report are different from one table to another. In 2012 Rakhine conflict inquiry commission report, it says total population of Arakan was 333, 8669; In percentage; Buddhist 67.4 % and Muslim population is 28.4%; Numerically Buddhist 2333670, Muslim 968726. It referred to Rakhine state immigration office data. We cannot say how far it is reliable. Muslim population is always under counted due to reasons known to census officials.

Moshe Yegar said, “Census figures are not altogether exact because in the 1921 census count many Arakanese Muslims were listed as Indians. In the 1931 census too, many Arakanese Muslim claimed Bengali as their Mother language, and was listed as Indians.(Moshe Yegar 1972, 119; Bennison census report 1931, P.211)

In the census table of Akyab Gazetteer in 1912, the predominantly Bengali speaking Muslims formed over 30% of the total population of 529, 943 in Akyab district. There were other Muslims too. It seemed in Akyab district, Muslim were majority; 181509 were said to be Bengali speakers while 178647 were categorized among various other Muslim denominations. One century passed. The population ratio did mot grow up but decreased. Today so called Bengali above become minority. If there are regular Bangladeshi illegal people coming in, there is no question of dwindling of so called Bengali population.

There is a Kaman race who are mostly Muslims. This Kaman took Arakan politics in their own hands for more than thirty years. They made and unmade kings on their own will. Later in 1709, Sandha Wiziya, a strong king came in power; he stabilized the kingdom. The former kings’ body guard Kamans were deported to off shore islands: Ramree and Akyab
(Sittwe). The king persecuted other Muslim too. Many fled to Bengal and another 3700 Muslims were said to have fled to Ava where king Sanne had settled this Muslim group in twelve different places. (Thaathana Raungwa Tun Zepho published by SLORC, 1997, P.60) 

Dr. Than Tun remarked them as Indians from Arakan. They are brave and skillful in military science: marshal arts. Their progeny served with Myanmar king’s standing army. An unit of this group from Myedu, Shwe Bo district was left by Bodaw Phaya's army in Sandoway on their return from Arakan in 1785. This army unit and their descendants later was known as Myedu Muslim. They were also in 1921 census enlisted as Indians. (Mushe Yegar 1972, P.119) May be, this Myedus apoke Indian dialect and thus was categorized as Indians.

After all British census figures are not reliable as is registered in their own report (see J.J. Bennin’s 1931 report) Baxter report said there were about sixty thousand Muslim in Rakhine period where 1921 British census said, Arakanese Muslim population is 24000. Here it is
obvious British had mixed up Arakan Muslims with Indians who later came into Arakan. So this census is not reliable. Arakanese Muslim again is not a racial identity. It is up to British census officials why didn't they designate this Muslims as Rohingya despite there are records of their Rohingya identity. Historians say this Muslims claimed to be Rohingya (See Chapter 3). 

It is not the Rohingya who distanced themselves from Rakhine, It is the Rakhine who resisted the cultural integration of Rohingya with them. They say Rakhine has no Muslim population. Yet we can find an extensive acculturation of Rohingya into Rakhine culture and society. Rakhine in early time adapted Rohingya Language and literature. In daily routine habits there are a lot of similarities between two communities.

William Foley a British officer narrated; They are now so assimilated to the rest of the population in dress, language and feature that it is difficult to conceive a distinction ever existed. As if ashamed of their Muhammadan identity, individuals of this class have generally two names, one that they derived from birth and the other such as is common to the natives of Arakan and by which they are desirous of being known.[Foley, Journal of a tour through the island of Ramree; Journal of Asiatic society of Bengal 4 (1835) Rohingya identity developed through the interactions of historical processes. It is a product of Arakan history not a novel identity forged by a group as portrayed by some biased or paid historians.

Historians can say Rohingya has some cultural or linguistic similarity with Chittagong; but no one can say it is identical; further no one can say Rohingya are Bengali. Sociologists and anthropologist can well define the distinction. Today Indian historians say both Chittagong
and Arakan were the the refuge of migrant Maghedhi people in early centuries. So there were the influences of Maghedhi parakhrit in the dialect of both regions. No strand of Maghedhi (linguistic) infiltration in Rakhine Language is found. So some Rakhine’s claim to
have come from Maghedha is just a trick and a farce. Rakhines generally look Burman not Indians. Rohingyas, not Rakhine have similar complexion with Indians.

So here if there were any Maghedhi peoples’ penetration and settlements in Arakan (Rakhine) in early centuries, ashistorian said those might be of the Rohingya’s not the Rakhine’s. By all reconds Rakhine are a branch of Burma. (See Dr.Than Tun, 83rd Birthday
Bulletin, 2003)

So it is not an issue of doubt or a matter of restraint for foreigners to recognize Rohingya as a historic race of Arkan. To stand firm for Rohingya’s official recognition in my view is a question of moral strength, and righteousness for foreigners.

Note: This is a chapter from a thesis of U Kyaw Min. All here are U Kyaw Min’s personal views not of his party, DHRP.

U Kyaw Min is Chairman of Democracy and Human Rights Party based in Yangon, Myanmar. 

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