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International Day of the World's Indigenous People and Rohingya

Aman Ullah
RB Article
August 11, 2015

“Muslims of Arakan certainly belong to one of the indigenous races of Burma, which you represent. In fact, there are no pure indigenous races in Burma and that if you do not belong to indigenous races Burma; we also cannot be taken as indigenous races of Burma.” President Saw Shwe Thaik,

The International Day of the World's Indigenous People falls on 9 August as this was the date of the first meeting in 1982 of the United Nations Working Group of Indigenous Populations of the Sub-commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities of the Commission on Human Rights.

Every year, 9 August is commemorated as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The day is celebrated with special events around the world, including at United Nations Headquarters in New York.

This year's theme puts a spotlight on the issue of indigenous peoples' access to health care services, as improving indigenous peoples’ health remains a critical challenge for indigenous peoples, Member States and the United Nations. 

In a message to mark the Day, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “On this International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, I call on the international community to ensure that they are not left behind. To create a better, more equitable future, let us commit to do more to improve the health and well-being of indigenous peoples.”

Who are Indigenous?

The adjective indigenous is derived from the two Ancient Greek words indo= endo/ "ενδό(ς)", meaning inside/within, and genous= (γέννoυς), meaning birth/born and also race, etymology meaning "native" or "born within".

James Anaya, former Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, has defined indigenous peoples as "living descendants of pre-invasion inhabitants of lands now dominated by others. They are culturally distinct groups that find themselves engulfed by other settler societies born of forces of empire and conquest". 

They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system. 

In 1972 the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP) accepted as a preliminary definition a formulation put forward by Mr. José R. Martínez-Cobo, Special Rapporteur on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations. This definition has some limitations, because the definition applies mainly to pre-colonial populations, and would likely exclude other isolated or marginal societies.

“Indigenous communities, peoples, and nations are those that, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop, and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.”

Thus, Indigenous peoples were the descendants of those peoples that inhabited a territory prior to colonization or formation of the present state.

Rohingyas are one of the Indigenous peoples of Burma

The Rohingyas are Muslims who are living in Arakan generation after generation for centuries after centuries. They are nationals as well as an indigenous community of Burma. They are equal in every way with other communities of the country. Their arrival in Arakan has pre-dated the arrival of many other peoples and races now residing in Arakan and other parts of Burma. They developed from different stocks of peoples and concentrated in a common geographical location forming their own society with a consolidated population in Arakan well before the Burman invasion in 1784.

Mr. M.A. Gaffer, from Buthidaung, was a member of 1947 Constitutional Assembly, an Upper House MP from 1951 to 1960 and also a Parliamentary Secretary in Health Ministry. 

He wrote, in his Memorandum, which was presented to the Regional Autonomy Enquiry Commission dated the 24th May, 1949, that “We the Rohingyas of Arakan are a nation. We maintain and hold that Rohingyas and Arakanse are two major nations in Arakan. We are a nation of nearly nine lakhs more than enough population for a nation; and what is more we are a nation according to any definition of a nation with our own distinctive culture and civilization, language and literature, art and architecture, names and nomenclature, sense of value and proportion, legal laws and moral codes, customs and calendar, history and traditions aptitude and ambitions, in short, we have our distinctive outlook on life and of life. By all canons of international law the Rohingyas are a nation in Arakan." 

The Rohingyas are a group of people who believes that they are similar; because of this similarity, they believe that their fates are intertwined. That is they have a common identity and a belief in a shared future through collective action. They have acted together in the past, they are acting together in the present, and they will act together in the future. As a collective agent, they are participants in a common venture. Through common action, they want to create a common future, where their people can live out their distinctive life ways in freedom, safety and dignity. As a nation they are jointly committed to create a space for people like them.

Mr. Sultan Ahmed, from Maung Daw, was a member of 1947 Constitutional Assembly, a Member of Parliament from 1951 to 1960 and was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Minorities, Ministry of Relief and Resettlement, and the Ministry of Social and Religious Affairs, with the status of Deputy Minister. He was one of the longest serving parliamentary secretaries. 

According to him, ‘when section 11 of the constitution of the Union of Burma was being framed, a doubt as to whether the Muslims of North Arakan fell under the section of sub-clauses (I) (II) and (III), arose. In effect an objection was put in to have the doubt cleared in respect of the term “indigenous” as used in the constitution. But it was withdrawn on the understanding and assurance of the President of the Constitutional Assembly, at present His Excellency the President of the Union of Burma, who, when approached for clarification with this question, said, “Muslims of Arakan certainly belong to one of the indigenous races of Burma, which you represent. In fact, there are no pure indigenous races in Burma and that if you do not belong to indigenous races Burma; we also cannot be taken as indigenous races of Burma.” Being satisfied with his kind explanation, the objection put in was withdrawn.’

Being indigenous peoples, they have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, economic, social and cultural characteristics, as well as their legal systems, while retaining their rights to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of State. Not only have they had the right to a nationality but also the rights to their lands, territories and resources, which derive from their political, economic and social structures and from their cultures, spirituals traditions, histories and philosophies. 

However, the present Thein Sein government vehemently denies the existence of a Rohingya ethnicity, referring to the group, even in official documents, as “Bengali.” Ultra-nationalist Rakhine Buddhists vehemently reject this view, framing the Rohingyas as illegal immigrants who migrated from East Bengal during the British rule of Burma and/or after Burma and Pakistan’s independence in 1948 and 1947, respectively. 

In one hand the government is trying to enforce with a temporary card known as green card on ethnic Rohingya requiring them to apply for citizenship by naturalization with ‘Bengali identity’ as foreign residents with a view to denationalizing and dividing the entire Rohingya people while putting them in permanent limbo. 

On the other hand they are propagating that, “If any Rohingya accepts Bengali the government will give him; - Red Card Citizenship, - free movement, the Mosque can be opened back, his children can go to school, he can travel freely, he can married without restriction, he can do business and earn money freely, he can vote and can stand for the vote, etc..”

Ethnic identity is an essential human need that provides a sense of belonging and historical continuity and created a foundation on which to build a concept of self. It is an individual’s self-concept developed from knowledge of membership in a cultural group. Ethnic identity and self-identity has supported a strong relationship between the two.

According to Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ For the ‘equal in dignity’ the right to self- identification is important. It is very significantly important to know differentially the incomparable difference between “ethnicity or ethnic group and ethno-religious group”. “Ethnicity or ethnic group” is a specific term to identify the ancestral background of each community who are eligible to belong an ethnicity—particular language, distinct culture, racial dress, populous territory.

The Rohingyas are a nation with a population of more than 3 million (both home and abroad), having a supporting history, separate culture, civilization, language and literature, historically settled territory and reasonable size of population and area. They share a public culture different from the public culture of those around them. They are determined not only to preserve and develop their public culture, but also to transmit to future generations as the basis of their continued existence as people, in accordance with their own cultural pattern, social institution and legal system. 

The term Rohingya is widely used by the international community to identify a group of Muslims of Arakan. According to Dr. Ganganath Jha of Jawaharlal Nehru University of India, the term Rohingya is derived from Rohang the ancient name of Arakan. The Muslims of Arakan called their country, in their own language, ‘Rohang or Roang’ and called themselves as Rohangya (Rohang+ya) or Roangya (Roang+ya) means native of Rohang or Roang. In Burmese it is ‘ရိုဟင္ဂ်ာ’, in Rakhine’s pronunciation it will read as ‘Rohangya’ but in Burmese pronunciation it became ‘Rohingya’ and now it’s established as ‘Rhinggya’. Like other peoples of the world, they have needed to identify as Rohingya to some degree for centuries.

In the work of Arab geographer Rashiduddin (1310 AD) it appears as ‘Rahan or Raham’. The British travelers Relph Fitch (1586 AD) referred the name of Arakan as ‘Rocon’. In the Rennell’s map (1771 AD), it is ‘Rassawn’. Tripura Chronicle Rajmala mentions as ‘Roshang’. In the medieval works of the poets of Arakan and Chittagong, like Quazi Daulat, Mardan, Shamser Ali, Quraishi Magan, Alaol, Ainuddin, Abdul Ghani and others, they frequently referred to Arakan as ‘Roshang’, ‘Roshanga’, ‘Roshango Shar’, and ‘Roshango Des’. Famous European traveller Francis Buchanam (1762-1829 AD) in his accounts mentioned Arakan as “Rossawn, Rohhawn, Roang, Reng or Rung”. In one of his accounts, “A Comparative Vocabulary of some of the languages spoken in the Burman Empire” it was stated that, “The first is that spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan.” The Persians called it ‘Rekan’.” The Chakmas and Saks from 18th century called it ‘Roang’. Today the Muslims of Arakan call the country ‘Rohang’ or Roang’ or ‘Arakan’ and call themselves ‘Rohingya’ or native of Rohang.

Rohingya is not simply a self-referential group identity, but an official group and ethnic identity recognized by the post-independence state. In the early years of Myanmar’s independence, the Rohingya were recognized as a legitimate ethnic group that deserved a homeland in Burma.

· On 31st December 1942, Brig-Gen C E Lucas Phillips of 14th British Army declared the North Arakan as “Muslim National Area” As per Public Notice No. 11-OA-CC/42. Then formed a Peace Committed headed by Mr. Omra Meah and Mr. Zahir Uddin Ahmed and entrusted for administration of the area. On 1st January 1945 Brigadier C.E Lucas Phillips became the Chief Administrator of the area and appointed members of Peace Committee as administrative officers of the area. The British recognized the Muslims of Arakan as a distinct racial group and the British officer-in-command promised to grant more autonomy in North Arakan. 

· In 1947, Hon’ble Bo Let Ya the Deputy Prime Minister, came to visit Maungdaw, to expound the principles laid down in the constitution of the Union of Burma, but it appeared on the "New Times of Burma" that he addressed the inhabitants of Maungdaw as "Chittagonians" which was objectionable and contradictory in relation to the Muslims of North Arakan forming parts and parcel of Indigenous races of Burma. The Prime Minister U Nu expressed regrets for the use of wrong terms "Chittagonians” and as per letter No.153/22 PM 48 dated; 20 February 1948, instructed that it should be either "Arakanese Muslims" or "Burmese Muslims". The term ‘Burmese Muslims’ published in the form of Press communiqué issued by His Excellency Sir Domon Smith, the Governor of Burma, on 27th September 1941. 

· On 30th 1949, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a Burma Gazette Extra Ordinary, as par letter No. 282/ HD- 49, in which it was, mentioned that the Arakanese Muslims of Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships of Akyab district as indigenous peoples of Burma.

· On September 1954, U Nu, the first elected Prime Minister of Burma, in his radio address to nation, announced that, “The people living in northern Arakan are our national brethren. They are called Rohingyas. They are on the same par in the status of nationality with Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Mon, Rakhine and Shan.” 

· On 3rd and 4th November 1959, U Ba Swe, Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Affairs, in the public meetings of Maungdaw and Buthidaung, announced that, ‘The Rohingyas are equal in every way with other minority races like Shan, Kachin, Karen, kayah, Mon and Rakhine. They have lived in Burma ages according to historical facts. There is historical evidence that they have lived faithfully and harmoniously with other races of Burma.’ 

· On 4th July 1961, Brig-General Aung Gyi, Deputy Chief of Staff, officially explained that, ‘On the west, May Yu district borders with Pakistan. As is the case with all borderlands communities, there are Muslims on both sides of the borders. Those who are on Pakistan’s side are known as Pakistani while the Muslims on our Burmese side of the borders are referred to as ‘Rohingya.’ Here I must stress that this is not a case where one single race splits itself into two communities in two different neighbouring countries. If you look at the Sino-Burmese border region, you will see this kind of phenomenon, namely ‘adjacent people’. To give you a concrete example, take Lisu of Kachin state, or La-wa (or Wa) and E-kaw of the same Kachin State by the Chinese borderlands. They all straddle on both sides of the borders. Likewise, the Shan can be found on the Chinese side as well as in Thailand – and they are known as ‘Tai’ or ‘Dai’ over there...They speak similar language and they have a common religion.’

· The Rohingyas were enfranchised in all the national and local elections of Burma. Their representatives were in the Legislative Assembly, in the Constituent Assembly and in the Parliament. As members of the new Parliament, their representatives took the oath of allegiance to the Union of Burma on the 4th January 1948. Their representatives were appointed as cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries. They had their own political, cultural, social organizations and had their programme in their own language in the official Burma Broadcasting Services (BSS).

· As a Burma’s racial groups, they participated in the official “Union Day’ celebration in Burma’s capital, Rangoon, every year.

· To satisfy part of their demand, the government granted them limited local autonomy and declared establishment of Mayu Frontier Administration (MFA) in early 60s, a special frontier district to be ruled directly by the central government.

Thus, the Muslims of Rakhine region over the centuries have had many terms by which to identify themselves, including the terms Rakhine Muslim, Arakan Muslim, and Rohingya, the last of which has become more prominent in recent times. 

However, the Rakhine nationalist claims that, the term Rohingya was created in the 1950s to promote the political demands of the Bengalis in Myanmar.

Ethnic identity is not a God-given thing, but different forms of identities are invented and reworked thorough space and time. That’s why the process of identity formation is known as ‘social construction’. And Ethnicity is not just a ‘thing’ but also a ‘process’ in which the state actors impose identities, and the people themselves actively articulate their own identities for the sake of political and material livelihood.

As Burma and Arakan state are the products of the nation-sate formation through a relatively long, history, The name ‘Rakhne’ and the place ‘Arakan’ have been “invented” at particular points of time, just like the name “Rohinggya’ was invented another points of time. If Rohingya ‘migrated’ from Bangladesh of somewhere else at one historical point of time Rakhines must have ‘migrated’ at similar or another historical points of time. But immigrating earlier of later does not negates the problematic reality that both groups have migrated from somewhere else. None of these groups fell from the sky. The claim that the name ‘Rohingya’ is invented is unacceptable and completely contradicts the very foundational understanding of ethnicity and ethnic identity. 

Since 1942, the Rakhine Buddhists pushed the Muslims from the southern Arakan to the northern Arakan. 

Since 1962, successive military regimes denied their citizenship right by labeling that they are illegal immigrants from Bangaladesh.

Since 1982, the regimes completely denied the citizenship rights of the Rohingyas by enacting the most controversial Citizenship Law -1982.

Since 2012, the Thein Sein regime rejected their identity and forcefully making them Bengali. 

The Rohingya Muslims of Arakan, both home and abroad, believed that they belong to Burma and they are parts and parcel of indigenous races of Burma. They never try to be Bengali. At present there are more than 3 million Roghingyas both home and abroad. Their only blood related community is the Roai people, a third and fourth generation Rohingyas, who strongly believed that their ancestors were from Arakan or related to Arakan. Their population is round about 10 million lived in Cox’s Bazaar district and southern Chittagong district. These peoples are morally concerned to the Rohingyas Muslims of Arakan.

However, the present Thein Sein Government and Ultra- Nationalits Rakhines are going to forcefully making the Rohingya to Bengali. Then the Bengali peoples became concerned to the case and cause of the Rohuingyas. In Bangladesh, there are 160 million Bengali, in India also about 100 million Bengali and other parts of the world also more than 40 million Bengali. So there are more than 300 million Bengali throughout the world. In the case of the Rohingya has forcefully became Bengali then they will be parts and parcel of other Bengali peoples, and the world’s over 300 million Bengali will try to stand behind the ill-fated 3 million Rohingya people. The Government is playing with a great risk that will not good for the country and for the peoples of Burma, particularly for Arakan.

The Arakan problem can be easily solved to the satisfaction of all the stake holders if the Rakhine Buddhist is simply follow the golden rule of “Live and let Live”. This will definitely put an end to all the mutual ill-feeling and mistrusts; and there lies mutual happiness.

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