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Which Really is a Controversial Term

Aman Ullah
RB Opinion
May 15, 2016

“Animosity does not eradicate animosity, 
Only by loving kindness is animosity dissolved, 
This law is ancient and eternal” Words of Buddha

The Burmese foreign ministry led by Aung San Suu Kyi has told foreign diplomats to stop using the word “Rohingya”, prompting accusations that it has abandoned the minority Muslim community.

The foreign ministry sent an advisory to embassies in Rangoon this week warning them against the term, which is used by the stateless Muslim group to self-identify, but is rejected by the country’s nationalist Buddhist wing who view the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

“We won’t use the term Rohingya because Rohingya are not recognized as among the 135 official ethnic groups,” “Our position is that using the controversial term does not support the national reconciliation process and solving problems” said Kyaw Zay Ya, a retired lieutenant-colonel who was elected as an MP for Ms Suu Kyi’s party last year and now serves in the foreign ministry. But he added that “it is not possible to enforce” the directive, and would be up to foreign governments to decide.

Here questions arise about ‘which really is a controversial term’. It is clear that, he means the word ‘Rohingya’ as a controversial term. Actually Rohingya is not a controversial term rather these people are trying to controvert it with an ulterior motive. Rohingya is a name or identity of a people in their own language. It is neither a term in Rakhines language nor Burmese language nor of any other language. These people called themselves their land as Rohang or Roang and the native that land is called in their own language as Rohingya or Roangya. It is a self-identification of a people, which is one of the indispensable rights of them as a member of human family. Why there needs to controversy about. 

Suppose Kaw Zay Ya is the personal name of that gentle man in his own language that is his personal identity or self-identification, no one has right for controversy on it. The noblel Laureate, the icon of democracy, the mother of the nation, the leader of NLD, the Minister of Foreign affairs, the State Counselor all these are not the identities of our beloved leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, these are her glories honored by others and adjectives given by others. But Aung San Suu Kyi is her personal identity that was given by her parents and a self-identification to which she prefer most. No one has a right to say that Aung San is her father’s name, Suu is her grandmother’s name and Kyi is her mother’s name so where is her name? No, none has the right to make any controversy on it because it is her personal identity, an identity that she prefers most; an identity to which her parents love to call her; an identity by which all of her relatives, her nears and dears known her, even the whole world recognize her with this identity. So, why did the term Rohingya be a controversial?

Let’s us go to the term ‘the 135 official ethnic groups’, how is it an official?

Myanmar is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the region, and ethnicity is a complex, contested and politically sensitive issue where ethnic groups have long believed that the Government manipulates ethnic categories for political purposes. Myanmar’s ethnic minorities make up an estimated 30 - 40% of the population, and ethnic states occupy some 57% of the total land area along most of the country’s international borders. The Constitution makes no reference to ethnic minorities. It instead uses the term “national races”. However this term is not defined by the Constitution, and is generally interpreted by applying the 1982 Myanmar Citizenship Law, which defines the 135 national races in its 1983 Procedures.

The “official" categorization of 135 ethnic groups is at odds and mystery with the history of categorization itself. For example, a 1960 publication by the Ministry of Culture estimated ethnic groups to be about 50, but the manual from the Department of Immigration and Manpower published in 1972 listed 144 so-called national races.

The origins of the now frequently mentioned list of the 135 ethnic groups living in Myanmar anterior to 1823 remains unknown, though General Saw Maung, then the head of the ruling military government, in 1989 said he had received it from ‘the census department’.

The list was mentioned first in a speech by Senior General Saw Maung on 5 July 1989, State Law and Order Restoration Council Chairman Commander in Chief of the Defence Services General Saw Maung’s Addresses and Discussions in Interview with Foreign Correspondents {(Yangon: Ministry of Information, 1989), pp. 182-183, p. 247 in English translation.} The list was eventually published more than a year later apparently only in Burmese in the Loktha Pyithu Neizin (The Working People’s Daily) on 26 September 1990. {International Crisis Group, “Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State,”}

Following this proclamation, the government institutionalized the number 135 as an expansion of the eight official races. Another, even more arbitrary, suggestion is that because General Ne Win’s favourite number is nine, the government devised 135 sub-categories, as one plus three plus five is nine.

However, one might reasonably speculate that it was derived from the last published British census of Burma taken in 1931. “Imperial Table XVIII – Race, Part I – Provincial Totals of Races by Religion” provides a list 135 ethno-linguistic groups which could be considered as being extant within Burma’s borders at that time. The 1921 British census21 provides a list of 125 groups listed by language groups. Some, which appear in both of the last British period censuses and the 1990 Working People’s Daily list, are remarkably small. Whatever the case, it would appear that in 2015, 67 years after independence, people are still discussing a nearly hundred year old list created by British colonial officials and amateur linguistics and ethnographers.

The national races are never identified, nor the claim that there 135 of them established, in the 2008 constitution or any other official document at least prior to the 2014 census.

The 2008 constitution compounds the problem of politicised ethnicity, which would allow expressions of ethnic wishes to be routed through peaceful channels. First, the constitution maintains the seven ethnically designated states as well as seven geographically designated regions and devolves certain limited powers to governments of the states and regions. It also established six autonomous zones with ethnic designations. In addition “race affairs” ministers are to be elected when at least 0.01 per cent of an ethnic group exists which is not otherwise nominally represented in the nomenclature of the state or region. There are currently 29 such race affairs ministers in state and regional governments who are elected on the basis of their respective ethno-linguistic group. How one is determined to be a member of such a group is not clear, but presumably this is on the basis of self-identification as indicated on national registration certificates.

Scrutinizing the list, one can find numerous inconsistencies. For example, some groups are listed according to exogamous names, whereas others are listed by endogamous names. Many are listed according to the name of their language, while others are named based on their location or principal town. The preponderance of group names, arguably, has unnecessarily subdivided some races. For example, Kachin political leaders have argued that there are six Kachin groups, not twelve. The same case has been made for the Karen/Kayin race, with the government scheme placing the number of sub-groups as nine, but Karen leaders saying that there are five. Within the total Chin population of an estimated one million people, the government list specifies 53 sub-groups, but these listed groups are, in some cases, merely alternative spellings of the same name, the name of a variant dialect of one language, or again, clans within another sub-group.

In addition to recognized groups finding themselves incorrectly identified or subdivided, the list of 135 excludes a number of groups. A few of the groups not included in the list are: Panthay Chinese Muslims, Overseas Chinese (speakers of Hokkien and Cantonese), Anglo-Burmese (Eurasians of mixed Burmese and European background), Burmese Indians, Gurkha, Pakistanis, and Rohingyas. 

Among many concerns, the 2014 census will collect ethnicity and identity information based upon a much disputed list of 135 “national races”. The current list is almost identical to one first deployed during the Socialist era (1962-1988) and resurrected during the early years of the previous military government (1988-2011). These, in turn, were derived from a flawed British census in 1931. Furthermore, in the 2014 census each individual may be recorded as one and only one of the highly suspect race categories. As a result, not only will the common experience of mixed ethnic identities not be recorded but leaders of some ethnic political groups also fear that their followers will not be counted by the identities or ethnicities that they self-report. Technical decisions about enumeration procedures like this one could have adverse impact on political representation and, in some cases, citizenship

During the early years of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC; renamed SPDC in 1997), however, Gen. Saw Maung and the military intelligence chief, Lt.Gen. Khin Nyunt, proffered a more complex taxonomy of taingyinthar lu-myo. In a characteristically rambling speech in July 1989, the SLORC chairman Gen. Saw Maung referred to the “Census Department,” from which he discovered “135 categories” of “national race groups”. At the time, with constitutional government suspended, this was widely perceived as a confusing but tactical attempt to weaken non-Bamar solidarity around identity in a new game of “divide and rule”. Nevertheless, the seven ethnic states were subsequently retained in the 2008 constitution, and new “self-administered zones” and a “selfadministered division” were demarcated for six smaller national races that were not previously recognized in territorial-administrative terms: i.e. Danu, Kokang, Naga, Palaung (Taang), Pa-O and Wa. A further constitutional innovation resulted in seven other taingyinthar lu-myo gaining electoral representation, among 29 such reserved seats, in the 2010 election in the legislatures for states and regions where they were smaller minorities. These were Akha, Bamar, Intha, Kayan, Lahu, Lisu and Rawang. In consequence, the implementation of the 2008 constitution has so far given legal status to 20 national race identities for administrative or representative purposes.

Despite this emergence of a more complex legal and bureaucratic landscape of ethnicity, the Ministry of Immigration and Population (MOIP) has fallen back on the “SLORC-SPDC’s controversial “135” list of ethnic groups” for processing identity card applications and coding the 2014 Population and Housing Census. As a result, MOIP activities, with the full support of international donors and UN agencies, are promoting citizenship and identity practices that, over the years, have adversely affected many peoples. At root, identity regulation has always been a matter of law enforcement and security, rather than a neutral, technical procedure.

Thus, it is crystal clear that, the term Rohingya is not a controversial one, the SLORC-SPDC’s so-called the 135 official ethnic groups, is actual controversial terms, which may ruin the national reconciliation process and solving problems. 

During the SPDC regime, it was said that, prior meeting of any foreign dignitary with U Than Shwe, he/ she was advised to avoid using the name of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The reason behind was that U than Shwe hated her and did not want to hear her name and not because of that the name of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is controversial. 

In the same sense, rejecting and trying to controvert the term Rohingya by the country’s nationalist Buddhist wing not because of the term Rohingya is controversial but because of hatred. Most certainly is some vested quarters are trying to scapegoat the Rohingya case to destabilize the country and to make the present democratic government not to success. 

“He abused me, mistrusted me, defeated me, robbed me.” Harboring such thoughts keeps hatred alive.

“He abused me, mistrusted me, defeated me, robbed me.”Releasing such thoughts banishes hatred for all the time.

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