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Why Rohingya? Equality and identity in Myanmar

By Wai Wai Nu
Myanmar Times
May 20, 2016

I belong to an ethnic group that, according to my government, does not exist. In the past few weeks, ultra-nationalist protestors have proudly proclaimed, “There are no Rohingya in our country.” And then the NLD government requested foreign embassies to refrain from using the term “Rohingya”, reportedly stating that “the controversial term does not support the national reconciliation process and solving problems”. Their statement was disappointing because it was a capitulation to the hardliners and because I, as a Rohingya, want nothing more than national reconciliation. I want to live in a Myanmar where all of Myanmar’s peoples can live together in equality and peace.

I was born in Myanmar, my parents were born in Myanmar, and their parents were born in Myanmar. My family members have served in the Myanmar government and fought for Myanmar democracy. My father served as a teacher in government schools in Rakhine State for 30 years and was elected as a member of parliament in the 1990 elections. My mother, sister, father, brother and I were all imprisoned because of my father’s work alongside Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in the democratic opposition. Even so, under the new NLD-led government, describing my ethnicity, language and culture has become a “controversial” political act.

It has not always been like this.

Growing up in Rakhine State, I knew myself to be Rohingya, and was thought of as such by my ethnically Rakhine neighbours. Depending on the context, we also referred to ourselves, and were referred to, as simply “Muslims”. Sadly, we were also frequently called “Kalar”, a derogatory name forced on us by our Rakhine and Bamar neighbours.

To be Rohingya is, in our language, to be the people of Rohang, the geographical region in modern Rakhine State that we have inhabited dating back to at least the Mrauk-U Kingdom in the 15th century. If you go to Mrauk-U today you will find inscriptions in our language at ancient historic sites.

Before the 1980s, the Myanmar government freely used the word Rohingya to describe us in many contexts. My family’s “household list” maintained by the local government in northern Rakhine State, where a majority of Rohingya live, listed our family’s ethnicity as Rohingya. My elder brothers’ birth certificates state Rohingya as their ethnicity.

The debate over the word Rohingya is much more than an argument over terminology. The effort to scrub the Rohingya name from Myanmar’s official lexicon has been part of a broad campaign by the previous military government and hardline Buddhist ultra-nationalists to label us as “foreigners” and “invaders” and deny our right to inhabit Myanmar. These groups have labelled us as “Bengali”, to suggest that we are from Bangladesh, despite the fact that we have resided in Myanmar for generations.

In part, we feel strongly about our identity as Rohingya because we have seen a direct correlation between the denial of our identity as a “national race” in Myanmar and the deterioration of our rights. Under the 1982 Citizenship Law, only certain “national races” identified by the government automatically qualify for citizenship.

When the government created its list of national races, Rohingya and several other Muslim groups were omitted. In the 1990s, the government targeted our community with discriminatory policies, including restrictions on movement, marriage and childbirth. Under the previous military government, we were subject to many of the same abuses that other ethnic nationalities of Myanmar suffered, such as forced labour, arbitrary detention and sexual assault.

Since 2011, when the first nominally civilian government took power, conditions for Rohingya have deteriorated even more rapidly. Mass violence in Rakhine State in 2012 resulted in hundreds of our community being killed and hundreds of thousands internally displaced, while thousands more have risked their lives to flee the country by sea. We were omitted from the first census held in 30 years. The vast majority of our community was denied the right to vote for the first time in the historic November 2015 elections that brought the NLD to power. Our candidates were singled out for disqualification. We have been segregated from our Buddhist neighbours and restricted in our movement. We have been denied access to hospitals, schools and jobs. As the situation for us has gotten worse, the call for us to deny our identity has gotten stronger.

Meanwhile, we watch as our brothers and sisters who have also suffered under the military dictatorship – democratic activists, ethnic nationalities and other marginalised groups – approach the new “democratic era” with great hope. We too have had hope, but wonder why we have been left behind. If the NLD is really concerned with “national reconciliation” as they suggest, they should seek to include all Myanmar’s peoples in the process. The first step is to allow us to join our brothers and sisters as equals, as human beings with the right to decide the name we think best reflects our culture and our history.

Wai Wai Nu is a human rights and peace activist from the Rohingya community and a former political prisoner.

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