The Rohingya Identity: An essay in political reality
Share this on

The Rohingya Identity: An essay in political reality

THE recent daring attacks on Border Guard Police posts in Rakhine State in Burma (Myanmar) by a poorly armed, but very determined and apparently well trained group of young guerrilla fighters seeking justice for the long victimised and persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority should make us pause for thought about the identity of this minority.

On Oct 25, 1948, the Muslim Council of North Arakan declared in an address to Prime Minister U Nu on the occasion of his visit to Maungdaw:

“We are dejected to mention that in this country we have been wrongly taken as part of the race generally known as Chittagonians and as foreigners. We humbly submit that we are not.

“We have a history of our own distinct from that of Chittagonians. We have a culture of our own. Historically we are a race by ourselves…..Our spoken language is an admixture of Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Arakanese and Bengali….”

Most historians would agree that this is a fair description, but only of the ‘old’ Muslim inhabitants of Arakan, a group of whom, deported to Burma in 1785 after the former Kingdom of Arakan was captured by the Burmese, were met by Francis Buchanan, a British envoy, in Amarapura (near Mandalay) in 1795.

Buchanan later recorded that they called themselves “Rooinga  or natives of Arakan”. The Muslim Council, however, made it clear that their description applied to “our people and most of the people professing Islam in Akyab district (North Arakan)”. Few historians would accept this all-embracing interpretation.


The ‘Rooingya’ natives of Arakan, as well as the Ruwangya or Rushangya are believed to be precursors of the Rohingya. Pic: AP.

The council added, without providing any historical evidence, that the descendants of early Arab settlers from the 10th century “were known as Ruwangyas or Rushangyas”. It does not take all that much imagination to see that Rooinga, Ruwangya and Rushangya are quite likely related etymologically, the precursors of today’s “Rohingya”. Significantly, the Chittagonian dialect word for Arakan is, I have read, “Rohang”, with variants noted by Buchanan himself: “Rossawn, Rohhawn, Roang, Reng or Rung, for by all these names is Arakan called by the Bengalese”.

The British conducted meticulous annual and decennial censuses in Arakan from 1829 to the outbreak of World War II, but at no time after their first entry into Arakan in 1824 did they come across a single person who claimed to be a Rohingya. The name may however mean no more than “Arakaner” in Bengali, as much as we talk today of New Zealanders and Londoners without imputing any ethnic designation. “The real natives of Arakan”, as Buchanan referred to the local Buddhist population, called both Muslim and Hindu residents “Kulaw Yakain”, or “Stranger Arakan” according to Buchanan, implying that the latter were settlers rather than indigenous inhabitants.

The name stuck as “Yakaing-kala” among Buddhists during British rule.

SEE ALSO: Ministry to prove Rohingya not indigenous to Burma

The British, however, took no sides in this dispute over origin and decided to call these ‘old’ residents of Muslim faith “Arakan Musselmans”, which in censuses and gazetteers over the years changed to “Arakan Mohammedans” and finally “Arakan Muslims”.

This name they reserved only for the minority of Muslims who dressed and spoke in the ‘old’ way, while distinguishing them from other long resident Muslim inhabitants of Arakan like the Kaman and the Myedu, whose normal language was Burmese, the mixed race Zerbadi who in 1941 were redesignated “Burmese Muslim” and the considerable numbers of late 19th century and early 20th century immigrants from Bengal.

Indeed, the majority of Muslim inhabitants of Arakan were by the 1930s agricultural migrants from Bengal, who initially came to British Burma only for the rice harvest season, but from 1870 onwards increasingly stayed in Arakan as permanent settlers. Most of these were from the Chittagong region, and were classed by the British as “Chittagonians”, while others from further afield in Bengal were classed as “Bengalis”. At the 1931 census, the number of Chittagonians enumerated in Arakan was four times as great as the ‘old’ Arakan Muslims.

So the ‘new’ came to dominate the Muslim community in Arakan. The ‘old’ spoke their own archaic dialect, but did business in Burmese, which was their written language.

For many years the ‘new’ spoke no Burmese, but an adapted Chittagonian dialect. Historically, the ‘old’ Muslims of Arakan may have written in Arabic or Persian. But there is even today no established written Rohingya script, which is surprising if, as some assert, the Rohinyga presence in Arakan has already lasted over a thousand years.

The Muslim Council of North Arakan and their political and clerical successors have remained adamant. Despite all the evidence, they deny that there was any immigration of substance between 1870 and 1930 by Chittagonians/Bengalis into Arakan.

Over one hundred years of painstaking British censuses, conducted on the ground by educated volunteer local enumerators under British direction, are dismissed as seriously flawed, so far as the classification of the population of Arakan is concerned. Yet the US Embassy in Rangoon referred only to “Arakan Chittagonians” when reporting on events in Arakan in the 1970s and 1980s, a designation taken from the list of 144 ethnicities approved for the 1973 Census – the present list of 135 which excluded Muslim groups taken over from the British was first published only in September 1990 and was not current when the 1982 Citizenship Act came into effect.

By the early 1960s, the designation “Rohingya” was being applied by the Muslim elite and their associated groups to all Muslims in Arakan, apart from the Kaman, though the designation “Rohingya” has never appeared in any Burmese legislation.


The designation “Rohingya” has never appeared in Burmese legislation: Source: Suphapong Eiamvorasombat/

Rohingya associations also referred to the numbers of Rohingya living elsewhere in Burma outside Arakan. These were mostly non-agricultural Chittagonians who worked as stevedores in Yangon, deck-hands on river steamers, tradesmen, skilled artisans and other maritime professions. An article in The Guardian on Aug 3, 1960, reported a meeting of some 300 “Ruhangyas” in Rangoon at which speakers “added that Ruhangyas who number about 400,000 in Arakan and altogether about 700,000 all over Burma were opposed to the statehood idea”.

What has happened to these reported 300,000 Rohingya living outside Arakan and their descendants? Even if the true figure was only one tenth of this number, it would nonetheless seem that they had little or no difficulty in changing their old IDs for new IDs under Article 6 of the 1982 Citizenship Act, which provides that those who were citizens prior to the Act remain citizens.

Many of these mostly urban Muslims in private may well regard themselves as “Rohingya”, but do not make an issue of it at census and election time. It is, however, no secret that some construction companies in Yangon are run by Rohingyas who do not seek to hide their origins.

It was the self-declared, poorly educated, impoverished, and downtrodden Rohingya in Arakan who have suffered as a result of the chicanery, obstructionism and malevolence of the Rakhine authorities, in which the central government appear to have acquiesced.

Uniquely in Arakan, Muslim citizens were fobbed off with “temporary” White Cards pending review of their status, but no such review action was ever taken and the White Cards expired in 2015. However discriminatory its provisions, the Act itself was not responsible. But its implementation in Arakan was deliberately frustrated, otherwise the majority of Muslims in Arakan would long ago have been reissued with full-citizenship IDs, while those who did not qualify would mostly have been able to apply for associate or naturalised citizenship under Chapters III and IV of the Act and their grandchildren, under the three-generation rule set out in Article 7, would already enjoy full citizenship, even though they did not belong to a “national race”.

But none of this ever happened.

The Bangladeshis say that there have never been any historical Rohingya communities in Bengal. But there are Chittagonians on both sides of the border, often closely related in the proximity of what used to be a totally porous internal provincial boundary within British India.

SEE ALSO: The annihilation of Burma’s Rohingya and why the world must act

The attempted de-Indianization of Burmese Chittagonians and their conversion into Rohingya after independence reflects the forlorn aspiration of their political elite to convince the authorities that the Rohingya are all directly descended from Arab migrants over 1,000 years ago and merit recognition as an indigenous “national race”, and thus automatic entitlement to citizenship. If only the 1982 Act had been reasonably implemented in Arakan, all this would have been quite unnecessary.

The situation, however, is not all doom and gloom.

At a meeting on July 11, 2012, recorded on the presidential website, the former President of Burma U Thein Sein assured the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antońio Guterres, the new UN Secretary-General, that migrants from Bengal who came to Arakan during British rule did so legally and that their descendants after three generations are entitled to Myanmar citizenship.

This is contrary to most current reports that the Myanmar authorities regard all settlers from Bengal as illegal migrants. That description would seem to be reserved by the authorities rather for the 30 percent or more of current residents of Arakan who are thought to have arrived illegally after 1948 and whom U Thein Sein designated as “Rohingya”, for him a term of Pakistani/Bangladeshi jihadist origin.

For most Buddhists, the public declaration by Muslims of their Rohingya identity is, in the light of the former president’s statement, seen as an act of defiance. The Buddhists argue: “If you say you are Rohingya, then obviously you don’t belong here.”

SEE ALSO: Meet Anwar, news editor of the world’s first Rohingya channel

It is beyond the scope of this short article to define which Muslim ethic groups are now associated under the Rohingya ethnic label. The designation may well be of doubtful origin, but is nonetheless an emerging reality, a coalescence of existing Muslim communities in Arakan and hence an ethnic designation, which merits at least our consideration, if not recognition.

I would hazard the guess though that most ordinary Rohingya would be far less disposed to insist on the “Rohingya” label if only they could secure the restoration of the legal entitlements taken away from them after 1982, those same rights assured to and enjoyed by their kith and kin of common heritage who are now settled elsewhere in Myanmar.

In other words, it matters less who the Rohingya might be than the rights of citizenship and other entitlements in terms of human rights, welfare and higher education which they have lost.

Insistence on the right to self-identify, however hallowed in international practice, may even be inimical to a resolution of the problem.

Would the Rohingya trade their label for citizenship? Well they might.


(File) In this 2014 photo, Rohingya children gather at the Dar Paing camp for Muslim refugees, north of Sittwe, western Rakhine state, Myanmar. Pic: AP.

Derek Tonkin is a former British Ambassador to Thailand and Vietnam.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent