What’s in a Name: The Rohingya People and the Kingdom of Arakan

As violence and fear remains king in the Rakhine (formerly ‘Arakan’) State of Burma; men, women and children continue to flee their homelands by the thousands. Since the further escalation of violence, 500 000 more have attempted to escape what is, according to various observers including the UN, a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Whilst it has finally been acknowledged from within that certain civilians have been fleeing their homes in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, the face of the State leadership, still evades acknowledging the ethnic and sectarian dimension of the violence through her refusal in using the term ‘Rohingya Muslim’ in reference to the people of the region. Instead, we hear leaders using a divisive vocabulary of ‘Bengalis’, ‘foreigners’ and ‘terrorists’ somehow legitimising violence.

This appears to be a reflection of the long-standing systematic discrimination of the ruling regime and the spread of archaic xenophobia, which wrongfully assumes the Rohingya are illegal immigrants. This has resulted in the denial of citizenship and restrictions to basic services; leaving them as stateless people with nowhere to turn to in the face of on-going military force and communal violence.

The origins of erroneous behaviour, ironically, can be traced back to before the birth of the nation itself.

Now known as Rakhine state, the Kingdom of Arakan is claimed to have been founded as far back as the year 2666BC, with oral histories stretching back even further.

Ruled over by a number of dynasties of Indian origin in the Dannavati and Vesali (or Waithali) Periods until 818AD, the kingdom is believed to have extended as far as Chittagong; Vesali being described as an “Easternly Hindu Kingdom of Bengal”, with later kings upholding doctrines of Buddhism.

During the 8thCentury Arab and Persian Muslims’ presence in the region became significant, especially through the newly established port cities within the Kingdom. These resulted in commercial settlements and eventual mixing with the local populations.

The Arakanese practiced Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism and Islam without any defining internal conflicts.

According to many historians this, in fact, predates Burmese settlements and influence in the region, which did not take significant effect until as late as the 10thCentury, with the ‘Rakhine’ people believed the first to reach the region by the 9thCentury.

From the Lemro to the Mrauk-U period, what is said to be the Golden age of the Kingdom, Islam developed slowly through society to the point where the Arakanese Kings even took on alternative Muslim titles, integrated certain Muslim culture and traditions, as well as utilising Arabic on currency. This was partially due to the sultanate that was established in Bengal, leading to extensive periods of migration as well as amicable political, economic and social ties between the regions. Steps towards unity were illustrated by the use of a hybrid Buddhist-Islamic Court.

There are a number of differing theories attempting to trace the specific origin and etymology of the word ‘Rohingya’, especially due to the many cultures that have been concentrated in the Arakan region. It is recognised that the group that identifies as Rohingya are of Indo-Aryan descent and an ethnic mix of Bengalis, Indians, Moghuls, Pathans, Arabs, Persians, Turks, Moors and Central Asians. Today, whilst the majority practice Islam, extending from their Arakan heritage, language also can be seen as a major binding basis of the culture and a link to their past; utilising a blend of Arabic, Sanskrit, Bengali and Urdu completely unique to the region.

Unfortunately, it was 1784 that proved to be a significant turning point for the Rohingya. The conquering of the Kingdom by Burma, as well as the resulting imposition of Theravada Buddhism, caused hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee to Bengal.

The town of Cox’s Bazaar, on the border with modern-day Bangladesh, exemplifies this as it was established by the British Diplomat Hiram Cox, sent to assist refugees in 1790; and where many Rohingya still live today.

But this was only the beginning of unrest in the region

1824 > Britain captures Burma - later resulting in worker migration back into Burma for infrastructure projects.

1942 > Japan invades - with the retreat of the British, Burmese nationalists take out frustrations by attacking Muslim communities who they believe had benefited from colonial rule.

1945 > With the help of Burmese nationalists led by Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, along side Rohingya fighters, the British liberate Burma - but do not fulfil promises of autonomy for Arakan.

1948 > Newly independent Burma ostracise the Rohingya as many pushed to be included in East Pakistan - Some armed groups later emerge in response.

1977 > Operation Dragon King - allegations of army abuse against the ruling military Junta emerge as the population is screened for ‘foreigners’ - 200,000 Rohingya flee.

1978 > Most Rohinyga return through UN-brokered repatriation deal.

1982 > Government apply new immigration law to Rohingya - deeming migration during British Rule as illegal.

1991 – 1997 > more than 250,000 flee persecution from the army of what is now Myanmar - majority eventually return under another repatriation what is now the Rakhine State.

The latest cycle of violence being perpetuated since 2012 is symptomatic of the lack of humanity that has spread across the society lead by refusing to accept the existence of the Rohingya as a Burmese community. This ‘othering’ of the minority has done nothing but encourage the military massacres and communal riots.

Certain extremist monks have stoked the fire by feeding the Islamaphobic rhetoric spreading through the society at large, pointing to an imminent threat to the Buddhist faith; despite Islam contributing to less than 5% of the population. This has drummed up enough support to pass ‘Protection of Race and Religion Laws’, directly discriminating against Muslims. Skirmishes with the military have been met with genocidal campaigns against an entire people backed up by pogroms; with no genuine attempts at fostering communal harmony.

Contested interpretations and labels of historians can only tell us so much about the Rohingya and are ultimately being used to divert attention away from the situation at hand; the unjustifiable treatment of a helpless people who, most importantly, identify as Rohingya today.

The cycles of hysteria highlight problems of ethnic citizenship generally; nurturing an inherent chauvinism and sub-human perception of a dispensable indigenous or ‘fourth world’ population. Despite the rhetoric propagated by the leaders of Burma, an entire community of people cannot be erased, from history or from their ancestral homeland, simply at the whim of those in power.