By Dr. Habib Siddiqui
So, what is ethnicity? Can the minority Rohingya qualify as an ethnic group? Ethnicity has been a debated topic and there is no single definition or theory of how ethnic groups are formed.
Questions on Ethnicity
According to John Hutchinson and Anthony Smith, the term “ethnicity” is relatively newest appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1953, but its English origins are connected to the term “ethnic,” which has been in use since the middle ages. The true origins of “ethnic” have been traced back to Greece and the term ethnos, which was used in reference to band, tribe, race, a people, or a swarm. Thus, it often refers to shared heritage, culture, group history, language and beliefs. An ethnic group or ethnicity is a population of human beings whose members identify with each other, on the basis of a real or a presumed common identity – whether that be in relation to language, culture, religion, group history or heritage.
According to Timothy Baumann, “The underlying truth of ethnicity is that it is a product of self and group identity that is formed in extrinsic/intrinsic contexts and social interaction. Ethnicity is not the same as nor equal to culture. Ethnicity is in part the symbolic representations of an individual or a group that are produced, reproduced, and transformed over time.”
In more recent colonial and immigrant history, the term “ethnic” falls under the dichotomy of “Us” and “Them.” The “Us,” the majority, are viewed as non-ethnics and the “Them,” new immigrants or minorities, as ethnic. Thus, e.g., the Hispanics in the USA are an ethnic group, although racially they may be White Caucasians. The Afro-Americans are both an ethnic group and a race that is different than the majority Whites in the USA.
As to the Rohingya identity, it is worth noting the views of Professor Moshe Yegar, an area specialist on Burma. He wrote in an article “The Crescent in Arakan”, “It is not possible today to differentiate among the various Muslim groups or between them and the Buddhist Arakanese, among whom they live. The Arakanese Muslims are Sunnites despite the preponderance of some Shitte traditions among them. Under their influence many Muslim customs spread to the Buddhists, such as for example a veil for the women similar to the purdah. Today the Arakanese Muslims call themselves Rohingya or Roewengyah. This name is used more by the Muslims of North Arakan (Mayu region) where most of the Muslims- approximately 300000- are concentrated, than by those living near Akyab. Writers and poets appeared amongst the Arakanese Muslims, especially during the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries and there were even some Muslim court poets at the courts of the Arakanese kings. These poets and writers wrote in Persian and Arabic or in the mixed language, Rohinga, which they developed among themselves and which was a mixture of Bengali, Urdu, and Arakanese. This language is not as widespread today as it was in the past and has been largely replaced by Burmese and Arakanese. These artists also developed the art of calligraphy. Some manuscripts have been preserved but have not yet been scientifically examined. Miniature painting in Mogul style also flourished in Arakan during this period. The Muslims who came to Arakan brought with them Arab, Indian, and especially Bengalese music and musical instruments. Persian songs are sung by Arakanese Muslims to this day. That is how the Rohingas preserved their own heritage from the impact of the Buddhist environments not only as far as their religion is concerned but also in some aspects of their culture.”
From the above discussion, we can conclude that the Rohingyas, who are distinct by language, culture and religion from the rest of the peoples of Myanmar, and have a shared history and group identification, are an ethnic group by any definition. This fact has been duly recognized in the encyclopedia where they are named as an ethnic group.
The Rohingya people identify themselves by this name, and no one should have the audacity to deny them that right of self-identification. After all, every nation has the right to call itself by whatever name it chooses. As such, the non-mention of the term ‘Rohingya’ in some British records (and not all) cannot be the criterion to deny the Rohingya identity.
From the analysis of the data and records in the British colonial period, it is obvious that the root of the Arakanese Muslims, who identify themselves as the Rohingya, is much deeper than what the anti-Rohingya propagandists have claimed. Contrary to such popular claims and myths made and packaged by the Myanmar government and its ultra-racist supporters and executioners within the broader Rakhine and Myanmar Buddhist society, the Baxter report said, “There was an Arakanese Muslim community settled so long in Akyab (Sittwe) District that it had for all intents and purposes to be regarded as an indigenous race.” (Paragraph 7) This theme of the “indigenous” nature of Muslims permanently resident in Arakan is repeated in the Report several times. The Report further notes, “Unlike Indian immigrants in general in other parts of Burma who commonly spend periods of three years or thereabouts in the country without returning home, the bulk of the Chittagonian immigrants in Arakan who come to reap the paddy crop go back to Chittagong when the harvesting operations are over. The nearness of their homes and the small amount of money required for the journey make this possible.”
These findings should not come as a surprise since unbiased research works of area specialists have amply demonstrated that the Rohingyas are descendants of the original inhabitants of Arakan. As the subjects of the ancient Chandra dynasty in the Vaisali Kingdom, which included Chittagong and Arakan, their settlement predates those of the Rakhines by few centuries. Additionally, before even the British occupied the territory, those Muslim inhabitants were identified by the name Rohingya (Rooinga). It was neither a British-era concoction nor an invention in independent Burma. Denying this piece of history by anyone is simply absurd, and only goes on to show one’s deplorable racism and bigotry!
One of the most egregious crimes is to deny the right of a people to define itself. For years, the chauvinist Buddhists of the Rakhine state and Myanmar, however, have been doing precisely that crime to deny the ‘frontier’ history and culture of the Rohingya people through their racist writings and propaganda simply because of their distinct race and religion. Buried in that unfathomable prejudice and colossal records of inhumanity is the mere realization that ethnicity is a feudal and an alien concept in our time.
Every human being has a right to citizenship in our time. The Rohingya people cannot be and should not be treated as aliens in the country where they and their forefathers were born.
In today’s Myanmar denials of the Muslim heritage and culture, their dexterous roles in the independent Arakan (today’s Rakhine state) under the Mrauk-U dynasty (1430-1784) have become staples of a toxic Myanmarism that is criminal, divisive and murderous. Not only are the Muslims killed and their women raped, and their homes, businesses, schools, shrines and mosques destroyed, even the towns and villages bearing Muslim names are changed to Rakhine names to erase their Muslim root.
No less problematic are the attitudes of and roles played by some of the pseudo-scholars and academics who like Julius Streicher of the Hitler’s Nazi era are selling the poison pills of racism, ultra-nationalism and bigotry to deny the Rohingya people their basic human rights as rightful citizens in Myanmar enjoying equality. Puffed up in obnoxious arrogance and a criminal vision of a race-and-religion-purified Rakhine state minus the Muslims, they twist and distort facts, and deny the existence of the Rohingya people before the British moved into Burma.
As if suffering from a serious case of selective amnesia, these Buddhist zealots and their agents – purporting sometimes to be researchers – forget to educate their cadre that the Arakanese Muslims were probably a majority in the last years of independent Arakan before Bodawpaya’s invasion. Rather than explaining what had happened to those Arakanese Muslims of the pre-Bodawpaya era, they manufacture ludicrous theories about Muslim influx. By so doing, they try to deceive others and create an environment of intolerance against the Rohingya Muslims.
As I have noted elsewhere, the authors of this revisionist history to deny citizenship rights are some of the Rakhine ultra-racists and pseudo-scholars like (late) Aye Kyaw and Aye Chan, who, interestingly, did not and do not have any bites of conscience to become naturalized citizens in the USA. In our world there are hardly such dastardly examples of moral bankruptcy by academics! The sad fact is their willful distortions of facts and their absolutely evil thesis about the so-called (Rohingya) Influx Virus has been accepted as a Rakhine ‘Mein Kampf’ and interpreted as a green signal to exterminate the Rohingya and other Muslim minorities in a frontier territory that is anything but homogeneous.
Since June of this year, in a very premeditated manner with full support of the government forces, the local politicians and monks, towns after towns and villages after villages with Muslim population have simply been burned down and Muslims butchered to death, while the racist Rakhine Buddhists gave a hero’s welcome to Aye Chan as their savior. Government denies that it’s an ethnic cleansing campaign. In October, 2012, exasperated by Myanmar denialism, Human Rights Watch had to publish a satellite photo showing most of the Muslim quarter of a sizable town, Kyak Pyu, burned to the ground.
In his evaluation of the treatment of the Rohingya people inside Myanmar, Professor William Schabas, the former president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, says: “When you see measures preventing births, trying to deny the identity of the people, hoping to see that they really are eventually, that they no longer exist; denying their history, denying the legitimacy of their right to live where they live, these are all warning signs that mean it’s not frivolous to envisage the use of the term genocide.”
In my cautious evaluation of the case, I have also reached the same conclusion. I am sure Daniel Jonah Goldhagen would also agree. And there are many other scholars and individuals who concur that what the Rohingyas are facing today is a genocidal campaign to eliminate them from Myanmar. As I have noted earlier, this eliminationist campaign has become a national project with willing participation from top to bottom with closing of ranks among local and national governments, pro and anti-government Buddhist monks, junta apologists and pro-democracy activists, President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi. They are all united to deny the apparently undeniable fact that an old fashioned genocidal program is taking place against Rohingya minority and other Muslims.
Many outsiders are simply perplexed by the role of Myanmar’s so-called Buddhist Talibans, i.e., the militant Buddhist monks. For years, Buddhism has skipped the kind of scrutiny that is commonly reserved for other religions. People in the West have held a romantic view about Buddhism, imagining, rather mistakenly, that it is a non-violent religion. Forgotten in that make-belief is centuries of Buddhist violence against others from one part of Asia to another, where millions were killed ruthlessly. While compassion is considered central to Buddhist faith, the sad fact is most Buddhists have been failing on this yardstick since the days of Emperor Ashoka. Worse yet, most of them are unaware of their racism and bigotry. And a study of the history of Buddhist Burma is sufficient to reveal that it has been a hellish den of prejudice and intolerance for more than a millennium.
In the context of Bangladesh and Arakan, for centuries the southern Bengal (today’s Bangladesh) was ravaged and devastated by Buddhist terrorism when hundreds of thousands of Bengali Muslims and Hindus were forcibly abducted, their palms pierced and enslaved to work inside Arakan. It is not difficult to guess how many Bengalis were killed and women raped by those marauding Buddhist Maghs (Rakhines). Many of those abducted did not even make it alive at the end of their abduction. And the greatest tragedy is while the descendants of former slaves from Africa to the Americas have been recognized as citizens in those territories of their captivity, the descendants of those Bengalis enslaved in Arakan and Burma continue to be denied their rights to citizenship. We hardly have a parallel of that travesty of fairness and justice in our time!
To some historians, the worsening of Muslim-Buddhist relationship originated in 1942 when Japan occupied Burma. But the truth is: it is much older. As Charney has rightly noted, Muslim-Buddhist relationship took a downward trend since Shah Shuja’s visit to Arakan in 1660 when he was betrayed by the Arakanese ruler and killed. Some of the latter rulers, encouraged by monks, tried a Buddhicization of the kingdom. By the end of the 18th century some groups in Arakanese Buddhist society had begun to call for social exclusion (apartheid) on the basis of popular religious affiliation.
With Bodawpaya’s annexation of Arakan in 1784, the relationship simply worsened. From 1787, the “Rakhine Arei-taw-poun” (popularly known as the “Danra-waddy Arei-taw-poun”) composed by a Buddhist missionary (known as sasana-pru or ‘propagator of religion’) monk based in San-twei, emerged as a highly pro-Buddhist and anti-Muslim epic. Among other things, it cast aspersions on Muslims and warned Arakanese kings that the ‘dangers’ of the Muslims posed to the ‘Arakanese’ way of life. “The Arakanese are Maramas (Burmans), the text suggested. In the 19th century, these sentiments began to influence the popular notions of group identification,” Charney noted.
Many of the today’s Buddhist monks in Myanmar are spiritual disciples of that 18th century highly chauvinist Rakhine monk. It is no accident that they are the greatest backers of expulsion and exclusion, and have been the catalysts within the broader society inciting intolerance against and providing moral justification for extermination of Muslims. Within the Buddhist society they have always played a major role, since every Buddhist male must embrace monkhood at least once in his lifetime. It would be naïve to assume that extremist Buddhist monk Wirathu, who heads the Burmese monks and is leading the crusade, is an exception in the racist Burmese society. He spent more than 10 years in jail for his direct involvement in clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in 2001 in the city of Mandalay. He was released late last year as part of the new government’s round of amnesties, and soon visited by Aung Thaung, a man known to be close to former dictator Than Shwe. So, with the racist monks holding the leash, and ties with the government, it is highly unlikely that Buddhist violence against the minority Muslims, esp. the Rohingya will stop anytime soon.
Is there a way out of these Buddhist acts of inhumanity which are soiling the image of Buddhism? Can our generation tolerate another genocide?
The sad reality is prejudice dies hard. For the Buddhists in Myanmar, esp. in the Rakhine state, it would take years of de-programming to shun old myths and prejudices about the ‘other’ peoples, esp. the Rohingyas who have no less of a claim to citizenship than them. However, the government can accelerate this process of learning, if it is sincere about moving forward. It must also rein on the racist elements so that they cannot have an abrasive effect on racial-religious relationship. It must learn like many others in our world who have learned through their bitter experiences that racism and bigotry are not acceptable in our world which is increasingly becoming globalized and diverse. The sooner the better.