The appalling apartheid state of the Rohingya must end

By Dr. Habib Siddiqui

Nicholas Kristof is a very well-known news reporter and columnist for the New York Times where over the years he has posted many articles that are based on his firsthand account of the subject matter. In his latest article “Myanmar’s Appalling Apartheid” (NYT, May 28, 2014), Kristof wrote about Myanmar and the appalling apartheid nature of the murderous regime and its Buddhist populace that have long refused to accept the presence of the non-Mongoloid, Indian-Bangladeshi looking and racial group of people that are mostly Muslims and are known as the Rohingya people of Arakan (now called the Rakhine state), Burma’s western frontier state bordering Bangladesh.
Unlike many news reporters, Mr. Kristof is a very well read person and criticizes the racist attitude of the Buddhist people in Myanmar and its rogue regime.

He writes, “There are more than one million Rohingya in Rakhine State in the northwest of Myanmar. They are distinct from the local Buddhists both by darker skin and by their Islamic faith. For decades, Myanmar’s military rulers have tried systematically to erase the Rohingya’s existence with oppression, periodic mass expulsions and denials of their identity.

“There are no people called Rohingya in Myanmar,” U Win Myaing, a spokesman for Rakhine State, told me. He said that most are simply illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

This narrative is absurd, as well as racist. A document as far back as 1799 refers to the Rohingya population here, and an 1826 report estimates that 30 percent of the population of this region was Muslim.”

Mr. Kristof is 100 percent right. Dr. Francis Buchanan’s work testifies to the existence of the Rohingya people in Burma in the late 18th century, a quarter century before Arakan was colonized by the East India Company (EIC). He (1762-1829) was a surgeon working for the EIC. He was also a surveyor and botanist who lived in India and Burma for decades. His work is one of the most detailed sources for the social and cultural history of Arakan, Burma and India in the late 18th and early 19th century.

As noted in the JSTOR, Buchanan was born at Branziet near Bardowie, Stirlingshire. After qualifying in medicine in 1783 at the University of Edinburgh, he became a medical officer with the East India Company, spending time in Asia in 1785, 1788-1789 and 1791. He was finally employed as assistant surgeon in Bengal (1794-1815), giving him the opportunity to explore large parts of the Indian subcontinent, where he hoped to collect plants. His first major collections were made in Burma (Myanmar) in 1795, where he accompanied Captain Michael Symes on a political mission to Ava. In 1800 he was commissioned to survey South India following the British victory in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War, and later made a further, wide-ranging survey of all the areas under the jurisdiction of the British East India Company. This task took him some seven years from 1807 and covered not only topography and natural resources but also aspects of local culture, religion and history and archaeology.

Travelling through Burma and the Andaman Islands (1795), Chittagong (1798), Nepal (1800-1803), North Bengal and Bihar (1807-1809), Dr. Buchanan made detailed observations and prepared extensive reports. His work “A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire” was published by the Asiatic Researches in 1799. This work provided one of the first major Western surveys of the languages of Burma, and more importantly, provided important data on the ethno-cultural identities and identifications of the various population groups in the first half of Bodawpaya’s reign (1782-1819).

Dr. Buchanan wrote, “The proper natives of Arakan call themselves Yakain, which name is also commonly given to them by the Burmas [Burmese]. By the people of Pegu, they are named Takain. By the Bengal Hindus [i.e., Bengali-speaking Hindus], at least by such of them as have been settled in Arakan, the country is called Rossaum, from whence, I suppose, Mr. Rennell has been induced to make a country named Roshaum occupy part of his map, not conceiving that it would be Arakan, or the kingdom of the Mugs [Maghs], as we often call it. Whence this name of Mug, given by the Europeans to the natives of Arakan, has been derived, I know not; but, as far as I could learn, it is totally unknown to the natives and their neighbours, except such of them as, by their intercourse with us, have learned its use. The Mahommedans [Muslims] settled at Arakan, call the country Rovingaw; the Persians call it Rekan.” [Note: the parentheses [] within the quotes of Dr. Buchanan’s statement are mine. – HS]

Dr. Buchanan continued, “I shall now add three dialects, spoken in the Burma Empire, but evidently derived from the language of the Hindu nation.

The first is that spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan.

The second dialect is that spoken by the Hindus of Arakan. I procured it from a Brahmen [Brahmin] and his attendants, who had been brought to Amarapura by the king’s eldest son, on his return from the conquest of Arakan. They call themselves Rossawn, and, for what reason I do not know, wanted to persuade me that theirs was the common language of Arakan. Both these tribes, by the real natives of Arakan, are called Kulaw Yakain, or stranger Arakan.

The last dialect of the Hindustanee [Hindustani] which I shall mention, is that of a people called, by the Burmas [Burmese], Aykobat, many of them are slaves at Amarapura [i.e., capital of Burmese kingdom]. By one of them I was informed, that they had called themselves Banga; that formerly they had kings of their own; but that, in his father’s time, their kingdom had been overturned by the king of Munnypura [Manipur in north-eastern India], who carried away a great part of the inhabitants to his residence.

When that was taken last by the Burmas, which was about fifteen years ago, this man was one of the many captives who were brought to Ava. He said also, that Banga was seven days’ journey south-west from Munnypura: it must, therefore, be on the frontiers of Bengal, and may, perhaps, be the country called in our maps Cashar [Cachar district in today’s Assam].” [Note: the parentheses [] within the quotes of Dr. Buchanan’s statement are mine. – HS]

As I have noted in some of my own well-researched articles, some two centuries before the travel of Dr. Buchanan, Bengali literature that emanated from Arakan speaks about the territory as Roshang (or Rohang in local southern dialect where the letter ‘s’ is silent) Desh [i.e., land of the Roshang people]. As per established local customs and rules, it is no accident that the people of Roshang or Rohang will be called Rohingya in the local dialect [just as the people of Chatga or Chatgaon are called Chatgaiya, and the people of Dhaka are Dhakaiya].

In their masterpiece work “Arakan Rajsabhay Bangala Sahitya,” Abdul Karim Shahitya Visarad and Dr. Enamul Haq wrote, “The way Bangali flourished in the court of the 17th century Arakan, nothing of that sort is found in its [Bengal’s] own soil. It is surprising that during the exile of Bengali language in Arakan, it was greatly appreciated by the Muslim courtiers of the Arakanese kings and the Muslim poets of East Bengal, especially those of the [greater] Chittagong Division.”

These scholars further wrote, “The study of Bengali literature that the Muslim initiated reached perfection under the aegis of the courtiers of the Roshang kings. It is needless to say that the Kings’ Court of Roshang got filled up with Muslim influence long before this. From the beginning of the 15th century AD the Kings’ Court of Roshang by luck was compelled to heartily receive the Muslim influence…

…. [T]he powerful intrusion of the Muslim influence that penetrated into the Kings’ Court of Roshang in the fifteenth century AD grew all the more in the following centuries. This influence gradually grew so strong that it reached the highest point in the seventeenth century. The Bengali literature in this century shows the full picture of the Muslim influence in the King’s Court of Roshang.”

How can this piece of history about flourishing Bengali literature and the presence of Muslim courtiers and subjects in Arakan be ignored by any objective analyst? Only a chauvinist can deny the overwhelming historical evidences about the existence of the forefathers of today’s Rohingya people to the soil of Arakan. As many reputed historians concur the forefathers of today’s Rohingyas are the first settlers of this landmass of Arakan (that have been renamed as the Rakhine state today by the Buddhist racists). They have more rights to the territory than anyone else.

Simply because of a flawed decision – and this I say with much deliberation on the whole issue surrounding the inhuman treatment of vulnerable minorities – of the British colonial administration, the fate of the people of Arakan (separated by the Naaf River) has been tied up with those of the rest of Burma (and not with Bengal or as a separate entity) when the territories were occupied beginning with the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824. When later Burma was de-colonized in 1948, Arakan was made a part of Burma (today’s Myanmar).

Had the colonial government wished, Arakan could have had a much deserving independent status, or even be made part of East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) because of its historical ties to Chittagong and rest of Bengal for centuries before the Burmese colonization in 1784. But the colonial government decided to seal its fate with the rest of Buddhist-majority Burma. And this happened because of the promises made by the founding fathers of Burma – which included Suu Kyi’s father Aung San – that the rights of the minorities in the frontier territories would be honored and won’t be compromised an iota.

However, soon after the assassination of the founding fathers by Buddhist chauvinists who did not like the multi-racial and -religious character of the future Burma, the fate of the Rohingya Muslims took a very wrong turn. They were targeted for elimination. Being threatened they waged guerrilla war against the regime, which, by the way, was more a norm than an exception in those early days of independent Burma when all the racial and religious minorities including the communists were fighting their own wars against the central government. The Rohingya Mujahids laid down their arms when promises to integrate them on an equal footing were made by the government and military generals.

But one betrayal followed another. And soon draconian measures followed, which aimed at rendering the Rohingya people stateless in their ancestral land. In one of the greatest constitutional crimes of the last century, the Rohingyas – the first settlers to the crescent of Arakan- were declared stateless, i.e., they don’t qualify as citizens in Burma. In our world, there is no such parallel. It is the worst amongst the apartheid policies that our world has ever seen.

Shamelessly, however, many Buddhists and Burmese people have now bought and swallowed that apartheid pill from the hated regime and its racist and bigoted supporters within today’s Myanmar. This apartheid state must come to an end for not only the genuine restoration of the persecuted Rohingya people but also for regional safety and security. The recent killing of a Bangladeshi Border Guard by trigger-happy security forces of Myanmar once again underscores the importance of finding an equitable solution to the appalling apartheid state of the Rohingya people.

Denying the very existence of a slow-burning but “smart” genocide, committed by the racist Buddhist regime and its criminal supporters within the wider Myanmar society is simply unacceptable. Denied access by the doctors, the Rohingya people are in worse shape today than any time before. They are being slowly strangled to death with lack of food, medical care, and hope. Fortify Rights has lately reported that there are as few as one physician per 83,000 Rohingyas, while for the Buddhist-majority there is one physician for every 681 persons. What an apartheid state!

Mr. Kristof writes, “Obama has lately noted that his foreign policy options are limited, and that military interventions often backfire. True enough, but in Myanmar he has political capital that he has not fully used. As a university student, Obama denounced apartheid in South Africa. As president, he should stand up to an even more appalling apartheid — one in Myanmar that deprives members of one ethnic group even of health care. Myanmar seeks American investment and approval. We must make clear that it will get neither unless it treats Rohingya as human beings.”

I endorse fully the above statement. It is time for the USA to do what is needed to change the appalling inhuman condition of the Rohingya people. The sooner the better!

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