Is The Word ‘Rohingya’ Nonexistent!

By Nurul Islam, ARNO

The word “Rohingya” is blacklisted in Burma. The hostile Buddhist Rakhines of Arakan pretend to feel it as a piercing knifelike pain. Their antipathy to this ‘ethnic identity’ of the Muslim Arakanese is for no other reason except that they don’t want to share power with the Rohingya. The analysts say that it is a necessary evil for the U Thein Sein government to make Rohingyas the scapegoats, under the influence of xenophobic Rakhine politicians, academics, and Buddhist extremists in order to appease them. They all have lied that the word “Rohngya” is non-existent, unheard and creation of Mujahids (Muslim rebels) and/or Rohingya leaders in 1951.

But the historical evidence or observation by Scottish doctor Francis Buchanan in 1799 rebuts this politically motivated claim. He explained “… Mohammedans, who have long been settled in Arakan, and who called themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan”.[1] Historian Dr. Michael W Charney states, “it can be asserted, however, that one claim of the Buddhist school in Rakhine historiography, that Rohingya was an invention of the colonial period is contradicted by the evidence”.[2]

Even now the xenophobic Rakhine academics and imposters accept the existence of the word “Rohingya” although arguing that “Rohingya is the other name of Rakhine as derived from Rakhine, the other name of Arakan”. There are several historical and official records and statements on Rohingya. On top of that there is still an old Muslim village in the heart of the Sittwe/Akyab city by the name of Rohingya para. So the word “Rohingya” as an ethnic name for the Muslim Arakanese is substantiated and well established that developed naturally through historical process. Those who reject it are proved liars.

The Rohingya have genealogical links with the ancient people of Chandra dynasty. They are among the first occupiers of the country as “Arakan was then an Indian land, its inhabitants being Indians similar to those resident in Bengal.”[3] It means that they were like present day Rohingya, not the Rakhine. As substantiated by 8th century Ananda kyukza (Ananda stone pillar inscription) the Rohingya still speak a language analogous to that of ancient Chandra dynasty. But Rakhine language of today, an archaic form of Burmese has no such connection. These bear witness that Rohingya are an inseparable part of the land and history of Arakan.

In 1430, after nearly three decades in exile, the deposed king Naramithla was reinstated to his throne by Bengal Muslim king with a formidable force, largely made up of Afghan adventurers. “This was the start of a new golden age for this country – a period of power and prosperity – started and the creation of a remarkably hybrid Buddhist-Islamic court, fusing traditions from Persia and India as well as the Buddhist worlds to the east.”[4] The then Chairman of the Burma Historical Commission Col. Ba Shin stated “Arakan was virtually ruled by Muslims from 1430 to 1531. ‘Establishment of God’s rule over the earth’ was state emblem of Arakan. Coins and medallions were issued inscribing kalema (the profession of faith in Islam) in Arabic scripts. Even Buddhist women of those days practiced purda.”[5]

Arakan was turned to a sultanate. It was depicted as an Islamic State in the Times Complete History of the World showing cultural division of Southeast Asia (distribution of major religions) in 1500. (Edited by Richard Overy, Eighth edition 2010, page 148.) Its kings adopted Muslim names and titles while also appearing in Persian-inspired dress and conical hats of Isfahan and Mughal Delhi. Muslim etiquettes and manners were practiced in the court of Arakan. Muslims were in every branch of the administration. There were Muslim prime ministers, war ministers, other important ministers, administrators, Qazis (judges), court poets, elites, farmers and fishermen. The inhabitants of Mrauk-U included considerable number of Muslims consisting of mix Arakanese, Bengalis, other Indians, and Afghans, Abyssinians, Persians and natives. Persian and Bengali languages were used as official and court languages of the Arakan Kingdom.

Muslims were an influential and well established community during Mrauk-U dynasty, before Burmese invasion and occupation of Arakan. The Rohingya population in north Arakan is united by ancient heritage and lived for ages in a contiguous area within well defined geographical boundaries. The group identity of Rohingya people has grown over the many centuries. The area between the rivers Naf and Kaladan – which was occupied by Nawab Shaista Khan, the Mughal viceroy of Bengal in 1666– where Rohingya still predominate, amidst systematic Rohingya extermination and rapid demographic changes, has been known as “Traditional Homeland of Rohingya”. During colonial period, the British Military Command — which recorded the Muslim Rohingyas as Arakanese and catalogued the Rakhine Buddhists as Maghs– declared the northern part of Arakan as the “Muslim National Area”.(Vide its publication No. 11-OA-CC/42 dated December 31, 1942).[6] This area was later created as Special Mayu Frontier District for the development of the Rohingya people by former Parliamentary Government of Burma which had recognized Rohingya as an indigenous race of the Union of Burma. Let us have a look what the two leaders of the country said:

When Section II of the Constitution of the Union of Burma was being framed, in regard to the indigenous status of Rohingya, the first President of Burma Saw Shwe Theik emphatically said[7]: “Muslims of Arakan certainly belong to one of the indigenous races of Burma…In fact there are no pure indigenous races in Burma, if they do not belong to indigenous races of Burma, we also cannot be taken as indigenous races of Burma”. Recognizing the Rohingya as an indigenous ethnic group the former parliamentary government of Prime Minister U Nu officially announced on 25th September 1954 in a clear and unambiguous term: – “The people living in northern Arakan are our national brethren. They are called Rohingya. They are on the same par in the status of nationality with Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Mon, Rakhine, Shan. They are one of the ethnic races of Burma.”

As such, like other ethnic nationalities, Rohingya participated as State Guests in the Union Day Celebration held in Rangoon on 12 February every year. By cabinet decision Rohingya language was relayed thrice a week from the official Burma Broadcasting Service (BBS) Rangoon, in its “Indigenous Race Broadcasting Programme” from 15 May 1961 to 30 October 1965. Such facts were given in page 71 of the book, “30 years of Burma Radio” published by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The Rangoon University Rohingya Students Association was one of the ethnic student associations that functioned from 1959 to 1961 under the registration numbers 113/99 December 1959 and 7/60 September 1960 respectively. The Burma official encyclopedia “Myanmar Swezon Kyan”, Vol.9, pages 89-90, provides the record that 75% of the population in Mayu Frontier District is Rohingya. In addition, in the current Text Book for first year History and Myanmar Studies students (Module No. Geog-1004-Gegraphy of Myanmar), published by the Yangon University Distance Education, under Ministry of Education, it is recorded that Rohinggas (Rohingyas) are one of the minority ethnic groups that had settled in Northern Rakhine State close to the border with Bangladesh since early date.

The paragraph 7 in Baxter report of 1940 recommended, “The Arakanese Muslim community settled so long in Akyab District had for all intents and purposes to be regarded as an indigenous race”. The independent hero late Gen. Aung San had accepted them as an indigenous race. During his visit to Sittwe/Akyab in 1946 he urged the Muslims of Arakan to join hand with them saying “it would be difficult to achieve independence if indigenous peoples were divided. He asked them to demand what they wanted and he would fulfill them as much as possible”.

Under Article 3 of the Nu-Attlee Treaty of 17 October 1947, and under Section 11(i) (ii) (iii) the Constitution of the Union of Burma 1947 effected 4 January 1948, the Rohingyas are citizens of Burma. They are a people settled in Arakan as a compact community anterior to 1823 or before British colonization of it and so by definition of the Constitution as well as under all legal standards they are an indigenous ethnic nationality. With respect to its inherent nature, the Rohingya are natural citizens of Burma having frontier culture and civilization, and practicing Islamic faith. Their forefathers were once welcome elite in the kingdom of Arakan, but now they have become unwanted aliens and have been reduced to diabolical serfdom. Had not Arakan been under Burmese occupation the question of Rohingya citizenship and their indigenous status would never ever arise in Arakan!

The Muslim Arakanese have every right to claim their ‘Rohingya ethnic identity’ because they know and recognize each other by this name which they cherish and other communicate with them as such. As an indigenous people they also have right to change their group name by collective decision. If Buddhist Arakanese who were historically known as Magh could be Rakhine, and again if these Rakhine or same people could obtain recognition as Mrama as an indigenous race in Chittagong Hill Tracts (Bangladesh), why the Muslims of Arakan who had developed from peoples of different ethnical backgrounds over the centuries couldn’t be “Rohingya”. Anthropologically similar peoples inhabit on both sides of the international borders around the globe and so is the case with Burma-China, Burma-Laos, Burma-India and Burma-Bangladesh frontiers where they are recognized as indigenous groups with different ethnic identities in their respective countries. The fact that the Rohingya look like Chittagonians (Bangladeshis) is the historical phenomenon, nevertheless they are indigenous to Arakan.

Are the historical and official evidences together with internationally accepted norms and practices and legal standards mentioned above are not enough to affirm that Rohingya existed and are still exiting in Arakan/Burma as natural citizens, as an ethnic group and indigenous people of Burma? We know the imposters are like ostrich and refuse to recognize the truth. The disease in their heart is systematic racism, Islamophobia and intolerance. For the Rakhines they are blindfolded with the false dream of exterminating the Rohingya to the last man for ‘exclusive ownership’ and ‘totalitarian domination’ of Arakan. But without taking Rohingya into account with reciprocal respect and understanding the Rakhine could do nothing for the good and development of the people of Arakan. Without delay or hesitation, the Burmese administration, hostile Rakhines and extremists should stop all hostilities, violence and crimes against humanity against Rohingya and start to ponder making Arakan a place of perpetual peace and prosperity, in the interest of all people of the Union of Burma, by granting Rohingya their “Due Share”.

Last not least, making ‘Rohingya ethnocide’, measure preventing their birth, denying their identity, history and legitimacy of their rights to live where they live are international crimes that could amount to genocide. Rohingya are tired of giving evidences of their long establishment in Arakan. They no longer need to make this ineffectual effort. Whether or not one accepts them they are truly Rohingya and will continue to remain as such under all circumstances, although currently they are facing setback one after another. This is their historic right!


[1] Dr. Michael W Charney, “Buddhism in Arakan: Theory and Historiography of Religious Basis of the Ethnonym”, a paper submitted to the Forgotten kingdom of Arakan Workshop, 23-24 November 2005, Bangkok, p.132

In Buchanan, “Comparative Vocabulary”, p55

[2] Ibid, p.20

[3] Maurice Collis, “The Land of Great Image” Reissued with additional illustration in 1985, New Directions Publishing Cooperation, New York , p.135

[4] Thant Myint-U, “The River of Lost Footsteps, a personal history of Burma”, first published 2007, printed by Mackays of Chatham, plc p.73.

[5] Ba Shin,“Coming of Islam to Burma 1700 AD”, a research paper presented at Azad Bhavan, New Delhi in 1961, p.4.

[6] “Silver Jubilee Anniversary Publication 1975-2000” of Arakan Historical Society, Chittagong, p.44.

[7] “Memorandum to the Government of the Union of Burma” dated 18 June 1948, by Mr. Sultan Ahmed (MP) in his capacity as the President of Jamiat-e-Ulema, North Arakan.

Nurul Islam is President of Arakan Rohingya National Organisation.

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