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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2010

The question of self-identity of the Rohingyas of Myanmar

By Habib Siddiqui

One of the most egregious crimes is to deny a people its inalienable right to self-identify itself. The neo-fascists of Myanmarism have been committing this crime for nearly half a century. To them, the Rohingyas – racially Indian (or South Asian) and religiously either Muslim or Hindu – simply don’t exist or belong in Myanmar (erstwhile Burma).

To them: the Rohingyas are outsiders to Myanmar who have infiltrated their Buddhist land from nearby (today’s) Bangladesh or what used to be called the Bengal Presidency (later called the Province of Bengal) under the East India Company that ruled the territory since 1757.

As I have noted elsewhere, the above ethno-religio-supremacist narrative of the Buddhist neo-fascists in Myanmar is utterly false, and is debunked by credible history.

Arakan – the coastal territory that is separated from today’s Bangladesh by the Naaf River – where the Rohingyas originate from was once ruled for hundreds of years by the Chandra Dynasty who were racially Indian before a Mongolian invasion in 957 C.E. that swept over the capital city of Vesali (Vaishali), killing Sula Chandra, the last Indian king to rule Arakan. The original inhabitants – the first settlers to the crescent of Arakan – were racially Indian/Bengali, too, and religiously Hindus (mostly worshippers of Shiva), Mahayana Buddhists or animists. They had much in common – linguistically, culturally and religiously - with the Bengali people that lived in the southern part of Chittagong in today’s Bangladesh. The rule of the Chandra kings extended to the southern parts of Chittagong.

The Anand Chandra Inscription at the Shitthaung pagoda provides some information about these early Indian rulers. This 11-foot high monolith, unique in entire Burma, has three of its four faces inscribed in a Nagari script, which is closely allied to those of Bengali and north-eastern India. As noted rightly by Noel Singer had it not been for Professor E.H. Johnston of Balliol College, Oxford, who translated the Sanskrit script and the Indian epigraphists before him, the contents of the Inscription which remained inaccessible for well over a thousand years would never have been known.

During the reign of Mahataing Sandya (Chandra), ca. 788-810 C.E., several Arab/Muslim ships were wrecked on Rambree Island whose surviving crew and merchants were allowed to settle in Arakan. As the territory was well known to the Arab merchants and traders some Muslim settlements continued to dot the coastal areas of Arakan since at least the late 8th century C.E. Mixing with the local population these Muslim settlers set the stage for the early nexus of today’s Rohingya population.

As hinted above, since the mid-10th century with massive Tibeto-Burman incursions following the overthrow of the Chandra dynasty, the demography of Arakan started changing drastically. The new rulers introduced Theravada Buddhism, which would become over the next few centuries the religion of the majority of the inhabitants of Arakan.

While the previous Vaishali rulers looked westward, the newer rulers looked eastward, thus allowing mixing of its race with the Burman people of today’s Myanmar proper. Eventually Arakan became subservient to the Burman rulers of Pegu until 1287 CE. Over the centuries, thus, two communities emerged – one the indigenous with Indian (Bengali/Arakanese) features (the forefathers of today’s Rohingya Hindus and Muslims) and the other, the new-comers with Mongoloid features (the forefathers of today’s Rakhine Buddhists). It is not difficult to also conclude that in those days of porous borders across land and sea there were migration of other races and religions to this region. Buddhist monks, e.g., came from Sri Lanka bringing in their Theravada Buddhism, as did others, slowly changing the culture of the people living there.

Fast forward to the early 15th century. Narameikhla Min Saw Mon, the Buddhist king of Arakan flees to Gauda (Gaur), the capital of Muslim Bengal in 1406 seeking his help to be reinstalled after being dethroned in 1406 by the Crown Prince Minye Kyawswa of Ava. The help would come in 1429 under the order of Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah. His general Wali Khan after defeating the Avan (precursor to Burmese) usurper, however, declared himself the new monarch of Arakan, thus betraying the trust of the Sultan.

The infuriated Sultan then sent General Sandi Khan to overthrow Wali Khan with even a larger force and install Narameikhla, which was promptly carried out in 1430. Narameikhla ascended the throne of Arakan for the second time, and took the title Sulayman Shah. Arakan became a vassal state of Bengal and tens of thousands of Muslim soldiers that restored the throne of Sulayman Shah permanently settled in Arakan and formed the main garrison to defend the country from any future Burmese (Avan) incursion. Sulayman Shah decided to move the capital from Launggyet to Mrauk-U. The new capital, though not far from Launggyet, was much more strategically located, and would prove much more difficult for invaders to attack.

[It goes without saying that Arakan would have a different history today had the Sultan of Bengal let his general Wali Khan rule the country and ignored the pleas of the Arakanese Buddhist king.]

The practice of adopting a Muslim name or title by the Arakanese kings would continue until 1638. Arakanese kings also issued coins bearing the inscription of Muslim Kalema (the profession of faith in Islam) in Arabic script. The State emblem was also inscribed in Arabic word Aqimuddin (establishment of God’s rule over the earth). The Arakanese court’s adoption of many Muslim customs and terms were other noteworthy signs to the influence of Islam in Arakan. Mosques began to dot the countryside and Islamic customs, manners and practices came to be established since this time. To quote historian Bisveswar Bhattacharya, “As the Mohammedan [Islamic] influence was predominant, the Arakanese kings, though Buddhist in religion, became somewhat Mohammedanized [Islamic] in their ideas.”

Arakan retained its independent state until 1784 when it was occupied by Burmese king Bodawpaya. His forces stole the Mahamuni Buddha statue to Mandalay. He may rightly be called the harbinger for destroying everything Islamic in Arakan and sowing the seed of distrust between the two major communities - Muslims and Buddhists. His atrocities, however, did not leave out the Arakanese Buddhists whom he considered not religiously Thereveda Buddhist enough. During his annexation and occupation of Arakan, tens of thousands of Arakanese Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists were killed, 200,000 fled to British Bengal (today's Bangladesh), and another 20,000 (including some 3700 Rohingya Muslims) were taken as slaves by the occupation Burmese forces.

The Burmese rule of Arakan lasted for only 40 years when the territory was occupied by the East India Company in 1824 (after the First Anglo-Burman War). Arakan was made part of the Province of Bengal (which also included Assam), an administrative decision by the British government which was to continue until 1937 when Burma was separated from India and Arakan made part of Burma – for administrative purpose.

The rest is history. Burma became an independent state on January 4, 1948, and the fate of the Arakanese people including the Rohingyas was sealed within the Union of Burma where divide and rule became a fair game for the military and chauvinist politicians to exploit ethnicity and religion to hold onto power. To cleanse Burma of Muslims, esp. the Rohingya, they were declared stateless, which allowed the pariah state to violate every Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations.

The Rohingyas are treated as outsiders in spite of their history to Arakan that predates those of the Rakhine Buddhists.

This criminal attitude of the Buddhist majority that is nurtured and fueled by the people of influence – monks, politicians, military, security forces and government - within Myanmar have had a very devastating effect on the Rohingya people who have been victims of genocide in a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.

As genocide experts Drs. Greg Stanton and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen have repeatedly mentioned such denials of the self-identification is part of the 8 (or 5, respectively) stages of genocide, which the Rohingyas are facing today. The denial of the Rohingya identity - their very root to the soil of their forefathers – forms the very basis to justify their heinous crimes.

It is said that no matter how one tries to show the obvious and scream at a deaf and blind person, the latter will neither hear nor see the obvious. The problem with the neo-fascists inside the Rakhine state and Myanmar is that they are deaf and blind by design – an evil national project to eliminate Rohingya from Myanmar (and the Rakhine state), and sadly, like to remain in such a cocoon state of absurdity. All our efforts to appeal to their humanity, if anything is left of it within them, are proving to be wasted efforts.

Rohingyas don’t need certification from neo-fascists to self-identify themselves. History has proven their existence since the time of great Bengali poet Alaol (early 17th century). Period!

- Asian Tribune -

The question of self-identity of the Rohingyas of Myanmar
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