By Derek Tonkin | Monday, 23 February 2015
The controversy over the use of the term “Bengali” to describe Muslims in Rakhine State known as “Rohingya” seems set to continue following the second visit by UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee to Myanmar.
For many in the West, this controversy is an unfortunate distraction. For Myanmar and its neighbours though it goes to the very root of the crisis. Some 95 percent of all Muslims resident in Rakhine are of Bengali origin, although this may well go back many generations and in some cases even centuries. They would now seem to be under pressure to deny their Bengali heritage and ancestry.
A single reference in a linguistic essay published in 1799 by a British visitor, Francis Buchanan, to the Burmese court of Ava is the only historical record extant that there were people who described themselves as “Natives of Arakan”, or “Rooinga”.
He never used the term again. Nor was the word used by any of his contemporaries. It was likewise unknown throughout the period of the British administration of Rakhine – then called Arakan – from 1826 to 1948. Yet this single historical reference of uncertain relevance has today become one of the main pillars of the “Rohingya” narrative, all the proof needed of a Rohingya ethnicity supposedly going back 1000 years.
Rakhine was seriously depopulated during Burmese rule from 1785 to 1826. Contemporary estimates put the local population at the time of the British invasion at around 100,000. However, an American Baptist missionary, the Reverend GS Comstock, recorded that the population in 1942 was estimated at around 250,000, of whom about 167,000 were “Mugs” (Rakhine), 40,000 Burmese, 20,000 “Mussulmans”, 5000 new arrivals from Bengal, and sundry other ethnic groups.
This indicates an eight-to-one ratio of Buddhists (Rakhine and Burmese) to Muslims. By the time of the first full census of 1872, the population of Arakan had doubled to 484,673. Buddhists (364,023) still exceeded Muslims (64,313) by a ratio of nearly 6 to 1. At the 1931 census there were still more Buddhists (721,432) than Muslims (384,475). But the ratio had fallen dramatically to less than 2 to 1 as a result of immigration from the Chittagong region of Bengal.
The Japanese invasion of Burma brought massive intercommunal violence, which saw the flight in 1942 of most Muslims in southern Arakan to the north, and of most Buddhists to the south. By the time of independence in 1948, Arakan was in disarray, with a cross-border jihadist movement in full swing.
It was against this background that the Muslim communities of Arakan understandably felt that they needed to redefine their status. The designations that the British had used were judged to be out of date and out of place. The pre-1785 Muslims began to call themselves “Rwangya”, a word of uncertain etymology. The “Chittagonians” also felt that they no longer wished to be designated as such, and the non-Chittagonian “Bengalis” likewise, and both groups cloaked themselves in the “Rwangya” mantle. So Rwangya it was until the mid-1950s. But other possible designations emerged, and we can trace in Burmese periodicals a lively discussion among the Muslim scholarly and political elite about various alternatives.
As 1960 drew near, “Rohingya” was used for the first time as a newly emerging ethnicity and political label to describe several Muslim communities, but dominated by the resourceful and hard-working Chittagonians. It is an ethnicity with whose origins many will have much sympathy, designed largely for self-preservation in an increasingly hostile environment. But in the process, the former quasi-indigenous Muslim communities have faded as the Chittagonians moved to centre stage.
Independent Myanmar has viewed this transformation of the Muslim community in Rakhine with increasing alarm. The 20,000 souls recorded by the Rev Comstock in 1842 have mushroomed as a result of immigration to 1 million or more. At least another 1 million “Rohingya” are reported to have sought asylum overseas, mainly in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. This presents an astonishing picture of a population of some 2-3 million Rohingya whose renewed congregation in Rakhine would present a totally unacceptable situation for the local non-Muslim population.
The Rohingya narrative, incorporating an apparent 100-fold natural increase in the Rohingya population since the 20,000 souls of 1842 and allegedly unsupported by immigration, may well strike many as fanciful, if not preposterous.
It has, however, become politically correct not to challenge this narrative. Senior representatives in the UN and Western governments are being urged to proclaim the Rohingya identity. That is a political decision which only they can take. It is important though that they should be aware that their recognition of the Rohingya identity in Myanmar and overseas is bound to give moral and political support to a highly questionable and pretentious narrative.
“Je suis Rohingya” undoubtedly has its attractions. Membership of the Rohingya community is survivalist and embraced for political and cultural reasons outside Myanmar as an act of solidarity with an undeniably oppressed community.
I doubt that in most cases this has all that much to do with self-identification. It would indeed be an intrepid Rakhine Muslim spouse who, however dutiful, would tell her husband that she still feels more Bengali than Rohingya, especially if advice given by local religious and political leaders is that they ought now to embrace the Rohingya identity and consign their Bengali origins to oblivion.
At the 1931 census, the largest Muslim community in Rakhine State were the Chittagonians. They are now in the vanguard of the Rohingya movement. Of the 186,327 enumerated in 1931, 156,833 declared that they were born in Myanmar. That is, more than 84 percent were already second-generation migrants and some third-generation or more. By 1948 most of them would have met the test for citizenship explained by President U Thein Sein to the UN high commissioner for refugees Antonio Guterres when they met on July 11, 2012: that the third generation of Bengalis who came to work with British encouragement in the agricultural sector prior to 1948 and decided to stay because it suited them were entitled to citizenship under the law.
That was no doubt why when Myanmar and Bangladeshi authorities discussed the repatriation of some 200,000 mostly rural Rakhine Muslims who had in 1978 fled to Bangladesh – where they were already popularly known as Rohingya – the task was relatively easy. According to the then-British ambassador, Charles Booth, who quoted Myanmar sources, some 65pc of those who had fled held National Registration Certificates (NRCs) issued under the 1948 Citizenship Act.
It is regrettable that after the 1982 Citizenship Act came into force, very few Muslims in Rakhine State – but not, it seems, those elsewhere in Myanmar – were able to exchange their NRCs for new identity cards. Although article 6 of the 1982 act guaranteed that anyone who was a citizen before the act would remain a citizen, they were instead obliged unwillingly to accept temporary “white cards”, which will soon be invalid.
We can only hope that the process of verification currently in train will make it possible for those who qualify to be welcomed back as Myanmar citizens. Claiming to be Rohingya, though, has not made their task any easier.
Derek Tonkin is a former British ambassador to Thailand and Vietnam and currently an adviser to Bagan Capital Limited.
By Derek Tonkin | Monday, 23 February 2015