Caught between the Crocodile and the Snake — Contexts of the ‘Rohingya issue’

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Caught between the Crocodile and the Snake — Contexts of the ‘Rohingya issue’
By Dr. Hans-Bernd Zöllner, studied Burmese History and got his Ph.D. In 2017 Context of the Rohingya Issue was done under University of Windsor, Universiti Sains Malaysia and Berghof Foundation.

In 1799, Francis Buchanan, a 37 year old Scottish physician and natural scientist employed as a medical doctor by the East India Company, published an article based on one of the first major Western surveys of the languages of the Burma Empire, providing “important data on the ethno-cultural identities and identifications of the various population groups in the first half of Bò-daw-hpayà’s reign (1782-1819)” (SOAS 2003, 1). This empire had been expanded through the conquest of the kingdom of Rakhine in the year of the Society’s foundation. In the article, the word ‘Rooinga’ appeared as one of the languages spoken in Burma at that time. The term can be regarded as an equivalent to the word Rohingya used today. Both denominations are derived from the Pali word ‘Rakhanga’ for Rakhine (Arakan). Furthermore, in his article, Buchanan distinguished between “real natives of Arakan” who called the ‘Rooingas’‘Kulaw Yakain’or ‘strangers in Arakan’ (Buchanan 1799, 237).6 For more than one and a half century, the term was not mentioned in any primary document discovered up to now. Consequently, the mention of the name ‘Rooinga’ by Buchananhas been a core issue in the controversies over the Rohingya issue. As can be expected, the ‘pro-Rohingya’ lobbyists highly value Buchanan’s remark as a proof that Rohingyas as a distinct group have been living in Burma since ages. The ‘anti-Rohingya’ faction is prone to downplay the evidence as not significant (Maung Saw 1993; Maung Saw 2011; Islam 2011; Kaladan News 2013).

The fierce debate on the issue is one of many controversies amongst scholars of Burmese history that originated together with the introduction of new patterns of state and nation building by the colonial powers at the time of Buchanan’s visit to Burma. Such debates can be regarded as sequels of the “clashes of civilisations” happening then between the indigenous states and the foreign intruders. The task of melding a national identity that encompasses the diversity of ethnic identities is not yet finished in Myanmar, as in many other post-colonial states.

In the ‘old days’, unity under the supervision of a more or less powerful lord in a “galactic policy” allowed for a diversity that was not regulated by any fixed criteria of common language, customs, religion etc. as in the modern western concepts of a nation. Today, the spokesmen of the Rohingya try to prove that the members of the group form a distinct ethnic group that has lived on Myanmar soil for ages and, therefore, must be recognised as one of the indigenous races such as the Chin, Kachin, Shan and Karen. Their opponents claim that this is not the case and that the Rohingyas do not belong to Myanmar and consequently have no right to be regarded as ‘natural citizens’ of the country. Rather, it is claimed that they should be regarded as ‘Bengalis’ who belong to a neighbouring nation in terms of language, religion, customs, history, etc., and if they want to become Myanmar citizens, they have to apply for citizenship in line with the laws of the country. The ‘name question’ has reached a supreme importance beyond academic disputes. As a Rohingya spokesman declared in July 2014: “The violence in 2012 changed the situation. Before the violence our Rohingya name was not something we thought about every day. Since the violence, everything has been stolen from us –now all we have left is our Rohingya identity. All of us are united on this” (ICG 2014, 29). As in many other cases of the processual genesis of ethnic identities, the identification with a common name in contrast or opposition to an ‘other’ plays an important role.

Ironically, and tellingly, this debate on the name has a parallel concerning the whole state.12 Many opponents of the government that succeeded the military junta in 2011 refuse to accept the name change from ‘Burma’ to ‘Myanmar’ as the designation of the country in English texts prescribed by the junta in 1989. Aung San Suu Kyi is the most prominent of them, still arguing that the rulers who ordered the change were not legitimised by the people to do so. Both ‘name issues’ indicate that the subject of who has the right to define the national identity of Burma/Myanmar is not yet resolved. 

The term Rohingya –with or without quote signs –is used to indicate the conviction of people that a group of people with a distinct identity exists in Myanmar. No hierarchy between the two designations is intended because the belief of people that they form a distinct ethnic group has to be acknowledged as a social reality. To find a way of mutually solving the ‘name question’can be regarded as a main task of resolving the whole problem.

Finally, it can be noted that Buchanan’s rendering of the non-Buddhists in Rakhine as ‘strangers in Arakan’ has powerful echoes today. The Rohingyas are living ‘between’ Rakhine and Bangladesh and are regarded as strangers on both sides of the border. This deplorable fate of “being caught between a crocodile and a snake”, as a young Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh put it,15 is to a great part a result of historical legacies.

When Buchanan travelled through Southern Bengal in 1798, he met many people who had fled Rakhine after the Burmese conquest of 1784. He noted that “[t]hese people left their country on its conquest by the Burmans […] They […] build houses for the Mohammedan refugees, of whom many came from Arakan on the same occasion, [who] are now much better off than their former Masters” (van Schendel 1992, 31).

The Burmese conquest of the kingdom of Rakhine had a domino effect. Rakhine people had lost their dominating position in their homeland including being placed above the Buddhist community there. The relationship between the two groups had been reversed, with masters becoming servants building houses for their former subjects. In the eyes of their new native Bengali masters, they became outcasts who, according to Buchanan, needed protection against assaults by the Muslim majority. According to his assessment, “the only means of preventing these oppressions would be to give them Officers of their own, entirely independent of the Bengalese, and if possible a separate district for habitation” (van Schendel 1992, 34).

Here, the establishment of a separate territory for an oppressed minority under the protection of a benevolent authority is considered, an idea that pervades colonial and post-colonial histories of many states and separatist movements within them.18 When the British, some 25 years later, invaded Rakhine in course of their war with the Burmese Empire, they were supported by the Rakhines. Many of them returned from Bengal and at the same time an influx of Muslims to the sparsely populated new part of British India commenced.

In retrospect, the wars of 1784 and 1824-1826 can thus be regarded as midwives of the emergence of a Buddhist Rakhine identity –contrasted with the Burmans and the Muslims alike –that paved the way for communal anti-Muslim sentiment later. The opposition to both groups was clearly asymmetrical. The Burmans could be regarded as ‘brothers’ because of similarities in language, culture and religion. The Muslims were ‘strangers’ who could be tolerated but only if they accepted a status as guests in the country under the conditions of a full-fledged Rakhine national consciousness. This logic explains to a great extent why today the Rakhine Buddhists reject the claim of Rohingyas to be equal natives of the state much more aggressively than the Burmans.

The first Japanese bombs dropped on Rangoon in December 1941 triggered a mass exodus of Indians from Burma to India that caused ten thousand deaths (Tinker 1975). In Rakhine, Buddhists killed many Muslims together with a smaller number of Hindus. The massacres were prompted by a combination of the long-standing tensions in Rakhine, the general anti-Muslim attitudes in Burma and the vacuum left by the withdrawal of British forces (Fleischmann 1981, 62–66).

The result of this fighting was a separation of Muslim and Buddhist communities and the emergence of the ‘enclave’ of Muslims in Northern Rakhine that still exists today. In 1951, an Arakan Muslim Conference demanded in “The Charter of the Constitutional Demands of the Arakani Muslims” that “North  Arakan  should  be  immediately  formed  a  free  Muslim  State as equal constituent Member of the Union of Burma like the  Shan  State,  the  Karenni  State,  the  Chin  Hills,  and  the  Kachin  Zone”(Chan 2005, 412). Such demands and reports about atrocities during the war were well remembered and passed to later generations as indications of an impending genocide21 and a “massacre and driving away the Rohingyas with the intention of rooting out the Rohingyas of Arakan” (Ba Tha 1960). 

As a consequence of such disappointed aspirations and other reasons, civil war started in many parts of the country, including in Rakhine where it was named the ‘Mujahid rebellion’. The Muslim Mujahids(fighters of a holy war, jihad) were just one of many groups fighting in Rakhine against the government and from time to time concluding fragile alliances with other groups. The armed movement did not represent all Muslims living in Rakhine. Some of the moderate leaders even asked the government for arms to fight the rebels, but to no avail (Yegar 2002, 38). It is notable that some of the claims and demands of the Muslim rebels echo those articulated today. They claimed to be

the offspring of Muslims who had settled there hundreds of years earlier, and despite similarities in religion, language, culture, and ethnicity differed from the population in the adjacent Chittagong region. (ibid., 39)

Such a region, the Mayu Frontier Administration –named after the Mayu River in northern Rakhine -came into being in 1961 in course of the preparations for an Arakan state that Prime Minister U Nu had promised to create if his party won the elections of April 1960. The special region, comprising Maungdaw, Buthidaung and parts of Rathedaung townships with a Muslim majority was to be administered by the army. This arrangement became obsolete after the coup of March 1962 when the army under General Ne Win’s leadership took over administration of the whole of Burma. Plans to create an Arakan State were also shelved for some time until the constitution of 1974 drawn up under Ne Win’s socialist regime.The policies of the military government resulted in a large-scale exodus of Indian and Chinese people from Burma, among them many well-to-do Muslims from central Burma. In northern Arakan, a Muslim enclave remained. ##

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