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Decoding the Past : The Rohingya Origin Enigma
By Keith A. Leitich, MA, Ed.S. Keble College, University of Oxford.
There has been much debate over the etymology and the origins of the ethnonym Rohingya. Since the 1980s local, Rohingya, Burmese, and dynastic histories have contributed to a growing plurality of narratives. Yegar (1992) and Berlie (2008) are the only scholarly works to specifically address the Muslim community known as the Rohingya in three townships in northern Arakan state – Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung.
There are two schools of thought regarding the historiography of the Rohingya; the Migration school, who postulates that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh (Khin Maung Saw, 1993, 2011; Chan, 2005; Leider, 2005, 2012; Aye Kyaw, 2009; Maung Tha Hla, 2009; Ahmed 2012) and the Indigenous school, who claim that the Rohingya are native to Arakan and are descendents of the original Muslim converts on Ran-byi (or Ramree) Island (Lewa, 2004, Khin Maung Yin, 2005; Siddiqui, 2005; Chowdhury, 2006; Rozali, 2006; Islam, 2007; Bahar, 2010; Forster, 2011), who have a distinct culture and are a distinct indigenous ethnic group. Whatever the validity of the claims and counterclaims of the Migration theorists and Indigenous theorists, it cannot be denied that a large number of Muslims have resided in the Arakan for hundreds of years.
Compounding the complexity of the study of the historiographical debate is the fact that the Rohingya are a preliterate society.2 The omnipresent methodological problem associated with the archaeological examination of the Rohingya is that since they do not have orthography, they have been unable to document their own history. As such, ethno-archaeologists cannot interpret Rohingya social or cultural history without artifacts or written texts to study. Thus; it has been left to others to interpret. Knowledge of both the natural history and human history of Arakan is still very limited. Arakan state’s inhospitable topography and challenging climatic conditions has meant that potential heritage sites have received little attention from archaeologists. As late as the late 1970s Arakanese archaeology was still considered to be in its infancy. Another problem faced by scholars of Arakanese history is that there are few primary sources available that have not already been edited, translated or exploited by previous scholars.
Despite the shortage of primary sources many Arakanese chronicles remain untranslated from Burmese to English. As such, the historiography of the Rohingya is rife with speculation and conjecture as the lack of archaeological evidence has made the reconstruction of Rohingya historiography difficult.
Given the paucity of archaeological or numismatic evidence to interpret and the unlikelihood that “new” scholarship will shine a light on the origins of the Rohingya I will attempt to verify or dismiss the Migration and Indigenous theorists’ Rohingya origin-theories in this paper.