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Locating the Rohingya in time and space and 5 others Articles from The Daily Star Weekend
By Iftekhar Iqbal – is a historian at the University of Dhaka and Dr. C R Abrar teaches International Relations at the University of Dhaka. Lee Jones is Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London’s School of Politics and International Relations ; Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and Prakash Bhandari is a veteran Indian journalist, formerly with The Times of India.
Clarifying on its nomenclature, the Annan Commission Report on the Rakhine (Arakan) State (pdf), notes that ”In line with the request of the State Counsellor [Aung San Suu Kyi], the Commission uses neither the term ’Bengali’ nor ’Rohingya’, who are referred to as ’Muslims’ or ’the Muslim community in Rakhine’”.
This left the Commission with the only option of referring to the crisis in Rakhine from the vantage point of universal human rights, rather than the question of historical antecedents. Yet the request from Suu Kyi and the Commission’s compliance to not mention the terms ”Bengali” or ”Rohingya” will stand against future measures to implement the Commission’s recommendations for restoring citizenship to the Rohingyas.
This is because the question of the Rohingya is not merely connected to human rights issues, but also to the issue of civil rights including the right to self-identification. The bone of contention for the Myanmar military and the country’s State Council is that the Rohingyas are ”Bengalis” from Bangladesh who speak the Bangla language. How may we respond to this claim to bring stakeholders from Bangladesh, Myanmar and the international community closer for a durable solution to the crisis? Answers to this question abound in different phases of the region’s history.
The history of Rakhine is rich and greatly connected to the Arab-Persian cultural world since at least the early 8th century and with the Bengal/Bangladesh region from much earlier times. Muslim Sufis and traders had interactions with the coastal regions of what is today’s Bangladesh and Rakhine and all the way to the Indian Ocean rim of wider Southeast Asia. Conversion to Islam took place in areas that fall within the current borders of both Myanmar and Bangladesh. In 1406, the Rakhine king Nara Meikhla was dethroned by an invading Bamar/Burmese force and was driven to Bengal. He was later able to regain his throne with the help of 30,000 soldiers sent by the Bengal Sultan, Jalal al Din. Rakhine kings used to send tribute to Bengal Muslim Sultans for a considerable period of time. However, during the transition period between the decline of independent Muslim rulers of Bengal and the arrival of the Mughals from northern India, Bangladesh’s port city Chittagong came under the Rakhine rulers for some time.
”There is no instance in the world where after decades of experience of citizenship and of exercising the rights to electing their representative to parliament an entire population becomes stateless without security to life, property and honour, except of course in Nazi Germany. It’s an irony that Suu Kyi’s ascendancy to Myanmar statecraft coincides with the collateral destruction of her erstwhile political allies.
Despite these political changes, Rakhine developed a cosmopolitan culture that retained Buddhist as well as Muslim and Hindu pedigree. Rakhine kings issued coins that contained the imprint of the Buddha and the Kalema, the fundamental article of faith in Islam, until the early seventeenth century. Medieval forms of Bengali literature were patronised in this cosmopolitan atmosphere where Pali, Arabic and Persian were also in vogue. Poet Alaol from today’s Bangladesh, who was kidnapped by Portuguese pirates and sold in Rakhine as a slave, ended up being a court poet in the capital of Rakhine, where he was patronised by many Muslim ministers of Buddhist kings. Alaol in his poems written in the mid-seventeenth century introduced Rosango, a variant of the term Rohango (Rohingya), as the capital city of Rakhine.
Meanwhile, the Bamars kept knocking at the borders of Rakhine and finally captured its throne in 1784, leaving the Rakhine people, of both Buddhist and Muslim origin, to face unprecedented persecution in their ancestral land. Most of them fled to the Chittagong region across the Naf river. While some of them returned to Rakhine, some stayed behind, who are still known as Rakhine Buddhists, currently numbering more than 100,000. They are now Bangladeshi citizens and Bangladesh has never suggested they be ousted because of their ancestry in Myanmar.
It needs mentioning that despite initial persecution of local Rakhine people by the Bamar forces, there was also the gradual realisation of the need of the support and engagement of local people, including the Muslims. One example was that before the British took over Burma in the early nineteenth century, the Burmese king had given charge of the Port of Rangoon (Yangon) to a Muslim merchant.
The British period saw a different kind of mobility across today’s Bangladesh-Myanmar border, which was more of a planned mobilisation of people from all over India, Bengalis from Chittagong, who were involved in professional, commercial and agricultural activities, being the majority. By the 1930s however, the Bengalis, as well as other Indian diasporic communities, came into conflict with local inhabitants. The coming of the Japanese during the Second World War sealed the fate of the Indians in Burma, most of whom had to return to India and Bengal under strenuous conditions. The few who stayed behind were clearly distinguished from the local Rohingya people.
Postcolonial period: From citizen to stateless — The early postcolonial policy of the Burmese government towards the Rohingya was consistent with the pluralistic cultural and religious heritage of Myanmar and inclusive national vision of Aung San, Suu Kyi’s illustrious father.
The Muslims of Rakhine including the Rohingyas were no longer living in the rich political and social heritage of precolonial times, but there was no question about their place in Burma’s mainstream public life. In the two general elections of 1951 and 1956, at least 11 Rohingyas, including women, returned to Burmese Parliament as MPs.
The current problem of the Rohingyas, resulting in occasional ”genocidal” atrocities on them, is traced back to the 1982 ”Burma Citizenship Law” that enabled the revocation of citizenship of the Rohingyas, excluding them from the pool of 135 recognised ethnic groups across Myanmar. But the law came as an utter shock and surprise, given the positive developments in the preceding years. In the middle of a renewed spell of the flow of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, heads of states of the two countries had exchanged state visits before the signing of a historic ”Repatriation Agreement” in Dhaka on July 9, 1978. In the agreement, the Burmese government promised the ”repatriation at the earliest of the lawful residents of Burma” and also to repatriate those who were ”able to furnish evidences of their residence in Burma, such as addresses or any other particulars”.
Under this agreement the Burmese government launched the Hintha project which oversaw the repatriation of more than 29,000 families comprising 177,000 refugees from Bangladesh to their former places of residence. The current practice of burning the habitat and homestead of the Rohingyas by the Burmese security forces seems to aim at pre-emptively forestalling any chance of return of the Rohingyas as Myanmar citizens in light of the agreement of 1978.
But taking away one’s honour is not going to solve the existential threat posed to the Rohingyas. What it all takes is the pressing of the softer button of goodwill, empathy and justice. Who has the hand on this button is not clear to those outside Myanmar, but there are two clear paths of other kinds for Suu Kyi which can set a positive tone in the current situation and taking up one of them can secure her rightful place in history?
Religious persecution is the overwhelming fact in the violence that the Rohingya have experienced on and off in Myanmar across the centuries.But this does not preclude that the military, long in charge of what they call “economic development”, can today push those persecutions to a whole new level. And this is what they did in the current phase of a long history of Rohingya persecution.
By burning Rohingya villages to the ground and eliminating all traces of those villages, the military contributed to transform persecution into radical expulsions of whole villages. And, as one Myanmar minister put it: ”According to the law, burnt land becomes government-managed land” (Minister for Social Development, Relief and Resettlement Win Myat Aye, at a meeting in the Rakhine state capital of Sittwe as reported by the Global New Light of Myanmar).
In my reading, this also contributes to explain the extraordinary (literally) effort the military deployed to eliminate traces of Rohingya villages and reduce it all to “burnt land.” No returning Rohingya can easily make a claim that it was their land: now it is just burnt land. And indeed, the national government announced a few days ago that it was taking over the “development of the Rakhine state”, and specifically the burnt land in Rohingya land. That seals the deal.But there is more to the current situation.
But my research leads me to argue that religion and ethnicity might be only part of what explains this forced displacement, larger than many earlier expulsions of the Rohingya. The past two decades have seen a massive worldwide rise of corporate acquisitions of land for mining, timber, agriculture, and water. In the case of Myanmar, the military have been grabbing vast stretches of land from small holders since the 1990s—without compensation, but with threats if they should fight back. This land grabbing has continued across the decades. At the time of the 2012 attacks, the land allocated to large projects had increased by 170 percent between 2010 and 2013. By 2012 the law governing land was changed to favour large corporate acquisitions.