Published:  12:25 AM, 24 July 2019

Rohingya: Etymology, people and identity

Rohingya: Etymology, people and identity

The Rohingya people are considered to be the most persecuted people in contemporary world. Tatmadaw, the military of Burma/Myanmar, forced out 730,000 Rohingyas from their ancestral habitat, Rakhine state, in August 2017. Fleeing from violence and persecution they took shelter to neighboring Bangladesh. Similarly, prior to this, in 1978 and in 1992-93 consecutively 300,000 and 250,000 Rohingyas were forced out.

Though the negotiation between Bangladesh and Myanmar government to take back Rohingyas to Myanmar has gone through several stages, there is no concrete progress so far rather it is stuck in a triangular ideational debate regarding who are the Rohingyas and what is their origin.

The Myanmar government thinks they entered Myanmar from South Asia during British rule, so, they should go back to South Asia; the government of Bangladesh thinks they were forced out of their country Myanmar, so, they should go back to Myanmar; and the Rohingya people think that they have been living in Rakhine state/Arakan (Myanmar) for centuries and that is their ancestral land and place of origin and they want to go back and continue living there.  

Thus, understanding the origin and development of the idea of Rohingya has become very important both to understand the Rohingya problem and solution to the problem. This article attempts to contribute towards solving this puzzle.

First of all, understanding the etymological origin and development of 'Rohingya' is significant in order to understand the idea of Rohingya. Rohingya simply refer to the Muslim people living in Rakhine state, Myanmar, which has historically been known as Arakan. The origin and development of the idea is inextricably linked with the development of the naming of Arakan/ Rakhine state (who owns or who lives in the land).

The word 'Arakan' is thought to originate from Arabic or Persian as both have same meaning (Mohajan, 2018, p. 26). Phayre explained that the name might come from native name Rakhaing, from which the modern European form Arakan is derived (Phayre, 1883, p. 42).

Early Buddhist missionaries called Arakan as 'Rekkha Pura' (Alam, 1999). Tripura Chronicle Rajmala mentions the name as Roshang (Mohajan, 2018). The Arakanese poets, particularly Alaol, Ainuddin, Abdul Ghani and others referred Arakan as Roshang, Roshanga and Roshango Des. According to Abdul Karim, the Rohingyas believe that the word Arakan is derived from the Arabic Word All-Rekan or Al-Rukn. In 16th century, European used the name as Arakan (Karim, 2000, pp. 18-19).

The first Muslim settlement was found in 788-810 CE. There was early Arab contact with Arakan and Bengal (Karim, 2000, p. 24). According to the Arakanese history, during the reign of Mahataing Sandaya, several Arab ships wrecked off the coast of Rambi Island (Ramree), the Muslim sailors swam into the shore who were identified as foreigners by the then locals. As the King allowed them to live there and later allocated land, thus they settled and gradually assimilated with the locals (Karim, 2000, pp. 24-25).

Moshe Yegar argued that the Muslims seamen, who reached first in Burma in the ninth century, were the ancestors of Rohingya (Yegar, 1972, p. 2; Al-Mahmood, 2016). Shipwrecked Arabian Muslims internalized Burmese language, culture, customs and gradually became the second largest ethnic group in Arakan (Karim, 2000, pp. 25-26).

Karim emphasized that the Rohingyas have been staying in Arakan for more than a thousand years. Similarly, M.A. Alam said that in the pre-Islamic times people like Arabs, Moors, Pathans, Turks and Bengalees came to Arakan as traders and preachers; many of them settled there, assimilated with the local customs and they are the people who are currently known as ethnic Rohingya (Alam, 1999).

However, during British rule in Arakan and Burma, a huge number of people were brought into Arakan/Myanmar from South Asia, present day Bangladesh and India, for increasing agricultural production. As during the British era, the term 'Rohingya' was almost completely absent from all British government documents, for whatever the reason, many conclude that the Rohingyas did not exist before.

Derek Tonkin exploring the British database (e.g., British official report, regional gazetteer, census, legislation, private correspondence or personal reminiscence etc.) of 122 years (i.e., from British conquest of Arakan in 1826 to Burmese independence in 1948) concluded that there was not a single mention of the Rohingyas in any government documents, so he concluded that there was no group as Rohingya at that time and argued if there were, the British must want to know and the census documents must reflect that (Tonkin, 2014).

Interestingly, prior to British rule in Arakan/Burma, Dr. Francis Hamilton wrote about 'Rohingyas' in 1799 in his article, 'A comparative vocabulary of some of the languages spoken in the Burman Empire' in Volume 5 of Asiatik Researches.

He distinguished 6 languages and three dialects in the Burman Kingdom and one of the dialects, he mentioned was 'evidently derived from the languages of the Hindu nation,' spoken by the Mohammedan who have long settled in Arakan and who call themselves 'Rooinga,' or native of Arakan (p.237) (Hamilton, 1799). So, a thorough reinvestigation is necessary to delve why 'Rohingya' remained absent from British documents instead of jumping into a conclusion that Rohingyas did not exist prior to British occupation of Arakan and Myanmar.

Another important historical incident of regional mass-movement, which is less known and underresearched, is that prior to British occupation in 1826, when Burma occupied Arakan in 1784-85 (ending almost 400 years of Arakan's independence), huge number of people fled to neighboring areas and particularly Chittagong (Bengal) which contributed forming the base population of present day Chittagong. 

After the independence of Myanmar in 1948, though the government of Myanmar repeatedly promised to ensure rights of the Rohingyas in Myanmar, in reality the government/military gradually excluded Rohingyas from all the basic rights in Myanmar leading to revoking their citizenship (Citizenship Law 1982). Moreover, through various brutal operations, the military pushed out Rohingyas from their land.

As their state denied their citizenship, they sought for an identity for survival and in order to find ways for survival, the Rohingyas developed 'Rohingya' identity based on ethnic nationalism which is rooted in their ancestral historical legacy in Rakhine state/Arakan.

In sum, the etymological origin of Rohingya has a long history, the Rohingya community developed through a long historical complicated process in Rakhine state, and the idea of 'Rohingya identity' was developed, widely popularized which also received world-wide attention in the post-independence era, when their survival was at stake. In the past it was neither important for them nor they cared for that.

Sarwar J Minar is Adjunct Lecturer, Global Studies and Governance, Independent University, Bangladesh. Abdul Halim is an independent researcher

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