It might be instructive to begin with some very basic facts: The Rohingya population is roughly a million; their ancestral territory spans the border of Bangladesh and Burma; their religion is Islam; and their language is related to but clearly differentiated from Bengali, the sixth most spoken language in the world.
The nearest thing to a homeland the Rohingya, tenuously, possess is Burma’s western Rakhine (formerly Arakan) province, where the majority of Burmese speak a dialect of Bamar and practise Theravada Buddhism. Despite having lived in the area of Rakhine for over a thousand years, Burmese authorities categorise the Rohingya as ‘illegal immigrants’. They are scarcely more welcome in Bangladesh’s refugee camps, where they are considered to be a ruinous drain on resources. Many Rohingya have been literally pushed back into the sea.
There can be few more stark examples of a culture out of keeping with political circumstances. Bangladesh is a highly homogenous political state, having largely escaped recent inter-ethnic and religious upheavals which have threatened the stability of neighbouring countries. Burma (or Myanmar), on the other hand, is hugely diverse. The situation there could almost be likened to Spain under Franco, substituting Buddhism for Catholicism and the Karen and Shan for the Basques and Catalans-- small nations unwillingly locked into the state and fighting back against a military dictatorship with all means available. Bangladesh’s strength is its cultural unity, Burma’s its religious near-uniformity (and of course its willingness to meet dissent with lethal state-directed violence).
In the middle of this equation, we find the Rohingya; not quite Bengalis, and certainly not Buddhists. The ‘threat’ they pose to Bangladesh or Burma does not lie in their actions but what they are thought to represent. They quite simply do not ‘fit’.
There is no question that the Rohingya’s collective existence is under threat. Burma’s President, Thein Sein, has stated openly that he wishes them to be driven out of Arakan, and since June of this year Bamar/Rakhine mobs have been attempting to do just that: from the 10th to the 28th of June, about 650 Rohingya were killed and 80,000 displaced. The violence has often been attributed to a single criminal act, the rape and killing by three Rohingya men of a Rakhine woman. Yet those responsible were taken into custody, and two of them sentenced to death. The ‘revenge/ reprisal’ interpretation makes no sense. Reports of the killing of a Rakhine woman began circulating in late May, and were followed by the hijacking of a bus by a Rakhine mob on June the 3rd, in Toungop, in which 10 Rohingya were beaten to death while the police and military made no attempt to intervene, as reported by Human Rights Watch.
This caused riots in Maungdaw on June the 8th, following Friday prayers, during which ‘an unknown number of Arakan were killed’. On June the 12th, the violence escalated still further as a large body of Rakhine went on the rampage in Sittwe, burning down 10, 000 Rohingya homes. This time, the police and army did not stand by but opened fire on the Rohingya as they attempted to extinguish the fires. A woman and two children were among the (several dozen) dead. Onlookers reported that the police immediately removed and incinerated the bodies.
The violent displacement of Rohingya communities is in no way a new phenomenon. Tellingly, there is a rich tradition of insults and dark rumours about them – in addition to a law specifically excluding them from full citizenship. One of the most widely cited arguments from the Bamar/Rakhine is that the Rohingya are recent and illegal immigrants – as proven by the fact that many of them lack papers (National Registration Cards). In fact, many Rohingya do have such documents, but a huge number of them are also known to have had their papers confiscated before being allowed across the border, while fleeing previous attacks.
There is considerable disagreement about Rohingya origins, with many Burmese insisting that they are nothing more or less than Bengalis who have arrived in the last few generations – ‘so called Rohingyas’. This reflects both some genuine uncertainty and, unfortunately, much genuine antipathy. It is true that the specific name Rohingya seems to be a relatively recent adoption – the first known reference occurs in the 1700s, in an account by Francis Buchanan Hamilton, a physician who spent some time in the region. One of the preeminent scholars of Rakhine history, Joseph P. Leider, considers that there is a strong socio-political subtext to this ‘adoption’. This may be the case, yet the name arose because there already existed a distinctive culture to identify with it. Rohingya (R?aingga) is certainly related to Bengali but the substantial differences between the two languages have arisen over centuries, not decades. A few hundred years ago, it was arguably Bamar (i.e. non-Rakhine Bamar) rather than Rohingyas who were alien to Arakan, which was invaded and annexed by Burma in 1784 – this and subsequent invasions being fiercely resisted.
The full story is more complicated still: the Rakhine Burmese certainly consider themselves a breed apart, although their speech is fully comprehensible to ‘other’ Bamar. The story of Arakan can be traced as far back as 3325 B.C. Its first legendary kings, such as Marayu, spoke Sanskrit and/or Pali (essentially two ancient forms of Hindi, Pali being derived from the Magadhi/ Prakrit rather than Sanskrit dialect, and strongly associated with Buddhism) – from which both Rohingya and Bengali (unlike Rakhine) are descended. The last independent kingdom of Arakan, known as Mrauk U (where it had its capital city) was founded in 1430. During Mrauk U’s ‘golden age’ in the 1600s, the kingdom traded widely and minted coins inscribed in Arakanese (Rakhine Bamar), Kufic - and Bengali. Those who say that the Rohingya are simply Bengalis must therefore contend with the fact that Bengalis have a long history in Arakan - and that it was their Pali-speaking ancestors who founded the kingdom (and for that matter, the supreme irony, introduced its Buddhist religion).
The name Arakan (and Rakhine) seems to derive from Pali Rakhapura, ‘follower/ descendent of Rakshasa’. There is both a Buddhist temple and an ancient mosque (Santikan) at Mrauk U. There is also a one-off reference in the works of (Arakanese minister and historian) Wimala to the conversion of a number of Arakanese by Bengali Muslims in 1525. As already noted, if this is the origin of Islam in Arakan, it is not the origin of the Rohingya: there seems to be no time in Arakan’s history during which either Pali, or its descendents, Bengali and Rohingya, were not spoken there – conversely, there have ‘always’ been Rakhaing (‘Magh’) communities in Bangladesh. Kyaw Htoo Aung, whilst emphasising that his own research concerns early (and general) Muslim influence in Arakan and not ‘the Rohingya question’ notes, along with much else of interest (and referring extensively to Joseph P. Leider), that several of the rulers of medieval Arakan bore unmistakably ‘Muslim’, i.e. Arabic names: Mong Kha Ri (Minkhari), Ba Saw Phru (Basawpyu), Kalama Shya (Kalima Shah) et cetera.
Bamar also frequently refer to the dark colouring of the Rohingya (‘kalar’), and politicians question whether they are ‘really Burmese’ – a meaningless question since Burma is a multi-ethnic state, the Karen for instance being every bit as culturally different from the Bamar as the Rohingya. In fact, the Karen rebellion (involving a full-scale paramilitary campaign by the K.N.L.A., the Karen National Liberation Army) is similarly complicated by religious factors: many of the Karen (about 15 per cent) are Christians.
When Aung San Suu Kyi was briefly and respectfully questioned about the Rohingya during a lecture at Harvard University, on the 16th June – therefore during the mass killings – she replied tersely that ‘You must not forget that there have been human rights violations on both sides of the communal divide. It’s not a matter of condemning one community or the other. I condemn all human rights violations’. This, unfortunately, was truly a politician’s answer: clearly, no-one was asking for a whole community to be condemned, and the suggestion that comparable abuses were being committed on both sides is absurd.
Speaking for the authorities, Zaw Htay was more candid: ‘we will eradicate them until the end! … we don’t want to hear any humanitarian issues or human rights from others’. Was it a poor choice of words in a moment of heightened agitation? No. The quote was not leaked or spoken under harsh questioning; it was posted on his Facebook page.
That Bangladesh might fear unforeseen consequences, or considers that it can spare nothing for thousands of blameless, destitute and in fact starving Rohingya, is less than heroic on its part. That the Burmese military dictatorship – some recent reformist moves notwithstanding – should stand by and allow the Rohingya to die is only to be expected. What is much harder to comprehend is that the world’s media should take no interest in the humanitarian crisis, that the U.N. should say more to mollify the dictatorship than to address the reality, and that the champion of democracy and human rights in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, should have nothing at all to say on the matter.
If the international community continues to maintain this wall of silence, the Rohingya may be more than orphaned by history; they may be extinguished from it.