FOR many who are not familiar with Rakhine state, it borders Bangladesh. It was then the Kingdom of Arakan but the Burmese annexed it in the late 18th century.
Burmese language originates from the Sino-Tibetan while the Rohingyas speak a dialect of Bengali-Assamese.
Can anyone see or sense that the Rohingyas (by whatever name or description they were called) had lived on the land/Kingdom of Arakan since the 16th century? And the Burmese were the new settlers? I will not go deeper into this but I wonder if the Myanmar government can now see that the Rohingyas were, and are, part of the Rakhine!
What the Myanmar government had done was to take away the “white cards” which could prove the holder was a resident. Now all Rohingyas do not hold any documents. So they cannot prove they were born in Myanmar much less that they are third generation Burmese or Myanmars. In the latter case, by the Immigration Act, they can be deported.
Why can’t Myanmar’s 86 per cent Buddhists accept just four per cent Muslims? The Myanmar government is watching over its next move which is the forthcoming elections in early November.
In the meantime, the Rohingyas are left to rot in boats at sea. Hence they are billed as “the boat people” because Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are wary about accepting them.
I know first hand that many are unemployable and are unskilled. If they had some vocational or professional training they can be placed in Europe and elsewhere where the service industries are short of workers.
Ambassador Derek Tonkin (former British ambassador to Thailand, Vietnam and Laos) told the London School of Economics (LSE) on April 23 this year that “the ordinary Rohingya people are mostly fearful, impoverished, poorly educated and in many cases not able to earn their traditional living as farmers and fishermen”. For this reason, some writers have asked: “Rohingyas: A worthless People?”. The question which gives us a clear answer is: Who caused them to be worthless?”
What Myanmar has done is to make the people of this ethnicity “stateless” despite many of them having resided in Burma since a thousand years ago. This may be because of several factors, though historically, Burma had Muslim residents in the country since the 14th century.
Tonkin of Network Myanmar wrote that “nowhere in the Report (1940 Report on Indian Immigration) nor in the scores of papers associated with the Report and the British Library in the UK does the designation ‘Rohingya’ appear”.
I have been in contact with Tonkin for about two years now. I was impressed with his presentation at the conference on “Myanmar’s Borderlands, Reforms, Conflicts, Geopolitics” at the LSE.
I quote from Tonkin’s text of “Mohammedans who have been long settled in Arakan and who called themselves Rooinga or Natives of Arakan”.
He quoted a historical record mentioned by Dr Francis Buchanan in 1799. Dr Buchanan, a British surgeon, accompanied a diplomatic mission to the Court of Ava in 1795.
Tonkin stressed in his paper that “the very absence of any repetition of the designation (Rooinga) until the late 1950s must surely make this isolated record of 1799 of doubtful validity as an ethnic description”.
The “Burma Outpost” of 1945 quoted Captain Anthony Irwin, as describing those local Muslims who fought with him in Northern Arakan against the Japanese in 1942-1943, as “unlike any other product of India or Burma because they resemble the Arabs in name, in dress and in habits”. He added that it was incorrect to generally describe them as Bengalis or Chittagonians.
I can safely add that there was an Arakanese Muslim community settled so long in Akyab (Sittwe) that they were regarded as an indigenous race.
But why deny the description Rohingya? It can be fear by the junta that the Rohangya (note spelling) Jamiah Ul Ulama, formed around the time Burma separated from India may be resurrected to gain independence. What had taken place in 1942 was a massacre of Muslims in South Arakan. And by 1947, the Muslim Council of North Arakan asked for an autonomous state, similar to those states and status accorded under the Panglong Agreement.
(The agreement was reached in Panglong, Southern Shan state between the Burmese Government under Aung San and the Shan, Kachin and Chin people in Feb 12, 1947).
Myanmar has states which include Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Chin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan; it has regions of Yangon, Mandalay, Ayeryarwaddy, Sagaing, Bago and Tanintharyi.
With post-war immigration into Burma especially from Chittagong in India then (now Bangladesh) the Burmese feared somewhat that in a few areas they were being overwhelmed. By this time too, “Rwangya” (note spelling then) began support groups to help the Mujahid rebels.
To size up the problem, let me take a paragraph from Tonkin’s text, which he quoted from Willem van Schendal’s 2001 article “Making a Living in the Bengal Borderlands”, which will send a chill down our spines and tell us the war zones had been marked:
“These Chittagonian-speaking Muslims from Northern Arakan (later known as “Rohingya”) were compelled to leave their ancestral homes as a result of a deliberate Burmese policy to remove them in an attempt to root out ‘Muslim insurgents’.”
Massacres by armed forces occurred on Nov 10 and 11, 1948 and the military told surviving Rwangyas (note spelling) that unless they vacated Maungdaw and Buthidaung they would be tortured and butchered like animals and that they (must have meant the military) were appointed to wipe out the Rwangyas.” (Reference: Confidential Records Branch CRiV-10/51 in the National Archives of Bangladesh).
Then there was the RSO (Rohingya Solidarity Organisation) which was an empty drum as it made noises without substance. It had no following and no arms and ammunition. But the government took such bodies seriously and made Rohingyas the victims. It seems too far gone for any chances of reconciliation between the people who wish to call themselves Rohingyas and the majority Buddhists in Myanmar. Their positions are strained. The Myanmar junta insists the word Rohingyas be not used at all and yet the United Nations, Asean, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and other international organisations describe these mistreated people as Rohingyas.
What more can be done to gain Myanmar-Muslim goodwill?
There is need to let all Burmese know that the Muslims in Rakhine came with the land; so when the land was annexed, the population should be accepted as coming under Burma’s (later Myanmar’s) laws, thus giving them all rights and privileges. Those who entered illegally may be offered an opportunity to remain under strict rules or be repatriated. Humane treatment is, I am told, the calling card of Buddhist philosophy. Why enable one mere monk to destabilise a country?
Rohingyas are so cluttered in their lives and are without public relations people to spin their reality. They have not expressed their thanks to the fourth estate; but this should not be taken as non-appreciation.
The press, including CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera, US newspapers and those in the UK and Europe sporadically covered parts of the plight of the Rohingyas but to no avail. The Myanmar authorities are people who do not watch these “foreign” TV networks nor read these “foreign” newspapers.
There is none so blind as he who does not wish to see but I doubt Myanmar is not aware of the international calls and the damage it does to itself and the people of the country. Myanmar is in Asean and has pledged to unite so that Asean can progress together.
If indeed Myanmar is adamant and says “No”, then the Rohingyas must bid farewell and go into oblivion or to another country where the people are more gentle and understanding.
I can only think of the music and song (from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita) “Don’t cry for me Argentina”. In this case the lyrics can be changed to:
“Don’t cry for me Burma/Myanmar,
I had to let it happen,
I choose freedom,
The truth is I never left you.
I kept my promise to keep your distance,
They are illusions but not the solutions.”
And that every word is true.
The writer is a former judge of the Malayan and Borneo High Courts