A Rohingya man who fled oppression during military operations in Myanmar's Rakhine state at a makeshift camp in Teknaff, Bangladesh on September 26, 2017. Photo: Anadolu Agency via AFP/ Zakir Hossain Chowdhury
A Rohingya man who fled oppression during military operations in Myanmar's Rakhine state at a makeshift camp in Teknaff, Bangladesh on September 26, 2017. Photo: Anadolu Agency via AFP/ Zakir Hossain Chowdhury

The recent visit of Pope Francis to Myanmar provoked a storm of controversy over his decision to avoid using the term “Rohingya”, with some accusing the pontiff of unwittingly emboldening ultra-nationalist forces who refuse to accept the term. Others defended the pope’s blatant omission of the word as sound diplomacy at a delicate juncture.

The highest authority of the Catholic Church eventually used the word “Rohingya” during his visit to Bangladesh, where over 600,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar military-led “clearance operations” the United Nations has said represent a textbook example of “ethnic cleansing.”

The controversy over the Pope’s use of the term in Bangladesh but not in Myanmar speaks volumes about the gap between how the spiraling humanitarian crisis emanating from western Rakhine state is being viewed inside and outside of Myanmar. And the debate over the use of the word “Rohingya” will intensify in the weeks ahead as the two sides begin a repatriation program that will again put the term in a spotlight.

Myanmar’s citizenship criterion is based on the taingyintha, or “national races”, concept. It is defined somewhat arbitrarily as those ethnic groups that were settled in Myanmar in 1823, a year before the first Anglo-Burmese war in which the British conquered Arakan (as Rakhine was officially known until 1989) and other regions of the country.

The Citizenship Law passed in 1982 made belonging to one of the national races the primary, though not only, criterion for full citizenship. Nine years later, the government issued a list of 135 official national races, and the Rohingya were notably not on it. Arguably, Myanmar’s military-led state erased them from its national history.

Pope Francis is welcomed as he arrives at Yangon International Airport, Myanmar November 27, 2017. Osservatore Romano/Handout via Reuters

Pro-Rohingya advocates, mostly Rohingya themselves and foreigners, claim that they have been resident in Rakhine since as far back as the 8th century. Rohingya detractors, mostly Myanmar, firmly deny this reading of history and assert that they are illegal immigrants who arrived much later, during the British colonial period (1824-1948) or even well after independence from colonial rule was achieved in 1948.

The Rohingya’s critics refer to them as “Bengalis” to indicate their supposed foreign origins and frequently warn that they pose a demographic threat to who they regard as Rakhine state’s truly indigenous ethnic group, the mostly Buddhist Rakhine.

Rakhine state’s history is muddled, to be sure, but the truth likely lies in the middle of both assertions. Importantly, the presence of Rohingya people in Rakhine cannot be reduced to a single group.

Rather, they are more likely the mixed descendants of three groups: those who were already in Arakan before the region became culturally ‘Burmanized’ from the 10th to 14th centuries (they are also probably ancestors of present day Rakhine); slaves taken by Rakhine kings and Portuguese mercenaries from Bengal in the 16th and 17th centuries and workers who migrated from Bengal during the colonial period; and those who migrated from Bangladesh after independence.

In any case, what is now a clearly delineated border between two countries was not so before the British arrived to impose their European ideas of homogenous nation states. Arakan was before the British’s arrival a diffuse frontier area between the Burmese and Bengali worlds without a strongly enforced line of demarcation.

A Rohingya boy jumps over the border fence to enter Bangladesh in Cox’s Bazar, August 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

In certain historical eras, extensive areas of Arakan were under the sway of Bengali rulers; at other times areas in Bengal reaching up to the Bangladesh city of Chittagong were ruled by Rakhine kings.

On the term itself, the anti-Rohingya camp claims that the word first appeared in the 1950s as a political construct to get an autonomous region in the northern part of Rakhine state or, even worse, to make the region part of what was then known as East Pakistan.

Pro-Rohingya advocates, on the other hand, point to the study “A Comparative Vocabulary of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire” written by Scottish physician Francis Buchanan in 1799 as proof the term “Rooinga” was in use in the area well before the British consolidated their rule.

In the book, Buchanan asserts that: “The first dialect spoken in the Burman empire derived from the language of the Hindu nation that is spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan.”

The problem with these conflicting narratives is that both have elements of truth. The term is not an unprecedented invention, as it clearly appears in a document predating the colonial period. But the colonial records don’t show the term anywhere, and it seems that it did not begin to be widely used until the 1950’s.

The solution to the puzzle is probably that the meaning of “Rooinga” in 1799 is not exactly the same as the meaning of “Rohingya” now, even though it referred to some of the ascendants of the present day Rohingya. The term likely derives from the word “Rohang”, which was the Bengali name given to Arakan at the time.

Rohingya refugee children wait to receive food aid at Palong Khali refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 17, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Navesh Chitrakar

Thus, Rohingya would mean the same as “Arakanese.” It is also likely that the word “Rohingya” was not widely used as an ethnonym until recently and that it was done with a political purpose—as is the case with any ethnonym; ethnic identities are inherently political.

Much has been written about the origins of the Rohingya as an ethnic group, but little has been published about the origins of other groups in Myanmar which are largely taken for granted as national citizens. The Rakhine as an ethnic identity arguably did not emerge until the 19th century. The Rohingya’s problem is their political weakness inside the country and their late emerging ethnic identity.

In any case, underlying the debate on the term is an assumption that ethnic groups are closed, immutable entities that have always been what they are now. But ethnic groups change and evolve, and the concept of ethnicity evolves and changes, too. Both have changed enormously over time in ethnically diverse Myanmar.

The history of Myanmar should be viewed as a long story in which ethnic groups and the concept of ethnicity itself have gradually been solidified and politicized to the point of occupying the central role that they play today.

Anthropologists and historians such as Edmund Leach, F K Lehman and Victor Lieberman have shown that ethnic identities were fluid and ever-changing in pre-colonial Myanmar. It was the British who classified people in boxes, mainly on a linguistic basis, and often discouraged interactions between them, thereby creating hard divisions where there was virtually none until then.

Buddhist monks and others protest against aid given to Rohingya Muslims in Yangon on February 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Soe Zeya Tun

Ethnic Bamar chauvinism, ethno-nationalist insurgencies and military dictatorships in the 20th century further hardened those divisions, and the democratic transition launched in 2011 has arguably exacerbated the problem as ultra-nationalist organizations have been freed to spread their exclusionary notions of Myanmar nationhood and anti-Muslim propaganda.

Sociologist Michael Mann has described modern nation states as “cages”, with the shape of the cages dependent on political, institutional, economic and ideological “crystallizations” that were to a certain extent random products of complex and unpredictable histories. Myanmar’s “cage” has come to be made, among other things, of solid ethnic bars.

Rohingya leaders, by asserting their name, are playing by the increasingly rigid rules of the game in Myanmar. They have not created these rules, but the tragic irony is that they have legitimized and encouraged the notion of national races which now ideologically underlies their oppression. Trapped in Myanmar’s cage, it is understandable they feel there is little else they can do to assert their rights.

The denial of the Rohingya to use the name they have chosen for themselves is undoubtedly part of the persecution they have suffered for decades. Conversely, such persecution has pushed them to assert more forcefully their identity and the term itself.

Their right of self-identification is undeniable, but there is a certain fetishism of such rights among pro-Rohingya activists. And the problem at root is not so much the denial of their Rohingya identity as the prevalence of “national races” and communalism in the Myanmar “cage.”

Hosne Ara, 4, a Rohingya refugee who fled Myanmar at the Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 5, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Hannah McKay/File

It is likely that many Rohingya in Rakhine, if not most, would forsake the term if it opened a way to regain their rights in Myanmar. Many have tried to do so when offered the chance. In 2014, the government launched a pilot program of citizenship verification in central Rakhine’s Myebon Township.

In line with the 1982 Citizenship Law, they would be granted citizenship if they could prove that three generations of their ancestors had lived in Rakhine, an extremely difficult process in the remote area where many have been undocumented for decades while others were stripped of theirs by authorities when they were rendered stateless in the early 1990s.

Even if they could prove their ancestors’ presence, they had to accept being branded as “Bengali”, not “Rohingya”, on their national identification cards. All Rohingya in Myebon have been confined to a camp since the wave of sectarian violence in 2012, and most took part in the program.

Only 97 of almost 3,000 were granted citizenship under the scheme’s terms. But those who won citizenship soon discovered that their situation remained unchanged: they were still confined to the camp and could not even go to the hospital. Citizenship, for them, came without the rights they had naturally envisioned.

One woman who received her citizenship told this writer that her father had been a well-respected police officer in the town and that her family had previously enjoyed good relations with Muslims and Buddhists alike. Four years after being confined to the camps, she still hadn’t come to terms with the fact that none of that mattered anymore.

Her story had been erased from the Rakhine community, as the history of the Muslims in Rakhine state is now being erased from the country in a mass exodus across the border into Bangladesh. The tragedy of the Rohingya – one Pope Francis appeared publicly to overlook in Myanmar – is not so much the denial of their collective history as the erasure of such personal lived histories.

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