Mohammedans of Arakan

This is a test for the international community to give back the rights of Rohingya and repatriate them to their own homeland, Myanmar with dignity and honour.

By Professor Hasan Saifuddin Khan | March 2023

‘Racial identity of Rohingyas’ is probably the most widely discussed topic regarding Rohingya repatriation. Myanmar government considers the Rohingya as British colonial and postcolonial migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. It argues that a distinct precolonial Muslim population is recognized as Kaman, and that the Rohingya conflate their history with the history of Arakan Muslims in general to advance a separatist agenda. In addition, Myanmar’s government does not recognize the term “Rohingya” and prefers to refer to the community as “Bengali”.

The term ‘Rohingya’ emerged from colonial and pre-colonial terms Rooinga and Rwangya. The Rohingya refer to themselves as Ruáingga /ruájnga/. In Burmese they are known as Rui Hang Gya, while in Bengali they are called Rohinga. The term “Rohingya” may come from Rakhanga or Roshanga, the words for the state of Arakan. The word Rohingya would then mean “inhabitant of Rohang”, which was the early Muslim name for Arakan. (Source: Wikipedia)

“A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire” by Francis Buchanan (1799), which was found and republished by Michael Charney in the ‘SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research’ in 2003, says, among the native groups of Arakan, there are the “Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan. The Classical Journal of 1811 identified “Rooinga” as one of the languages spoken in the “Burmah Empire”. In 1815, Johann Severin Vater listed “Ruinga” as an ethnic group with a distinct language in a compendium of languages published in German.

According to Jacques Leider, the Rohingya were referred to as “Chittagonians” during the British colonial period, and it was not controversial to refer to them as “Bengalis” until the 1990s. Leider also states that “there is no international consensus” on the use of the term Rohingya, as they are often called “Rohingya Muslims”, “Muslim Arakanese” and “Burmese Muslims”. Others, such as anthropologist Christina Fink, use Rohingya not as an ethnic identifier but as a political one. Leider believes the Rohingya is a political movement that started in the 1950s to create “an autonomous Muslim zone” in Rakhine. Nevertheless, the term Rohingya wasn’t widely used until the 1990s. (Source: Wikipedia)

Today the use of the name “Rohingya” is polarized. The government of Myanmar refuses to use the name. In the 2014 census, the Myanmar government forced the Rohingya to identify themselves as “Bengali”. Many Rohingya see the denial of their name similar to denying their basic rights, and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar has agreed. Jacques Leider writes that many Muslims in Rakhine simply prefer to call themselves “Muslim Arakanese” or “Muslims coming from Rakhine” instead of “Rohingya”.

Rohingyas can accept the term ‘Bengali-Burmese race’ in their National Registration Card (NRC) and accelerate repatriation process. In Myanmar, racial identities like, Indian-Burmese or Chinese-Burmese is a common issue. In Kolkata (India) their citizen’s racial identity is ‘Bengali’, which doesn’t mean that they are Bangladeshi. They are Indian citizen. Rohingyas can also accept ‘Bengali-Burmese’ racial identity in their NRC.

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