Mrauk U, Myanmar – For years in Myanmar, if Kyaw Hla Maung, a historian, were to roll up his sleeves and bare his arms he might have been arrested. His arms are tattooed with an unusual a script with vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines and clusters of dots, the ancient Brahmi language of the Rakhine or Arakanese people from Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
“I had to wear shirts with long sleeves,” he said. “Even if it was a hot day I still wore a long shirt so I wouldn’t get caught.”
The Rakhine people, one of the 135 officially recognised ethnic minority groups that live in Myanmar, were forbidden from speaking their language or studying their history from 1962 under a forced assimilation policy. However, since 2015 some schools have allowed the teaching of mother-tongue languages as a second language.
So, Kyaw Hla Maung chose not to record his teachings on paper but instead tattooed the consonants and vowels of one of the ancient Brahmi script on his skin.
Last year, Rakhine State made headlines around the world because of a military crackdown, which forced more than 600,000 Rohingya into neighbouring Bangladesh. The Rakhine consider the Rohingya outsiders from Bangladesh, and in some cases, have participated in the violence against them.
What is less known is that the Rakhine people also have a history of being oppressed – by the Burmese military, which enforced a rule of ‘Burmanisation’ or forcing the culture of the Burmese people on the country’s various ethnic groups, many of whom have been at war with the central government since Myanmar’s independence from the British.
Kyaw Hla Maung wants to revive the teaching of the state’s history and study of the Rakhine language.
The 64-year-old believes that learning about the history of different ethnic and religious groups in the state is important to rebuilding peace, especially with the Rohingya.
Kyaw Hla Maung, 64, looks more like a rock star than a historian. Dressed in a navy fitted top and flared pants, he now works as a tour guide trainer in Mrauk U, the ancient seat of the Rakhine kingdom.
While the Rakhine language is now openly used and widely spoken, teachers usually volunteer to teach language classes after hours in schools. Government schools and colleges still only allow the Burmese language to be taught.
Under the military rule, a policy of “Burmanisation” resulted in the adoption of Burmese as the official language and schools across the country were forced to implement it. Ethnic language teaching was banned in public schools for four decades.
Kyaw Hla Maung said he was taught Rakhine language and history by his father, grandfather and local historian, Oo Tha Htun, whom he proudly calls his ‘grand master’.
“I did my learning deep in the forest because if soldiers or police came, there was lots of problems for us,” he said.
In the jungle, not far from the ruins of Mrauk U, they taught him how to read stone inscriptions telling the history of the different periods of Rakhine history – Dhanyawadi, Vesali, Le Mro and Mrauk U – as well as traditional songs such as “Buddha pujarniya”, about previous reigning kings.
The lessons came to an abrupt halt when Oo Tha Htun was arrested in 1990 and later died in prison in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine. Kyaw Hla Maung believes his teacher was arrested for a speech he made about Rakhine oppression under the Burmese government.
After Oo Tha Htun’s death, Kyaw Hla Maung, afraid of forgetting his grandfather’s teachings, tattooed the Brahmi script on his arms.
The script is key to reading the stone inscriptions around the Mrauk U archaeological zone as it was used by the first of the four dynastic eras of Rakhine State, the Dhanyawadi dynasty, around the mid 4th-century.
The Mrauk U kingdom was known as the golden age of Rakhine. It was a thriving multi-ethnic and multi-faith court that ruled over Rakhine from the 14th to the 18th century. The capital, Mrauk U, was once an important trading hub frequented by Portuguese, Dutch, Armenian, Arab and Persian traders.
From across the sea, the influence of Bengal also resulted in a distinct Muslim influence in Buddhist architecture, and Mrauk U rulers minted coins in both Arabic and Arakanese.
The people of Rakhine enjoyed prosperity up until the late 18th century when the Mrauk U empire was annexed by the Burmese Konbaung Dynasty, and many Rakhine people were taken prisoner.
The British arrived in Burma in the 19th century, bringing with them tens of thousands of migrant labourers from Bengal to work in paddy fields, creating tension with the local population in the Rakhine state. Historians, however, say the Rohingya’s history goes as far back as the eighth century.
Mrauk U has remained a relatively peaceful city compared with the rest of Rakhine State with majority Buddhists co-existing with people from other faiths and ethnicities.
Apart from the Rakhine and Rohingya, Mro, Chin, Dynet and Thet ethnic minorities have lived in Rakhine State for centuries.
In today’s Myanmar, Rakhine State is one of the poorest regions in the country, riven by ethnic tensions and several conflicts, including one by the Arakan Army, a Rakhine armed group at war with the military for “self-determination of the multi-ethnic Arakanese population”.
Local Rakhine communities and politicians continue to be excluded from the planning and execution of large-scale investment projects such as the gargantuan oil and gas project at Kyawkpyuh. Arakan Watch, a campaign group, has objected, claiming that the profits are going to the central government rather than local communities.
Some in the Rohingya community, who are denied citizenship and barred from accessing healthcare and education, took up arms following years of persecution at the hands of the army.
Burmese security forces, in response to attacks by Rohingya fighters in August, have killed at least 6,700 Rohingya and set fire to entire villages. Doctors have also treated injuries consistent with violent attacks, recording several incidents of rape of Rohingya women and girls as they fled to Bangladesh.
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN human rights chief, said the persecution of the Rohingya may amount to genocide.
Myanmar’s government, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has so far ignored widespread international calls for an impartial and independent investigation.
Kyaw Hla Maung is sad to see his state mired in such a brutal conflict.
“I do accept the Rohingya as human beings who deserve to live peacefully in Myanmar because they have been living together with Myanmar nationalities peacefully for a long time,” he said.
“I am sorry to see this [violence against the Rohingya]…this is the doing of the Burma security forces, who won’t let peace return in Rakhine State,” he said, noting the army continues to suppress Rakhine residents as well.
Most recently, on January 16, soldiers fired on a protest held in Mrauk U to mark the end of the Rakhine kingdom in 1784, killing seven demonstrators.
Kyaw Hla Maung believes that recent bloody attack is an assault on Rakhine culture and history. He says that the Rakhine ethnic people can’t speak freely about their culture, history and issues that Rakhine people face.
“We need to rediscover our history,” he said.
He has just finished drafting a book merging his family’s oral traditions with studies of stone inscriptions. His hope is that he can at least start a conversation within his community about uncovering local history and acknowledging the plural interpretations that exist among different minority groups.
“It [local history] is not forgotten, it’s not lost, but actually it is ‘hidden,’ because the government hides it.”