Locating the Rohingya in time and space

On the Rohingya, history, identity and belonging.

Rohingya [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]
The question of the Rohingya is not merely connected to human rights issues, but also to the issue of civil rights including the right to self-identification, writes Iqbal [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

Clarifying on its nomenclature, the Annan Commission Report on the Rakhine (Arakan) State (pdf), notes that “In line with the request of the State Counsellor [Mrs Aung San Suu Kyi], the Commission uses neither the term ‘Bengali’ nor ‘Rohingya’, who are referred to as ‘Muslims’ or ‘the Muslim community in Rakhine”.

This left the Commission with the only option of referring to the crisis in Rakhine from the vantage point of universal human rights, rather than the question of historical antecedents. Yet the request from Suu Ki and the Commission’s compliance to not mention the terms “Bengali” or “Rohingya” will stand against future measures to implement the Commission’s recommendations for restoring citizenship to the Rohingyas.

This is because the question of the Rohingya is not merely connected to human rights issues, but also to the issue of civil rights including the right to self-identification. The bone of contention for the Myanmar military and the country’s State Council is that the Rohingyas are “Bengalis” from Bangladesh who speak Bangla language. How may we respond to this claim that would bring stakeholders from Bangladesh, Myanmar and International community closer for a durable solution to the crisis? Answers to this question abound in different phases of the region’s history.

Rakhine before decolonisation: From a cosmopolitan society to national space

The history of Rakhine is rich and greatly connected to Arab-Persian cultural world since at least the early 8th century and with Bengal/Bangladesh region from much earlier times. Muslim Sufis and traders had interactions with the coastal regions of what is today’s Bangladesh and Rakhine and all the way to the Indian Ocean rim of wider Southeast Asia. Conversion to Islam took place in areas that fall within the current borders of both Myanmar and Bangladesh. In 1406, the Rakhine king Nara Meikhla was dethroned by an invading Bamar/Burmese force and was driven to Bengal. He was later able to regain his throne with the help of 30,000 soldiers sent by the Bengal Sultan, Jalal al Din. Rakhine kings used to send tribute to Bengal Muslim Sultans for a considerable period of time. However, during the transition period between the decline of independent Muslim rulers of Bengal and the arrival of the Mughals from northern India, Bangladesh’s port city Chittagong came under the Rakhine rulers for some time.

READ MORE: Myanmar: Who are the Rohingya?

Despite these political changes, Rakhine developed a cosmopolitan culture that retained Buddhist as well as Muslim and Hindu pedigree. Rakhine kings issued coins that contained the imprint of the Buddha and the Kalema, the fundamental article of faith in Islam, until early seventeenth century. Medieval forms of Bengali literature were patronised in this cosmopolitan atmosphere where Pali, Arabic and Persian were also in vogue. Poet Alalol from today’s Bangladesh, who was kidnapped by Portuguese pirates and sold in Rakhine as a slave, ended up being a court poet in the capital of Rakhine, where he was patronised by many Muslim ministers of Buddhist kings. Alaol in his poems written in mid-seventeenth century introduced Rosango, a variant of the term Rohango (Rohingya), as the capital city of Rakhine.

The early postcolonial policy of the Burmese government towards the Rohingya was consistent with the pluralistic cultural and religious heritage of Myanmar and inclusive national vision of Aung San, Suu Kyi's illustrious father.


Meanwhile, the Bamars kept knocking at the borders of Rakhine and finally captured its throne in 1784, leaving the Rakhine people, of both Buddhist and Muslim origin, to face unprecedented persecution in their ancestral land. Most of them fled to Chittagong region across the Naaf river. While some of them returned to Rakhine, some stayed behind who are still known as Rakhine Buddhists, currently numbering more than 100,000. They are now Bangladeshi citizens and Bangladesh has never suggested their ouster because of their ancestry in Myanmar.

It needs mentioning that despite initial persecution of local Rakhine people by the Bamar forces, there were also the gradual realisation of the need of the support and engagement of local people, including the Muslims. One example was that until the British took over Burma in early nineteenth century, the Burmese king had given charge of the Port of Rangoon (Yangon) to a Muslim merchant.

The British period saw a different kind of mobility across today’s Bangladesh-Myanmar border, which was more of a planned mobilisation of people from all over India, Bengalis from Chittagong being the majority who were involved in professional, commercial and agricultural activities. By the 1930s however, the Bengalis, as well as other Indian diasporic communities, came into conflict with local inhabitants and with the coming of the Japanese during the World War sealed the fate of the Indians in Burma, most of whom had to return to India and Bengal under strenuous conditions. Those few who left behind were clearly distinguished from local Rohingya people.

Postcolonial period: From citizen to stateless

The early postcolonial policy of the Burmese government towards the Rohingya was consistent with the pluralistic cultural and religious heritage of Myanmar and inclusive national vision of Aung San, Suu Kyi’s illustrious father.

The Muslims of Rakhine including the Rohingyas were no longer living in the rich political and social heritage of precolonial times, but there was no question about their place in Burma’s mainstream public life. In the two general elections of 1951 and 1956, at least eleven Rohingyas, including women, returned to Burmese Parliament as MPs.

IN PICTURES: Rohingya refugees search for shelter in Bangladesh

During the 1990 general election that followed the anti-military resistance led by Suu Kyi, Rohingyas were her political allies and won four seats for her National Democratic League for Human Rights. But in the next stage of the unfinished journey to democracy in Myanmar, the paths of Suu Kyi and her erstwhile Rohingya allies diverged tragically. As of 2017, no Rohingyas could vote and there is no Rohingya MPs left in Myanmar. There is no instance in the world where after decades of experience of citizenship and of exercising the rights to electing their representative to parliament an entire population becomes stateless without security to life, property and honour, except of course in Nazi Germany. It’s an irony that Suu Kyi’s ascendancy to Myanmar statecraft coincides with the collateral destruction of her erstwhile political allies.

The current problem of the Rohingyas, resulting in occasional “genocidal” atrocities on them, is traced back to the 1982 “Burma Citizenship Law” that enabled the revocation of citizenship of the Rohingyas, excluding them from the pool of 135 recognised ethnic groups across Myanmar. But the law came as an utter shock and surprise, given the positive developments in the preceding years. In the middle of a renewed spell of the flow of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, heads of states of the two countries had exchanged state visits before the signing of a historic “Repatriation Agreement” in Dhaka on 9 July 1978. In the agreement, the Burmese government promised the “repatriation at the earliest of the lawful residents of Burma” and also to repatriate those who were “able to furnish evidences of their residence in Burma, such as addresses or any other particulars”. 

Under this agreement the Burmese government launched the Hintha project which oversaw the repatriation of more than 29,000 families comprising 177,000 refugees from Bangladesh to their former places of residence. The current practice of burning the habitat and homestead of the Rohingyas by the Burmese security forces seems to aim at preemptively forestalling any chance of return of the Rohingyas as Myanmar citizens in light of the agreement of 1978.

What’s next?

The Annan Commission was formed at the request of Aung San Suu Kyi and Bangladesh government agreed on most of its recommendations. This initial consensus must build on the recognition of the Rohingya identity – because seen either in historical, political, legislative or diplomatic antecedents, the Rohingyas cannot be considered as anything but the citizens of Myanmar. True, as many commentators suggest, there are other powerful agents that complicate the situation. The idea of liberal democratic practice drawing on cosmopolitan and pluralistic world views may not find an easy place in this quagmire where geo-strategy, trade routes and pipelines call the shots.

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But taking away one’s honour is not going to solve the existential threat posed to the Rohingyas. What it all takes is the pressing of the softer button of goodwill, empathy and justice. Who has the hand on this button is not clear to those outside Myanmar, but there are two clear paths of other kinds for Mrs Suu Kyi which can set a positive tone in the current situation and taking up one of them can secure her rightful place in history.

Both Gautama Buddha and the Emperor Ashoka were tormented by the existential sufferings, bloodshed and death in society. Buddha renounced all earthly ambition because he found no path higher than the path of ending these sufferings of humanity through annihilation of desire. On the other hand, the great Ashoka, who spread Buddhism in Myanmar among other places, consolidated and used his power in order to spread the word and practice of non-violence. Mrs Suu Kyi may wish to let the world know, sooner than later, about her own pathfinder: Gautama Buddha or Ashoka? Anything shorter than that would be equal to an aggression on the very core of Buddhism itself.

Rohingya and 
Rohingya and 

Iftekhar Iqbal is a historian at the University of Dhaka. His research interests include connected histories of South and Southeast Asia. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.