Muslim Imaginaire and Rohingya Ideology

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North Arakan’s Muslim leaders believed that the best way to escape a Buddhist-dominated administration would be to obtain a separate status for the area, in which Muslims would form a majority. Yet their vision of territorial autonomy and cultural self-expression was not inclusive, as it disregarded the voices of other Muslim communities in Arakan. They cut across this diversity by defining an encompassing Muslim identity called Rohingya, which included the majority of Muslims in past and present Arakan—with the sole exception of the tiny Kaman minority, which had its own genealogy harking to the 17th century. By drawing on colonial authors who referred to Portuguese and Dutch sources containing information about the economic and political roles of Muslims in the Mrauk U kingdom, the Bengali literary heritage of Mrauk U’s 17th-century court, and legendary stories, Rohingya writers imagined a historical Muslim community that they tried to condense into a coherent historical account.

The novel Rohingya narrative was enabled by two instances of intellectual production: first, the appraisal of the Muslim heritage in Arakan by colonial authors; and second, the efforts of two Arakanese Muslims who endorsed Arakan’s traditional Islam by embedding it into a historical Burmese context. In the late 1940s, Muhammad Khalilur Rahman’s Tarikh-i-Islam: Arakan aur Burma (1944) and Azadi G. Hasan’s Qaum-i-halat-i-musulmanane Burma wa Rakhine (1946), both written in Urdu, linked the Arakanese Muslims with the history of Burma’s Muslims for the first time.32

The historical approach of the Rohingya was entirely different, as they promoted the Rohingya identity as one of Muslims in Arakan on the basis not of a shared culture, but of a localized ethnicity. To do so, citing proof of relatively late source material appeared to be insufficient. An arrival of Arab and Persian ancestors in the first millennium ce, therefore, was derived from legendary stories, Muslim lore, and Arakanese chronicles. Later Rohingya writers argued that Rohingyas qualify as the descendants of the early inhabitants of the country, who used Sanskrit for their inscriptions, thus preceding the arrival of the ethnically Tibeto-Burman Arakanese. Such assertions have provoked the ire of Buddhists, whose religious self-identity is rooted in similar beliefs about Aryan ancestors.

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For the Muslims of Arakan, the originality of the Rohingya narrative lay in its streamlined account of the past. Such an account did away with regional ethnic and cultural connections while lending ideological support to the Rohingyas’ ethnic claims, which were meant to make them acceptable in Burma. These claims ultimately failed—but, since the late 1950s, the historical narrative generated by the Rohingyas has contributed to a dynamics of ethnification that has furthered a Muslim group identity in the face of the authoritarian military rule, as well as in the diaspora.

Defining Rohingyas as an ethnic group that existed since antiquity was problematic, but it was posited as a historical certainty and saturated with the thick cultural meanings of an imagined collective past. In the 1950s, the Rohingyas were not fighting to be acknowledged as citizens, as the 1947 constitution indeed offered them access; rather, they wanted to be accepted as a national race (taingyintha) so that they could claim their own territory. Only acceptance as a native community could pave the road to a constitutional recognition of ethnicity and national belonging. As Nick Cheesman argues in his analysis of how the Rohingyas failed to be included in national races, “the surpassing symbolic and juridical power of taingyintha [national race] is at once their problem and their solution.”33 By arguing from early on that they were a taingyintha population, the Rohingyas conformed to Burma’s postindependence citizenship paradigm (the “solution”), but they faced an insurmountable challenge: to base their argument on historical claims, which were rejected by the authoritarian regime and were exceedingly difficult to prove.

Despite a show of acceptance during the brief MFA period, neither the authoritarian Burmese governments since 1962 nor any ethnic communities were ready to recognize the Rohingyas as a native community. In the early 21st century, the concept of taingyintha became even more entrenched in political parlance and a clear divider between “us” and “them.” The detrimental effects of this political essentialization of ethnicity will be dealt with in the next section. The rest of this section will survey Rohingya historical writings, from their approach toward local Muslim history to their increasingly dogmatic turn.

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Mohammad A. Tahir Ba Tha’s seminal Short History of the Rohingyas and Kamans of Burma (1963) rooted Rohingya historical identity in the first-millennium Hindu–Buddhist culture by interpreting a reference to a shipwreck of people from the west (kala) in an Arakanese Buddhist chronicle as evidence of the arrival of Arab and Persian traders.34 This was an original claim made independently of reliable external knowledge about the spread of Islam in the Bay of Bengal.35 Ba Tha further linked this appearance of Muslims to the foundation of Vesali. Yet the dating of Vesali, an early urban site in Arakan’s Kaladan Valley, remains uncertain, with scholarly estimates varying between the 4th and the 8th centuries ce. As he situated Rohingya roots within a distant past, Ba Tha connected the local Muslims to a prestigious Middle Eastern background and a well-known historical site in Arakan.

In the same vein, the assertion that Rohingyas were a mix of early Arabs and Persians with Afghans, Bengalis, Mughals, and other Muslims from around the Indian Ocean became part of a mainstream narrative that created new and untested cultural certainties. However, Rohingya writers did not include the most likely ethnic mix—namely, Arakanese-Bengali intermarriage—a fact noted in the British census records to explain the origins of the old Arakanese Muslim community.

Colonial scholarship on Arakan, though quite limited in its scope, provided another important input for Muslims to discover past identities. Arthur P. Phayre’s early work on Arakanese history and D. G. E. Hall’s exploration of Dutch sources pioneered an understanding of the social, economic, and political roles of Muslims in Arakan.36 It also led some authors to overstate the role of the Muslims. In his History of Arakan—Past and Present (1994), Mohammed Yunus expressed the idea that the Mrauk U kingdom had virtually been a sultanate and suggested that Muslims had outnumbered the local Buddhists before the Burmese conquest of 1785.37

Neither Ba Tha nor those who followed him discussed the more recent history of Muslim communities. They disregarded the Chittagonian labor migrations and ignored the British census records. This effort to de-Indianize their recent ethnic credentials for political reasons left a huge narrative gap in Rohingya accounts between the end of the Arakanese monarchy in 1785 and the ethnic violence in 1942.

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The political movement of the 1960s lost its traction when many educated Rohingyas left or were pushed out of Arakan in the 1970s. Since that time, the project of Rohingya self-representation and political struggle has been taken up largely by the diaspora in Bangladesh. The foundation of the Arakan Historical Society in Chittagong in 1975 marked a key moment of this transition. The writings of Mohammed Yunus, A. F. K. Jilani, and Mohammed Ashraf, produced in Bangladesh, subordinated the interpretation of the past to the militants’ goal of restoring an autonomous Muslim area. Like the Rohingya refugees, however, the Rohingya rebels remained internationally isolated until the late 1990s. Neither Libya, nor Saudi Arabia, nor the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has provided substantial support.

The Rohingya Muslim narrative, starved of intellectual innovation in the meantime, contributed to the Rohingya militants’ often-hyperbolic discourse from the 1960s to the 1990s. As the Bangladeshi historian Abdul Karim stated in 2000, even the definition of the Rohingyas sounds like a terse and bloodless article of faith: “The Rohingyas … are descendants of those who have been settling there in Arakan from a thousand years before … and above all … form a homogeneous group.”38 In Myanmar, on the other hand, U Kyaw Min (aka Abu Anin), a Rohingya political leader, has tried to bring interpretations of Rohingya identity in line with the current state of historical knowledge.39

Myanmar state harassment and persecution, described in the next section, have become increasingly prominent themes around the world in public discourse concerning Rohingyas, and also in Rohingya self-representations of their own identity, reflecting their experience of torment and exclusion by the Myanmar government and their isolation from other groups in the country. That isolation has been further aggravated by Rohingya political efforts to portray their own community as being more unified internally than seems justified historically based on the available records.40