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The R-word, and its ramifications

On 26 July, UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee issued a press statement at the conclusion of her first visit to Myanmar [Burma] in which she said that she was repeatedly told not to use the term “Rohingya” as this was not recognized by the government. Yet, as a human rights independent expert, she observed, “I am guided by international human rights law. In this regard, the rights of minorities to self-identify on the basis of their national, ethnic, religious and linguistic characteristics is related to the obligations of States to ensure non-discrimination against individuals and groups, which is a central principle of international human rights law. I also note that various human rights treaty bodies and intergovernmental bodies, including the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which I chaired for four years and of which I was a member for ten years, the [UN] Human Rights Council and the General Assembly use the term ‘Rohingya’.”

Most of us would agree that she was fully justified in making these remarks on the basis of her experience, and she might have added that several Western governments are of the same opinion. Yet might we perhaps pause to ponder on whether this matter is as uniquely principled as it at first sight seems? The British ambassador in Yangon [Rangoon] Andrew Patrick put the dilemma admirably in a recent interview with Mizzima Business Weekly: “Generally in the UK, and in Europe, ethnic groups are allowed to call themselves by the name they want to use, whether or not that name has any historic validity. Of course when we use it, that’s not to say we’re expecting some sort of special status or a recognition of the Rohingya as an ethnic group. That is for the Burmese parliament to decide. What I would say is that it’s obviously very important for that community to have the rights they are entitled to. And the government has made a commitment to ensure that everyone who is entitled to citizenship under the 1982 law gets that.”

A key phrase here is: “That is for the Burmese parliament to decide.” Another matter of principle is indeed involved. But does anyone doubt that if a vote were to be taken in the 664-seat Union Parliament on a Resolution to recognise “Rohingya” as the designation of an indigenous ethnic national group in Myanmar, it would be defeated overwhelmingly? Indeed, it is most unlikely that there would be more than a handful of votes in favour. We may regret that citizenship in Myanmar is based on ethnicity. But the international community should perhaps take note of the reality, and draw their own conclusions. There is no need to await a vote.

The right of self-identification

UK Foreign Office Deputy Legal Adviser Anthony Aust observed on Page 179 of his Handbook of International Law: “The law of each state primarily determines who are its nationals”. I cannot help wondering then whether there might be a conflict in the particular Myanmar context between international law on human rights and international law on citizenship. The human rights issue in relation to the designation ‘Rohingya’ is that individuals have the right of self-identification. As former UN Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana put it on 7 April, though less than mellifluously: “Self-identification should constitute a pillar of the collection of ethnically disaggregated data. It is related to respect for the rights of individuals to assert their own identity. To deny self-identification is therefore a violation of human rights.”

But what if the chosen identity is imposed from above? What if it is artificially contrived for political reasons, however seemingly justifiable? What if the individuals concerned, marginalised, poorly educated, desperate for citizenship, really have no choice in the matter? What if statements made concerning the origins of the identity lack all credibility? What if the alternative to accepting “Rohingya” ethnicity were to be ostracised in their own community? In such circumstances, does not an imposed identity also represent a violation of human rights?


It was disappointing that just prior to the recent census the Myanmar government reversed its decision and decided not to allow Arakan Muslims to designate themselves as “Rohingya” if they so wished. It was however in my view surprising that the government agreed to allow this in the first place, since the hostile reaction of the non-Muslim population in Rakhine [Arakan] State could have been predicted. None of the external criticisms levied against the authorities however took the likely reaction of the non-Muslim population into prior account. Nor did this criticism recognise that a failure to reverse their initial decision would most likely have resulted in serious instability and a census fiasco far more serious than what happened. The UN Population Fund and donors should perhaps have realised that pressuring the government to agree unreservedly to international standards might have unfortunate repercussions in the particular circumstances of Rakhine State. They had plenty of warning of the expected delicacy of the census operation and attendant risks.

 The term “Rohingya” totally unknown to the British administration

The origin of the designation “Rohingya” is at present almost impossible to establish. There are even so those who know, but are unlikely to tell us. There are no historical texts. There is general agreement that “Arakan” was in the past called by a variety of very similar names in the Bengali language, including Rohang, Rovingaw, Rossawn, Roang, Reng and Rung “for by all these names is Arakan called by the Bengalese” wrote Francis Buchanan surgeon, botanist, gazetteer and linguist in 1798. A comment he wrote in 1799 that he had in 1795 (*EDITOR: Not 1785 as originally reported) met a group of transported Arakan Muslims as a member of a British diplomatic mission to the Court of Ava who said they called themselves “Rooinga” is worshipped as quasi-divine revelation by those seeking to establish an historical record, though as I read his account Buchanan noted only that this term meant “natives of Arakan”, which is what they were. If you like, they were simply saying: “We come from Arakan, most noble sir, not from Bengal”.

In other articles I have pointed out that the designation “Rohingya” was completely unknown to the British who administered Arakan from 1826 to 1948. It is not to be found in any of the eight censuses compiled between 1872 and 1941. Nor does it appear in any gazetteers, reports or other official documents, nor yet in private reminiscences and correspondence. This total absence of any British record has readily been acknowledged by the Muslim politician U Kyaw Min, who was only released from prison in January 2012 and has a brilliant pedigree as a fighter for freedom and democracy, a former member of the Committee Representing the People’s Parliament during the dark days of the military regime, and currently chairman of the Democracy and Human Rights Party.

But U Kyaw Min went on to say: “Then what about some present-day Rakhine state ethnic peoples: Mramagyi and Dai-net who are also not found in British censuses?” The implication is that the British did not really know what was going on and could not even see the tens of thousands of “Rohingya” living under their very noses. It took me though less than a minute to discover that the “Daingnet” (to give the British spelling) were listed under “F4” in the Suk (Lui) Group in both the 1921 and 1931 Race Tables as resident in Akyab District, and a whole paragraph is devoted to them in Deputy Commissioner R.B. Smart’s 1917 Gazetteer for the district which encompassed both present-day Sittwe and Maungdaw districts. As for the Mramagyi, mostly a Bengal-resident minority which generally migrated from Arakan to Bengal some years before the Burmans arrived in 1785, these are the subject of an article by Francis Hamilton in the Edinburgh Journal of Science in 1824 and are discussed in the 1931 Census report under the designation “Barua” by which the Barua/Mramagyi are known in Bengal. These were, incongruously I admit, enumerated as “Chittagonian Buddhists” in the census, but they were there: little escaped the British colonial eye, though they may occasionally have misinterpreted what they saw.

Another argument put forward to explain the absence of any references to “Rohingya” is to assert that Chittagonians enumerated in the 1911, 1921 and 1931 censuses were not permanent residents of Arakan, but only casual, seasonal labourers who just happened to be in Arakan when the censuses were taken, towards the end of the rice harvest. The intention behind this argument is to “de-Indianise” Rakhine Muslims so far as possible by denying their Bengali ancestry and intensifying their indigenous character. Successive British censuses however, as well as other official reports, give a very clear picture of the steady decline of seasonal labour from Chittagong after the turn of the century and the increasing permanent settlement of both Chittagonians and Bengalis (from wider afield in Bengal) in Arakan. Indeed, casual labour was thought by British officials in 1940 to have declined to no more than 20,000 annually.

In the 1931 census, of 104,769 Chittagonian males and 81,558 females enumerated, 80,680 males and 76,153 females gave their birthplace as Burma  which represents just over 84 percent of all Arakan resident Chittagonians born and bred in the country. They had absolutely no reason to give an untruthful answer as there were no border controls at the time between Bengal and Arakan and they could come and go as they pleased. They represent surely the bulk of the “Rohingya” of today. Almost all Chittagonians in Arakan would have qualified for permanent domicile under an agreement reached with the British government of India in 1941 just before the outbreak of war.

The forlorn quest for the origins of the R-word

If then there is no textual evidence for “Rohingya” prior to independence in 1948, where did the designation originate? Jacques Leider, who is recognised by many as the leading academic authority in this field, has prepared a consummate and succinct analysis of the possible origins of the designation. In this analysis he quotes the Rakhine scholar Khin Maung Saw who contributed a paper to an international conference in Berlin in 1993 at the Humboldt University in which he identified no fewer than five, mutually exclusive and somewhat fanciful pretensions advanced for the origins of “Rohingya”, but for none of which there was any actual textual evidence, only folklore, surmise and speculation. One of his versions is “‘Roewengya”, which was much favoured by the Muslim banker and scholar U Ba Tha, who seems though eventually to have acquiesced in “Rohingya”, no doubt in the interests of presenting a common narrative among Muslims.

Khin Maung Saw’s sixth suggestion is that it might be a hybrid English word thought up by opponents of the regime during the jihadist years which started in 1949, who included the Red Flag Communists. Like Khin Maung Saw, I suspect that “Rohingya” might be a purely synthetic creation with no natural etymology, an attractive concoction nonetheless because it contains the element “Rohang” which means “Arakan” in Bengali. By the 1950s the Burmese government had taken note of the designation and ever so cautiously made a few, though isolated references to the new description in official papers and speeches, while allowing “Rohingya” dialect broadcasts for a time in the Burmese Overseas Service. This indulgence soon disappeared however after Gen. Ne Win’s coup in March 1962.

The issue now facing the international community against the background I have described and which I believe to represent the historical truth, is to decide how we are to refer to Rakhine Muslims who wish to be known as “Rohingya”. I stand by my earlier conclusion that if they wish to identify themselves as “Rohingya” by ethnicity – as opposed to race – we should not attempt to dissuade them. Unfortunately, any statement which denies their Bengali roots may not advance their prospects of citizenship.

At issue are three concepts: race, ethnicity and nationality. In English, these three terms have quite distinct meanings. In Burmese, race and ethnicity tend to be expressed in the single term lu myo [literally “person type”] and this may cause problems when the matter is discussed in Burmese. So far as race is concerned – a static, historical concept based on DNA and shared physical characteristics – most Arakan Muslims (including indigenous groups like the Kaman and those known to the British as Zerbaidi, Myedu and Yakaing-kala) have migrated from India over the centuries and originate mainly from Bengal, so that in that sense it is not unreasonable to describe their race (but not their ethnicity) as primarily “Bengali”. Up to the outbreak of the Second World War, not a single Muslim was an illegal immigrant and most could trace their arrival back at least two or three generations, and in some cases two or three centuries or more. All would have qualified for Burma domicile, but for the Japanese invasion. Their present ethnicity however – defined by a dynamic sense of common ancestry, based on culture, language, kinship and environment – clearly needs redefinition.

It would seem that Chittagonian migration into Arakan has swamped other Muslim ethnicities which have been subsumed in if not arrogated by those who arrived in the 20th century. The Bengali origins of the mass of present-day “Rohingya” are effectively denied. In this context, it is worthy of note that US Secretary of State John Kerry is reported to have raised the matter of the description of Rakhine Muslims as “illegal Bengalis” so often used by the Myanmar authorities, a description which is historically inaccurate. “To force any community to accept a name they consider to be offensive is to invite conflict, and if the goal is to prevent conflict, then it’s better to set that aside”, an official is quoted as saying, no doubt reflecting the words John Kerry himself had used. On the other hand, I would not agree that: “The name issue should be set aside”, as the official is also reported to have said. Frankly, it needs to be confronted.

In this obscure and unhappy situation, where might a solution lie? It should be recalled that Myanmar leaders have referred from time to time to the principle of citizenship over three generations. Gen. Ne Win himself did so when presenting a preview of the much criticised 1982 Citizenship Act. So did President Thein Sein when discussing the Rohingya issue with UNHCR Antonio Guterres in July 2012 (Burmese text only), at which the suggestion was also made that the UNHCR might wish to resolve the problem by resettling the entire “Rohingya” population. Might not the “three generations” principle provide a basis for eventual resolution of the citizenship issue?

In the meantime, Western politicians and international representatives might reflect when using the R-word. Its use is not helpful to Western agencies and NGOs seeking to re-establish their positions in Arakan and to give aid and support to both Muslim and Rakhine communities. The R-word does not create a climate of reconciliation, nor does it assist Rakhine Muslims to make progress towards citizenship. John Kerry was right to regret the use of “illegal Bengalis” to describe the Rakhine Muslims. But is the West in its turn right to use the word “Rohingya” which is offensive to many Burmese?

Generally, the West has been led up the garden path by very effective international lobbying, and only now are they starting to realise how counterproductive this has been in their quest to provide practical aid and support to a community which has suffered such appalling discrimination and misfortune over the years.

Further reading: Jacques Leider: Rohingya – The name, the movement, the quest for identity


Derek Tonkin is the editor of Network Myanmar and a former British Ambassador to Thailand.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.


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