Who are the Rohingya anyway?

Dissecting Myanmar’s ‘Bengali-Burmese’ narrative and what it means for the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees

The racial identity of the Rohingya is probably the most widely discussed topic regarding the repatriation issue. The Myanmar government considers the Rohingya as British colonial and post-colonial migrants from neighboring Bangladesh. It argues that a distinct pre-colonial 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/ɾuájŋɡa. 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.

"A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire" by Francis Buchanan, 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 Burma 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." He writes that even many Muslims in Rakhine prefer to call themselves "Muslim Arakanese" or "Muslims coming from Rakhine" instead of Rohingya.

Others, such as anthropologist Christina Fink, use Rohingya not as an ethnic identifier but as a political one. Fink 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. 

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 as similar to denying their basic rights, and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar has agreed. 

The Rohingya could accept the term "Bengali-Burmese race" in their National Registration Card (NRC) and accelerate the repatriation process. In Myanmar, racial identities like, Indian-Burmese or Chinese-Burmese are common. The racial identity of citizens in Kolkata is also Bengali, but that doesn't mean they are Bangladeshi. They are Indian citizens. 

The Rohingya should leave no stone unturned to return to their motherland. If this can open the door to repatriation, they should welcome it. The price they're paying is too high. Decades after decades they have been suffering. Killing, raping, burning their homes, ethnic cleansing etc. every crime has been committed against them. 

Millions were forced to leave their homeland. Those still living in Rakhine, are facing restrictions on their freedom of movement, access to state education and civil service jobs -- it is as though they are living in imprisonment. Not only that, thousands of new-born children of the Rohingya in different refugee camps in different countries are moving towards an uncertain future and a state-less identity.

Their Bengali-Burmese ethnic identity does not mean that the Rohingya are not Myanmar nationals. Rather, it will eliminate one point of difference between the Myanmar government and the Rohingya community. The other demands of the Rohingya like nationality, freedom of movement, political participation etc, can be discussed and solved. But for that, the Rohingya must return to their country and fight for their rights. Taking refuge in another country renders any protest by them meaningless. 

On the other hand, as it is historically proven that the Rohingya Muslims are an integral part of Myanmar, the Myanmar government should not deny their citizenship. They can repatriate the Rohingya and then talk with them regarding their other demands. This will help them gain some international support. 

The decade-long suppression of the Rohingya must come to an end. It's our humanitarian duty to stand with them. An "ethnic cleansing" by the Burmese military must not be allowed to succeed. 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 honor.