• Friday, December 19, 2014

Freedom in the air

The neglected citizens of Myanmar

Derek Tonkin

FAKHRUDDIN Ahmed rightly draws attention to the vital need to make Rohingya Muslims full citizens of Myanmar.

It is worth recalling that, under the terms of the Indo-Burma Agreement of October 1941, which was never ratified because of the Japanese invasion of Burma two months later, all Indians of whatever religion resident in the country at the time were either accorded the right of full "domicile" if they were born and bred in Burma, or allowed to remain as "privileged immigrants" if they had been in Burma for at least seven years, or permitted to remain indefinitely unless they left Burma "for any period".  

The 1931 Census (under British rule)  showed that of 186,327 "Chittagonians" enumerated in Arakan, 156,833 or 84% were indeed "born in" Burma, and this didn't include other Bengalis from wider afield in Bengal who like the Chittagonians had migrated into Burma after 1870. The British enumerated separately today's "Rohingya" (a term not used by the British) as indigenous (pre-1823) "Arakan Muslims" of whom there were 51,612. Also included were 117,151 Zerbaidi Muslims of mixed race, though mostly not pre-1823. But there were as well smaller numbers of undoubtedly indigenous Muslim communities like the Kaman and Myedu.

What this rich mosaic of Muslim residents of Arakan over the years shows however is that by the outbreak of the Second World War a majority were in fact migrants from Bengal after 1870. If  we were to enquire as to their race, it must be that most Rohingya today are Bengali by origin, even if they were those forcibly transported as slaves to Arakan in the 17th Century. But if we regard "race" as a static DNA-oriented concept, the dynamic ethnicity of Arakan Muslims today must be as they have identified themselves, that is, as "Rohingyas" based on their culture, dialect, environment and all those other attributes which create ethnicity.

The difficulty which the Rohingyas of today have met is that they need to deny their Bengali roots in order to qualify under the restrictive 1982 Citizenship Act. This denial leads them unfortunately to assert that they have no historical links at all with Bengal, which clearly is not the case.

Their claim to Myanmar nationality should be based on their status when Burma achieved independence, which was as British Subjects with full rights of legal residence in the country.

The writer is Editor, Network Myanmar

Published: 12:00 am Tuesday, September 02, 2014

TAGS: Rohingya issues Rohingya Muslims Rohingya Repression Bangladesh-Myanmar Rohingya refugees

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