“Our rooftop was filled with dried food
The pasture was filled with harvest and chillies
We came to Bangladesh leaving behind what we have
Thought Muslims will embrace us with care and love
How hard we tried to live in Burma, How long we've waited to go back
Now memories floated adrift when we look back to the east….”
(translated from a Rohingya song)
Ayesha Begum (not her real name), a middle aged Rohingya refugee, was singing this Tarana (a form of folk song) on the sea beach of Shamlapur, Cox's Bazar. Time has passed her by all that remains are frustration and insecurity for her life.
There is a misconception that Rohingyas do not have their own identity, history and culture. The mainstream media, researchers and political institutions of Myanmar have always tried to deny their ethnic identity, terming them as migrants of Chittagong. And in Bangladesh, they are known as refugees from Myanmar. These baseless, unproven claims and fixed ideas about the Rohingyas as a history-less people is what gives the powers that be in Myanmar the pretext to reject this community, forcing them to flee their homes and leaving without a state to call their own.
The Rohingyas are the Muslims of the Mayu frontier area, present day Buthidaung, and Maungdaw towns of Rakhine State, an isolated province in the western part of Myanmar across the Naaf River. However, they also live in other parts of Arakan. Geopolitically, Chittagong and the Rakhine State share a few common features ranging from phonetic similarity with Rohingyas to behaviour and religion. And this similarity makes their identity more complex in their own country.
The Burma citizenship law 1982 declared that the Rohingyas came after 1823 AD under the guidance of British rulers. Thus, Burma denied the Rohingyas' citizenship using the power of section 4 and persecuted them, forcing them to leave the country. Historical facts, however, see no truth in such claims.
Ayesha Begum is not aware of historical facts or about the citizenship law that rejects her as a citizen of Myanmar. She had only heard stories about the origin of the Rohingya people from her grandmother. Her grandmother had told her that at least a thousand years ago, an Arab ship was wrecked on the shores of Arakan. The helpless sailors went to the Arakan court for help and the king offered them jobs in the royal army. Gradually, the Arab soldiers became a favourite of the court because of their honesty and integrity. “And the king gave them the title of Rowanhnya, which means 'people who are honest, kind and live in their own society',” says Ayesha with a sense of pride.
If we were to look at historical facts, Arakan and Chittagong constituted the same economic and political zone for a long time. However, when Chittagong annexed to the Mughal territory in 1666, Portuguese pirates and the Arakan army frequently attacked the city, looting the local people living in the coastal belt. Mughal historian Shiahabuddin Talish in his book "The Frengi Pirates of Chatagaon" noted that "only the Portuguese pirates sold their captives and the Arakan King employed all of their prisoners in agriculture and other kind of services."
Besides, a small group of Muslim gentry served as scribes in the royal court of Arakan during the Mrauk-U dynasty. Even though poets and officials were few, their influence in the Arakani administration was significant. This was when Alaol and other such poets, originating from Arakanese slaves, pioneered medieval Arakani literature.
Interestingly, the King of Mrauk-U dynasty (1430 to 1784), despite being a Buddhist follower, adopted some Muslim fashions. The kings started maintaining silver coins with Persian titles and even dressed in Persian costumes occasionally. Thus during the Mrauk-U dynasty, there was a great degree of contact between Arakan's Mrohaung city and Bengal.
However after the Burmese invasion in Arakan by King Bodawphaya in 1784, the Free State lost its independence and the occupation followed ruthless oppression on the Arakanese. Many Arakanese fled to the British ruled Bengal. The report of British surveyor Francis Buchanan provides a vivid picture of the atrocities in his report compiled in a book "Francis Buchanan in southeast Bengal (1798)," noted that "Puran (an Arakan origin Police officer posted in Coxs Bazar) says that, in one day soon after the conquest of Arakanthe, Burmans put 40,000 men to death: that wherever they found a pretty woman, they took her after killing the husband; and the young girls they took without any consideration of their parents, and thus deprived these poor people of the property, by which in Eastern India the aged most commonly support their infirmities. Puran seemed to be terribly afraid that the Government of Bengal will be forced to give up to the Burmans all the refugees from Arakan."
From British records and notes of travellers, a large number of people took shelter in adjacent areas of the Naaf River when they were subjected to inexplicable torture under the Burmese reign. The government of Bengal provide them the status of refugees and the British policy was to encourage them to cut forests and start agricultural development. According to Professor Ratan Lal Chakraborty of Dhaka University, most refugees never went back to their own country, as he termed Cox's Bazar as "an Arakani dominated area".
According to historians, the Arab sailors married or had affairs with local Dravidian, typically dark skinned people, forming the primary nucleus of the Rohingya people as we know them today. In other words, this was the first wave of the typical Rohingya population formation in southern Arakan. The other great wave of Rohingya formation was the Bengali and Persian settlements in Arakan under the rein of the King Narameikhla (reigned 1404–34) of Arakan in the beginning of 1430. During the 16th and 17th century, massive deportation of Bengalis from lower Bengal to Arakan also led to an increase in Rohingya population.
Various studies have shed much light on the economic life of the Mrauk-U kingdom, the importance of the slave and rice trade, and the importance of Muslim and Portuguese mercenaries in Arakan.
The facts contradict with the claim of Myanmar's citizenship law, which claims that the Rohingyas entered Burma after the Anglo-Burmese war of 1824. It is this unethical claim that was responsible for Aysha Begum and thousand others like her to become homeless in their own state, as they continue to be on the run even now, unable to call either Myanmar or Bangladesh their home.
The three-part issue on Rohingyas will conclude next week.