Rohingya of the Arakan: Conflict, Crisis and Solutions

This is a book review of Rohingya of the Arakan: Conflict, Crisis and Solutions by Nurul Islam (The Other Press, Kuala Lumpur, Paperback, 1st ed., 2022).

The Rohingyas of Myanmar are a stateless people who are denied citizenship rights in the Buddhist-majority Myanmar simply because of their distinct ‘otherness’ in race, culture, and religion. As a result, nearly 2.5 million Rohingyas, representing roughly 75% of the community, now live as refugees in various parts of our world. Those living inside Myanmar are treated as an unwanted people who are victims of genocide. Not a single Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is honored by the government, which has rendered the Rohingya the most persecuted people of our time.

In its strategic goal towards making the multi-racial and -religious Myanmar “pure and clean” for its Buddhist majority people only, the successive Myanmar governments – civilian and military alike – have been guilty of not only falsifying history but also of using a combination of tactical measures that include inter alia extermination, destruction, torture, eviction, and rape against the targeted Rohingyas, who are mostly Muslim. In this sinister scheme, the regime has found co-sponsors within the broader Buddhist society – from the monks and military to the laity, let alone the racist and xenophobic politicians like Suu Kyi and the immoral academics like Aye Chan, Aye Kyaw and others who are playing the role of Julius Streicher. In this endeavor, the Rohingya are portrayed very negatively – as the ‘outsiders’, ‘foreigners’ and ‘intruders’ from the neighboring Bangladesh – who must be treated like a ‘virus’ to ‘protect’ the Buddhist people.

The criminal xenophobes justifying genocidal pogroms against the Rohingya don’t tell their brain-washed countrymen that the “the Rohingya did not come to Burma, but Burma first came to the Rohingya,” as Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen has rightly noted. They won’t recognize the very name ‘Rohingya’, falsely claiming that it was a post-modern innovation. By so doing, they willfully distort historical facts that the name ‘Rohingya’ comes from the original name of Rohang, meaning people of Arakan, which was documented in 1799 in Francis Buchanan-Hamilton’s published research work, “Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire”. The book was a survey of the languages spoken in Burma, and also provided important data on the ethno-cultural identities and identifications of the various population groups. He mentions them as ‘Rooinga’ and lists 50 key words in their language, comparing it with other languages of the area.

The xenophobes don’t tell that Arakan was an independent country where the forefathers of today’s majority Rakhine and minority Rohingya lived peacefully before it was colonized by the Burman king Bodowpaya in 1784, and that the territory was lost to the British East India Company after the First Anglo-Burma War of (1824-26); i.e., before Burma’s independence from the UK, the Burman control of Arakan was only for 40 years. They also don’t tell that Arakan was one of the first Indianized kingdoms in Southeast Asia, dating back to the 4th century C.E. and that the forefathers of today’s Rohingya have been living there before the Tibeto-Burman ancestors of the Rakhine people arrived in this littoral. They don’t tell that the state emblems, medallions, and minted coins of the Arakanese Mrauk U dynasty (1430-1784 CE) had Arabic script inscribing Kalima (Islamic profession of belief) and Aqimuddin (the establishment of God’s rule on earth) and that the first 16 kings of this dynasty had kept Muslim-sounding names alongside their Buddhist names. They won’t say that Arakan was virtually ruled by Muslims from 1430 to 1531. They also hide the fact that the inscriptions of the 8th century Ananda Chandra Stone Pillar in Mrauk-U are similar to those used by the Rohingya people (and not by the Rakhine people), and that the name of the country was mentioned as Arakandesh.

But all such essential pieces of history to better understand the current Rohingya crisis are told in the recently published book ‘Rohingya of the Arakan: Conflict, Crisis and Solutions’. Its author, Nurul Islam, a native of Arakan, is well-known to every human rights activist who cares about the region. A trained lawyer from Rangoon (Yangon), Mr. Islam, now settled in the UK, has been at the forefront of his community’s struggle for human rights and citizenship. He serves as the chairman of the ARNO (Arakan Rohingya National Organization).

I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Islam in a few genocide conventions and workshops and of working closely with him for the last two decades. As a Rohingya who was born and grew up in Burma soon after its independence from the UK and had witnessed first-hand the unfathomable persecution of his people, there are not too many alive of his generation who could have told their story in a better way.

The first five chapters deals with the past history of the Rohingya people of Arakan and how they had a strong influence during the Mrauk-U kingdom before the territory was colonized by a bigoted Buddhist king who not only massacred nearly a hundred thousand Arakanese Muslims and enslaved many Buddhist and Muslim Arakanese people but also stole the Mahamuni Buddhist statue.

The sixth chapter deals at length with the British rule that lasted until Burma earned her independence on 4 January 1948. Widescale anti-Indian riots broke out in various parts of Burma in the 1930s during the ‘Burma for Burmese Only’ hate campaign, owing partly to the unethical business practices of the Hindu Chettyar community who had been charging exorbitant interest rates to the money borrowers. The Rohingya people and many Burmese Muslims were victimized simply because of their Indian racial identity. During the second world war when the fascist imperial forces of Japan invaded Burma in 1942, unlike the Buddhists of Arakan and Burma who had supported them, the Rohingyas collaborated with the British and played an important role towards the defeat of the Japanese forces. It was during the Japanese occupation of Arakan that the Rohingyas became the victims of large-scale Rakhine-led ethnic cleansing campaigns during which nearly a hundred thousand of its people were slaughtered and the survivors pushed out from the south to settle in the north, even into Bengal (today’s Bangladesh). The eastern side of the Kaladan River where the Rohingyas were a majority was turned into a Rohingya-minority area. More than 300 Rohingya villages were completely destroyed in Akyab district alone by the Rakhine Buddhists. Sadly, the British government betrayed the loyal Rohingya community after the War by dumping their fate along with other ethnic and religious minorities in the hands of those very tormentors who had previously aided the Japanese occupation forces.

With the assassination of Aung San and six of his close associates including a prominent Muslim, Abdur Razak, just six months before Burma’s independence, all the promises for equal rights and federal structure of the government fell apart and soon the ethnic minorities living along the border areas felt betrayed as their expectations continued to be throttled by the Burman-dominated government in independent Burma.

The next few chapters deal with the sad experiences of the Rohingya people in the Union of Burma, which robbed them of their citizenship and every human right. The author discusses how the Rohingya became the worst victims of Burmanization, de-Muslimization and extermination in Buddhist Burma, leading up to the latest genocidal pogroms of 2017 that pushed nearly a million Rohingya to take shelter inside Bangladesh. This latest tragedy has caught the attention of the world community. They are no longer the forgotten Rohingya of our time. But what a colossal cost to pay to be recognized as the most persecuted people!

Will they get justice? Will they be able to return to their ancestral homeland with dignity, safety, and security?

In the last chapter (15), Mr. Islam recommends solutions to the longstanding Rohingya crisis. These include amongst others, the restoration of their citizenship rights, justice, change of government attitude, empathy, and bridge-building, especially with the majority Rakhine community.

Despite some small typos, which the publisher should correct before printing the next edition, Nurul Islam’s book is an important addition to our collective knowledge of the Rohingyas of the Arakan. It shows how a people who pre-existed today’s state borders, drawn by the colonial masters, can become the victims of statelessness within the new state boundaries and territories. As the rear cover of the book claims, and rightly so, it offers a comprehensive account of the Rohingya crisis from geopolitical and historical contexts. It unveils the conspiracies of the Burmese state authorities, military and state sponsored non-state actors against the innocent Rohingya population subjecting them to systematic ethnic, religious, and political persecution, culminating into one of the gravest genocides of modern era, while denying their existence and historicity.

I strongly recommend this book.

About the reviewer: Dr. Habib Siddiqui has a long history as a peaceful activist in an effort towards improving human rights and creating a just and equitable world. He has authored 18 books and more than a thousand articles.

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