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  • Elliot Carmel

The Story of the Rohingya: Part 1: A Lost People

Throughout history, we have placed other groups beneath us. We have seen them as less than us.

We have murdered, abused and oppressed them, burning their cities and stamping their cultures and knowledge into the ground. We have disregarded our fellows and chosen to forget their humanity.

This is genocide, and it is not a thing of the past. Not yet.

Myanmar, previously called Burma, is a small country in south-eastern Asia. Its neighbours include Bangladesh and Thailand and it borders on the Bay of Bengal. Long ago, its western coast was a thin separate country known as Arakan. The name Rohingya

traces its roots to words that mean “natives of Arakan.” This

country lay in what is now the Rakhine state of Myanmar, and was a key point for trade in the area, thanks to its placement beside the Bay of Bengal. Myanmar was and still is largely Buddhist, but there has been a small and almost entirely Muslim ethnic group in Arakan (now Rakhine state) for a long time. These are the Rohingya: a determined minority, far from any place they could call home.

The first people to live in Arakan were likely the Rakhine people (though some claim the Rohingya arrived even before them), who quickly became Buddhist. Burmese tradition claims they have even inhabited the area since 3000 BCE, but there is only evidence of them settling there in the 9th century CE. They constructed multiple cities in the valley of the Lemro river.

However, reports argue about how Islam first came to Arakan. One source speaks of how Arab merchants travelled across the bay to trade from the third century CE and began to convert the people there as early as the seventh century. It says that some merchants also settled there, starting families and simultaneously an Islamic population. The Rohingya trace their history to these events, and many sources outside of Myanmar do so as well. Other historians claim that Islam only spread there much later. Some even deny the existence of a “Rohingya” people in the past entirely.

In any case, by the 11th century there was an undeniable Islamic presence established in Arakan, possibly largely thanks to and consisting of Bengali Muslim settlers. Arakan and the Rakhine cities had at times been under control of the Bengali sultanate, ever since they helped the Rakhine people against invaders from Burma. This connection is presumably what led to a number of Bengali Muslims living there, and even after leaving the sultanate Arakan continued to practise Bengali/Muslim traditions.

When Burma finally succeeded in invading Arakan in the late 18th century, many fled or were deported to Bengal, which was at the time under British control. Once Britain colonised Burma, Arakan became a part of the Bengal colony and so the peoples mingled, allowing those who had fled to return to Arakan, but also driving former inhabitants of Bengali to migrate there. Thanks to this it is hard to know how much of the Arakanese population originated from Arakan and how much moved in from Bengal or other areas. Here we also see another of the rare references to the name Rohingya: the Brit Francis Buchanan-Hamilton mentions that the Muslims in Arakan refer to themselves as “Rooingas or natives of Arakan”.

At the start of 20th century, a flood of Indians (mostly Muslim) migrated to Burma, some to Arakan. Many the Muslims in Burma were now in Arakan, and the Muslim groups mixed again.

Somewhere in the midst of this chaos, through the war and the peace, between mountains and valleys, the Rohingya people emerged. There is nothing even approaching a clear-cut start or even definition of the Rohingya, but they were likely formed from a slow mixture of Islamic faiths coming together in Arakan. From that they developed further and, in the end, became far more than just a branch of Islamic belief.

A completely new culture developed, including a new language: Rohingya. The language is Indo- Aryan and is similar to the Bengali-Assamese languages, and is also spoken by some Hindu minorities in Myanmar today.

The Rohingya consider religion central to their culture, and practise a quite conservative form of Islam to the present day. Members of the community who have great religious knowledge, like the hafes, people who have memorised the Quran, command great respect. Being relatively orthodox, the Rohingya celebrate most of the common Muslim holidays. On top of this, they have heart- warming traditions to maintain solidarity in their communities, such as communal meat distribution during the religious festival of Eid, and support arrangements for orphans and widows among other disadvantaged members.

There are also several restrictions on women, which unlike those in, say, Afghanistan, have not yet experienced any large resistance. Hijab veils are common and strict gender segregation is required under certain circumstances. Cooking, cleaning, childbirth and subsequent care – women in a Rohingya household are expected to assume a very traditional role, rarely taking up jobs, with the husband usually heading the household and polygamy still being a solid part of their tradition.

Traditional clothing includes the longyi, which consists of cloth wrapped around the waist and reaching a distance towards the feet. Beards are popular among men, and hijabs are, as mentioned, still common though not obligatory. Henna dye, made from the leaves of the henna tree, is used to mark the skin for ceremonies and celebrations, or sometimes dye beards and even as a medicine.

A standard Rohingya diet consists of rice, potatoes, rice noodles, fish, chillies, milk and assorted vegetables, among other things. At celebrations they also eat meat sourced according to Islamic law (halal).

Rohingya poetry and music are traditionally passed on orally, including tarana poems, which talk about strong emotions. Songs are seen as an important medium for their history and culture, keeping knowledge and traditions alive. Both songs and poems can be performed with small drums called tobla and a guitar-like string instrument known as a juri.

Over time, the Rohingya had found themselves an identity, made themselves a people. They had found themselves, but were still lost to the rest of the world, and the road ahead of them was still twisted, and far from over.

And unfortunately, after Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948 (renaming itself to Myanmar), Arakan became nothing more than the western coastal area of this new country. The Rohingya had forged their own people, their own ethnicity, from the land and the years. But now they needed a country... and to try to keep what they had made.


A Language in Crisis: Rohingya | Cultural Survival

Rohingya people - Wikipedia

Persecution of Muslims in Myanmar - Wikipedia

UNHCR - Culture, context and mental health of Rohingya refugees

Part 2 coming on March 30th: a Modern Genocide

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