By Dr. Habib Siddiqui
Last week, I came across Kanbawza Win's long article – “Killing two birds with a stone or a Win, Win Situation” – discussing his thesis for solving the Rohingya crisis in Burma.
As a global citizen who has worked for decades to make our world a more inclusive world away from racism and bigotry, I could not resist the temptation to read Mr. Win’s piece. Fortunately, with my US Airways flight late as usual, I had plenty of time to read the long piece.
As has become a pattern amongst the chauvinist Rakhine writers (e.g., Aye Chan, Aye Kyaw, Khin Maung Saw and many others), their narrative about the ‘other’ people – the Rohingyas of Arakan – all start with the British colonization of the territory in 1826 after the first Anglo-Burma War of 1824-26, as if they had no past connection to the soil of Arakan. Theirs is a flawed theory (the so-called Muslim Enclaves) that is so childish that one can only pity their proponents and promoters on their level of ignorance.
To them, the East India Company, which had already been administering next-door Bangladesh (Bengal in British India) since 1757, lured those “Bengali inhabitants” (mostly from the district of Chittagong) to come and work as seasonable labourers. Mr. Win writes, “The arable land expanded to four and a half times between 1830 and 1852 and Akyab, became one of the major rice exporting cities in the world. Indeed, during a century of colonial rule, the Chittagonian immigrants became the numerically dominant ethnic group in the Mayu Frontier. That is the origin of the Mujahid or the Bengali Immigrants.”
I doubt if Mr. Win understands the meaning of the Arabic word Mujahid (literal meaning: a person who strives). Surely, not; otherwise, he should have avoided using such an adjective to describe the Rohingyas. They are not Bengali immigrants either that settled since the British era. Yes, some of them may look like people of Bangladesh, separated from Arakan by the Naaf River. Living in a frontier territory sandwiched between the Hindu and Muslim dominated India/Bangladesh to the west and the Buddhist dominated Burma to the east, it would be silly to say that the Rohingyas, as the original inhabitants of the land of Arakan, should have looked different. As any student of Buddhism knows, Buddha himself was an Indian (a Kala) from the state of Bihar (Magadha), neighbouring Indian state to Bengal. He was not of the Mongoloid race that resembles the Rakhine and Buddhist races today. (One has to just make a trip to Bihar in India to find if the Biharis look closer to the Bengalis or the Rakhines of Arakan.)
Like many of his group of chauvinists in the so-called pro-democracy movement in Burma, who in their unfathomable hatred and intolerance of non-Buddhists, suffering from selective amnesia, Mr. Win does not tell his readers that before the British came to Arakan there were already one Arakanese Muslims for every two Arakanese Buddhists. And this, in spite of the marauding campaign to colonize Arakan by the Buddhist zealot - Burman (Burmese) king Bodawpaya - in 1784 which witnessed slaughter of tens of thousands of Arakanese people – Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists alike. Some 20,000 inhabitants (including Muslim Arakanese) were taken as prisoners to the Burmese capital city of Ava. Afraid of their lives, many Arakanese (of all faiths) – numbering probably in excess of 200,000 -- fled to Chittagong and other southern coastal territories of Bangladesh, where their descendants continue to live as citizens of Bangladesh today.
As noted by Professor Abid Bahar, who has done much field studies on the Rohingyas of Burma, when the British took control of Arakan, some of the descendants of those refugees in Bangladesh returned to their ancestral homes. But contrary to Rakhine myth or popular belief, the proportion of the returning refugees or their descendants was comparatively larger from the Rakhine (Buddhist) community than that of the Rohingya (Muslim) community in the British era.
Sadly though, simply because of their Buddhist faith, the Rakhine descendants of those returning refugees are not subjected to the same litmus test for proving their ties to the region anterior to 1823 while the Rohingyas are denied citizenship simply because of their race and religion. If it is not pure racism and bigotry, what is?
Mr. Win forgets to tell that since at least 1430 C.E., when the Muslim Sultan of Bengal helped to restore the fleeing Arakanese king – Narameikhla (Maung Saw Mwan) to the throne a very sizable Muslim population had thrived in Arakan, who later held important government positions. He does not tell his readers that the golden age of Bengali literature thrived in the courts of Arakan during that Mrauk-U dynasty when its kings even used Muslim names. He also does not tell that for nearly a hundred years during the Mrauk-U dynasty, taking advantage of the unrest in Mughal India, Chittagong was annexed and administered by the Arakanese kings (until 1666). He also does not tell that for hundreds of years the Arakanese Buddhists, in collaboration with Portuguese pirates, were involved in piracy, abducting tens of thousands of Muslims and Hindus from the territories of Bengal who were either sold or forced to work as slaves in Arakan. Their number accounted for 15% of the population of Arakan before Bodawpaya’s campaign.
As a chauvinist Buddhist, while Bodawpaya destroyed most mosques and Islamic shrines, he could not exterminate all Muslims of Arakan (the ancestors of today’s Rohingyas of Burma). Many survived, as did the (Buddhist) Rakhines. Thus, some 30,000 Muslims survived when the British first took control of the territory. They were not planted by the British in 1826. It is not difficult to understand why over the last two centuries their number has grown to more than a million. To claim that the Rohingyas of Burma are outsiders or intruders or mujahids is not an analysis, but a paralysis of one’s brain that cannot decipher the truth from falsehood. And hatred will keep one close minded, unwilling to objectively analyze matters. That is the sad reality with most Rakhine politicians and charlatan scholars like Mr. Win who have no problem borrowing pages from the fascist Nazi era to ethnically cleanse the Rohingyas of Burma.
Mr. Win may like to read my work on “Muslim Identity and the Demography in the Arakan State of Burma (Myanmar),” available from the Amazon.com to see the utter falsity of his accusations against the Rohingyas of Burma. As children of the early settlers of Arakan, their claim to the land of Arakan precedes those of the Tibeto-Burman stock of people whom we now call the Rakhines of Arakan. To call these indigenous people of Arakan -- who identify themselves as the Rohingyas in Burma ? “unwanted guests” is like calling the Native Americans unwanted refugees who had settled in America after the influx of the Europeans. As much as no massacre of yesteryears and ghettoization of the Native Americans today in designated American Indian Reservation camps has been able to obliterate their genuine right, place, history and identity to America, no Myanmar government and local Rakhine sponsored pogroms can erase the rightful identity of the Rohingya people of Burma. History and justice is one their side.
Reading Mr. Win's win-win formula is like reading a borrowed page from Hitler’s Mein Kamf. One simply has to change the words ‘Jewish’ to ‘Muslim’ (or as Mr. Win puts it ‘Mujahid’) and ‘Communists’ to ‘Chinese’ to see the similarity with his fascistic ideas. Mr. Win feels threatened by these ‘4 million Chinese immigrants’ who has already made Mandalay their second capital after Beijing. His solution: he wants them deported to Muslim populated Arakan state. As to the Rohingyas – the other peril – he wants them forcibly deported to the eastern part of Burma. He wants a special ID card issued to these two ‘alien’ groups and ‘compel them to respect the local Burmese laws and customs’. He says, “If anyone refused to go along with this order then he must be persecuted according to law and finally deported to the country of its origin. In this way it will stop the illegal immigrants entering the country by fair or foul means. Just by looking at the features of the person one can pin point that he is an illegal immigrant from China if found in the Mujahid area or Bangali in Chinese dominated area. We will have to take drastic action once caught. This will solve the problem at least for half a century until their children got married to each other or the local population.” Towards assimilation, of course, “all these aliens must become Burmese.”
As to the funding for this cross-country forced ‘mass exodus’ (relocation) project, he says, the Burmese government won’t have to ‘spend a single Burmese pyar’ (cent or penny) since the 31 INGOs (international NGOs) will ‘gladly fund.’
Mr. Win seems genuinely concerned about Burma’s image abroad as a racist country. He says that his solution would “paint the picture that Burma accepted all these aliens both Bengalis and Chinese, mercifully and magnanimously in as much the Burmese refugees are accepted in the West in all these 50 years. It will earn credit in taking her rightful place in the family of nations.”
I don’t know whether to take him seriously; after all, his win-win solution relies on forced eviction and encampment similar to the fate that awaited the Jews and gypsies in the Nazi-era. He refuses to open his mind to the fact that the Rohingyas are not aliens to the soil of Arakan, but they are the locals who had settled before his own Rakhine race. Simply because of their darker color (more like Buddha’s) and different religion, they cannot be called aliens. They don’t need to be forcibly encamped away from their ancestral homes (and surely not murdered) but need to be integrated by giving them full citizenship right, as is currently enjoyed by his own Rakhine community who has no greater claim to the soil of Arakan.
He is also concerned about the image of his faith as a result of on-going pogroms directed against the Rohingyas of Burma. He says: “But most importantly of all, is that it has a very bad and negative impression on Buddhism especially the Theravada Buddhism, when Buddhism is considered to be the most compassionate religions of the world. How are the followers of Lord Buddha, Burmese Buddhist in general, and Rakhine Buddhist in particular, practice their compassion to the other human being not similar to them, when in face. Lord Buddha has showed several ways to curb their own passion and desires.”
I wish, on this note, his community – the Rakhine and Burmese Buddhists – had agreed and taken positive measures to change their bad image. With such persecution of the Rohingyas, the Rakhine Theravada Buddhists and their partners-in-crime the Burman Buddhists, have repeatedly shown that they are no better than the criminal co-religionist perpetrators of some of the worst crimes in human history in places like Cambodia and Sri Lanka.
It is, however, never too late to reform. I hope Mr. Win and his people have the inner wisdom to evaluate their past actions and reform, making our world more inclusive and tolerant of other people and their faith and custom. And they can start that process by renouncing the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law – which for decades has epitomized racism and bigotry in our time. If they do so, they will find that the future is in pluralism and not in feudal savagery of exclusionism.