Letter from America: The Rohingya Question – Part 5
No discussion on anti-Indian riots is, however, complete without a mention of the Japanese invasion of Burma.
Japanese Occupation of Burma
In January 1942, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Burma from Thailand with the help of the Burma Independence Army (BIA), a military force made-up of 4,000 Burman nationalists led by 30 officers (the so-called Thirty Comrades) who had been trained and equipped in Japan since 1940. As the British forces quickly retreated to India, nearly 400 Karen villages were torched and destroyed while 1,800 Karen civilians were reportedly murdered by the BIA troops in the first two months of the invasion (January-March, 1942).
As they started their massacre of the Indian population, more than half a million Indians, Anglo-Burman and other ethnic groups, who were considered pro-British, fled on foot, heading towards India between March and April. Their dramatic exodus through western Burma’s dense jungles left tens of thousands of victims dead. More than a hundred thousand Rohingya Muslims were massacred by Arakanese Buddhists that were allied with the BIA and the fascist Japanese occupation forces during the pogroms of 1942; another 80,000 Arakanese Muslims fled to Bengal. The Muslim population was depopulated in the south and pushed north, close to today’s Bangladesh-Burma border. The pogrom of 1942 against the Arakanese Muslims (Rohingya) almost permanently destroyed any possibility of reconciliation with the Arakanese Buddhists (Rakhine).
In April 1942, the British had built up a guerrilla force – the V Force – which operated along the whole front line between the British and the Japanese armies. The Arakanese Muslims (Rohingyas) were heavily recruited into this force and played an important role in gaining information, guiding troops, and rescuing pilots when they were shot down by the Japanese forces. In January 1944, the British took Maungdaw, with V Force playing an important supporting role. It was not until December 1944, however, that the British forces finally took Buthidaung. Once this stronghold had been captured the Japanese position rapidly collapsed, and by early January 1945 most of the Arakan was in British hands.
According to Kurt Jonassohn and Karin Solveig Björnson, “During World War II the Rohingyas remained loyal to the British, even when they retreated to India. They paid dearly for this choice: advancing Japanese and Burmese armies tortured, raped, and massacred thousands of Rohingyas ... After reconquering the region in 1945, the British rewarded the Rohingyas for their loyalty by setting up a civilian administration for the Rohingyas in Arakan.” The dream of Rohingya autonomy was rather short-lived as Arakan was incorporated into Burma which gained independence in January 4, 1948.
With General Aung-San and his entire cabinet killed on July 19, 1947 (by the Buddhist extremists that were affiliated with his political opponent U Saw) before Burma gained independence and the Burman-Rohingya relationship rather jittery from the past experience, the Rohingyas faced severe discrimination in the new state. They were barred and removed from the Military, Police and civil services and their leaders were placed under arrest. Rohingya refugees who had fled to India (British Bengal) during the pogroms of 1942 were not permitted to return to their ancestral homes. Considered illegal immigrants by the highly racist and xenophobic Burmese government, their properties were seized and resettled by Burman and Rakhine Buddhists.
The Rohingya Identity
It has been sometimes argued, especially amongst the anti-Rohingya demagogues, and the numerous suppositions which some biased scholars have made, that since the designation “Rohingya” did not appear in the Baxter Report and some of the papers associated with it in the National Archives and the British Library in the UK, it was an invented term used by the Arakanese Muslims to claim ethnic status in Burma. In so doing, as if suffering from selective amnesia, they forget to state that the term ‘Rakhine’ was not used for the Arakanese Buddhists in many such reports either. Instead, we find the use of the words like ‘Mugs’ (see, e.g., Charles Paton’s work) and ‘Magh’ to refer to the Rakhine Buddhists. The Rohingya Muslims of Arakan were similarly referred as Arakanese Musselmans and Mohamedans.
British reports have often mentioned Muslims in various parts of India as Mohamedans, Mahommedans and Musselmans. In some reports, all those terms were used interchangeably. Similar kinds of names were also used by the colonial administration for other communities, which served either their policies or whims.
There are numerous examples in our world where even the same place is called by different names by different communities. For example, Bangladesh is commonly known as Manjala (Mangala) in Chinese. In ancient times, Bangladesh was known as Banga, which later came to be known as Bangala by Arab and Persian geographers.
In the ancient times the land of Arakan was known as Arakan Desh, which in the pre-Burman annexation period, in the writings of writers and poets of Arakan and Chittagong, like Quazi Daulat, Mardan, Shamser Ali, Quraishi Magan, Alaol, Ainuddin, Abdul Ghani and others, came to be referred to as ‘Roshang’, ‘Roshanga’, ‘Roshango Shar’, and ‘Roshango Desh’. However, in the local tongue Arakan was called Rohang by its Muslim population and as Rakkhapura or Rakhinepray or Rakhine Pye by its local Buddhists. In the Rennell’s map (1771 CE), Arakan is shown as ‘Roshawn’. The Tripura Chronicle Rajmala mentions it as ‘Roshang’. The Chakmas and Saks of the 18th century called the country ‘Roang’. [Note that words which sound like ‘sha’ are often changed to ‘ha’ by many people living in adjacent areas north and south of the Naaf River demarcating today’s Rakhine state from southern part of Chittagong in Bangladesh. That is, Roshang and Rohang mean the same thing.]
To most Bengali speaking people America and Britain are known as Markin and Bilat in Bangla. The British colonizers also anglicized many of the local names of towns and cities. Chatga, for instance, came to be known as Chittagong in British records. Sri Lanka, which was known by ancient Greek geographers as Taprobane and as Serendib (or Saran Dip) by Arab geographers, came to be known as Ceilão by the Portuguese when they arrived on the island in 1505, which was transliterated into English as Ceylon.
Can such use of altered forms of the name of a country, place or people by outsiders obliterate their original names? Surely, not! What is important here is to realize that such changes or uses of nomenclature do not and cannot alter how the people identify or feel about themselves and their places.
Calling a people based on the region or district that they come from is a common practice in many parts of south Asia. For example, a person from Sylhet is commonly known as a Sylheti (speaking a dialect which is not quite understood by most Bangalis); a person who is from Faridpur is called Faridpuri and a person from Dhaka is called Dhakaiya. And yet, the British records did not make that distinction between these peoples. They were all lumped as Bengalis in spite of their colloquial differences.
It is worth noting from the Baxter report that the British census records originally mentioned only religion, and that only much later they tried to classify people by any of the 40 races or ethnic groups for the entire Indian population. As to the classification by races in 1921 and 1931, the report says, “For these years the Indian constituent of the population is taken to be the number of persons who then returned themselves as belonging to one of the forty specified Indian races, or who were tabulated as “Indians of unspecified race” where their records though indefinite showed they belonged to an Indian race.”
It is, thus, understandable why the British authority would rather classify the Rohingya Muslims under Bengali or Chittagonian race because of their cultural similarity with people living on the other side of the Naaf River. It is also obvious from the report that many of the inhabitants were concerned about the 'hidden' agenda of such census reporting, and did not feel comfortable in sharing such information about their race or origin.
So, the mere debate around why the Arakanese Muslims were not called Rohingya people in the Baxter report sounds like raising tempest over teapots.
====? To be continued
- Asian Tribune -