Saturday, 24 May 2014

"Rohingya," More a Political Rhetoric Than an "Ethnic Identity."

Aye Chan
I: Early Muslim Settlers in the Kingdom of Arakan
Although the term “Arakan” denotes Present Rakhine State of Union of Burma in the European Literature from the 16th century, it was clearly a derivation from the Portuguese corruption of “Rakhine.” The people of Rakhine State of Union of Burma call themselves “Rakhine” and their country, formerly an independent kingdom, “Rakhinepray.” Sir Henry Yule an expert of Colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, quoting contemporary Portuguese sources writes:
“It is called by some Portuguese Orrakan, by others among them Arrakaon and
by some again Rakan” (Yule 1985: 34).
The famous Bengali poet of the seventeenth century, Daulat Qazi, in his Collection of Bengali Poems, “Sati Maina” writes about Rakhine Kingdom as:
“To the East of the River Karnafuli there is a palace, “Roshang City” by name, like the Heaven. There rules the glorious king of Maghada descent, a follower of the Buddha.” (Huq 2005: 12).
In this poem again “Roshang” clearly is the corrupted Bengali pronunciation for “Rakhine.” In the literary works of the Bengali literature Rakhine is called “Roshang” or “Rohong.” During the colonial period the country was known as “Arakan Division.”
A Japanese historian, Kei Nemoto testified at the Supreme Court of Japan, supporting the fact of existence of “Rohingya” as an ethnic group in the Arakan (Rakhine) State of Union of Burma (Myanmar) as:
“Jaeger attempted to reconstruct the history of the Rohingya by describing the three stages where Muslim communities had been formed in Arakan. The first stage is a period when a large number of Muslims had migrated from diverse areas (especially from Bengal) in the Mughal Kingdom (1526-1857; its golden days were from the 16th century to the mid-17th century) in India. Jaeger notes that they are the origin of the Rohingya ethnic group.”
For this passage Nemoto does not give any reference and page number either. I have occasionally read Moshe Yegar’s books many times and I did not see such a passage in any of his works. And even if Yegar would have written in any piece of his publication that I have not read, I can say with certainty that it is a wrong historical fact. Actually, Moshe Yegar is not reconstructing the history of “Rohingya.” As an authority in the study of the Muslim minorities in Southeast Asia his attempt was at most to examine how the problem of Muslim minority in Rakhine State escalated to a Jihad(Holy War) in Myanmar after the independence, and the causes that led to the persistent flights of the Muslim refugees into neighboring Bangladesh (Yegar 2002: 19 -47).
Certainly, Yegar writes that the Arab castaways settled in the Rakhine coast in the 8th and 9th centuries were earliest Muslim settlers and the Muslim followers of King Min Saw Mon (1430-1433) after he was restored to the throne with the help of military assistance from Bengal were allowed to make Arakan their home. The two accounts given in the Rakhine chronicles might be taken by Yegar as the first and second stages of Muslim migration to Rakhineland. About the Arab travelers coming to trade with Arakan French historian Jacques Leider critically asserts as:
“Since the Muslim traders had come to Arakan, we do not exactly know.
Pretending that Arab traders had come to Arakan since the 8th and 9th century is largely a matter of speculation linked to the early history of Chittagong”
(Leider 1998:202).
In the study of Southeast Asian history all the scholars agree that the Arab navigators’ accounts have been based on the secondary information and not substantially reliable. Ibn Majid in mid-fifteenth century noted down about the navigable difficulties of the shallow and rocky channels in the entrance to the Rakhine City (Tibetts 1981: 381). Besides his record, there is no informative source on Rakhine coast left by the Arab navigators. We can definitely assume that Arabs sailors were not well aware of Arakan.
Yegar, with a little knowledge of Burmese literature, certainly relies on the secondary sources, especially Arthur Phayre’s works in English. Phayre always follows the chronicles. A student of Burmese history will clearly understand if he reads Phayre’s History of Burma that is more a collection of legends of Old Burma than a history book. In case of Rakhine history too, every scholar of Burmese history would soon realize the chroniclers’ accounts on the history of Arakanese Kingdom in the First Millennia AD are almost the folk tales. It can be clearly seen that some stories from Indian, especially Buddhist literature were directly copied for some events. As a historian, I confidently say that the dynastic chronicles of Dannyawadi and Wethali Periods (c.100 – 1000) are hopelessly unreliable as primary sources and not even as secondary ones. The stories of Arab settlers are all based on the chroniclers’ account of the shipwrecks at the Rakhine coast and the “Kular castaways” who settled in Rakhine Kingdom. The chronicles do not give exact dates of the shipwrecks and do not say that they were Arabs. “Kular” is a Burmese word for all those who came from the west by sea. The Europeans are called “Kular Phyu” that means “White Kular.”
(To be continued.)

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