Human settlement in Arakan began in the 6th century.. Most of the first settlers were Buddhists and there were also a smaller number of Muslims. The Buddhists migrated from various parts of India and the Muslims mostly from Arab countries and a few from Bengal. But the growth of Muslim population was faster than the Buddhists as Islam allowed a man to keep four wives at a time.
Arakan was an independent state till the Burman invasion in 1784. Some Arakanese kings were found bearing Muslim names. Some historians maintain that such kings were actually Muslims but some others think that Buddhist kings used to take Muslim names to please the Bengal kings because whenever the Burmans attacked Arakan, they sought help from Bangali kings and the Bangali kings sent troops to Arakan to defend them because Muslims were also inhabitating Arakan.
The Arakanese Buddhists, the Rakhines, were first known as Magh. Later when the Rakhines became more educated and politically conscious they changed their identity from Magh to Rakhine. In the early period, Arakanese Muslims were also less educated and politically not so conscious. They first called themselves "Rohangi". But after the 16th century when they become politically conscious they adopted "Rohingya" as their ethnic identity.
The ethnic Rohingyas are nowadays globally known because of the influx of Rohingya refugees to neighbouring countries.
There was no religious discrimination in Burma when the democratic U Nu government existed. U Nu government recognized the Rohingyas as citizens of Burma and they enjoyed fundamental rights. Not only that. There was a special Rohingya language programme in Burma Radio until Ne Win seized power. After the fall of democratic government in Burma, the military junta adopted a policy of ‘divide and rule’ towards different religious-ethnic groups such as Rohingya Muslims, Karen, Ko Kang etc. The Rohingya Muslims have become a special target for persecution and it appears that the junta wants to make Arakan Rohingya-free. At the same time the conservative Rakhines are alleging that "Rohingyas are Bengalis, they came from Bangladesh". They say they never heard the name of "Rohingya" in Arakan. It is like a joke. But they don’t understand the impact of "Rohingya-phobia" and are openly supporting the junta’s policy of religious discrimination. Some so-called Rakhine historians said that the ethnic name "Rohingya" was invented around in 1950. They are trying to misguide the Arakanese people.
The conservative Rakhines should get rid of the "Rohingya-phobia." When democracy will return to Myanmar, a democratic government will surely respect domestic and international opinion and the controversy regarding the citizenship of the ethnic Rohingyas will be settled. Then when the government announces amnesty to those who are now living in exile, more than 20,00,000 Rohingyas will return to their native land, Arakan. The junta denied the citizenship right to the Rohingyas by introducing the Citizenship Act 1982 and destroyed all Rohingya-related documents of U Nu government’s tenure.
The Rakhines should be forward-looking. When democracy will return to Myanmar, the struggle for self-determination will suffer if the major two ethnic-religious groups of Arakan – the Rakhines and the Rohingyas – remain divided and at loggerheads.
* First appeared in The Financial Express (Bangladesh)