Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A response on the Rohingya issue from Carlos Sardina Galache

which has appeared in the DVB, which I share in to to (BTW: DVB has failed to post some of my responses):
According to Mr. Tonkin, the Rohingya identity might be "imposed from above". Of course, he doesn't provide any evidence to support that, but this insinuation is particularly insulting in view of the more than credible reports of the authorities trying to impose the "Bengali" identification, often using violence against those that refuse it.
He claims that the name Rohingya is offensive to Rakhines and Burmese alike. That's irrelevant. Any individual/group has the right to self-identify, not the right to decide others' self-identification. Rakhines have all the right to correct me if I call them Bamar (or even Burmese if they like), in the same way that a Basque have the right to self-identify as such and not as a Spaniard (regardless of how offended a person from Madrid might feel), and it's only for Rohingyas to decide how I should call them. Period.
It might well be true that Muslims in Arakan didn't identify themselves widely as Rohingya until the 20th Century. But many other ethnic groups in Burma didn't identify themselves using their current designations until quite recently. Ethnic groups and boundaries are not eternal fixed categories (as the British believed in colonial times and Mr. Tonkin seems to believe even now), but the (somewhat unstable over time) results of complex historical and political processes, as well as the interaction with other groups. Many authors have proved that ethnic categories were infinitely more fluid in pre-Colonial times, and that it was the British who imposed a rigid grid on a bewildering and confusing variety of human groups. Mr. Tonkin would do well in reading authors like Fredrik Barth, F. K. Lehman, Edmund Leach or James C. Scott to move beyond his Victorian-era and essentialist views on ethnicity.
Professor Michael Charney showed clearly in his PhD thesis ("Where Jambudipa and Islamdom Converged: Religious Change and the Emergence of Buddhist Communalism in Early Modern Arakan, 15th-19th Centuries") that there were substantial Muslim communities in Arakan from the 17th century on. It's clear that the descendants of these communities plus those of the migrants from Bengal arrived in colonial times (now it would be impossible to distinguish between them) are the present-day Rohingyas.
Mr. Tonkin would like us to believe that the problem lies in the fact that the Rohingyas are trying to claim a name and an ethnicity which "offends" the Rakhines and the Burmese, and they should renounce to their identity in order to achieve peace. He seems to forget who are the main victims in Arakan State since at least 1974, and who initiated the persecution to "purify" Burma of those who don't fit in a too narrow and historically false definition based on "blood and soil" of who belong in Burma.
Of course, there's a lot of mythology in the accounts by Rohingya historians (some of them claim erroneously that Arakan was a Muslim kingdom at times, on the basis of the Muslim/Bengali tittles some kings adopted, for instance); that's scarcely surprising and it shouldn't serve as a reason to deny their identity altogether. There's a lot of mythology and plenty of anachronisms and mystification in the history that any ethnic/national group tells about itself, including also the Rakhines, the Burmese, the Thais, the Spanish, the British or whatever other group in the world. Official Burmese history is full of bogus claims about a mythical pre-colonial Burma roughly encompassing present-days borders, and even beyond, which has little basis on fact. Sadly, it seems that Mr. Tonkin has decided to direct his (highly selective) criticism to the weak side's historical "mythology" (that of the Rohingyas), and to take at face value the official Burmese and Rakhine "histories".

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