The Great Debate Surrounding Rohingya Origins: Does it Matter?

Repatriating the Rohingya

A little over a month ago, talks resumed between Myanmar (also known as Burma) and Bangladesh regarding the repatriation of Rohingya refugees.

Here’s what’s being reported:

“The two sides discussed challenges in the verification process, and plans to start repatriating those who have been verified by the Myanmar side.  They also discussed plans for resettlement of voluntary returnees, and trust-building, reported state-run media.

The Myanmar side is said to have discussed measures to ensure security and rule of law in Arakan State, including renovation of transit camps and houses in villages where returnees will be resettled; plans to create jobs and provide education and healthcare services to returnees; and cooperation with partner countries, including ASEAN and UN agencies in the repatriation process…”

The same article also states that Myanmar will begin by trying to repatriate 700 Muslims.

However the question remains as to whether Rohingya will want to return at this time, especially given the potential dangers that await them in a military junta-run country that has infamously been hostile toward them.

After all, basically anyone who does not support the military junta has reason to fear for his or her life.

The ICC case brought by our brothers and sisters in The Gambia is also going forward with its investigation of the crimes against the Rohingya.

RELATED: No Justice for Rohingya: Recent UN Resolution Is a Joke

Beyond Burma: Hindutva and the Rohingya

Mistreatment goes beyond just Myanmar and even their terribly precarious position in Bangladesh.

It is reported here that the Jammu police have arrested many males, whom the article noted are the “breadwinners” of their families. This of course puts the rest of their families in an even more difficult position. And perhaps that’s the point.

Just consider the 2021 billboard featured at the top of the article. It’s a political ad from the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party, featured at the beginning of the article. It reads:

“Rohingyas, Bangladeshis Quit Jammu

Let us all Jammuites Unite to save History, Culture, and Identity of Dogras”

Maybe imprisoning the males—depriving them of work and their family of funds—is an effective way to incentivize them to leave. If that’s the case, then it seems to be working; at least partially. Some families are indeed fleeing Jammu.

The ruling BJP’s general treatment of the Rohingya is no surprise because it reflects their Hindutva attitude. They had also demanded back in 2017 that all Rohingya refugees (around 40,000) be detained and deported to Myanmar.

Ein Bild, das Text enthält. Automatisch generierte Beschreibung

RELATED: Buddhism in Burma and Its Role in Ethnically Cleansing Rohingya Muslims

A Note to Doubtful Readers

With previous articles on the Rohingya, we’ve sometimes received comments that essentially dismiss what has happened to the Rohingya.

Some have even gone so far as to dismiss the Rohingya themselves, claiming that they’re not really from Burma anyway. This is the narrative of the Burmese state, which denies the Rohingya citizenship under their 1982 citizenship law. With this law, the military junta recognized 135 ethnic groups in Burma, excluding Rohingya from the count.

The government maintains that the Rohingya are just “Bengalis” who settled in Burma during British colonial rule. Some historians support this claim, but even if this even partially true (i.e., some came over at that point in time, and others were already living in the area), they are still a distinct group living in Burma and contributing to the society.

There is also historical evidence to deduce that Muslims have lived in what is now Myanmar/Burma for at least some centuries.[1]

Colonial rule as well as World War II saw tensions rise to the level of violence between various groups within Burma—including between Muslims and Buddhists in the Arakan/Rakhine region.[2] It’s important to not shy away from the reports that Muslims and Buddhists massacred each other during this time. We would of course condemn such violence, and in a similar vein we would hope that the Rohingya living now would not be held responsible for it.

It’s also important to remember that tensions exist between various ethnic groups in Burma. Some of these groups want autonomy from the state; including the Arakan, who live in the same region as the Rohingya and are also hostile to them.

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An example of the type of tensions that exists between the ethnic and religious groups of Burma

The debate taking place surrounding the precise origins of the Rohingya can border on dangerous ethnocentrism. What’s interesting is that academic work on the subject has arguably exacerbated the problem.

RELATED: The Walls Are Closing in on the Rohingya

Rohingya Origins: A Heated Debate

In 2018, a group of scholars and activists (including Noam Chomsky) created a petition to condemn Oxford Research Encyclopedia (ORE) for inviting Jacques Leider—the scholar of Burma and the Rakhine state (formerly the “Arakan” state)—to write a reference article on the Rohingya for a series of theirs on Asian history. In their letter they note that Leider is:

“…a well-known advisor to the Myanmar military’s Armed Forces Historical Museum in Naypyidaw.”

In general, Leider seems to downplay hostilities between the Rohingya and the state, shying away from the term “genocide” to describe what the Rohingya have endured.

Also stated in the letter is the following:

“His well-documented pattern of denials that the Myanmar military-directed mass violence and scorched-earth military operations against the Rohingya community – the subject of his ORE article – is challenged by the growing body of legal analyses and human rights research reports which point to the fact that Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya as a group amounts to international crimes including crimes against humanity and genocide.”

In general, Leider considers the Rohingya identity to be one that has been purposefully politicized and whose first known use traces back to the eighteenth century. However he also states that Muslims have been in Burma since the fifteenth century. Nonetheless, he controversially asserts that others came from Bangladesh during the colonial period and settled in the Rakhine state.

This latter point is controversial, as it is the official position of the government that the Rohingya do not belong in Burma because they are actually just “Bengalis.”

The following statement of Leider represents what is controversial about his position:

“I will not call the Rakhine Buddhist racist towards Muslims. There seem to be expression; the emotional reaction is extremely strong. Let me put it diplomatically like this—a very strong emotional reaction.”


Having been stated in 2012, one can understand why these words are potentially dangerous. Perhaps, for example, such a statement from a well-respected academic helped to publicly dismiss any possible risk the Rohingya may have faced at the hands the military.

Consider the disparity between Leider’s statement and this journalist’s:

“I was shocked but soon learned that for decades the Rohingya have been walking around with bull’s-eyes on their foreheads. Scapegoated like the Jews in Nazi Germany, called insects like the Tutsis during Rwanda’s genocide, they are Muslim people in a Buddhist land, dehumanized by their own government and made easy prey.”

This is a group that was already considered one of the most persecuted in the world. It was only about four years later that they experienced what even the US government has come to consider to be a genocide.

Firstly, it’s clear that not all historians agree with Leider’s portrayal of the history of the Rohingya. Debate about the origins of the Rohingya continue, and while it’s possible that they haven’t lived in Rakhine for as long as some may claim, this does not justify the actions against them.

Furthermore, the history of the Arakan/Rakhine people of the area is also debatable. In noting that certain points of Rohingya history may lack sufficient historical evidence, academics Anthony Ware and Costas Laoutides write that (p.81):

“…we note that such mythology is common to the ethnic Rakhine narratives too.”

Their mythology, the authors state, at times has to do with demonstrating the ancient ties of the Arakan/Rakhine region to Buddhism.

What Ware and Laoutides also highlight as a result of their historical research is worth quoting at length:

“First, even though we argue the Rohingya should be seen as eligible for citizenship, and even indigenous status, on the basis of the historical record, this is not enough. Peaceful resolution will not be possible until the country leaves behind the toxic, destructive identity politics that elevate taing yin tha [the concept of “national identity,” to which some in Burma have, and other like the Rohingya do not] status above citizenship and develops a national identity with rights that apply to all peoples. Second, given the lack of civilian control of the Tatmadaw, resolution of this conflict is not possible until a more enlightened military leadership emerges. And finally, many of the responses to the conflict by the international community have inadvertently become incentives for further violence, meaning we need to rethink and improve the ways in which we engage with all parties.”[3]

RELATED: The Rohingya Muslims Versus Facebook: Accountability for Genocide?

The Fickleness of Identity

Every group develops a collective identity based on history, myth, culture, politics, etc. Problems begin when these groups seek to harm one another based on assumptions that they are somehow better than the others due to their origins.

As Muslims we know this to be a wrong way to judge people.

I do not claim to be an expert on ethnic group of Burma. But here’s the thing, I don’t need to be to know that their origins should be secondary to how they are treated. This is not a case of settler colonialism in which all Rohingya came recently to Burma to take over and push out locals. And even if it were, should a state handle such matters by genocide? By burning babies alive?

Golda Meir famously said in 1969 that up until that time, Palestinians did not exist.[4] This statement is outrageous, yes—but sure, Israeli occupation has helped to shape the concept of Palestinian identity. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, nor does it mean that these people were not existing prior to Zionist aggression.

As an aside, we can also of course easily distinguish Israeli occupation from the Rohingya living peacefully in one region of Burma, not kicking people out of their homes and claiming those homes are theirs.

Identity is shaped, as Benedict Anderson famously described, by political realities and to whom we imagine ourselves to be connected (p.6). This is not always a bad thing—we may never meet all Muslims even living within ten miles of us, but we know we share core beliefs which unite us. This is a far more logical reason to unite rather than simply over skin color or even a shared mother tongue or origins.

RELATED: The Disease of Nationalism

The Rohingya Speak

After going from Burma to Bangladesh, and then arriving on a boat to Aceh, Indonesia, 11-year-old Faruk Omar described his situation:

“‘We left Bangladesh because the Rohingya situation at the camp is not good, it’s getting very bad at the moment,’ the 11-year-old said in English.

Faruk said he left his mother in Bangladesh and followed his uncle to start a new life, preferably in a Muslim majority country like Indonesia or Malaysia.

‘We left Bangladesh to this country to make a beautiful future… I have no father, only one uncle and my mom is still in Bangladesh. I came here because I want to improve my education’”

19-year-old Sheikh Mubarak Ali made the following plea:

“‘Please, treat us as human beings. We have the right to justice. We want to study. We want to contribute to our beloved motherland. We don’t want to bear the identity of “displaced people” anymore,’ Ali said.”

The reality on the ground—in Cox’s Bazar, in the newer refugee camp in the Bay of Bengal, in boats arriving to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand—is that there is a group of Muslim people who were living in Rakhine state (and had been for some time) who were being oppressed and killed by the government. Deny that, overlook it, and deny reality.

RELATED: The Genius of Islam | Episode 3, The Curse of Polytheism


  1. See, for example, page 55 of this late-18th century article on the languages of Burma:
  2. See pages 383-384 here (particularly starting from the final paragraph of pg. 383): Bayly, C.A. & Harper, T.N. Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 2005.
  3. “Authors’ Response: Is There No Resolution in Myanmar’s Rohingya Conflict?” Asia Policy, vol. 14, no. 1, 2019, pp. 197–202.
  4. Giles, Frank. “Gold Meir: ‘Who Can Blame Israel.’” 15 June 1969. Sunday Times. p.12.
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Yusuf ibn Tashfin

May Allah have mercy and protect the rohingya from their suffering.This is another example that shows how problematic nationalism is.The fundamental goal of nationalism is to endow a community of people who share ethnic similarities, language, culture, traditions, religion, etc ;with a state of their own.But this leads to the fact that many times this community of people who consider themselves a nation, want to “purify” the territory of other different communities that are minority in number

Yusuf ibn Tashfin

The reality is that there is no territory on planet earth; except in very isolated territories; that has a 100% homogeneous population, most modern nations that are homogeneous commited genocide in their history to become a homogeneous nation. One example of how dangerous nationalism is, are the many genocides and brutal wars that happened in Europe in the 1800’s(where millions of muslims died in the Balkan peninsula) and first half of the 1900’s(with WW1, WW2, holocaust, and a long etc)

Last edited 3 months ago by Yusuf ibn Tashfin