Tun Mrat Naing attempts to erase Rohingya identity and history

Rakhine Nationalist Tun Mrat Naing’s carefully worded recognition of Rohingya human and citizenship rights fails to conceal his attempt to erase Rohingya group identity and history, angering the survivors and worrying genocide scholars

Maung Zarni

Prothom Alo’s interview with Tun Mrat Naing, the commander-in-chief of the Arakan Army which spearheads Buddhist Rakhine population’s openly pro-independence movement, comes across as strategically thought-through, determined and sensitive to the discourse of human rights.

But there are some disturbing elements the interview contains which must not go unnoticed.

I am responding in my individual capacity not simply as a professional scholar of Burmese politics who has studied the country’s affairs – including inter-ethnic relations and liberation struggles, over the last 30-odd years, importantly, but as a Burmese from the dominant ethnic group who unequivocally supports the independence aspirations of the internally colonised non-Bama and non-Buddhist ethnic communities, including both Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.

In terms of my own personal and family ties with the repressive military regime, the three generations of my own extended military family, both male and female, have, with great patriotic pride - perhaps misguidedly, in retrospect – served in this national and nationalistic institution since its inception in 1942. One younger brother of my maternal grandfather was a close friend and colonial Rangoon University classmate of the founder of the Burmese military and the architect of Burma’s independence, the late Aung San, while the second younger brother was the 1stcommanding officer of retired dictator Senior General Than Shwe who created the post-General Ne Win quasi-democratic politics that has now run aground. My own mother’s younger brother was a VIP pilot who flew General Ne Win’s plane until the old dictator was placed under house arrest by Than Shwe, and was 15 years senior at the Defence Services Academy to the current Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing.

The military was originally founded under the patronage of the WWII Japan’s fascist military as a key instrument of liberation struggle against the British colonial rule, which lasted over 120 years. However, the successive post-independence generations of military leaderships have succeeded in repurposing the national military and the state as the instruments of control, repression, and exploitation for the exclusive benefit of the military as a ruling class, at great costs to the entire society of multi-ethnic peoples, including the Burmese Buddhist majority.

I will not comment on the Arakan Army chief’s strategic and tactical choices with respect to Rakhine people’s armed struggle to restore the sovereignty lost nearly 250 years ago.

This 17 October 2017 file photo shows an influx of Rohigyas arriving in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar from Myanmar.
Prothom Alo

I confine my responses to what I see as factual historical mistakes and omissions, and the unmistakably colonialist orientation – with specific respect to Rohingya people – which I detect in the Rakhine general’s comments.

First, it is factually incorrect to say that previous generations of Rakhine nationalists had only cooperated with the dominant Burmese in the post-colonial Union of Burma, both during the first decade of the parliamentary democracy (January 1948 – March 1962) and the military rule (from 1962 to present, with a short-lived interval of semi-civilian rule of Aung San Suu Kyi).

The sovereignty-conscious Rakhine launched their liberation struggles immediately after the end of the WWII and the military defeat of Japanese Fascist occupational army, which armed and patronised both ethnic Rakhine and Burmese nationalists who signed up to fight against the British, Japan’s target in Burma and India.

In the fall of 1994, I interviewed the late colonel Chit Myint, the acting commander of Burma Rifle Five, who led the military operations against Rakhine’s armed insurrections, one of the two earliest armed revolts, the other of which was the armed rebellion by the Mujahideen, representing the people who have come to identify themselves as Rohingyas in the 1950’s. In the taped interview, he recalled, “My troops were fighting the Rakhine separatists when the whole country was celebrating the transfer of sovereignty from the British Government to the First President of independent Burma in Rangoon on Independence Day (4 January).”

Additionally, the retired colonel who relocated to Virginia where he lived until his passing several years ago shared his first-hand knowledge of how the senior leadership of the Burmese armed forces planned to militarily pre-empt any armed secessionist movements by any group by building military bases in the country’s non-majority regions such as Shan states in the disguise of military training schools and staff colleges.

Evidently, outgunned by the central post-independence military led by the likes of Commander Chit Myaing, both early Rakhine liberation movement [and the Rohingya’s attempt to take Northern Rakhine or Arakan state and join the then East Pakistan (since 1971 Bangladesh) in the formative years of Burma as an independent republic] failed categorically.

Emphatically, because the ancient Arakan and post-independence Rakhine state have always been the shared birthplace and ancestral land between two major ethno-religious communities – namely Rakhine and Rohingya – the understanding of political affairs of Arakan or Rakhine has to be through the prism of this triangular struggle for power over governance of the state – among the colonising Bama (both civilian and military), the locally dominant Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas. Although there are other groups in plains and riverine coastal region of Rakhine such as Chin, Mro, Mranma, Muslim Kaman, etc, they are numerically insignificant to form any power or political bloc in the state’s provincial politics.

Demographically, post-independence Rakhine state ought to be disaggregated and best understood as a cluster of three local political centres, all ethnically defined. These are 1) the northern Rakhine state, historically been the home of the predominantly borderlands people of Rohingyas, with shared linguistic, religious and demographic ties to Bangladesh, a fact which had officially been established and recognized in the Union of Burma government Encyclopaedia (Volume 9, 1964), published two years after the military rule was instituted ; 2) the state’s central sub-region which centres around the two major cities of Mrauk-U, the old seat of Rakhine sovereign kingdom and the main port and administrative city of Sittwe or Akyab is the heartlands of Rakhine people; and 3) the southern part of Rakhine state is home to many of the ethnic Bama internal migrants who have greater ties and loyalty to the central ethnocratic Bama state and government.

There is also the ethnically Chin Paletwa sub region, immediately adjacent to Chin state which borders on India’s north-eastern state of Mizoram.

Throughout the parliamentary democracy period of roughly 14 years – from independence in 1948 to the military coup of 1962, which effectively ended any trappings and space of an electoral democracy, western educated Rakhine politicians in the country’s bicameral parliament in Rangoon campaigned for the autonomous statehood or “internal sovereignty”, to borrow Arakan Army Chief Tun Mrat Naing’s term.

After their respective armed rebellions were crushed by the central ethnically Bama-controlled military, both Rakhine and Rohingya politicians used the emerging parliamentary space as the site of their respective struggles for a fair share of power and governance in Rakhine.

Respectively, “Buddhist” ethno-nationalists, Rakhine parliamentarians campaigned hard for the ethnic Rakhine statehood where they would have the lion’s share of the administrative and political powers while Muslim Rohingya politicians in the national parliament struggled to get their group’s share in state power.

Importantly, the Rohingyas were not prepared to be placed under the administrative domination under ethno-nationalist Buddhist Rakhine with whom they had bloody communal feuds during WWII, in the anticipated autonomous Rakhine state, thanks to the weapons acquired from occupying Japanese and the exiting British.

However, Rohingya politicians and community leaders knew that they were between rock and the hard place. The idea of secession of Muslim Rohingya with the view towards joining up with the adjacent predominantly Muslim republic of (East and West) Pakistan was a pipedream. Neither the pre-partition Muslim leaders such as Mohammad Ali Jinnah, nor the Bengal chief minister, which had administrative control over the then East Bengal, were sympathetic to any secession aspirations of the sizable Muslim population of Western Burma.

Historical evidence offers no empirical basis for the official fear or the popular imagination of “Muslims of Northern Rakhine”, taking a slice of “Buddhist land” and joining up with Bangladesh.

From the perspective of the dominant Bama, both civilian and military elite, centred in Rangoon, both groups were “trouble-makers”. The painful fact is this: Bama elites liked neither Rakhine Buddhists – because of their staunch anti-Bama ethnonationalism, however justified - nor the Rohingyas – because they are predominantly Muslims and with bicultural and common religious ties to the Muslims of neighbouring East Pakistan (and later Bangladesh).

Out of this triangular ethno-religious politics emerges the shifty strategic games played by political elites of all three groups, with divergent and conflicting political and strategic agendas. As is the case with any colonial divide-and-rule politics, the central colonising ethnic bloc, particularly the Burmese military, have played Rohingya Muslims against Rakhine Buddhists.

In the 1950’s, the Burmese military - led by General Ne Win as the Commander-in-chief - practically controlled all restive border regions vis-à-vis civilian administrations of non-Burmese ethnic groups. To the chagrin of Rakhine nationalists who wanted to keep Rakhine as one autonomous region, under their control, the Ministry of Defence Division of Border Affairs approved the Rohingyas’ demands for a predominantly Muslim administrative district called Mayu District – made up of the two northern Rakhine townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung, as well as parts of Yathaydaung township, something Prime Minister U Nu’s civilian government rubber-stamped.

Tun Mrat Naing chose not to acknowledge the collaborator role that thousands of Rakhine nationalists have played in the Burmese military’s institutionalised genocidal persecution of Rohingyas since February 1979.

Importantly, the senior most leadership of the Burmese military officially consented to the Rohingyas’ right to self-identify as Rohingya ethnic nationality and, additionally, recognised the group as a constitutive and integral ethnic group native to Western Myanmar.

There exists a mountain of both primary and official documentations that support Rohingya group identity and history of belonginess in Northern Rakhine.

In his own published writings, the late Deputy Commander-in-Chief Brigadier Aung Gyi, General Ne Win’s second in command, recorded the Ministry of Defence discussions with Rohingya leaders, which were designed to bring an end to the lingering Mujahideen armed rebellion. A crucial agenda item in these discussions included acknowledging Rohingyas’ minority group rights to self-identify as Rohingya – and, specifically, NOT to be lumped under the religious label of “Muslims of Rakhine”.

The late Lt-Colonel Ant Kywe, - my late grandfather’s younger brother – served (in 1959-1962) as the Deputy Commander of All Rakhine Command headquartered in Sittwe and concurrently assumed the deputy-chief of the newly established and operational Mayu District Administration. His own type-written and signed official Thank You note to all Rohingya community and religious leaders, teachers and other civil servants who assisted the Ministry of Defence to make the surrender ceremony of the last batch of 200-strong Mujahideen fighters a success, addressed Rohingyas as “esteemed Rohingya leaders and Rohingya people.”

Rohingya Ethnic Nationality | Zarni's Blog (Authentic copy of this official letter).

So, when Arakan Army Chief Tun Mrat Naing told Prothom, “(w)e refer to them as the 'Muslim inhabitants of Rakhine," he is setting the political clock of Rakhine state back to the 1950’s.

He also repeated the fact that the Arakan Army has made efforts to recruit and include some members of this “Muslim inhabitants” into the Arakan Army’s police and local administrative units.

Considering the fact that Rohingyas were a key stakeholder – they are the largest ethnic bloc after Buddhist Rakhine who outnumber them 3:1 before the last wave of the genocidal purge – talk of making Rohingya policemen and local administrators does not sound visionary befitting an aspiring national leader. Even if one were to erase the well-documented important role played by Calcutta- and Rangoon-educated Rohingya leaders such as Abu Gafur, Sultan Ahmad and so on, who had served in General Aung San’s pre-independence Constituent Assembly, alongside Rakhine politicians, helped draft the original Constitution of the Union of Burma, served in the post-independence cabinet of Prime Minister U Nu, sat in the national parliament, Tun Mrat Naing’s talk of the Rohingya’s roles as simply low level law enforcement agents set up by Arakan Army leadership only adds insults to the genocidal injury of Rohingyas, in Myanmar and in diaspora worldwide.

Importantly, Tun Mrat Naing chose not to acknowledge the collaborator role that thousands of Rakhine nationalists have played in the Burmese military’s institutionalised genocidal persecution of Rohingyas since February 1979. While the spearhead of the genocidal purges has typically been the Burmese military troops (and other security agencies such as the Border Guards, police and riot-controlled military-police hybrid units called Lon-htein), anti-Rohingya local Rakhine nationalists had played instrumental roles in virtually all waves of genocidal attacks on Rohingya communities.

As a matter of fact, the two anti-Rohingya Rakhine nationalists, the late historian Dr Aye Kyaw – a friend of mine - and high education director general the late San Thar Aung, were key drafters of the 1982 Citizenship Act which became the legal weapon of genocide, stripping virtually all Rohingyas of citizenship and the right to belonging in Burma.

In the two bouts of “communal violence” in June and October 2012, which resulted in the displacement of over 100,000 Rohingyas – still caged in Internally Displaced Persons camps in central Rakhine state after nearly a decade – organised armed Rakhine led the killings and destruction, with impunity from the Burmese government of President Thein Sein (2010-15).

Additionally, it was a group of most prominent Rakhine nationalist politicians in the national parliament in Naypyidaw, including vet Dr Aye Maung and teacher-cum-MP OoOo Hla Saw who publicly and officially met and “requested” Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing to send “troops” in order to protect Rakhine Buddhists from the threats of “Muslim terrorists”, on the eve of the largest genocidal purge in Burma’s history.

Myanmar military leadership happily obliged and launched “security clearance operations” in August 2017, having destroyed, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum researchers, over 38,000 physical structures including mosques, homes, schools, clinics, rice warehouses, and shops, slaughtering thousands of “Muslims of Rakhine”, and mass-rape of Rohingya women. Consequently, nearly 800,000 survivors fled into Bangladesh, in a span of several months.

In addition to these glaring omissions and refusal to acknowledge Rakhine nationalists’ collaboration in the Burmese army’s genocide against the Rohingyas, Arakan Army leader displayed a disturbing lack of understanding and appreciation of a crucial element in all genocides.

The desire for and intentional attempts at erasing the history and group identity of the targeted community is central and common across all documented cases of genocide, from the Turkish genocide of the Armenians one hundred years ago to Nazi genocide of the Jewish people, Roma, Russian, Poles and Sinti, as well as in the Bengali genocide by the West Pakistani army in 1971 and Rwanda and Bosnian genocides of the mid-1990’s.

While talking about his respect for “human rights and citizenship rights of the Muslims of Rakhine state” he obviously did not know that the apparent refusal to accept the well-documented Rohingya history and identity is in breach of the rights of Rohingya to self-identify.

Worse still, the kind of speech act falls within the realm of genocidal discourse.

I even met a Rakhine official, a Bengali who served as an executive assistant to the Speaker of Bangladeshi national parliament Dr Shirin Sharmin Chaudury in her office in July 2018

The victims, typically a vulnerable group, are never allowed to self-identify. Nor do the perpetrating group ever acknowledge and accept the victims’ group identity ever acknowledged. It is crucial to note that in the case of Rohingya the acts of killing and destruction have been carried out by both the Burmese military and Rakhine collaborators.

As the father of genocide studies, the late Polish-Jewish scholar Rafael Lemkin pointed out clearly perpetrators typically impose their preferred or chosen national patterns on the victim groups.

Hence, “No Rohingya”, but only “Muslims of Rakhine state” in the Rakhine nationalist discourses. Tun Mrat Naing merely repeated this popular genocidal narrative.

In the midst of different waves of “communal violence” of 2012, Rakhine nationalists have openly stated that Israel is their inspirational model. More troublingly, ominously, Rakhine dissidents in Thai-Burmese border town of Mae Sot are known to keep copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf and in Rakhine publications Hitler and Nazis have been painted as “patriots who did the needful in the German nation’s interests.”

Furthermore, Rohingyas are a borderlands, bi-nation-state people. Typically, there are found two different names for villages or places, and peoples. Examples near and far abound. Poles and Ukranians in the pre-World War Eastern Europe, Jing Hpaws or Sing Hpaw of Northern Myanmar state of Kachin on the Sino-Burmese borders, Dai or Shan along Thai-Burmese borders, Chin or Zo along Indo-Burmese border provinces, and Mon and Karen along Thai-Burmese borders spring to mind.

As a matter of fact, both Rakhine and Rohingya communities exist on both sides of Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Rakhines in Bangladesh side are allowed to keep their Buddhist and ethnic identities, and Bangladesh is not worried about Bengali Rakhine joining hands with Rakhine in Myanmar to fight for secession. Not only do the Bengali Rakhine have full citizenship rights and keep their Rakhine identity openly do they have opportunities to serve the state in Bangladesh with dignity. I even met a Rakhine official, a Bengali who served as an executive assistant to the Speaker of Bangladeshi national parliament Dr Shirin Sharmin Chaudury in her office in July 2018.

NLD leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi, successive military leaderships since the 1982 Citizenship Act’s passage and Rakhine scholars, politicians and community leaders were all behind the international and nation-wide propaganda campaign that spread the malicious – and genocidal – idea that Rohingyas are a “fake ethnicity”. Aung San Suu Kyi officially and blatantly told the international diplomats, politicians and INGOs not to use the "emotive" word ‘Rohingya’.

At about the time the NLD leader appeared at the International Court of Justice to deny and defence the allegations of genocide in The Gambia vs Myanmar case in December 2019, her Minister for International Cooperation told the Voice of American Burmese Service that the main objection behind calling Rohingya by their ethnic group name is the concern that Rohingya will demand a separate state, as an ethnic group, hence the relentless and official attempts to falsely presenting the Rohingyas a “fake people”.

This act of projecting the perpetrators’ unfounded and groundless fear onto the targeted vulnerable group is known as an act of "mirroring": genocidal killers looking at the targeted group of people – ethnic, racial, national and religious – and deluding themselves that the group they are looking at have intentions to kill and commit genocide (against the dominant groups).

The view that Rohingya did not exist or the term was never used before 1950's collapses in the face of multiple sources of primary historical documents. Even GH Luce, the founder of historical studies of Burma and his most prominent student the late Than Tun intimated that Rohingya identity and presence date back to 15th century.

The truth is this. For 500 years Rakhine and Rohingya have inter-mingled, culturally, demographically, administratively and commercially, both deeply and more influenced by what Michael W Charney, the leading historian of ancient Arakan at the School of Oriental and African Studies, calls the Bay of Bengal civilisation of Eastern India. For they were geographically and culturally isolated from the Dry Zone Buddhist civilisation, and political centres which came to form the dominant pillar of post-independence Burma.

Tragically, Rakhine nationalists have been engaged in the acts of purifying their past, erasing any presence or role of Rohingyas and other groups in the rise of Rakhine kingdom.

This was in synch with the Burmese military intelligence' s genocidal project as spelled out by Gen. Khin Nyunt in his various publications including a monograph entitled “The Problem or Threat at Our Nation’s Western Gate” (Yangon, 2016). In this nationalist revisionist history Rakhine was “a purely Buddhist land”, like Myanmar as a whole was. The Rakhine and Burmese histories have been distorted to fit the present nationalist vision of the “Buddhist and feudal” as opposed to secular and modern – military. Facts don’t matter to nationalists. Myanmar’s Buddhism was a foreign implant from ancient India, and “Buddhist peoples” and “Buddhist way of life” were invented after Buddhism arrival. From the Buddhist nationalists’ standpoint, the country has been “invaded” by Islam and those dark-skinned people who arrive, unwelcome, from the Indian sub-continent.

History is full of painful ironies. Angela Davis has identified the ironic but recurring phenomenon where the formerly persecuted groups morph into the persecuting group themselves once they are in power

Tun Mrat Naing’s apparent concern that Rohingya group identity and history in Rakhine displace and make invisible Rakhine Buddhist’s own ethnonationalist history and dilute Arakan identity is misguided. For unlike Rakhine nationalist historical narratives, Rohingyas and those of us who have come to support both minority/group and human rights of Rohingyas never claim Rakhine or Arakan to be exclusively for the predominantly Muslim Rohingyas.

Misguidedly, the Arakan Army leader Tun Mrat Naing dismisses the western-educated Rohingya in the diaspora, as, in effect, un-worthy or unqualified as Rakhine’s partners in post-genocide reconstruction in “Rakhita”, either as an internally sovereign state or an independent republic. With almost no exception, this category of Rohingya – who have come to serve as the faces and voices of the Rohingya genocide victims globally, have repeatedly stressed the fraternal ties with Rakhine Buddhists. They have offered to cooperate fully as co-equals who share the ancient Arakan as their ancestral birthplace. Thanks to their genuine offer of reconciliation and solidarity with the other oppressed groups of Myanmar they have won the hearts and minds of the Bama majority since the February coup and the bloody crackdown of peaceful protesters last year.

Importantly, Rohingyas have not attempted to erase the Buddhist tradition or ethnic Rakhine presence. The cleansing of Arakan’s history along religious and ethnic lines has been carried out only by the likes of Burmese military leaders and their collaborating Rakhine nationalists.

The term “Arakan or Araccan” refers to the inhabitants of the kingdom known as Arakan. It has no religious or ethnic connotations, neither Buddhist nor Muslims, neither Rakhine nor Rohingya.

It is the Rakhine Buddhists who have usurped the term “Arakan” as in Arakan Army (which is effectively the Rakhine Buddhist liberation army) and its political party “Arakan” Liberation Party, and deprived Rohingyas of their rightful belongingness to the shared birthplace.

In this, Rakhine nationalists are no more progressive nor more enlightened than the Burmese military regime with whom they share the single cancer of Islamophobia. I know that Tun Mrat Naing’s liberally-tongued interview has disappointed many a Rohingyas – and some are outraged and insulted – as the Rakhine nationalist continues with the genocidal erasure of Rohingya’s history and identity while trampling on the rights of Rohingya – a protected group under the Genocide Convention – to self-identify, with or without needing any organization’s approval, Arakan Army or the genocidal State of Myanmar.

As an anti-colonial Bama – a former military cadet admit at that – I had welcomed, supported and in a few cases, facilitated, the Rakhine-Rohingya reconciliation talks, public and private, involving Arakan Army supporters and the Western educated Rohingya campaigners in diaspora, before the military coup a year ago. I personally feel let down by the rather regressive views that a very important Rakhine leader has aired through Prothom Alo interview.

History is full of painful ironies. Angela Davis has identified the ironic but recurring phenomenon where the formerly persecuted groups morph into the persecuting group themselves once they are in power. I hope that General Tun Mrat Naing will meditate on the misguided and dangerously genocidal views he has evidently held towards the only ethnic community of Myanmar which does not have a real armed struggle, to pose any security threat to anyone, Rakhine or the country at large.