An Historian Looks at Rohingya

Irrawady Report:

Dr. Aye Kyaw

Dr. Aye Kyaw

Dr. Aye Kyaw has written books on education and culture in Burma. He was born in Lwe Chaung village in Taungok Township in Arakan State. He has a BA in history and religion, an MA in Asian history and a BA in law from Rangoon University. He earned a Ph.D in Southeast Asia History at Monash University in Australia.

While visiting Bangkok, he was interviewed by Ba Saw Tin on his views on Arakan history, politics in Burma and the debate over Rohingya history and their troubled relationship with the Burmese military government.
Question: Describe Arakan politics before Burma’s independence?

Answer: Arakan leaders always joined in Burma’s struggle for independence. They participated at the forefront in the struggle against British colonial rule and the Japanese invasion. If someone asks why they participated, it was because the Arakan wanted to rule themselves. The prominent Arakan leaders during British rule were Monk U Seinda, monk U Pyinnya Thiha, U Nyo Tun, U Aung Zan Wai, U Kyaw Min, U Ba Saw and others. These leaders were prominent figures in the Arakan resistance movement and Arakan politics. Monk U Ottama was one of the first leaders in Burmese politics.

If you look at the situation of the Arakan under British rule, there were two groups. One group worked with the British, and one group joined in the independence struggle led by Gen. Aung San.

U Nyo Tun was a famous student leader in the 1936 student strike, and he was quite well-known in both the Arakan and Burmese community. While Burmese acknowledge March 27 as marking the beginning of the resistance movement against Japan, the Arakan had already started their resistance against Japan earlier, around Feb. 12 or 13.

Q. What happened to the Arakan after the independence struggle?

A. The main reason they fought was to get their own state and self rule. Unfortunately, when Burma won independence, nothing came of it. They asked Prime Minister U Nu to grant them a state, but U Nu evaded the issue.

Q. How did politics development during the following years?

A. During U Nu’s Anti Fascist Peoples’ Freedom League (AFPFL) rule, there were two powerful political parties in Arakan State: The AFPFL and the Arakan Unity Party (AUP). U Kyaw Min led the AUP. U Aung Zan Wai and Taung Koke U Kyaw Tin led the AFPFL in the Arakan region.

Then the AFPFL split into two factions: the “stable” AFPFL and the “clean” AFPFL. The clean AFPFL faction leader, prime minister U Nu, set up Mayu District in Arakan State. He registered Bengali as citizens through national registration and allowed them to vote. During the Colonial era, the Bengali started coming into Arakan to work. They mostly worked in the agricultural sector, and then returned when the work was done. One of the prominent leaders among Bengali was Sultan Mahmud. The AFPFL was weak in a sense. When U Nu allowed Bengalis to enter Mayu District that was the beginning of today’s Rohingya problem.

Q. Do you know when the use of the term “Rohingya” began?

A. I think it appeared during the 1960s. Because even the Bengali leader, Sultan Mahmud, when he became a member of parliament, I don’t think he used the word “Rohingya.” In earlier Burmese history and in Arakan history, I haven’t seen the word Rohinhya. Even after independence, there was no such word.

Q. What does “Rohingya” mean?

A. When Sayagyi U Tha Tun was in good health, we visited whenever he was in Rangoon. We had conversations on several themes: literature, history and other social matters. Once, he explained to me the meaning of Rohingya. The word derived from an Arakan word, Lwintja.

Lwintja in Arakan means leaves falling from trees and blowing around without any purpose.

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