What’s In A Name: Rohingya Versus Bengali?

The Burmese government is offering citizenship for people who can prove that their families have been living in Burma for three generations.


Sabtu, 01 Agus 2015 12:00 WIB


Phyu ZIn Poe

The white card holder, Asha Balcon, is one the Rohingyas who is fighting identity as a Rohingya. (Ph

The white card holder, Asha Balcon, is one the Rohingyas who is fighting identity as a Rohingya. (Photo: Phyu Zin Poe)

Mother of four children Saw Myint is helping her children do homework. There are five NGO-run schools from primary to high school inside the camps.

Her husband was killed in communal violence between Rakhine Buddhist and Muslims three years ago.

Since then, she and her children have been trapped in the camp and have been living off food from donors.

"Two years ago, lots of donor came and distributed food to us but now not many people come so we are struggling for living," she said.

The government says there are 120,000 people living in the camp.

There are guards surrounding it to make sure nobody leaves an 8 kilometer radius around the camp.

Saw Myintis one of 700,000 white card holders in the Arakan State.

This means that for her whole she has been unable to travel to another state with out official approval.

“I want to go to Yangon but I can't go anywhere. I wanted to visit my relative when they are sick but I can't go.Now we have lost everything,” se said.

She says her family has been living here for at least three generations. But beyond that she doesn’t know.

After intense international pressure, the Burmese government is offering citizenship for people who can prove that their families have been living in Burma for three generations.

However, she will be identified as Bengali --- a person from Bangladesh not Rohingya.

"I am Rohingya and a Muslim. We are not Bengali. Those came from Bangladesh should be called Bengali. We were born here and brought up here, our parents are from this country. I don't want a card saying we are Bengali,” she said.

Under military rule, Rohingya’s have been treated as second class in Arakan State. But they are worried that being labeled Bengali will be even worse.

Khin Soe, the chief immigration officer in the state capital Sittwe, insists they will have the same rights as all the other Burmese ethnic groups.

"We named those who come from China as Chinese, who come from India are Indian, who come Pakistan are Pakistanis, who come from Nepal are Nepali. That's why, their white card record it’s stated that they are Bengali. Everyone who qualifies as a citizen will be granted all rights as a citizen, according to our law section 12,” he said.

Rohingyas and some international scholars believe Rohingyas are indigenous to Arakan State.

But the Burmese government, Rakhine ultra-nationalists and seemingly a majority of the Burmese population have denied for years the existence of the Rohingya.

According to them, the Rohingya ethnicity is an invention devised by immigrants from Bangladesh to take over the land in Arakan

Ba Thein an Arakan nationalist writer holds that view.

“If the government recognizes them as Rohingyas, all people who are here become Rohingya plus those who migrated from Bangladesh will become Rohingya. They will take over all of the Arakan State. That's why, we can let this happen,” he said.

Some people in the camps here say they are Muslim Burmese and don’t use the word Rohingya.

35 years old Khin Mar Swesays she has not grown up with that label.

" I just heard the name of Rohingya after conflict broke out three year ago,” she said.

Some argue that U Nu, the former prime minister allowed Bengali immigrant to vote and move to the country so that he could win the election.   

Soe Naing is a Rohingya, who lives in darphai camp, is outspoken about their rights.

“We even have our language broadcast from 1956 to 1958 on the state broadcaster. For many reasons, we couldn’t state this name but now once again, we want to get our identity back," he said.

Some people in the camp I spoke to, like 38 years old Than Win want to get citizenship so they can escape from the camp.   

But say they are getting pressure from their community not to.

“If I accept the citizenship as a Bengali, our community will not accept me and exile me from the community,” he said.

The government claims around 400,000 white card holders have applied for citizenship under their terms.

For those, who didn't want to take part and are fighting to be identified as Rohingya, there future is not clear.


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