Moving Towards Understanding and Reconciliation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

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Moving Towards Understanding and Reconciliation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

Recent comments by the commander of the Arakan Army have prompted a heated debate about history, language, and ethnic identity.

Moving Towards Understanding and Reconciliation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

The Sakya Man Aung pagoda in Mrauk-U, the ancient capital of Arakan, in Rakhine State, Myanmar.

Credit: Photo 86920359 © Punnawit Suwattananun |

In discussions of Myanmar’s intricate ethnic tapestry, the discourse around identity, particularly the term “Rohingya,” remains highly charged and complex. The controversy was reawakened last month, when the United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA), an ethnic Rakhine insurgent group fighting for autonomy from the central state, used the term “Bengali” in an official statement in lieu of the term “Rohingya.” This was then echoed in social media posts by Twan Mrat Naing, the leader of ULA/AA, sparking significant controversy among both domestic and international observers.

“Nothing is wrong with calling Bengalis ‘Bengalis,’” he wrote in a post on X (formerly Twitter) on March 26. “They have been our neighbors, our friends, and fellow citizens for centuries. Let’s be honest and embrace this reality to build a better future.”

This debate over the use of the term “Bengali” is more than quibble over semantics. Rohingya community and its supporters argue that the term implies that the latter is foreign to Myanmar, and that its use accompanied the Myanmar military’s forced expulsion of Rohingya from northern Rakhine State in 2017, a campaign that some experts have described as genocidal. The issue touches on deeper questions of recognition, history, and the fundamental right to self-identify. By exploring the myriad perspectives that animate the discourse around the term “Rohingya,” I intend to unravel the complexities of this debate, acknowledging the diverse perspectives that contribute to the discourse without sidelining the rich historical and emotional depth that underlies it.

Central to the Rohingya identity controversy is one of the most polarizing questions in contemporary Myanmar politics: the clash between the right to self-identification – a cornerstone of international human rights norms – and claims by some Rakhine nationalists of “identity theft.” Some in the Rakhine community, including some political figures and historians, posit that the term “Rohingya” was historically associated with the Rakhine people themselves. This narrative asserts that the term “Rohingya” is the result of a linguistic misinterpretation.  Individuals from Bangladesh reportedly struggle with the pronunciation of “Rakhine,” articulating it as “Rwa-haing.” The suffix “-gya” in this context translates to “inhabitant” or “native.” Thus, “Rwa-haingya,” which over time has evolved into “Rohingya,” initially referred to Rakhine inhabitants, not the Muslim group known today as Rohingya. This interpretation posits the term’s adoption by the Muslim community as a form of identity appropriation, a notion that stirs considerable debate and is perceived by some Rakhine individuals as an erasure of their historical and cultural legacy.

Conversely, the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, assert their right to self-identify, pointing to their generations of existence and heritage in Arakan, presently Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Moreover, international standards on self-identification underscore the right of every individual and group to define their own identity. Thus, the controversy transcends Myanmar’s borders, engaging with worldwide debates over rights, recognition, and the politics of identity.

Adding complexity to the issue is the claim by some Rohingya activists that their history in Rakhine State predates that of the Rakhine, potentially going back thousands of years. While this perspective is not universally accepted among Rohingya activists and the populace at large, and is disputed by academic sources, it has nonetheless intensified the dispute. It challenges the long-standing history of the Rakhine people and their connection to the land, a narrative integral to Rakhine identity and the Rakhine claim to sovereignty that the ULA/AA is seeking to realize. Such claims are taken very seriously by figures like Twan Mrat Naing, as reflected in his media interviews, viewing them not only as a denial of the Rakhines’ historical and cultural legacy but also as an existential threat to their ancestry and claims to the land of present-day Rakhine State.

Intensified by international advocacy for the Rohingya, especially since the Myanmar military’s ethnic cleansing campaign, the situation presents a challenging dilemma: the international principles of self-identification clash with claims of identity appropriation articulated by the Rakhine community. The debate is complicated, with deep historical roots and significant emotional resources invested on both sides. Twan Mrat Naing’s public refusal to acknowledge the Rohingya identity, even as he acknowledged the community’s historical coexistence with the Rakhine people, has only highlighted the challenges of reconciling two entrenched and conflicting narratives.

Complicating matters further, members of the Rakhine community, including some of my friends, often raise a further point: despite being immediate neighbors, the identity of “Rohingya” does not exist in Bangladeshi, unlike other ethnic groups like the Chakmas, Maramas, and Rakhines, which are recognized on both sides of the border. This point is leveraged by the Rakhines to argue that the term “Rohingya” is a construct used by Bengalis in Myanmar to claim a distinct identity and as such, that the Rohingya are essentially Bengalis. Such claims are directed at challenging the notion of a unique Rohingya identity within Rakhine, suggesting it is a strategy to appropriate a specific historical and geographical identity.

Having grown up in Rakhine, my personal experience with these layers of identity and belonging offers a useful perspective into the discussion surrounding the term “Rohingya.” As a member of the Maramagri, a smaller ethnic group sharing linguistic similarities with the Rohingya, my understanding of our shared words and phrases has waned over time. Yet, it is important to note that the term “Rohingya” was unfamiliar to me until the ethnic and religious violence of 2012, despite its historical roots and usage long before this tumultuous period.

Since my childhood, interactions with my Muslim friends and neighbors in both my native village and in Sittwe, the state capital of Rakhine, revealed a diversity of self-identification that transcends the binary often depicted in media narratives. For instance, some of my Muslim friends in Rakhine, with whom I grew up, never identified themselves as Rohingya back then. Instead, they referred to themselves with terms that resonate more closely with their personal and communal identities, such as “Mosue Marn,” which I understand to mean Muslim, and “Barñl Zarthi.” While “Zarthi” translates to “race” or “ethnic” in the Chittagonian dialect, a language that also forms a part of my ethnic heritage, I confess that the term “Barñl” eludes my comprehension.

Interestingly, it is evident that the designation “Rohingya” is not uniformly embraced across the Muslim communities of Rakhine State, the main exception being the Kaman, who, despite being Muslim, maintain a distinct identity. This is particularly true in areas like Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, and the southern parts of the state. Such personal observations underscore the nuanced reality of identity within Arakan – a reality that extends beyond the binary rhetoric often encountered in media and political discourse.

By sharing these observations and amplifying local voices, it becomes evident that the discourse around the term “Rohingya” is not merely about political correctness, as Twan Mrat Naing seemed to suggest, but touches on deeper issues of identity, history, and the longing for recognition and respect. It is a reminder of the importance of listening to the diverse voices within Rakhine and acknowledging their varied experiences and perspectives, as we navigate the sensitive terrain of ethnic and political identities.

The journey towards reconciliation in Rakhine State has recently taken a perplexing turn. Reports from 2019 and 2020 suggested a potential shift towards peace and acceptance, as Twan Mrat Naing was noted using the term “Rohingya” in international news reports – an indication that the term had been accepted by ULA/AA leaders, symbolizing a move towards an acknowledgment of the Rohingya identity. However, Twan Mrat Naing’s recent posts have cast doubt on this progress. Additionally, in a 2022 interview with Asia Times, he expressed recognition for the human rights and citizenship rights of all residents of Arakan but highlighted that the term “Rohingya” is not accepted by most Rakhines, as it was seen to deprive them of their history. This ambivalence highlights the complexities of the situation. The lack of clarity – and the possibility that Twan Mrat Naing’s earlier use of the term “Rohingya” was accurately reported, or perhaps misconstrued by media outlets – underscores the challenges in navigating the intricate dynamics of identity in contemporary Rakhine State.

Achieving peace and reconciliation in Rakhine necessitates a deep appreciation for the region’s intricate mosaic of identities and a concerted effort to fostering dialogue and understanding. Key to this process is the acknowledgment of historical grievances and the diverse narratives that shape the identity of each community. For Rakhine’s various communities to move forward towards peaceful coexistence after a decade of tumult, leaders from all communities must engage constructively in addressing the identity issue.

The path toward peace and reconciliation will require empathy, respect, and inclusivity, and an approach in which the identities of all peoples are recognized and honored. Achieving this goal requires a collective commitment to dialogue, understanding, and action that addresses the root causes of division while paving the way for a future where every individual can thrive in harmony.