Arakan – The Silent One
by Aye Maung
It was 1993 when my grandfather told me the story about a village; which was named New Mront-Gar, and it is where I was born. The name of my village used to be called Mront-Gar and now it is called Mront-Ga Ror Houng, which simply means old Mront-Ga village. Houng means old in our Arakanese language. I was a little curious thirteen years boy who loved to question everything that came to my mind. As a young child, I had been puzzling with the name of these two villages, the villages that have similar names except the difference of old and new. As we were waiting for the boat to travel to the town of Pauk-Taw, I asked my grandfather why that village was named Mront-Ga Ror Theik ( New Mront Ga village). My grandfather was silent and did not say a word for a long time. A great deal of smoke came from his mouth and nose as he was sitting under a big tree, enjoying a big Arakan-made cigar. He then suddenly cleared his throat as I received a meaningful look from his eyes. Then, he started speaking very clearly. He told me that the reason why that village had that particular name was that the new village was built not long ago. He continued, and said that people from the western direction – meaning the Arakan-Bangladesh border area, specifically the townships (counties) of Maungdaw and Buthidaung – arrived here suddenly in 1942. They were of all walks of life, young to old, farmers to shop-keepers, mostly Buddhists, with some Hindus and tribal minorities. They lost everything they had. Their villages, their land, everything they called home was burnt down and destroyed. Many of their loved ones were killed and they had to flee from Maungdaw and Buthidaung counties to a safer part of Arakan, as they were so fearful of Bengali Muslim immigrants whom were massacring the native Arakanese.
I saw a painful and sad expression in his eyes as he continued to open up and describe this massacre, which took place in Maungdaw and Buthidaung counties in 1942. He told me that his and his brothers had to abandon their rice fields and join those who also had to suddenly flee and leave their homes and everything as they tried to escape from the horrible attacks of the Bengali Muslims. Mront-Gar-Ror Theik was a newly constructed village for the people who fled from the violence, said my grandfather. During World War II, when the Japanese forced the British to retreat from Burma, Bengali settlers (brought in by the British as workers) murdered over 20,000 native Arakanese (Rakhine Buddhists) and hundreds of Rakhine villages were destroyed and burnt to ashes. They wanted to seize this region from the indigenous Buddhists, who were deeply rooted in this land – their homeland – the land of the great Buddhist Kingdoms of Arakan. Local statistics and historical records show that this was a real genocide and the true circumstances in the Buthidaung and Maungdaw areas.
Again In 1988, on the anniversary of the 1942 massacre, 50,000 Bengali Muslims stormed into Maungdaw with the intent of eliminating the remaining Buddhists and declaring a Muslim-only autonomous state. They burned monasteries and villages but the out-numbered police force managed to defend the town. These massacres, and others, are well-known tragic incidents that all Arakanese people know and recount from generation to generation. Furthermore, the Arakanese Buddhists have now become the the tiny minority in those two counties as a result of the massacres, intimidation and threats against all non-Muslims.
We had a Muslim village nearby our home village too. One of my best friends, from school days, was a Muslim boy, who told me that his great grandparents were from Bengala (he meant Bengal, now Bengaladesh). My family and his family shared many things, and worked in our neighbouring rice fields in harmony, regardless of religion. I could not recall his real Muslim name anymore, but I knew him as ‘Japonchay’, which means ‘a little Japanese guy’. We nicknamed him when we were in primary school, as he had a light complexion unlike other Muslim children in his village. Arakanese people think Japenese are white. Japonchay become one of my best friends as he was always there to defend me, especially when other Muslim kids attempted to physically bully me when I visited him in his village. Not just Japonchay but his whole family enjoyed my company. They would invite me for a meal, and I would enjoy playing with him in his Muslim village. As I would return home from his village my mother would tease me about the Muslim meal I had with Japonchay’s family.
Arakan is Burma’s second poorest state, where every sector is under developed. Arakanese people have struggled a great deal, enduring human rights abuse, forced labour, grinding poverty, and high unemployment under the control of a notorious Burmese military dictatorship for many years. All of that, on top of losing their own historic Buddhist Kingdoms, known for many centuries as Arakan. Buddhism flourished under the royal dynasties of Arakan. The history of Arakan is divided into 7 parts – 1) the independent Kingdoms of Dhanyawadi, 2) Waithali, 3) Lemro, 4) Mrauk-U, 5) the conquest and occupation by the Burmese Konbaung Dynasty from 1784 to 1826, 6) British rule from 1826 to 1948, 7) and as a part of independent Burma from 1948.
I left my homeland of Arakan (Rakhine State) after I finished high school, and moved into the big city of Yangon, where I thought the water would be fresh and the grass would be greener. The Burmese capital city – where every young person dreamed of having golden opportunities in life – is where I thought I would have more education, and then find my way out to Europe for further study. During those times – the early 1990s – the term ‘Rohingya’ was unfamiliar in Rakhine State – no one had really heard of it, or used it. Not only Arakanese, but even all Muslims at that time did not have a clue what ‘Rohingya’ referred to. My Muslim childhood friend and his family never knew it or used it. I think it was around 2003, when I first heard the name ‘Rohingya’ from the BBC Burmese radio when I stayed with my Arakanese friends in our rental hostel in Yangon. We had around seven of us living together in one hostel in Yangon. We used to listen to the BBC Burmese every evening before we went to bed – as we were thirsty to connect with the outside world. Myanmar was under the boot of the military government and they controlled every single thing that would challenge their ruling power, especially educated people and the flow of information. We were astonished when we first heard that term ‘Rohingya’, as BBC Burmese even emphasised it, as if they were truly an ethnic people of Myanmar. We were asking each other that evening if anyone of us had heard of that ethnic name. We had learned in school about the 135 ethnicities in our country, but none of us had never heard or seen that term ‘Rohingya’. That night, as I tried to sleep, the question came up in my mind again and again – if they are an ethnicity of Burma why did I not know about them. Why did my childhood Muslim friend, Japonchay, and his family, not know about it? There must be some motive behind creating this name, I thought.
I was accepted to work as a volunteer in a community in Scotland in 2005, after I finally made contact with the outside world with the help of German doctors who came to visit Burma every year. From 2005 onward, the noise of Bengali settlers in Arakan was getting louder and louder, starting from stories of supposed ‘Rohingya’ fleeting by boat, I remember. I was often faced with questions about these so-called ‘Rohingya’ people from Burma who were attempting to cross the sea with tiny boats to escape from alleged oppression. I went to the Republic of Ireland in 2006 to volunteer another year of my service in Europe. During that year of volunteer service, assisting disabled Irish people, I went to visit a refugee camp in the city of Cork, in Ireland, at the invitation of one of my Burmese friends. As I was with him for a day in the camp, a young man who claimed himself to be a ‘Rohingya’ came over and introduced himself to me. Because he said that he was from Arakan, the state that I was also born in, I spoke to him in my mother tongue, the Arakanese language that everyone speaks and understand in Arakan. He struggled a great deal to respond to my questions and I saw him becoming quite uncomfortable because he could not understand or speak the language. After observing his appearance, and the accent, I quickly realized that this young man was not from Arakan, but possibly be from Chittagong – in Bangladesh However, I talked to him in Burmese but he did not understand that either, so I switched into speaking English in the end. My questions were very simple to him, such as a tiny bit of geography and the names of the towns we have in Arakan. After an hour of conversation, he confessed that he was from Bangladesh – and I was not surprised at all with that admission. I thanked him for his honesty, and wished him all the best, with his future in England.
I returned back to the UK for my degree study at the University of Aberdeen in 2007 – where I stayed for four more years on a student visa – until I finished my studies. During these four years of time in the UK I had been hearing the story of boat people again and again, and then it really drew the attention of the world when other Asian countries pushed the boat people back out to the sea. Then there were unburied corpses found somewhere in Thailand, and it was claimed that they were the bodies of ‘Rohinygas’. There was also a great deal of controversy regarding those boat people, based on whether they were Bengali Muslim from Myanmar, or Bangladesh, or even other Muslims pretending to be ‘Rohingya’ in order to get asylum – preferably in a Western country. I had read a couple of news stories that Burma Campaign UK was leading demonstrations in front of the Burmese Embassy in London demanding that the Myanmar government recognise these so-called ‘Rohingya’ as Myanmar citizens, and an ethnicity of Myanmar.
To make the narration of the ‘so-called Rohingya’ story popular in the world, the BBC journalist Anna Jones wrote and published an article titled, ”Bleak outlook for Burma’s ethnic group” with a map of Burma which had the showed the term ‘Rohingya’ with a picture of them – over my state of Arakan – as an ethnicity of Burma, but to my surprise she excluded showing a picture of us Arakanese (Rakhine) the indigenous people of the land! As I have mentioned before, the Muslim minority in Arakan had never used or even heard of the term ‘Rohingya’ until recent decades, until they were taught to use this term because of its political clout. Many of the Muslims did not care so much for a new term, but slowly it gained usage, and certainly the 2012 violence cemented the term in worldwide usage. ‘Rohingya’ has been coined and propagated by BBC media and many others since then, constantly. There was a large demonstration, campaign, and boycott by Arakanese people in Europe who first noticed the untruthful and arrogant behaviour of the BBC, and they asked the BBC to remove the misinformation from the map of Arakan. BBC finally apologised, but they did not remove the false information, instead they put a picture of Rakhine ethnicity under the term ‘Rohingya’.
I came back to Myanmar in 2011, and after a year of volunteer service in one of the English language schools in Yangon – the historic capital of Myanmar until recently – I sailed to New Zealand for the newest chapter of my life – as I was offered a job that was suited with my studies. The noise of the so-called ‘Rohingya’ was somewhat distant and silent for me for a year, until there was a horrifying incident in which an Arakanese lady named Thi Dar Htwe was brutally raped and killed by three young Muslim men on Rambree Island in Arakan in May, 2012. My people, whom, like me, were very far away from our homeland, were very angry after we heard about this incident from the news and from facebook. A lot of horrifying pictures of her dead and tortured body were circulating on social media, and the anger of the Arakanese spread like wildfire in Arakan and to us who were far away, but close in spirit. Many local people, and a great deal of local new sources, said that she was raped and killed with terrible brutality. Five days later, following the incident of Thi Dar Htwe’s murder, 10 Muslim men were killed as they were travelling from Sandwe (Thandwe) to Yangon by an angry mob near the location where Thi Dar Htwe’s mutilated body was found. That was a very unfortunate reaction, but, it was a reaction against many rapes, and too much abuse, threats, and intimidation, by the Bengalis, who were flooding our land, and who showed no interest of integrating into our society and adapting our culture and values.
It seemed to me that the Bengalis, the so-called ‘Rohingya’, were waiting for a chance to make trouble again, as they have numerous times, and the killing of the 10 Muslim men was a spark to launch a big Muslim riot in the town of Maungdaw, where there is a majority of Bengali (so-called ‘Rohingya’) settlers. On June 8, 2012, huge numbers of Bengalis burst out of the Central Mosque after the Friday prayers, and started to rampage in all directions, killing Buddhists if they caught them, and burning the homes of the Rakhine Buddhists. Within just a few days the Arakanese counterstrikes back Bengalis in many other locations in Rakhine State also they both launched deadly attacks, and burned more and more Buddhist homes, Buddhist temples and Muslim villages. To make matters worse, Muslims who were born in Myanmar (or who said they were) and now lived abroad, appeared on popular TV media such as BBC, CNN, RFA, VOA around the world, blaming the Arakanese people, creating a grossly fabricated narrative about Arakan, and screeching to the world that we have been committing genocide against the ‘Rohingya’. And now, on August 25, 2017, we have been attacked on a much higher scale, with definitive foreign backing and training. Already, in just 4 weeks, the casualties are much much higher, and the media war is sickeningly one-sided. The August 25th attacks were multiple simultaneous attacks against dozens of targets, but you would hardly know that listening to much of the media, clinging to the propaganda of the poor, victimized ‘Rohingya’.
Nevertheless, I feel so powerless and feel so disgruntled as I see the international news media portray how ‘Rohingya’ Muslims were so badly discriminated, how they faced genocide, and how they have been fleeing Arakan to neighbouring Bangladesh. There was no news about the struggle of my Arakanese people – who were also victims of the unrest – who also had to flee from their homes – who also lost their loved ones in this violence – which we have not chosen, but the Bengalis have. I am sad, knowing that our voices were drowned out, we were misunderstood, and the world was fooled as it embraced the propaganda of ‘Rohingya’ – The Most Persecuted People in the World – while we, the indigenous Buddhists of Arakan, in our own homeland, are truly – The Most Falsely Accused People in the World.
There has been a considerable amount of conferences held around the world regarding implementing peace and stability in Arakan, and finding a realistic solution for the dilemma in Arakan, but, we Arakanese were hardly invited. So, people could not hear our voices, and we did not have the opportunity of being true representatives of our own homeland and culture, which is under great threat. It greatly concerns and worries us Arakanese that foreigners were projecting opinions – not based on truth and reality – and they were not even considering the feelings, experiences, and sufferings of us Arakanese.
Since the latest attacks, starting August 25, 2017, led by the terrorist group ARSA, targeting over 30 Burmese police stations in northern Arakan, many different Burmese ethnicities, and a great numbers of illegal Bengali settlers in Arakan are struggling with a great deal of hardship – but, once again, we Arakanese are being demonised by so much of the world media. They totally ignore, and seem to to have no sympathy concerning the struggle of the native people of Arakan. The horrifying experiences and struggle of the many Hindu victims, for example, are nearly completely overlooked, and virtually no news was seen about them, and not even a single INGO came to help those people, who witnessed and escaped from horrible atrocities, and are in such need. However, the world media is full of coverage of Bengalis Muslims (the so-called ‘Rohingya’) and their struggles; how their villages were burned down, how they fled to the border and crossed into Bangladesh. Social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and others are full of propaganda – ignorant and arrogant propaganda and deliberate misinformation – which often uses falsely labeled photos of gruesome scenes purportedly in Rakhine State, meant to deceive public opinion. Again, the world fails to see beyond the trap of the ‘Rohingya’ propaganda, created and supported by Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member countries, many UN countries, and many INGO organisations.
To make matters worse, Arakanese people have become deeply concerned over INGOs unacceptable harassment and behaviour towards them, and for providing one-sided aid to the Muslim community only. Both peopled get hurt during conflict, but the Buddhist Arakanese do not choose conflict – it is the Bengalis that choose violence again and again, and then we must defend ourselves, and drive away this threat to our women, our kids, our villages, and our Buddhist traditions, in our own homeland. The indifference of the INGOs is very difficult for our local people to swallow. Reports have surfaced about the detention of some INGO staff in Rakhine State who are under suspicion for their direct involvement in recent deadly arson and murder attacks against non-Muslim communities. Narinjara News Agency and many domestic Myanmar news agencies said that some local employees of the INGOs were arrested by the authorities in 2012 because they played a major role in instigating the violent unrests at that time. By exploiting their advantage from having internet access at the INGO offices, these local workers downloaded inflammatory online news with fake photos and distributed them with their fabricated propaganda to the Muslims community in Maungdaw which led to the brutal rioting and destructive attacks against our Arakanese people and culture. It is a shame that INGOs in Arakan have been conspiring with the religious extremists, maybe unwittingly, in the build up to the violent attacks towards our peace loving Buddhist community in Arakan. Furthermore, INGO staff members, especially local staff, are misusing their power as well as UN properties to mistreat our people which could be tantamount to human rights abuses against our Arakanese people. There are a high number of complaints we hear that INGOs employ local staff selectively, by sidelining non-Muslim people. Because of these reasons and more, local people have developed a sense of suspicion and disgruntlement after witnessing so many incidents of INGOs abusing the indigenous people with their discriminatory practices.
The great force of these waves of propaganda makes the Arakanese people very angry, agitated, and frightened. I recall the time when I initially took first-aid training for my work training. I learned then, that we would have to first check and save the silent one if we encountered a car accident, but not the noisy one. We do not have to worry as much about people who continuously scream in pain because these people will survive, but the silent one, the injured people who did not make any noise, need our immediate attention because they could be dead in a minute. They are silent because they are so close to dying. Indeed, we, Rakhine Arakanese are the silent ones.
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Aye Maung studied at the university of Aberdeen, Scotland and graduated with a BA degree in Social Pedagogy. He has been working as a social care-worker, specializing in methods of assisting people with disabilities for more than 10 years, in Scotland, Ireland and New Zealand. He has been actively staying in contact with Arakan politics and often contributes political comments and feedback on social medias.
Myanmar is a newer name of Burma. Rakhine State (or Arakan) is the western most state of Myanmar and borders Bangladesh. Arakan refers to the historical Buddhist Kingdoms which for many centuries were the dominant kingdoms of the area. Rakhine (also spelled Rakhaing or Yakhine), and Arakan basically mean the same thing, and refer to the culture, language, ethnicity, and continuously populated homeland of the Buddhist people of the area. Rohingya is a new name (starting slowly in the 1960s, and slowly becoming more widespread after 2000) for the more recent Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh who were formerly called Bengali Muslims, or Chittagonian Muslims (which indicate their roots). The largest historical archeological site is Mrauk-U, the capital of the last great Arakanese kingdom from 1430 to 1784, which at its acme was one of the richest cities in Asia.