Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

November 29, 2012

Burma’s “Muslims” are kalar Bengali

Filed under: Arakan,Bengali,Islam,Rakhine — Razib Khan @ 8:58 pm

The American media often confuses the subtleties of international ethography. For example, there is a tendency to use the term “Uyghur” and “Chinese Muslim” interchangeably. This is misleading. The largest Muslim ethnic group in China are the Hui, who were rather culturally similar to the Han, except in the many areas where the Islamic religion results in their deviation from Han practice (e.g., they do not eat pork). Though Uyghur religious feelings are real, and their resentment at the government of China does derive from religious persecution, it is also an expression of nationalistic alientation. Uyghurs are ethnic Turks. In short, the Uyghurs are Muslims in the People’s Republic of China (the governmental entity which is the heir to the extra-Chinese territories of the Manchu dynasty; Xinjiang, Manchuaria, and Tibet). The Hui are Muslims of China.

“Burmese Muslims”

A similar nuance is surely important when considering the situation of “Burmese Muslims.” In the article itself the author is peculiarity cryptic about who these people are aside from their religious identity, and their putative foreign origins. Who these people are are Rohingyas. They are the Muslims inhabitants of Arakan state, which extends southeast of Bangladesh. And importantly Rohingyas are descended from and closely related to ethnic Bengalis. Their language is a sister to Sylheti, standard Bengali, and Chittagongian, with a particular affinity to the latter. Additionally, there are other Muslims in Burma who are not Rohingya! Some of these are ethnic Burmans, also called Bamars, who are the majority community with Burma/Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi herself reportedly has some Muslim ancestry from the civil servants and soldiers who were to be found around the courts of the kings of old.

There are two issues which need to be highlighted. First, it seems reasonable that the Rakhine people of Arakan worry that the Islamic demographic wave will inundate them. Though Bangladesh now has the same fertility as Burma, until recently Muslim demographic expansion has been a fact on the eastern marchlands of South Asia. The ratio of Rakhine to Rohingya seems to be on the order of 3 or 4 to 1, which is a majority, but not a comfortable one. But there is a clear racial element to the animus here, which would likely not be present if the Muslims were of one of the Sino-Tibetan or Mon people. Following attack, Muslims demonstrate in Rangoon:

“We should either kill all the Kalars in Burma or banish them, otherwise Buddhism will cease to exist,” said another user.

“Kalar” is used to describe perceived outsiders within the country, especially individuals with dark skin, but the term often carries a pejorative tone. In the Burmese edition of the New Light of Myanmar today, the victims of the sectarian attack were referred to as “Kalar” instead of Muslims.

Second, the Rohingya themselves deny strenuously their association with Bengal and Bengalis, because that would give credence to the Rakhine accusation that they are recent migrants into Arakan. As it happens I think in the main the Rakhine are probably right. Though some of the Rohingya date to the long-standing Muslim minority of Arakan which likely dates to the vassalage of the region to the Sultanate of Bengal in the late medieval period, most of the Rohingya probably are the descendants of peasants from Bengal, who were part of the great global migration which brought Tamils to Malaysia further south.

But, when the ancestors of most of the Rohingya were leaving Bengal a self-consciously Muslim and Bengali identity was inchoate at best. Elite culture in Bengal by the late Mughal period was the purview of Urdu speaking elites, and elite Bengali culture arose in the early 19th century with the Hindu bhadralok. The Rohingya detachment from a Bengali identity is to a great extent natural, insofar as their peasant ancestors were never part of the consciousness raising and nation-creation project of the 19th and early 20th centuries, whereby an elite nationalistic and Muslim Bengali identity emerged.


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