Burma — or Myanmar — is killing its Muslims, with the state and the Buddhist majority involved together in this brutal pastime. The Muslim minority is not accepted as Burmese citizens. They are a people without a state unless the world persuades the Burmese government to stop the genocide.
The Muslims of Burma call themselves the Rohingya. They are 800,000 strong. Burma has a population of 48 million. Because Muslims were not accepted, they kept migrating with not much success. There are 300,000 of them in Bangladesh and 24,000 in Malaysia. The world is resisting Burma’s request to take charge of them. Their origins are uncertain mainly because of the varying versions of their genesis.
History speaks of them as living in the Arakan region of Burma, today called Rakhine. After a recent massacre, when a television channel interviewed the victims, they spoke in Urdu. But their speech is actually supposed to be another Indo-European language linguistically related to the Chittagongian language spoken in the southernmost part of Bangladesh bordering Burma.
Next door, Bangladesh has always been reluctant to absorb the Rohingyas. The British Raj exported a lot of Muslims to Burma and even exiled the last Mughal king there. The capital of Rangoon figured in the Urdu songs produced by the Mumbai film industry. Lahore’s industry of Urdu literary journals also flourished on the basis of the Muslim reading public in Burma.
One etymological version is that the word Rohingya is the Arabic word ‘rahm’ meaning ‘mercy’, which is clearly far-fetched as an attempt to dub the Burmese Muslims as Arabs settled in Burma since the 8th century CE. The tale goes like this: an Arab ship was wrecked off the Burmese coast and the surviving Arabs asked for the ‘rahm’ (mercy) of the local king.
There is another story tracing the etymology to Pakistan or Afghanistan. The ‘roh’ in Rohingya means ‘mountain’ in Sanskrit and the region of mountains in northwest India was known as Roh. The Rohila Pathans of Rohelkhand in India also trace their origin to this region. But the word ‘rohingya’ appeared only recently, in the 1950s. So, we don’t know exactly where the origin of the Burmese Muslims can be located.
The word ‘rohdas’ in Sanskrit means mountain. Is the name of a Pakistani place called Rohtas related, perhaps?
The sense of mountain or hill is derived from the sense of mounting, rising and growing. Indian music has a word for the rising note: ‘arohi’. The literal meaning of ‘aroha’ is ‘to mount’. Hindi also adds the word for horse (‘asva’) to mean ‘rider’. Thus, ‘arohi’ becomes ‘asvaroha’, meaning someone mounted on a horse. In Persian, we have the word ‘savar’ for ‘horse-rider’, also written ‘asvar’ to point to ‘asva’ the horse in it. Music notes ascend (arohi) and descend (avarohi).
I can’t resist commenting on Rohi, the desert that inspires our greatest Seraiki poet Khwaja Ghulam Farid. My dictionary says that here ‘roh’ means ‘seed’ because it helps in making anything grow (ascend). My hunch is that Rohi was seen by its people as the origin of life. I could be wrong.
If the Rohingya are mountain or hill-dwelling people, it is more likely that they moved from the hills of Chittagong in Bangladesh to Burma because they spoke a language that did not fit into the language-based nationalism of that state.
It is possible that the military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar to remove any association with India. Burma sounded too much like a Hindi word. It was, in fact, derived from the name of the majority Bamar ethnic group. Myanmar is considered to be the literary form of their name.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 1st, 2012.