Who are the Rohingya?

Published: July 31, 2012
The writer is Director South Asian Media School, Lahore 

The writer is Director South Asian Media School, Lahore khaled.ahmed@tribune.com.pk

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.

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Reader Comments (42)

  • entropy
    Jul 31, 2012 - 11:00PM

    What an utterly vacuous article.


  • Mathur
    Jul 31, 2012 - 11:24PM

    This is perhaps the only article on which the Indians and the Pakistanis would have a consensus that is to give their 5 minutes back. Was this a ‘troll’ articles.?


  • Shwe Min
    Jul 31, 2012 - 11:25PM

    Agree with previous comment. Will add a bit – utterly insane! Also, all muslims are not called Rohingyas in Myanmar.Recommend

  • Yumna
    Jul 31, 2012 - 11:27PM

    Not all Burmese Muslims are Rohingyas. Rohingyas are specifically the ones who migrated long ago from Bangladesh. Burmese people never accepted them nor did the Bangladesh government. So basically they “do not belong anywhere”. The reason why I put that part in quotations is because realistically they should belong to the country they were born in. The ones who were born in Bangladesh should have Bangladeshi nationality and the ones in Burma should have Burmese nationality. But for whatsoever reasons, neither countries accepted them as their citizens.
    Another misconception people have about this mass genocide is that ALL Muslims in Burma are being targeted. NO that’s NOT TRUE! Burmese people only have problems against Rohingyas. I am not saying it’s good or bad because racism in its root is awful but the reason I am mentioning this is because people keep getting false information from unreliable sources and act as if they know it all. Now how do I know all of this? Well bingo! I am myself a Burmese Muslim who was born in Pakistan but have her entire family residing in Burma. Since we are not Rohingyas, we don’t face discrimination but at the same time I feel bad for my Rohingya brothers.
    P.S. next time do some research before you post something. K Thanks!


  • entropy
    Jul 31, 2012 - 11:58PM


    The ones who were born in Bangladesh
    should have Bangladeshi nationality
    and the ones in Burma should have
    Burmese nationality

    You are a Burmese Muslim who is not a Rohingya, thank you for providing us with yet another perspective on this issue. Can I just say that simply being born in a country does not guarantee you the nationality of that country. If the Rohingyas are the descendants of illegal Bengali settlers then the Burmese are justified in not accepting them as citizens, though there is no excuse for violence against them.


  • Yumna
    Aug 1, 2012 - 12:20AM

    @entropy: Yeah I did mention that REALISTICALLY that should be the case but it does not necessarily have to work that way. Every country has its own policies and yeah definitely there is absolutely no excuse for violence against them.


  • Zalim Singh
    Aug 1, 2012 - 12:42AM

    dear sir

    only one question. Is there any place on earth where Muslims and violence are not related?


  • Aug 1, 2012 - 12:46AM

    @entropy: If they are illegal!

    Plus if they are “even illegal” as per your connotation, they are as illegal as the Aryans who came into the present day India centuries ago!


  • Nik
    Aug 1, 2012 - 12:54AM

    Rohingyas are not from Bangladesh. They lived in Arakan for centuries until invaded by Burma on 1700s. If Rohingyas dont belong to Burma then Arakan or todays Rakhine State itself does not belong to Burman as well. Arakan or Rakhine belongs to Rohingyas. They are similar to Bangla people due to their vicinity to Bangladesh. People from Calcutta and bangladesh are also similar so does this mean all people from Calcutta belong to Bangladesh and not India anymore.


  • Mustafa Moiz
    Aug 1, 2012 - 1:08AM

    Descendants how long ago? Was it even relevant back then? And if they are born in Myanmar, they should have Burmese nationality. Its like in the US, the children of non-US citizens or illegal immigrants are still granted US nationality if they are born on US soil.


    Aug 1, 2012 - 1:08AM

    it is the best article that i have read about this incident before.thank u


  • Z.Baloch
    Aug 1, 2012 - 1:21AM

    what a “Faltoo” article …. waste of time …. what is the issue and whats he bragging about ….


  • gp65
    Aug 1, 2012 - 1:22AM

    @Yumna: “The ones who were born in Bangladesh
    should have Bangladeshi nationality
    and the ones in Burma should have
    Burmese nationality”

    If an Indian or Pakistani working in Saudi Arabia gives birth to a child in Saudi Arabia, will that child get Saudi citizenship? No. Not all countries give citizenship based on birth.


  • nh
    Aug 1, 2012 - 1:56AM

    If Pakistan cannot accept the ‘unwanted’ East Pakistani muslims from 1971 – why should Bangladesh take these poor muslims in.


  • Shwe Min
    Aug 1, 2012 - 1:56AM

    Nice note -thanks. Just a little clarification. Rohingya migration has continued over time from Bangladesh. Actually many came after partition (meaning after Pakistan/Myanmar gained independence) 1948 on, and continue to come today over the land borders of Chittagong Hill Tracts. The bordering towns of Maungdaw (>95%) and Buthidaung (>70%) townships are now overwhelmingly Chittagonian Bengalis (or Rohingyas as some may call). It is ironic that these residents in their own towns were the ones who started the mayhem in June after Friday prayers and claiming atrocities on themselves as “minority.”
    BTW, as a fellow Burmese (mingalaba!) and presuming been/have family in Yangon you may have seen the mosque on Sule Pagoda Rd named Bengali Sunni Masjid. The same folks are now suddenly “Rohingyas.”

    Mean no disrespect, just sharing on-the-ground facts. I could elaborate a lot, but wanted to keep it short.


  • Yusuf
    Aug 1, 2012 - 2:16AM

    It is a state policy to disturb the Muslims, arrest, burn homes, create community hate, uproot, deny, as well as put Hate against Muslims in whole of Burma. The Rohingyas integrated into Burmese State centuries ago. The Rhoingya Muslim reside in Rakhine state where Burmese of Bhuddist origin also reside along with. The Rhohingya Muslims are as much as Burmese of Bhuddhist origin residing in Myanmar.


  • Qasim sheikh
    Aug 1, 2012 - 2:40AM

    Salam I am a Rohingya and I live in US. We are kind of like the Palestinians of South Asia.
    Here is the main thing, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi was Aung San. He embraced the Rohingya and we were citizens with equal rights until 1980. We served the nation of Burma and many of us did business with other Burmese people. Many of faced attacked from the Japanese during World War II. We had citizenship before 1980.

    Bangladeshi will not accept us and Burma (Myanmar) wants to kick us out. No Muslim nation will give us amnesty. At least, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt give Palestinians a refugee status. But Bangladesh will not even let my people flee from attacks. Bangladesh rejects UNHCR’s recommendations.

    If Bangladesh can accept 50% of refugees and Pakistan can accept 50% of refugees then that would be great. I will give all my retirement money to Pakistan and Bangladesh. I always give my zakat money to the NGO’s that help the poor in the entire subcontinent. Many of my people live in peace in Karachi and also in Dhaka. We create businesses and hire people in your countries. We want the best for Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. We mean you no harm.

    I would like to appeal to the Pakistani people, can you help us? Bangladeshi, can you help us? Saudi Arabia, can you help us? Any Muslim country, please?

    Inshallah we will only help you prosper. Please remember the Ansar! It is time for every Pakistani and Bangladeshi to become the Ansar of our times.

    I don’t care what my origins are. All I know is I am a Muslim, Bani Adam, the lover of Allah and lover of his messenger, peace be upon him.

    Racists in Myanmar call me Kalar (a negative term for Indian looking people in Burma). Bangladeshi customs treat us like pests. The Muslims of Burma don’t even help us.

    Our hope is in Allah alone. Maybe we have to suffer a bit more. Even if all Muslims reject us, I know Allah has something better in the hereafter. If there is a true Muslim in need, I would help them.

    When you break your fast, please pray for my dead family members who were killed in Rakhine state.

    I make dua you all have a blessed Ramadan.


  • entropy
    Aug 1, 2012 - 3:38AM

    Mustafa Moiz
    And if they are born in Myanmar, they should have Burmese nationality. Its like in the US, the children of non-US citizens or illegal immigrants are still granted US nationality if they are born on US soil

    This is just America, it isn’t international law. Western Europe is far more liberal than the US but even here there is no such law. Even the US may soon scrap it. It’s absurd the way in which we Pakistanis always take the Muslim side in any conflict without trying to understand the nonMuslim side’s point of view. Massive Bengali migration is a really worry for and threat to all the countries surrounding Bengladesh. Do they not have the right to maintain and control their borders and to protect their identities and their economies?Recommend

  • Aarvey,india
    Aug 1, 2012 - 6:42AM

    @Qasim sheikh: Why are you living in the US? A country that all Muslims love to hate? Move to Saudi or Pakstan. They would love to have you there.


  • Raj
    Aug 1, 2012 - 8:24AM

    @Qasim sheikh:
    I appreciate the way you have written,so soft and well mannered requesting help for the unfortunate.Talk is free,so lot of people across the world do is just talk and sympathize.Let all the muslim countries come together and see how many of them can absorb the rohingyas or atleast help them financially.My deepest condolences to you on the death of your family members.You have a lot of faith in God,and definetly he is going to answer your prayers hopefully “SOON”


  • Aung Aung
    Aug 1, 2012 - 8:25AM

    I don’t think Rohingya as an Arabic word, I read defferent story in which Rohingya was a Persian word; Rounak Gah , Rounak meaning lightening and Gah ,place or territory. Rohingya language is composed of Arabic, Bangali, Urdu, Persian, and English. Myanmar government approved it as indigenous race of Myanmar after independence but Myanmar dictators have been persecuting those Rohingya since 1965. Sakmak ,Marma,and Bangali hindu are alsoethnics minority of Arakan State , speak the same language like Rohingya ,they were Bddhists ,and became indigenous races of Myanmar, Rohingya are Muslim ,deprive of even fundamental human right.


  • Hasssan Naqvi
    Aug 1, 2012 - 9:10AM

    Khaled Ahmed, Director, South Asian Media School is exclusively writing on political issues for social media users in general and SAFMA members in particular from Monday to Friday. To subscribe to his posts please like his page at following link http://www.facebook.com/khaledahmed.pk.


  • Indian
    Aug 1, 2012 - 9:46AM

    I don’t understand that on such serious issues how can author talk such carelessly and causally. He has not even checked his facts. Not all Muslims are Rohingyas. Don’t give it too much religious connotation. There are Muslims living peacefully in Burma who are not targeted. It is more ethnic in nature. Understand that.

    The problem is that these Rohingyas are stateless and nobody is accepting them and hence subjected to persecution. I strongly protest against it but please don’t write utterly useless articles with distorted facts.


  • HlaLayYi
    Aug 1, 2012 - 11:02AM

    The writer has made an inacurate statement ”the Muslims of Burma call themselves Rohingyas”…Muslims in Burma come from diverse ancestry such as the Panthay from Chinese Muslims, Mogols from Iranian ancestry and many others. All Burmese Muslims are not called Rohingyas.


  • Imran
    Aug 1, 2012 - 11:59AM

    @Zalim Singh: Graveyard


  • Maula Jut
    Aug 1, 2012 - 12:13PM

    Some of the commentators seem to think that the Rohingyas should go to other countries rather than live in the country of their birth which is Burma sorry, Myanmar. I ask under which norm and which international law? If you cannot sympathize with people in need, at least don’t ridicule them.


  • Arya
    Aug 1, 2012 - 12:58PM

    @Maula Jut:
    People like Qasim Sheikh really seek asylum in Islamic country, particularly in Pakistan. Please read his very emotional appeal above.. Similarly large number of Rohingyas prefer to move to Bangladesh, but that country is not accepting them. The situation is similar to minorities in Pakistan seeking asylum in Western countries. It is not absorbing all the Rohingyas in one country, but a gesture of brotherhood by one Islamic country shown to only those Muslim Rohingyas who really seek asylum. Pakistan being the fortress of Islam should welcome Qasim Sheikh and few thousand of his Muslim brothers and sisters.


  • Iram
    Aug 1, 2012 - 2:15PM

    @Qasim sheikh: Feel sorry to read miserable plight of your countryman and pray to almighty that settle your all issues quickly.


  • entropy
    Aug 1, 2012 - 2:32PM

    Qasim Sheikh

    If Bangladesh can accept 50% of
    refugees and Pakistan can accept 50%
    of refugees then that would be great

    Sorry but we have enough problems of our own. Do you know anything about what’s going in Karachi? Muslim brotherhood is a myth. The Rohingya issue must be sorted out between the two parties concerned, Bangladesh and Burma. It has nothing at all to do with Pakistan.


  • Dushmann
    Aug 1, 2012 - 4:06PM

    They don’t need your prayers. They need asylum and citizenship of Pakistan which they think is their own country. As someone said, talk is cheap.


  • Musthaq Ahmed
    Aug 1, 2012 - 8:40PM

    @Qasim sheikh:
    Good propaganda ! To import more Bengalees , who once stabbed us after separating from India ? Take this Rohingya affair with a pinch of salt. Pakistan learned its lessons well.Recommend

  • Yumna
    Aug 1, 2012 - 10:44PM

    I would have appreciated if you took out your time to read my second comment but since you didn’t let me re-post it for your convenience.

    Yeah I did mention that REALISTICALLY
    that should be the case but it does
    not necessarily have to work that way.
    Every country has its own policies.

    There was a little more to the comment but I guess this should be enough for you.


  • anonymus
    Aug 1, 2012 - 11:45PM

    @Mustafa Moiz:
    but this does not apply even in those countreis like KSA which are cneters of islam even if you are born there and die there and you don’t get nationality. yes you get in US.


  • Cynical
    Aug 2, 2012 - 1:21AM

    While all these unfortunate events are taking place, the all mighty God is simply watching and doing nothing. We all know that not a grain of sand can move without his writ.


  • Peace Lover
    Aug 2, 2012 - 3:46AM

    Dear Sir, Before you write anything about this so-called Rohingyas , I would like to suggest you to visit Arakan and do some historical research about my Arakanese people. Do not fill yourself with false and make-up storied about them that misleading people around the world. This guys are brought as a slave by British to work in Arakanese rice fields from Bangladesh but not as much as number of the population today you can see. Some went back to their mother country after Burma gained independence from British. However we do have Muslim ethnic group in our RAkhine ( ARakanese ) community. They are called Kaman who were brought by our kings and they used to serve in Rakhine place as arch army.

    There is no such name called Rohingyas and even the entire Muslim who live in Arakan do not know that they are called Rohingyas. In fact, each and every human know their organ. Even bush men know that they are called bush men family or ethnic. There is no Rohingyas in our country or the name Rohingyas never appeared in our history record. This is a fake name made up by a group educated Muslim a few years ago. When all entire 60 millions of Myanmar people and including our presidents denied to accept them as our ethnic , they are not calling world-Muslim attention to go for religious war. Many Muslim fall into their trap and getting angry with us. from recent violence , around 90 people died from both side and it led 90000 people homeless and hopeless.

    We would never accept them as our ethnic and in terms of Myanmar citizen, it will have to do according our laws , rule and regulation. They can stay in our country like refugees but if they keep making and attacking, killing , burning down our Rakhine people house, we would not tolerance any further, I know they are now attempting to get attention Muslim brotherhood, connecting with all powerful Muslim nation but in the name of justice we,Myanmar , can face anything threat, or anything that will come to our country.. thank you..


  • Lala Gee
    Aug 2, 2012 - 1:49PM


    “Can I just say that simply being born in a country does not guarantee you the nationality of that country. If the Rohingyas are the descendants of illegal Bengali settlers then the Burmese are justified in not accepting them as citizens”

    What you say about the legality of the British and Spanish settlers occupying almost three continents after killing or militarily defeating their natives. Of course, it is just a couple of hundred years old occupation. Like to know your views.


    All the appreciations for taking the pains to speak for the Muslims. What a pleasant change.


  • Lala Gee
    Aug 2, 2012 - 1:57PM

    @Zalim Singh:

    “only one question. Is there any place on earth where Muslims and violence are not related?”

    Yes, India. Don’t you guys claim that there was no incidence of violence in India during past 10 years?


  • Truth Teller
    Aug 2, 2012 - 8:09PM

    Your article was total disappointment!


  • vickram
    Aug 3, 2012 - 10:23AM

    Being a Root Cause Theorist, I want to ask a layman question:

    What did the Rohingya Muslims do in Burma that they are feeling so unwanted and reviled ?


  • Muhammad Adnan
    Aug 3, 2012 - 11:46AM

    @Zalim Singh:

    Dear Singh: reason is this that whole world is against of Muslims, so when ever, the world got chance they did not miss it…..
    We are helpless…..


  • Shwe Min
    Aug 8, 2012 - 6:16PM
  • Zardari
    Aug 13, 2012 - 1:59PM



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