War of Words: What’s in the Name “Rohingya”?

Myanmar’s constitution recognizes 135 ethnic groups, but excludes the Rohingya. Some estimates put the minority at 1.4 million, a fraction of the nation’s more than 50 million people. Nationalists have concocted a revisionist history, insisting that Rohingya Muslims are really from Bangladesh, brought in by British colonizers, to deny the group citizenship rights and identification cards providing access to schools and other services. The government goes so far to insist that the name “Rohingya” is faked, urging the rest of the world to avoid using the term. “The US Embassy in Myanmar refuses to go along,” argues Azeem Ibrahim, author and a fellow at Mansfield College University of Oxford, and also a 2009 Yale World Fellow. “The nationalists’ narrative is historically baseless.” He points to historical documents indicating that “Rohingya” was used long before the British colonized the region and research suggesting that Muslims lived in the land, now known as Myanmar, since the 7th century. History shows, Ibrahim concludes, “Burma has been most successful as an open, inclusive and outward-looking country.”