Last month the United Nations and its partners appealed for US$920 million ($1.34 billion) to assist nearly one million Rohingya refugees now encamped in Bangladesh. These refugees are fleeing the violence in the northern part of the Rakhine state in Burma. That violence has been perpetrated by the Burmese military under the pretext that the Rohingya are not citizens of Burma, also known as Myanmar, but "resident foreigners" from Bangladesh who neither speak the Burmese language nor are part of Burma's myriad ethnic groups.

The military violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority is an extension of discriminatory government policies that reached their height in 1982, when the Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship status under Burma's Citizenship Act. This legal loophole has allowed the Burmese Government to pursue relentlessly its recent repression of the Rohingya.

The virulent attacks on the Rohingya people, who are Muslims with a distinct language of their own, have surprised outside observers, who remain confounded by the nature of this violence. But the conflict has deep historical roots. Declassified records from British archives reveal that the origins of the current plight of the Rohingya people can be traced to their participation in World War II, notably the communal violence that broke out between the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist Rakhine communities during and after the war.

Until they understand the World War II origins of the current violence, and the way that violence is embodied in the Rohingya language itself, members of the international community will continue to struggle to devise effective policies to address the contemporary political and humanitarian crisis.

Advertisement

Since the 19th century, northern Arakan (or Rakhine state) had been connected to British India through the imperial networks of migration, transport and governance. The British ruled Burma as a part of British India until 1937, when Burma became a separate British colony. During most of the 19th and early 20th centuries, imperial administrators encouraged extensive migration of "loyal" Indians to offset the influence of the "less reliable" Burmese to maintain stable imperial governance.

During World War II, these divided loyalties determined battlefield strategies of the British in the Allied Burma Campaign.

A large number of Rohingya Muslims, who were mostly uneducated indentured labourers in the rice plantations of present-day Rakhine, were recruited to fight on the side of the British-led "Fourteenth Army" against the Japanese forces. The Burmese National Army led by Aung San — the father of the present-day Burmese leader, Aung San Suu Kyi — fought on the side of the Japanese, who promised them independence from British rule.

Communal violence broke out between pro-British Rohingya Muslims and pro-Japanese Rakhine Buddhists during the war.

In 1943, when Rohingya refugees returned to their villages with British troops, the violence continued between the Rohingya Muslims and the Rakhine Buddhists. This time it was about retribution for what happened during the war. In fact, it got so bloody that the British military administrators decided to mark the town of Akyab as a "protected area" to stop the return of the Rohingya to their villages to prevent Muslim-Buddhist communal bloodshed.

British sympathy lay with the Rohingya, who were described in British documents as "much more hard-working and prolific than the Arakanese", adding that some were "great seamen" who "manned about 20 per cent of the British merchant navy during the war".

After the war ended in August 1945 with the Japanese surrender, Muslim-Buddhist tensions persisted. By 1946, the wartime ammunition dumps that were left behind became a source of rearmament for both Rohingya Muslim and Rakhine Buddhist rebels. In August 1947, British India was partitioned on the basis of religion into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. The following year, Burma gained independence from the British Empire amid violent contestations by ethnic minorities within its borders.

After Burma's independence from British rule in January 1948, violence erupted again in Rakhine. According to the documents from the British archives, a large number of Rohingya rebels were "ex-army men" who attacked "the flanks of regular troops" of the Burmese military before retiring to the hills and forests. In response, the Burmese Government armed the Rakhine Buddhist rebels with the goal to resist the anti-government onslaught of one minority (Rohingya Muslims) with another minority (Rakhine Buddhists). Thus, one of the earliest blueprints of government support for violence against the Rohingya was crafted.

The partition of South Asia and the independence of Burma offered two models for the Rohingya leaders to integrate themselves into the neighbouring nation-states. Their strategy? To make language key to how nationhood would be defined. When the Rohingya Arakan Mujahed Party campaigned to join the partitioned Muslim-majority nation-state of Pakistan, it pushed to use the Urdu script. When the Rohingya Arakanese Muslim Autonomy movement desired autonomy within independent Burma, it pushed for the adoption of the Burmese script for its language.

Those language battles mapped onto real-life violence. In 1952, Pakistan engaged in a violent crackdown on Bengali-speaking students in Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan. This transformed the demands for Urdu as the Rohingya language into near treachery. The spoken form of the Rohingya language, after all, is similar to the Chittagongian dialect of Bengali.

So, how could these separatist rebels adopt Urdu, the language used by Pakistan, when Urdu-speaking Pakistan was trying to repress their ethnic compatriots in East Pakistan?

The multiple Rohingya language scripts — Burmese, Urdu, Nagori and Hanifi — testify to the struggle of Rohingya to preserve their identity in increasingly violent frontiers of multiple nation-states. It serves as evidence of their efforts to seek recognition and refuge across borders and cultures. These ambiguities in language and territoriality produced in the battlefields of World War II and reproduced in the borderlands of Myanmar, Pakistan and later Bangladesh continue to haunt their "stateless" identity. And it enables the Burmese state to perpetuate the myth that the Rohingya are merely "Bengali-speaking migrants" and foreigners in their own land.

Jayita Sarkar, a historian by training, is assistant professor at Boston University's Pardee School of Global Studies, and the 2018-19 Niehaus Fellow in US foreign policy and international security at Dartmouth College.