On Lt. General Aung Gyi's speech in Maungdaw (1961)

When debating about indigenousness of Rohingyas to Burma, our friends from pro-Rohingya camp often quoted news clippings or various speeches by Burmese dignitaries in 1950-60s (either deceased or still alive). No mistake, we can find the use of word 'Rohingya' by various Burmese sources as description for the ethnic group at the Bangladesh/Burma border. Of course, the use of word 'Rohingya' alone would not suffice to determine whether they are one of the indigenous ethnic groups in Burma. Bad practice fraught with danger, one can get easily misled by mis-quoting something out-of contexts from an important political speech by a leader. That exactly has been the mistake made by two Rohingya MPs who, to their credit, valiantly been fighting for the rights of their own ethnic community (see http://www.netipr.org/policy/node/18).

In their letter to Burmese Human Rights Commission, the two MPs have quoted the 'extracted part-of' General Aung Gyi's speech as follows:

"(8) We named these people living in this district (i.e. Mayu Frontiers) as Rohingyas. Those who live in the west of this district are to be called Pakistanis and those who who live here in the east are Rohingyas. Not only on this national border of Burma&Pakistan(now Bangladesh) has a race known to settle straddling across our national boundary. For example, on our border with China and Kachin (State) the Lisu, Eikaw, Lawa tribal groups were also known to have found in China. Where we have our own Shan Ethnic(indigenous) groups, there is also 'Tai(Dai)' Shan ethnic group residing in China as well. On Burmese side of the border, there are Mons, Karen and Malay ethnic groups exists so too on the Thailand side of the border. Whereas on the Indian-Burmese border, there are Chin, Lishaw and Naga do exists. Therefore, I would like to say this sincerely. We will consider the people in the Mayu Frontier as one of our ethnic minority groups. Therefore, you forgive (us) what we might have done wrong in the past. We would consider you (those living at this Mayu Frontier) as one of our ethnic nationality groups of Burma."(my translations)

And then the two MPs concluded in their letter as:

"(e) All successive governments (of Burma) describe Rohingyas as an indigenous ethnic group. None of the governments nor parliaments have ever declared that Rohingyas are of non-indigenous ethnic group. Therefore, the claim of the status of Rohingyas as indigenous ethnic group is valid and legitimate."(my translations)


For the sake of clearing doubts, I have checked against original speech delivered on July 1961 by General Aung Gyi. The original publication in its entirety is now downloadable here [http://www.netipr.org/policy/downloads/19610708-AungGyi-Arakan.pdf ] (thanks to our friends in Thailand who are able to forward this material). The timing of that publication, i.e. the 1961s were the heydays for the Burmese military when almost every Burmese in Burma looks with admiration to the military as their saviour. In this settings, General Aung Gyi, who second-in-command of the military came to the ceremony for laying down of arms by the 300 or so Rohingya fighters. This certinly attest to the significance of that particular event. General Aung Gyi started by saying the people on ourside of border as 'Rohingyas' and those on otherside of border as Pakistanis. In General Aung Gyi's speech, it looks like he may have been equating, or implying, that the Rohingya -- an ethnic group residing on both sides of borders -- with that of Chin, Lisu, Kachin, Mon, Shan and Naga of which belonging to the indigenous groups in Burma. That is what the two Rohingya MPs are implying in their letter.

On viewing General Aung Gyi's speech in its entirety, including the editorial (a bad quality scan, but still readable), it has NOT been the case that the General was implying or equating the status of Rohingya with other indigenous ethnic groups. He was merely cautioning to the Rohingya community to respect national sovereignties against the influences of ethno-religious connections and solidarity. On page 9 of the publication Gen. Aung Gyi said:

"... you may have relatives on the other side of border. But those (relatives) on that side are Parkistanis. People on this side are the nationals of the Union of Burma. .... For example, in Kachin State, some people have their (Kachin) relatives in China. But the Kachins on the other side of border are Chinese nationals and those on Burma side of border are Burmese nationals. Some they have father-in-laws in China. Some they have niece & nephews in China. Although they may have share the same culture and language, they are in different countries. We must aware this very clearly. We must strictly follow along the oath of alleigeance to our own country."(my translation)

That is probably the main context of General Aung Gyi's speech. He went on to give example of 'Sudetan Crisis of pre-WW-II' where, Checz Sudeten region in 1938, the German speaking inhabitants demanded autonomy and annexation of their region towards Greater Germany. Gen Aung Gyi said this kind of thinkings are outdated and are not going to be accepted by Pakistan -- a message obviously directed towards Mujahid sympathisers.


General Aung Gyi was right in cautioning the Rohingya community to respect national sovereignty (observing the laws of the land) vs. ethno-religious solidarity. This is because, when a community like Rohingyas which has ethnically and socially connected closely to another group that is across the border, normal human activities can lead to violation of national laws. This may be obvious for some. But allow me to give an example:

Suppose & let us suppose; I am a Rohingya living in Rakhine who have a brother-in-law across the Naf river. I am sick this year. So I call my brother-in-law to tend my rice fields. At the end of the season, my brother-in-law wants to bring back home some rice, which is the fruit of his labour, across the Naf river. These are entirely acceptable normal human activities. However, this is not the case in the eyes of the law. By bringing my brother-in-law to work in Rakhine, I may have been in violation of immigration and labour laws. When that brother-in-law transports some rice back home to Bangladesh, he may have been breaking the laws because he's smuggling prohibited items, i.e. rice.


Of course, General Aung Gyi (passed away 2012) has become famous for his economic views and outlook in the latter years as an ex-military person. In his speech, he touched upon the economic & social development agenda for the Mayu Frontier Area. He was very sympathetic in saying Rohingya people had been poor in comparison to those rural folks living in proper-Burma. To increase the household income, he encouraged the Rohingya to engage in livestocks breeding, double-cropping and market-gardenings. Sure there & then, the Burmese military may have some plans. But all those good plans for Rohingya must have got thrown into the sand when General Ne Win took over state power in the 1962 military coup.


On the account of Lt. General Aung Gyi's speech half-century ago, the Burmese Government had surely promised peace, dignity and developments to the Rohingya community. Today, that promise is still left outstanding. Those Burmese parliamentarians and U Thein Sein government must take steps to grant appropriate citizenship status to Rohingyas and must deliver developments to the Rakhine region.