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Language and its people: A comparative insight into the Kurdish and Rohingya genocide

By Sayantan Mondal

The Rohingyas are the stateless people of the twenty-first century. In the long list of displaced, persecuted communities their addition was reported only recently though they lived under perpetual threat of losing their rights since at least 1960s. Referred as the most persecuted minority group of the world, the Rohingyas had been living under continuous state pressure since Burmese independence in 1948. Recently their prison-like camps have been burnt down and they were forced by the xenophobic state force to flee their country to neighbouring Bangladesh, India, and Thailand. What was their fault? What did they do to deserve such a treatment? The Myanmar government has been accused of being tacit to genocidal policies, inter-faith clashes and forced displacement by international rights organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, United Nations Human Rights, International State Crime Initiative, etc. The Rohingyas have been maligned through social media campaigns, hunted by lynch-mob as enemy and unnecessary burden of the state. They were branded as a community of terrorists and murderous rapists. Their movements were curtailed by check-posts and gatherings restricted. This branding of a whole community, neutralising of citizenship, human rights and pushing towards extinction is not a scheme unheard of. It happened in Rwanada, in Syria, in Iran, in Palestine and now it is happening to the Rohingyas in Myanmar. Harold Pinter’s late eighties play Mountain Language showed us how state-machineries work with a disciplined, blunt absurdity to rob one’s identity as a citizen of a modern nation-state. It showed how the Kurdish people were denied their right to language, education and gradually became non-citizens in a geographical space that they inhabited for ages. And that was done with careful legal decrees invalidating their identity papers, certificates, degrees one by one.

A scheme of erasure through disenfranchisement that gets indicated by any account of the Rohingya genocide, is orchestrated through a maze of bureaucratic logic and injunctions. These policies and injunctions saw through the scheme’s success over the years. This started with institutionally silencing a language, adulterated through deskilling the speakers and forcing their displacement. Obviously, language and religious affiliations assume national significance in such schemes mostly leading to subverting constitutional rights granted by most of the modern nation-states. In this context, a case of linguicide (Hossanpour, 1999) is always bothering. This paper explores how state machineries started targeting the Kurdish and the Rohingya communities, how bureaucratic measures manifested in the public life of the concerned communities. This paper seeks to reveal state sanctions that fashion the programmes of persecution and how communities resist such onslaught on their languages and rights.

The Rohingyas’ Burmese identity came under questions as early as 1948 as Burma achieved independence. The proposition of annexing Rohingya-dominated areas to East-Pakistan was not at all well-received and resulted in getting the community branded as separatists. Though the Rohingyas were eventually accepted as an indigenous ethnic group and citizen, those who remained in India and Pakistan due to war deployment were never accepted back by independent Burma (Lwin, 2012; Ibrahim: 2016). The situation of the Rohingya community started worsening in the sixties as post-independent Burma came under military regime. The Rohingyas were quick to be identified as foreign immigrants and members of Bengali society whom the colonial British rulers brought along for farming. Their physical features, language and religion came under radar and were used to establish them as different and stand apart from the majority Buddhist citizens. Around the same time, the anxious military junta created an atmosphere of disbelief where Buddhism emerged as the marker of loyalty (Pugh, 2013; Ibrahim, 2016). While these factors were contributing to the diminishing status of freedom enjoyed by the Rohingyas, the Constitution introduced in 1974 served them a significant blow by identifying them as ‘foreigner’ and not part of the Burmese ethnic groups anymore. This was also one of the first stages of mass migration to Bangladesh following a series of unrest and organised destruction of Rohingya lives and property under ‘Operation Nagamin’ (Ahamed, 2009; Blomquist, 2016).

The disenfranchisement deepened in 1982 as the newly introduced ‘Burmese Citizenship Law’ attempted to politically neutralise the Rohingya community by limiting their Burmese history till 1824 (the British invasion of Burma). Four new categories of citizenship emerged and since it was argued that the Rohingyas did not live in the Arakan region before 1824 they were pushed into the category of ‘foreigners’ who are illegal residents of Myanmar. By 1990, with the failure of the socialist project in Burma and the emergence of extremist ‘969 Movement’, the position of the Rohingyas further weakened. They had already lost their citizenship right and had been denied their history and ancestry.

With the emergence of Buddhist extremist groups which organised ‘969 Movement’ and ‘Saffron Movement’ propagating the Rohingyas to be rapists and murderers, they lost their right to move around freely and got themselves imprisoned in camps. In 1993, their right to marriage was curtailed; since 1994, the Rohingya children have been denied birth certificates; and in 1997 by the decree of immigration office Sittwe, their movement was formally curtailed (ISCI, 2018). Denied of job and education opportunities, their skill certificates, degrees nullified, a significant number of the Rohingya population migrated again to the neighbouring countries. Post-2010 election in Myanmar, their condition did not improve though they were granted temporary identity cards and were allowed to vote. In 2012, keeping in mind the escalating violence over the Rohingyas, President Thein Sein proposed ‘expulsion’ of illegal Rohingyas to other countries and the United Nations-administered camps as a solution (ISCI, 2018). Organised persecution kept ravaging the lives of those who remained in Myanmar, in waves. Month-long attacks took place at intermittent gaps in 2008, 2012-13, 2015, 2016, and so forth (HRW, 2000; HCHRC, 2013; HRW, 2013; ISCI, 2018). In the meantime the 2016 census also forced them to accept the tag of Bengali as their identity and language instead of Rohingya or Rakhine. In the absence of any other option to identify themselves, the rest of the community which still remained in Myanmar became official Bengali migrants only to be slaughtered and raped by the military-supported local militia across Myanmar (HRW, 2013; ISCI, 2018; Sultana, 2018).

An uncanny similarity, in terms of state oppression, organised violence faced by the surviving community, can be observed in case of the Kurdish people. Kurdistan, the land inhabited by the Kurds, is a land-locked area surrounded by Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. The rights of the Kurds as citizen remained comparatively secure in this locale till the middle of the last century. International interest over the area in question during war years was one of the reasons. Kurdish language propagated war news through radio Levant and through magazines like HAWAR under the editorship of Badir Khan brothers (Hasanpour, 1991). However, with the breaking up of the United Arab Republic and the rise of the Baath Party in Syria, the Kurdish situation changed rapidly. During the Gulf War, while the Kurds earned limited recognition for their language and its use in Iraq, Turkey repealed Kurdish language from public usage (Opengin, 2015). Turkey not only imposed restrictions on Kurds and Kurdish language inside Turkey under the garb of their national language policy but continued to exert pressure on European countries rehabilitating Kurdish migrants. Sweden is one such example where Turkey wanted all rehabilitatory training and education in Kurdish language to stop (Haig, 2013; Arslan, 2015).

In Syria the suppression of Kurds manifested through a detailed state document entitled “A Study of the Jazira Province From the National, Social and Political Aspects” by Mohammed Talib Hilal (1963). He was the chief of Political Police of Hasaka region. He proposed a twelve-point plan to Arabise the Kurdish region:

  1. ‘batr’ or dispersion and transfer of the Kurds to the interior,
  2. ‘tajhil’ or obscurantist policy of depriving the Kurds of educational institutions because they have produced the opposite results,
  3. ‘tajwi or ‘starvation’ policy of leaving the Kurds unemployed to make them prepared to leave the country,
  4. ‘extradition’ of the Kurds of Turkey who took refuge in Syria after the suppression of the uprisings in the 1920s,
  5. a ‘divide and rule’ policy of setting Kurds, especially those claiming to be of Arab origin, against Kurds,
  6. ‘hizam’ or Arab Belt to be instituted,
  7. ‘iskan’ or ‘colonisation’ policy involving the implementation of ‘pure and nationalist Arabs’ in the Kurdish regions so that the Kurds could be ‘watched until their dispersion’,
  8. proclaiming the ‘Belt’ a military zone where army detachments supervise the settlement of Arabs and the expulsion of Kurds,
  9. a ‘socialisation’ policy of creating collective farms, mazari’ jama’iyya, for the Arabs who will be resettled in order to train and arm them like the Jewish frontier colonies,
  10. disenfranchising anybody ignorant of the Arabic language,
  11. the Kurdish ‘ulama’ (clergymen, mullahs) must be deprived of their religious authority and replaced by pure Arab clergymen; the Kurdish ‘ulama’ may also be transferred to the interior for their assemblies are literally Kurdish assemblies and not of a religious character; and
  12. launching a vast anti-Kurdish campaign amongst the Arabs (Hasanpour, 1991)

The Baath regime implemented this plan by building an ‘Arab Belt’. It was a model farm spreading over 10-15 kms around the Kurdish settlements. Eventually it resulted in expulsion of thousands of Kurds who were replaced by Arabs settled in model farms. This plan led to the evacuation of no less than 60,000 (120,000 according to some estimates) Kurds who moved to non-Kurdish areas or to Lebanon (Vanly, 1968; Hasanpour: 1991).

The Kurdish people emerged out of this ordeal as a symbol of strength. They struggled through long years against all neighbouring states, forged alliances and solidarity platforms. The story of their struggle reached corners of the world in the language that had been attempted to be silenced. They managed to forge solidarities by finding ways to keep their language alive, communicate and publish regularly. The state-machineries that denied Kurdish history were answered by the rich repository of songs that were composed in Kurdish. In the cantonments, texts books were prepared and published in Kurdish to facilitate proper education of the children. Such arrangements are almost unimaginable considering the amount of censorship at work beside the non-existent standard script across the Kurdish region. But such obstacles were overcome.

The Rohingyas, on the other hand, inherited a language which so far has survived mostly through an oral tradition. They accepted Arabic as the language of their education, subsequently denying a chance for their language to develop. In a letter written to International Organisation for Standardisation in 2007, Mohammed Siddique from the Rohingya Language Foundation pointed out how Rohingya written in Arabic script was illegible for the common Rohingyas resulting in difficulty in communication and education (Siddique, 2007). However, the Rohingya language has been approved under ISO 639-3 as a language with 26 letters written in roman language in 2007 through appeals made by Conrad Hurd. Many dictionaries and text books have started emerging in ‘Rohingyalish’ since then. Online repositories such as, have emerged which provide interactive facilities of learning the language with freely available learning materials. First few steps have been taken, whether such steps will yield a similar result as that of the Kurdish survival and victory, whether the Rohingyas will wield power through their language to resist the genocide and get themselves organised, only time will tell. But beyond any doubt, these small steps are crucial for the cultivation of ‘Rohingyalish’, translations of the Rohingya story into other languages. Considering the desperate situation the Rohingya community is in, these acts of averting a linguicide seems synonymous with averting a genocide.

Photo: Waseem Hussian


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Sayantan Mondal is an Assistant Professor of English at Gandhi Institute of Technology and Management, Hyderabad. He has recently been awarded PhD for his thesis on Nineteenth Century Readership in Bengal, submitted at the Centre for Comparative Literature, University of Hyderabad.  His areas of interest include Book History, Literary History, and Diasporic Literature. He had been awarded the Erasmus Mundus Exchange fellowship in 2015 and spent the tenure at the Oriental Institute, University of Oxford, during 2015-2016.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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