Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, Middle Bengali became a major idiom of literary expression in the kingdom of Arakan. It is within the domain of this coastal kingdom, which then comprised the region of Chittagong in today’s Bangladesh, that Muslim subjects of the Buddhist kings started using the courtly vernacular that was previously cultivated by Hindu dignitaries of the Ḥusayn Shāhī sultans of Bengal. By the mid-17th century, which constituted a moment of economic prosperity and maximum territorial expansion, all genres of Middle Bengali poetry were represented in the corpus of texts written by authors living in the urban and rural areas of the kingdom. The many treatises on Muslim beliefs and meditative practices, the hagiographic literature, and the courtly romances testify to the formation of a local Islamic cultural ethos. After the Mughal conquest of Chittagong in 1666, local literacy was still cultivating standards set by authors of the Arakanese period such as Saiẏad Sultān and Ālāol. In Arakan itself, Bengali Muslim literature continued to be produced and transmitted until at least the first half of the twentieth century. A large number of manuscripts was collected in the first decades of the twentieth century and these are preserved in various institutions in Bangladesh. The Bengali literature of Arakan is characterized by its Indic religious idiom and Sanskritized poetics, but also by its complex intertextuality that reflects the region’s connections with north India and the Persianate trading networks of the Bay of Bengal. Up to the 2000s, the Bengali literature of Arakan has mostly been discussed within the framework of the national literary history of Bangladesh, but subsequently scholars have relocated this corpus within the cultural domain of the Bay of Bengal and the Islamicate literary traditions of South and Southeast Asia.
Bengali Literature of Arakan
Rohingya: The History of a Muslim Identity in Myanmar
The name Rohingya denotes an ethnoreligious identity of Muslims in North Rakhine State, Myanmar (formerly Burma). The term became part of public discourse in the late 1950s and spread widely following reports on human rights violations against Muslims in North Rakhine State during the 1990s, and again after 2012. Claims for regional Muslim autonomy emerged during World War II and led to the rise of a Rohingya ethnonationalist movement that drew on the local Muslim imaginaire, as well as regional history and archaeology. To explore the historical roots of distinctive identity claims and highlight Buddhist-Muslim tensions, one must reach back to the role of Muslims in the precolonial Buddhist kingdom of Arakan and their demographic growth during the colonial period. Civic exclusion and state harassment under Burma’s authoritarian regimes (1962–2011) put a premature end to political hopes of ethnic recognition, and yet hastened a process of shared identity formation, both in the country and among the diaspora. Since the 1970s, refugees and migrants turned to Bangladesh, the Middle East, and Southeast Asian countries, forming a transnational body of Rohingya communities that reinvented their lives in various political and cultural contexts. A succession of Rohingya nationalist organizations—some of whom were armed—had negligible impact but kept the political struggle alive along the border with Bangladesh. Although Rohingya nationalists failed to gain recognition among ethnic and religious groups in Burma, they have attracted increasing international acknowledgment. For postdictatorial Myanmar (after 2011), the unresolved Rohingya issue became a huge international liability in 2017, when hundreds of thousands fled to Bangladesh following military operations widely interpreted as ethnic cleansing. In December 2017, the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights acknowledged that elements of genocide may be occurring.