One Man, Two Identities in Arakan State

Ko Tin Hlaing gets on well with both Arakanese and Muslim communities. He was born to Arakanese parents, but raised by a Muslim family.

By Admin 01 Jun 2024

One Man, Two Identities in Arakan State

Written by Mawra Zaw
It was a typical hot-season day. Yellow leaves were dropping from a lebbeck tree outside the staff quarters in Bumay Ward, near Sittwe University in the Arakan State capital. Beneath the tree were a manual sugarcane juicer and two parasols shading two plastic tables and a few plastic chairs.
Preparing sugarcane juice was 51-year-old Ko Tin Hlaing, also known as Nawbi Ulsung; a short man with brown complexion and always wearing a hat. From his appearance, he looks like an Arakanese, but he speaks like a Muslim.
Ko Tin Hlaing lives in Thaechaung Village, and makes a living selling sugarcane juice. He gets on well with both Arakanese and Muslim communities. He was born to Arakanese parents, but raised by a Muslim family.

“Both my parents are from Pauktaw Township. When they got married, my maternal grandfather gave them a few cows and farmlands, but my father said he only wanted to do business with vessels. So, the grandfather gave him money.

When my mother was pregnant with me, my father left for the Arakan Mountains to do logging. I already had a sister then. Transportation was poor then. My mother lost contact with my father for a long time. Then, those who returned from the Arakan Mountains told us my father had married again.
My grandfather went mad after he heard that. He complained to my mother about how her husband could do that after he had given him the capital to do business, and he already had two children with her. I was not yet born then.
My grandfather was furious, and he said he would give away the second child, me, whether the baby would be a boy or girl. My father was married before he married my mother, and he had three sons and two daughters with his ex-wife.
My mother hid in a pineapple plantation for fear that my grandfather would take me away. I was three months old then. My grandfather found her and gave me to a Muslim family. He went to the Pauktaw Township administration office and signed the adoption contract.
I was adopted by U Kardi and Daw Phatilma from Shawliphatyan Village. When my father heard that, he returned and complained to the Pauktaw Township administration. But I was adopted with an adoption contract, and he could do nothing.
My adopters did not tell me that I am Arakanese. They also have an adopted daughter who is older than me.
As the two villages are not far apart, everyone knew about my life. When I was young, my blood mother, sister and relatives came to visit. When she came, she hugged me and cried. She gave me pocket money.
So, I asked my adoptive father in Muslim language why those Arakanese people loved me and gave me pocket money. He replied that they were visiting me because they had a late son who resembled me. I believed him.
When I was around 10 … by which time I had learnt Arakanese … I knew that I am an Arakanese. When my relatives came, they told me that I am an Arakanese. I later learned who is who in my family.

Speaking of my relatives, you should know about my half-brothers. My mother remarried after she divorced my father. When I was around 17, my half-brothers were teenagers.

I spent the night there with my mother and returned to the village in the morning, and my two younger brothers accompanied me. As we passed a mountain, we met a man with whom we had fought before while catching birds. This man insulted me and started fighting. The road was a hill road and my two brothers were not too close behind me.
What was the man thinking? There were two Arakanese people behind me, so they were going to beat me up as a Muslim. My brothers saw that he pulled me by the collar of my shirt and started to punch me, so they ran. When he saw my two brothers running, he thought two Arakanese men would help him. My two brothers told him that if you attack my brother, they will bury you, so he got scared and went back. When I was young, I often faced such issues because I was thought to be an Arakanese and a Muslim. 
As a young man, I always participated in the Arakanese traditional wrestling contests held annually in our village and neighbouring villages. I won prizes in Arakanese traditional wrestling contests. Where are my medals now? When we competed in Arakanese traditional wrestling contests, an Arakanese traditional wrestler A Pho Shin Maung Ni from Taung Nyo Village was very famous. At that time, both Arakanese traditional wrestlers and Muslim wrestlers could not beat ethnic Chin wrestlers in Arakanese traditional wrestling contests. Then A Pho Shin Maung Ni defeated an ethnic Chin wrestler. That’s why A Pho Shin Maung Ni is also nicknamed Chin Sar Maung Ni.
My Muslim father has died. My Arakanese mother, over 80 years old, is still there. Think about how much my Arakanese mother loves me. When I went to my Arakanese mother, my sister invited me to have lunch. My mother used to remove the fat from the pork for me and leave the meat alone, so it was like beef. And my mother fed me that meat. Of course I know. I have never eaten such meat since I was young. I did not eat the meat that my mother gave me. The reason why I am talking about this is that my mother fed me that meat because she wanted me to eat it. I wasn’t upset. My mother loved me and wanted me to eat the way she eats. (Ko Tin Hlaing looked away and was quiet for a while.)
I got married when I was 19 years old. My wife and I went to school together, and that’s how we met. My wife is a Muslim woman. I came to Sittwe not long after I got married. When I arrived in Sittwe, I worked for a while with the help of a friend at a port. Then I made a living by selling sugarcane juice. An officer from the Road Transport Administration Department came to my shop to drink sugarcane juice and suggested that I sell sugarcane in front of their office, so I sold sugarcane in front of that office. He even suggested that I apply for a job in his office because of his friendship. It has been more than 30 years since I arrived in Sittwe.
I inherited farmland from my [adoptive] Muslim father and [biological] Arakanese mother. I will talk about that. When my Muslim father and mother died, my father’s brothers did not want to give me and my sister an inheritance. They didn’t want us to inherit the land because we were adopted children. My brothers and relatives from my Arakanese mother’s side held swords and threatened them to give us the land as an inheritance. Later, they had to give us the land as an inheritance. We are legal heirs and adopted children.
As for the doctrine of Buddhism, it is the benefit of “luck”. According to the doctrine of Islam, it is according to God’s will. People do not become what they want to be. You were born somewhere, but now you are not somewhere? My Arakanese mother’s brother is a Buddhist monk. Before, I had to send sugarcane to his monastery many times.
During the communal violence between Arakanese and Muslims, I lived normally. I didn’t want to fight anyone, I just helped people. Now I have a wife, three sons and two daughters. I also have six grandchildren, born to my daughters. Even if my family isn’t rich, it’s OK.
This year, our sugarcane juice is not selling well because there are fewer people in Sittwe. The other roads are closed, so we can’t buy sugarcane from Kyauktaw. So, it has become more difficult for us to find sugarcane than before."

Back to that afternoon beneath the lebbeck tree and colourful umbrellas: As the customers began to arrive, Ko Tin Hlaing put the sugarcane sticks into the grinding machine and made a sure-to-please juice from it, as he had done so many times before. In this hot summer, Ko Tin Hlaing’s storied and refreshing cup of sugarcane juice flows cool and sweet to all those who come to drink it, regardless of race or religion.