The modern term Rohingya emerged from colonial and pre-colonial terms Rooinga and Rwangya. The Rohingya refer to themselves as Ruáingga /ɾuájŋɡa/. In the dominant languages of the region, they are known as rui hang gya (following the MLCTS) in Burmese: ရိုဟင်ဂျာ /ɹòhɪ̀ɴd͡ʑà/ and Rohingga in Bengali: রোহিঙ্গা /ɹohiŋɡa/. The term “Rohingya” may come from Rakhanga or Roshanga, the words for the state of Arakan. The word Rohingya would then mean “inhabitant of Rohang”, which was the early Muslim name for Arakan.Andrew Tan argues it comes from the Arabic word Raham (God’s blessing) and speculates that early Muslims in Arakan referred to themselves as “God’s blessed people”.
The usage of the term Rohingya has been historically documented prior to the British Raj. In 1799, Francis Buchanan-Hamilton wrote an article called “A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire”.Among the native groups of Arakan, he wrote are the: “Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan.” The Classical Journal of 1811 identified “Rooinga” as one of the languages spoken in the “Burmah Empire”. In 1815, Johann Severin Vater listed “Ruinga” as an ethnic group with a distinct language in a compendium of languages published in German.
In 1936, when Burma was still under British rule, the “Rohingya Jam’iyyat al Ulama” was founded in Arakan.
According to Jacques Leider, the Rohingya were referred to as “Chittagonians” during the British colonial period, and it was not controversial to refer to them as “Bengalis” until 1990s.Leider also states that “there is no international consensus” on the use of the term Rohingya, as they are often called “Rohingya Muslims”, “Muslim Arakanese” and “Burmese Muslims”. Others such as anthropologist Christina Fink uses Rohingya not as an ethnic identifier but as a political one.Leider believes the Rohingya is a political movement that started in the 1950s to create “an autonomous Muslim zone” in Rakhine.
The government of Myanmar Prime Minister U Nu, when Myanmar was a democracy from 1948-1962, used the term “Rohingya”.When the Mayu Frontier District was created covering Rohingya-majority areas, the term “Rohingya” was recognized by the Burmese government. The term was broadcast on Burmese radio and was used in the speeches of Burmese rulers. A UNHCR report on refugees caused by Operation King Dragon referred to the victims as “Bengali Muslims (called Rohingyas)”. Nevertheless, the term Rohingya wasn’t widely used until the 1990s.
Today the use of the name “Rohingya” is polarized. The government of Myanmar refuses to use the name.In the 2014 census, the Myanmar government forced the Rohingya to identify themselves as “Bengali”.Many Rohingya see the denial of their name similar to denying their basic rights, and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar has agreed. Jacques Leider writes that many Muslims in Rakhine simply prefer to call themselves “Muslim Arakanese” or “Muslims coming from Rakhine” instead of “Rohingya”.The United States embassy in Rangoon continues to use the name “Rohingya”