The provenance of the Rohingya is as difficult to trace as that of many of Myanmar’s other ethnic groups: they appear to be a mixture of Arabs, Moors, Turks, Persians, Moguls and Pathans, according to the United Nations. Myanmar’s government counts more than 130 ethnicities in the country. The Rohingya are not on that list.
This is an article in The New York Times. It is clear from this article that the Rohingya obscuring of their own origins, and assertiveness of their non-Bengali orientation, has forced the press to go along. But it is obvious that the Rohingya are not the descendants of “Arabs, Moors, Turks, Persians, Moguls and Pathans.” Evolution doesn’t happen that fast. They don’t look West Asia, rather, they look like typical dark-skinned Bengalis. The Rohingya language is closest to the dialect of Chittagong. In other words, it is closely related to standard Bengali. The Rohingya look Bengali, and, they speak a language close to Bengali. They are also almost all Muslims, just as is the case in eastern Bengal amongst the peasantry. The Rakhine of Arakan who claim that the Rohingya are descendants of Bengali laborers who arrived during the British period are probably right.
So why do the Rohingya assert non-Bengali provenance? First, many South Asian Muslims assert a West Asian provenance. That’s not original. But the Rohingya have another reason: West Asian Muslims do have a long history as traders and soldiers in the courts of the kings of the Burmese kingdom. Small communities of Burmese Muslims descend from these people, though a great majority intermarried with the local population. Aung San Suu Kyi is reportedly descended from one of these indigenized Muslim families. If the Rohingya establish a connection with these Muslims then they refute the charge that they are new arrivals.
Finally, there is also the issue that though the Rohingya have a clear connection to, and are derived from, the stream of culture which led to Bengali Muslims, and what became Bangladesh, they seem to have diverged in the past few hundred years in their own self-conception. To make a long story short the Bengali Muslim identity is itself a relatively recent construct. There have long been Muslims who spoke Bengali, but these individuals did not form a coherent elite culture. The Bengali Renaissance which finally ripened and matured with Tagore was primarily a vehicle for educated Hindus. The traditional Muslim elites of Bengali were not Bengali, but Urdu speaking. A Bengali and Muslim educated class arose relatively late to take the leadership of the Bengali Muslim peasantry.
The Rohingya seem to have separated themselves from this dynamic. The clearest indication of this is that they do not use the Bengali script, but Arabic or Latin derived ones. The Bengali language in its elite written form is fundamentally the glue that ties together Hindu and Muslim Bengali elites. The Rohingya detachment from it means that their own self-identity has diverged, so they sincerely assert their non-Bengali identity, despite the fact that by all rights they are nearly Bengali!
Finally, what happened to the Hindu Bengalis who arrived with the Rohingya? Even in southeastern Bengali Hindus are ~10% of the population. I suspect that the Hindu Bengalis became Buddhist and intermarried with the Rakhine. This tendency is clear in the census data we have available on Indians who chose to remain in Burma. Hindus easily switched their identity to a Buddhist one, while Muslims could and would not (for obvious reasons).
In the United States if an ethnic group has had residence for 100 years that’s long enough to suggest they have a “right” to stay. Obviously the Burmese don’t see it that way. And the reality is that the Rohingya themselves don’t feel Bengali. My family knew a Rohingya man who grew up in Bangladesh, spoke Bengali, and looked Bengali. Nevertheless, he would deny he was Bengali, and assert his Burmese identity strongly.