Unicode Wants to Digitize the Rohingya Language

It could give the persecuted group a new tool to preserve their identity.

Getty Images / Paula Bronstein

While the Rohingya people have experienced a violent oppression in Myanmar, they could be getting a new tool to preserve their cultural identity: a digital language.

The Unicode Consortium, the non-profit responsible for creating the universal standard of digital characters and numbers, is considering encoding “Hanifi Rohingya,” a writing system developed for the Rohingya in the 1980s. Until that point, the dialect had no written script. It was created by Mohammad Hanif, an Islamic scholar who extensively studied the language, which is a dialect of Bangali, that’s related to the south-eastern Bangladeshi Chittagonian language.

A digital alphabet would allow the Rohingya to use social media, send texts, and write emails in their own tongue. Although many Rohingya lack the literacy and access to technology to do so as they face an oppression in Myanmar that’s been likened to ethnic cleansing, the move would have major symbolic consequences.

“If a people do not have a written language of their own, it is easier to say that as an ethnic group you don’t exist,” Hanif told the AFP.

For a population that’s experiencing a global diaspora, the possibility of a dialect-turned-digital language could help connectivity and communication of Rohingya around the world in the future.

Recently arrived Rohingya refugees rest after crossing into Bangladesh on November 24, 2017.

Getty Images / Allison Joyce

Beginning in late August, a wave of violent attacks perpetrated by Myanmar’s army saw mass rapes and thousands murdered in Rohingya villages in Myanmar. The majority-Buddhist country does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens of Myanmar. By early December, around 650,000 Rohingya had fled Myanmar. Recent statistics put the number of Rohingya in Bangladesh at 950,000, with half a million in Saudi Arabia, 350,00 in Pakistan, and around 400,000 still remaining in Myanmar. Thousands more are in Malaysia, India, Thailand and the U.S.

A final decision on the development of “Hanifi Rohingya” will be made in February, according to an email from the Unicode Consortium sent to the AFP.

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