Friday, June 19, 2009

The Development of a Muslim Enclave In Arakan (Rakhine) State of Burma (Myanmar) (1)

By Dr. Aye Chan

I. Introduction
Who are the Rohingyas? Burma gained independence from Great Britain in 1948 and this issue is
a problem that Burma has had to grapple with since that time. The people who call themselves Rohingyas
are the Muslims of Mayu Frontier area, present-day Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships of Arakan
(Rakhine) State, an isolated province in the western part of the country across Naaf River as boundary
from Bangladesh. Arakan had been an independent kingdom before it was conquered by the Burmese in
1784. Rohingya historians have written many treatises in which they claim for themselves an indigenous
status that is traceable within Arakan State for more than a thousand years. Although it is not accepted as
a fact in academia, a few volumes purporting to be history but mainly composed of fictitious stories,
myths and legends have been published formerly in Burma and later in the 1 The present paper was
written for distribution and discussion at a seminar in Japan. During the seminar, there was a debate
between the author and Professor Kei Nemoto concerning the existence of the Rohingya people in
Rakhine (Arakan). Nemoto, in a paper written in Japanese, agreed with the Rohingya historians that the
Rohingyas have lived in Rakhine since the eigth century A. D. The author contests the vailidity of these
claims. The present paper was also read at the 70th Conference of Southeast Asian historians of Japan,
held at the University of Kobe, on 4 to 5 February 2003. United States, Japan and Bangladesh. These, in
turn, have filtered into the international media through international organizations, including reports to the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (Ba Tha 1960: 33-36; Razzaq and Haque 1995: 15).2

In light of this, it is important to reexamine the ethnicity of the ‘Rohingyas’ and to trace their
history back to the earliest presence of their ancestors in Arakan. And history tells us that we do not have
to go back very far. In the early 1950s that a few Bengali Muslim intellectuals of the northwestern part of
Arakan began to use the term “Rohingya” to call themselves. They were indeed the direct descendants of
immigrants from the Chittagong District of East Bengal (present-day Bangladesh), who had migrated into
Arakan after the province was ceded to British India under the terms of the Treaty of Yandabo, an event
that concluded the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826). Most of these migrants settled down in the
Mayu Frontier Area, near what is now Burma’s border with modern Bangladesh. Actually, they were
called “Chittagonians” in the British colonial records.

The Muslims in the Arakan State can be divided into four different groups, namely the Chittagonian
Bengalis in the Mayu Frontier; the descendents of the Muslim Comm- unity of Arakan in the Mrauk-U
period (1430-1784), presently living in the Mrauk-U and Kyauktaw townships; the decendents of Muslim
mercenaries in Ramree Island known to the Arakanese as Kaman; and the Muslims from the Myedu area
of Central Burma, left behind by the Burmese invaders in Sandoway District after the conquest of
Arakan in 1784.

II. Mass Migration in the Colonial Period (1826-1948)
As stated above, the term “Rohingya” came into use in the 1950s by the educated Bengali residents
from the Mayu Frontier Area and cannot be found in any historical source in any language before then.
The creators of that term might have been from the
second or third generations of the Bengali immigrants from the Chittagong District in modern
Bangladesh; however, this does not mean that there was no Muslim community in Arakan before the state
was absorbed into British India.

When King Min Saw Mon, the founder of Mrauk-U Dynasty (1430-1784) regained the throne with
the military assistance of the Sultan of Bengal, after twenty-four years of exile in Bengal, his Bengali
retinues were allowed to settle down in the outskirts of Mrauk-U, where they built the well-known
Santikan mosque. These were the earliest Muslim settlers and their community in Arakan did not seem to
be large in number. In the middle of the seventeenth century the Muslim community grew because of the
assignment of Bengali slaves in variety of the workforces in the country. The Portuguese and Arakanese
raids of Benga (Bengal) for captives and loot became a conventional practice of the kingdom since the
early sixteenth century. The Moghal historian Shiahabuddin Talish noted that only the Portuguese pirates
sold their captives and that the Arakanese employed all of their prisoners in agriculture and other kinds of
services (Talish 1907:422). Furthermore there seem to have been a small group of Muslim gentry at the
court. Some of them might have served the king as Bengali, Persian and Arabic scribes. Because the
Mrauk-U kings, though of being Buddhist, adopted some Islamic fashions such as the maintaing of silver
coins that bore their Muslim titles in Persian and occasionally appearing in Muslim costumes in the style
of the Sultan of Bengal. Accordingly there were Muslim servants at the court helping the king perform
these Islamic conventions (Charney 1999: 146). Arthur Phayre, the first deputy commissioner of Arakan,
after the British annexation, reported about the indigenous races of Akyab District and the Muslim
descendents from the Arakanese days as:

The inhabitants are, In the Plains – 1. Ro-khoing-tha (Arakanese)-2. Ko-la (Indian) – 3. Dôm(Low
Caste Hindu).
IntheHills – 1. Khyoung-tha – 2.Kumé or Kwémwé – 3. Khyang – 4. Doing–nuk, Mroong, and other
tribes… While the Arakanese held these possessions in Bengal, they appear to have sent numbers of the
inhabitants into Arakan as slaves, whence arose the present Ko-la population of the country (Phayre 1836:
680 – 681).

During the four decades of Burmese rule (1784-1824), because of ruthless oppression, many
Arakanese fled to British Bengal. According to a record of British East India Company, there were about
thirty-five thousand Arakanese who had fled to Chittagong District in British India to seek protection in
1799 (Asiatic Annual Register 1799: 61; Charney 1999: 265). The following report by Francis Buchanan
provides a vivid picture of the atrocities committed by the Burmese invaders in Arakan:

Puran says that, in one day soon after the conquest of Arakanthe Burmans put 40,000 men to
Death: that wherever they found a pretty Woman, they took her after killing the husband; and the young
Girls they took without any consideration of their parents, and thus deprived these poor people of the
property, by which in Eastern India the aged most commonly support their infirmities. Puran seems to be
terribly afraid, that the Government of Bengal will be forced to give up to the Burmans all the refugees
from Arakan (Buchanan 1992: 82).3

A considerable portion of Arakanese population was deported by Burmese conquerors to Central
Burma. When the British occupied Arakan, the country was a scarcely populated area. Formerly highyield
paddy fields of the fertile Kaladan and Lemro River Valleys germinated nothing but wild plants for
manyyears (Charney 1999: 279). Thus, the British policy was to encourage the Bengali inhabitants from
the adjacent areas tomigrate into fertile valleys in Arakan as agriculturalists. As the British East India
Company extended the administration of Bengal to Arakan, there was no international boundary between
the two countries and no restriction was imposed on the emigration. A superintendent, later an assistant
commissioner, directly responsible to the Commissioner of Bengal, was sent in 1828 for the
administration of Arakan Division, which was divided into three districts respectively: Akyab, Kyaukpyu,
and Sandoway with an assistant commissioner in each district (Furnivall 1957:29).

The migrations were mostly motivated by the search of professional opportunity. During the
Burmese occupation there was a breakdown of the indigenous labor force both in size and structure.
Arthur Phayre reported that in the 1830s the wages in Arakan compared with those of Bengal were very
high. Therefore many hundreds, indeed thousands of coolies came from the Chittagong District by land
and by sea, to seek labor and high wages (Phayre 1836:696). R.B. Smart, the deputy assistant
commissioner of Akyab, wrote about the ‘flood’ of immigrants from Chittagong District as follows:

Since 1879, immigration has taken place on a much larger scale, and the descendants of the slaves
are resident for the most part in the Kyauktaw and Myohaung (Mrauk-U) townships. Maungdaw
Township has been overrun by Chittagonian immigrants. Buthidaung is not far behind and new arrivals
will be found in almost every part of the district (Smart 1957: 89).

At first most of them came to Arakan as seasonal agricultural laborers and went home after the
harvest was done. R. B. Smart estimated the number at about twenty-five thousand during the cropreaping
season alone. He added that about the same number came to assist in plowing operations, to work
at the mills and in the carrying trades. A total of fifty thousand immigrants coming annually were
probably not far from the mark (Smart 1957: 99).

Moreover, hunger for land was the prime motive for the migration of most of the Chittagonians.
The British judicial records tell us of an increase in the first decade of the twentieth century in lawsuits of
litigation for the possession of land. The Akyab District Magistrate reported in 1913 that in Buthidaung
Subdivision, the Chittagonian immigrants stand to native Arakanese in the proportion of two to one, but
six sevenths of the litigation for land in the court was initiated by the Chittagonians (Smart 1957: 163).
Another colonial record delivers about a striking account of thesettlements of the Bengali immigrants
from Chittagong District as:

“Though we are in Arakan, we passed many villages occupied by Muslim settlers or descendents
of the settlers, and many of them Chittagonians” (Walker 1891(I): 15).

The colonial administration of India regarded the Bengalis as amenable subjects while finding
the indigenous Arakanese too defiant, rising in rebellion twice in 1830s. The British policy was also
favorable for the settlement of Bengali agricultural
communities in Arakan. A colonial record says:

Bengalis are a frugal race, who can pay without difficulty a tax that would press very heavily on
the Arakanese….(They are) not addicted like the Arakanese to gambling, and opium smoking, and their
competition is gradually ousting theArakanese ( Report of the Settlement Operation in the Akyab District
1887-1888: 21).

The flow of Chittagonian labor provided the main impetus to the economic development in
Arakan within a few decades along with the opening of regular commercial shipping lines between
Chittagong and Akyab. The arable land expanded to four and a half times between 1830 and 1852 and
Akyab became one of the major rice exporting cities in the world.

Indeed, during a century of colonial rule, the Chittagonian immigrants became the numerically
dominant ethnic group in the Mayu Frontier. The following census assessment shows the increase of
population of the various ethnic/religious groups inhabiting Akyab District according to the census
reports of 1871, 1901 and 1911. There was an increase of 155 percent in the population in the district.
According to the reports, even in an interior township Kyauktaw, the Chittagonian population increased
from 13,987 in 1891 to 19, 360 in 1911, or about seventy-seven percent in twenty years. At the same time
the increase of the Arakanese population including the absorption of the hill tribes and the returning
refugees from Bengal was only


Junaid on June 20, 2009 at 12:54 AM said...

" .....And history tells us that we don't have to go back very far. In the early 1950s that few Bangali Muslim intellectuals of the northwestern part of Arakan began to use the term 'Rohingya'......" why this idiot do not want to go back before 1950s? the answer is very SIMPLE !!!! Racist Kyaw know very well that the existence of Rohingya in Arakan is of Centuries old...

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