Letter from America: Muslim Identity and Demography in Arakan
Part 4: Rakhine Attempt to Whitewash Burman King’s Crime
Khin Maung Saw provides a highly distorted rendition of the 1784 invasion of Arakan and tries to justify the brutal occupation by the racist and bigot Burman King Bodaw Paya by saying that it was all about reformation of the Buddhist Monk's order. To him, all those who fled were only 50,000. And obviously, to him, these were Rakhines (and no Rohingyas).
Likewise, the Rohingya factor starts with British control of Arakan, esp. as he puts it, after 1886, as if they simply did not exist before the British colonization. He writes, "Arakan was very under-populated at that time. Therefore, the British brought tens of thousands of Chittagonian Bengali Muslims into Arakan. The Arakanese (Rakhaings) have to bear the burdens of these aliens until today. These aliens tried and are still trying to Islamize Arakan (if not the whole of Burma) by all means."
Obviously, such a narrative belies history, esp. the multi-cultural reality of Arakan during the Mrauk-U dynasty, preceding Bodaw Paya's invasion. As we have noted elsewhere during the 40-year Burmese tyrannical rule (1784-1824) of Arakan, tens of thousands of Arakanese of all faiths were massacred. The conquering Burmese forces demolished mosques, temples and shrines and stole the treasures of Arakan (including the Mahamuni statue). They conscripted and enslaved many, some of whom died out of fatigue and hunger while the living ones were settled at other parts of Burma. Some 20,000 inhabitants were taken as prisoners to Ava. By 1798, Bodaw’s repeated demand for forced slave labor (e.g., to build pagodas) and conscript service and the atrocity of his forces plus the rapacity of his local representatives had forced two-thirds of the inhabitants - Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist alike – to take refuge in Chittagong (Bengal). As noted by Farooque Ahmed, a researcher at the JNU, just the number of Muslim refugees to Bengal might have been 200,000. What is worse: during the next four decades of Burman colonization of Arakan, everything that was materially and culturally Islamic was meticulously razed to the ground.
According to G.E. Harvey, “Arakan had never been populous, and now it became a desert; the towns were deserted and overgrown with jungle, and there was nothing more to be seen but ‘utter destruction … morass, pestilence and death.” Khin Maung Saw’s attempt to whitewash the blood-soaked history of his idol, Bodaw Paya, is simply ludicrous, if not criminal and evil. He may like to re-read the historical account of this Buddhist monster, and learn why the Arakanese enthusiastically collaborated with the East India Company to get rid of the Burmans.
As we have noted earlier, the number of Muslims who lived in Mrohaung, the capital, during Mrauk-U kingdom was rather large, probably half the population. It is not difficult to surmise that the Muslim population could have grown to well over 300,000 in 1784 before the Burman invasion of Arakan, just from the Muslim soldiers alone that had settled there after restoring Narameikhla to the throne in 1430.
It is well known from demographic studies within Bangladesh that most of those fleeing refugees – mostly Muslim (and some Hindu) Rohingyas and Rakhine Buddhists - never returned, even when the British allowed such immigration after it had captured Arakan after the first Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-26. They assimilated within Bengal, esp. Chittagong and Chittagong Hill Tract Districts. For example, the ‘Rohai’, comprising nearly half the population in southern Chittagong, trace their origin to Arakan, and as citizens of Bangladesh, have no desire to return to Arakan after more than two centuries. Similarly many Rakhine Buddhists are now citizens of Bangladesh. If the descendants of Arakan who had fled to Chittagong during Bodaw Paya’s invasion of the territory, can become citizens of Bangladesh, K.M. Saw’s claim that the Rohingyas in Arakan are the aliens and that they don’t deserve Burmese citizenship show his utterly repugnant chauvinistic attitude that is at odds with scores of international laws governing basic human rights.
We have also seen throughout history that a persecuted people, no matter how horrible the living condition is even under the worst of the circumstances minus annihilation, don’t want to leave their ancestral homes. Many would try to endure their sufferings than opt out into a life of refugee. Thus, it is conceivable that in spite of the Burman savagery, many Arakanese Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists continued to live inside Arakan, and many would move to and fro through the porous borders as they felt either secure or insecure.
We are, therefore, not surprised to read Francis Buchanan’s eye-witness account who was a surgeon in 1795 to the British Embassy in Ava, the Burmese capital. He wrote about three dialects spoken: “The first is that spoken by the Mohammedans [Muslims], who have long settled in Arakan and who call themselves Roanigya [Rohingya] or native of Arakan.” In stark contrast to the propaganda of the Buddhist racists in today’s Burma, Buchanan clearly identifies the Rohingya people as the natives of Arakan. [K.M. Saw, e.g., tries to mischievously downplay this with his silly explanations, which are so ludicrous that one can clearly see that he was running out of his evil tricks.] How could the Rohingya be a product of the British colonization when Britain did not even move into the territory until 1824-6, nearly a quarter century after Buchanan’s account?
To account for Muslim factor in Arakan, Saw shoots onto his own foot by quoting R.B. Smart, the deputy assistant commissioner of Akyab: “Since1879, 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 [Mrohaung] townships. Maungdaw Township has been overrun by Chittagonian immigrants. Butheedaung is not far behind and new arrivals will be found in almost every part of the district."
Who are these ‘slaves’ that Smart talks about, if they are not the ancestors of today's Rohingyas? So, surely, before 1886, there were already those Kalas in the territory. How did they originate? Did they originate during the British rule, starting at 1824? Surely, not! Can anyone deny the fact that they were a legacy of the Magh-Portuguese piracy, so evident during much of the 17TH and the 18th centuries, when at least 3,000 Bengalis were taken as captives per year, many of whom were forced to work as slaves in Arakan? According to Arthur Phayre, based on the Travelogue of Friar Manrique, the slave population accounted for 15% of the total population of Arakan.
It is not difficult to also understand that under the new political reality of Arakan with the East India Company (EIC) in power, some of the descendants of the Arakanese refugees that had settled in the nearby EIC-controlled Bengal would be allured to settle back in their ancestral land, and that they would prefer to settle in places like Maungdaw and Buthidaung, which are closest to Teknaf, the southern tip of Chittagong in Bengal. That way, if things did not work out for them they could return to Chittagong with much ease.
The new colonizers depended on taxation and land-revenue, and rice export was an important trade in those days. However, with only 740 square miles of the fertile land cultivable in 1871, rice export was accounting for 105,894 Pounds Sterling (less than 10% of the total sea-borne trade of Arakan, amounting to 1.35 million Pounds Sterling).
************ To be continued *********
[Dr Siddiqui’s book - The Forgotten Rohingya: Their Struggle for Human Rights in Burma – is available from Amazon.com]
- Asian Tribune -