November 6, 2019

Muslims in Early Modern and Colonial Arakan

Image result for map of Rakhine state

Arakan is a strip of coastal plains, mangrove marshlands, and river valleys that connects Bangladesh to the deltaic landscape of Lower Myanmar. Shut off from the Irrawaddy Valley to the east by a hinterland of steep forest-covered hills, it runs in a north-south direction along the eastern Bay of Bengal. The early modern Buddhist kingdom of Arakan had its own independent history centered on Mrauk U, an inland urban site overlooking the fertile Kaladan and Lemro valleys. At the margins of South and Southeast Asia, it borders on Muslim Bengal and Buddhist Burma. The presence of more than a million Buddhists in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Division and more than a million Muslims in North Rakhine State in the early 21st century underscores a complex ethnoreligious setting. Inner cultural and ethnic frontiers overlap but rarely converge with the political borders of the postcolonial nation-states.
History of Arakan/Rakhine State is at the heart of the ethnic claims that the Rohingya raised in the 1950s, but precolonial history did not predict the contemporary ethnocultural conflicts and economic rivalries. Sources testify to a patchwork of Muslim presence since the early modern period. In the 15th century, the use of Muslim titles by Arakanese kings and inscribed coins suggests that the Bengal sultanate had a cultural impact on the court elite of Mrauk U. The cult of Sufi saints, venerated as the protectors of sailors and a resident community of Muslim traders, is also attested. Arakan’s territorial expansion in the 16th century led to the conquest of Chittagong, Bengal’s prosperous port ruled by Muslim lords since the 14th century. Until 1666, Chittagong’s Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist populations were part of the Arakanese realm and a pillar of its economic power.5
The systematic deportation of Bengali country folk supplied personnel for the court, notably to till the royal lands around Mrauk U. It also fed a thriving slave trade. Local men likely served in the royal navy, which successfully resisted Burmese and Mughal attempts to crush Arakan’s coastal hegemony. The percentage of Muslims in the general population must have varied considerably. Western sources suggest a complex picture of the Muslim population, with privileged members serving at the court, a bigger group of bonded labor, and a community of Muslim merchants from around the Indian Ocean.6 The linguistic traces of Arab and Persian in Arakan Muslims’ eastern Bengali dialects point to these multifaceted contacts. With his works in Bengali embedding Persian narratives in Sanskrit poetic forms, the poet Alaol stands out as an eminent representative of the Muslim elite at the Arakanese court.7
When the kingdom’s political star waned in the late 17th century, most of the traders left. Arakan became a regional backwater. Muslim guards were still playing a prominent role in removing and installing kings, but the region earned a dismal reputation as a pirates’ nest.
When the Burmese conquered Arakan in late 1784, they deported leading Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu families from Mrauk U and resettled them in the capital, Amarapura. An Arakanese Muslim was appointed head of the kingdom’s Muslim community. Traces of Mrauk U’s deported Muslim elite were lost in the late 19th century. In 1795, during a residence of several months in the Burmese capital, Francis Buchanan, a British physician, noted the peculiar language of the Arakanese Muslims, who referred to their place of origin and their own language as “Rooinga,” designating Arakan in their own tongue.8 The term, an obvious forerunner of the modern word Rohingya, was never used as an ethnic category by British administrators, most likely because Muslims themselves did not use it as an ethnonym. Since the rediscovery of Buchanan’s 1799 article in the early 21st century, however, his mention of “Rooinga” has been quoted as proof of the existence of an indigenous Muslim ethnic community, to be referred to retrospectively as “Rohingya.”9 A more discerning approach is nonetheless advisable, taking into account the much later and specific postcolonial context.
Several years after the conquest of Arakan, forced labor and deportations pushed tens of thousands of people, including local Muslims, into Bengal, crossing the Naf River, which had been the border since the time of Mughal rule and Rakhine kings. After 1799, the East India Company resettled many of the displaced in a location that took the name of its founder, Hiram Cox: Cox’s Bazar, now a Bangladeshi seaside resort. Incursions led by Arakan’s exiled chiefs provoked Burmese reprisals, which had a detrimental impact on British-Burmese relations between 1811 and 1815 and, among other reasons, led to the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824–1826). A 19th-century missionary described the Muslim refugees as a bilingual group that adopted Arakanese dress, food habits, and customs and differed from the Buddhists only by its religion and language. They integrated into the host society more easily than the Arakanese.10
The percentage of the Muslims in the total population of Arakan at the time of the British conquest has been discussed amid some controversy. Charles Paton’s assessment, stating that 30 percent of the total population was Muslim when the British took control in 1825, was based on T. C. Robertson’s preliminary inquiries.11 This estimate is questionable because it could signify a decline of the Muslim population during the following decades. Census reports in 1869 and 1870 put the share of the Muslim population at 5 percent.12 Paton’s estimates most likely reflect the fact that Muslims had a strong presence in those places where British administrators became active (namely, North Arakan, Akyab, and Mrauk U). The context further suggests that Muslims proficient in several languages played a significant role as informers since 1823, when the British started to prepare for an invasion of Burma.13 The theory that Buddhist-Muslim communalism became a driver of social disintegration in the country since the early 19th century seems doubtful as, unlike today, the precolonial sociopolitical order prioritized functional rather than ethnic belonging.14
Rapid demographic and economic changes took place after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The new maritime corridor acted as a powerful stimulus for the export of rice and conditioned a growing demand for labor. Chittagonians came massively for the seasonal work, but many settled permanently in the country. The seasonal moves were recorded only partially by the colonial administration, while the rapid increase of the newly resident Muslims was documented in the census reports of 1881, 1891, 1911, 1921, and 1931. Between 1881 and 1941, the percentage of the Muslim population grew steadily, reaching 27 percent of the total.15
Paying close attention to the linguistic, religious, and ethnic classifications in British census reports and their changes over the decades is essential to any discussion about the mixed Muslim population. The criteria that prevailed in the first reports were religious identity (“Muslim”) and linguistic group (“Bengali”). This division of the majority of the population into a predominantly Arakanese-speaking Buddhist group and a Bengali-speaking Muslim group fused the old (pre-1785) Arakan Muslim community with the post-1826 arrivals and the latest wave of new migrants from Chittagong Division. The 1921 and 1931 censuses, however, differentiated among these two (and other smaller) Muslim groups. Members of the reputedly old Muslim community were referred to as “Arakan Mahomedans,” according to their wish, and put into a newly created racial category of “Indo-Burman” (numbering 51,615 in 1931), while the larger, but relatively recent, Muslim community was called “Chittagonians” (numbering 252,152) and was racially classified as “Indians.”16 Detailed information about how these two groups progressively merged is lacking, but regional and political differences persisted until the early 1960s, and probably beyond.
Chittagonian migrant labor and their descendants formed 80 percent of the total Muslim population. In 1931, three-quarters of them had already been born in Arakan, but they were perceived as foreigners, with no deep roots in the country.17 The next section will describe how the political mobilization of the Muslims of North Arakan led to the birth of the Rohingya movement.

Rise of a Muslim Nationalist Movement, 1942–1964

There is no available information on social, religious, or politically active Muslim organizations in North Arakan during the colonial period.18 A council of religious teachers (Jam’iyyat ul-Ulama), created in Maungdaw in 1936, became politically active only in the aftermath of World War II. The date of its foundation was nonetheless a crucial moment, as Burma separated from India in 1937 and obtained its own constitution and greater political autonomy.
The political awakening of the Muslims of North Arakan took place during the war, following the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942. The arrival of the Japanese triggered an exodus of more than 400,000 Indians fleeing from Burma to India, many of them crossing Arakan to reach Bengal. In Central Arakan, the collapse of the colonial order in late March and April 1942 included advances by troops of the anticolonial Burma Independence Army (BIA), who preceded Japanese troops. BIA cadres and Arakanese Buddhists attacked Muslim villages whose inhabitants were driven away or killed in Minbya, Myebon, Pauktaw, and other townships. Reportedly, 20,000 Muslims—with later sources stating much higher figures—fled to the north and farther on, to India. In retaliation, Arakanese Buddhists were attacked in the predominantly Muslim townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung and fled south. These events, which were never thoroughly investigated, led to diverging stories of injustice and victimhood, and fueled bitterness. Efforts by local Arakanese and Muslim headmen and administrators to put an end to the violence were sidelined in later narratives.19
For three years (1942–1945), Burma’s Arakan Division was partitioned, with the Japanese in control of the mainly Buddhist areas and the British army entrenched in the north with the support of local Muslim recruits. Rivaling Muslim township leaders acted as de facto political entrepreneurs and created so-called peace committees, which maintained their allegiance to the British. After Burma’s independence in 1948, North Arakan Muslim leaders from Maungdaw stated that the Muslims of Arakan were an indigenous population and natives of the country. The purpose of this ethnic claim, made in requests to British and Burmese authorities in 1947 and 1948, was primarily to gain political autonomy. The British and the Burmese authorities dismissed the request, while the local Buddhist population resented the politically vocal Muslims.
The creation of the Pakistan-Burma border produced a new reality along the Naf River, where people had been moving back and forth with few restrictions for centuries. The North Arakan Muslim leaders were divided about the course that their community should take. Some favored joining Pakistan but failed to obtain the support of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s first governor general, in 1946. Others put their hopes in the British government that they had supported against the Japanese. Informal promises for an exclusive Muslim zone, apparently made by military officers during the war, were never backed up by any official British commitments.20
In early 1947, the Jam’iyyat ul-Ulama of Maungdaw pleaded for recognition of North Arakan as a frontier zone, a request immediately denied on the grounds that there was no historical foundation for such a status. In 1948, the Jam’iyyat ul-Ulama also approached the Burmese government with a similar request for an autonomous Muslim zone, displaying a powerful sense of political self-confidence. They firmly stated that Muslims formed an indigenous group with historical roots, and yet also had a troubled relationship with their Arakanese Buddhist neighbors, so a split-up was necessary. Nonetheless, requests to introduce sharia law, as well as Urdu as a language of education, bolstered the reputation of North Arakan Muslims being separatists at heart, despite avowals of being law-abiding citizens devoted to the Union.21 It is this line of thought and self-affirmation that marked the beginning of the peculiar form of Muslim subnationalism that characterized the Rohingya movement in the 1950s.
In 1949, Burma was in a state of civil war, with the government and the army besieged by ethnic rebels in Rangoon, Burma’s capital, and threatened by more nationalist and communist insurrections throughout the country. In North Arakan, the outbreak of the Mujahid insurrection (1948–1961) can be attributed to the violent exactions of local militias, the dissatisfaction of local landlords, the unfair treatment of Muslims by Arakanese administrators, and murky business conflicts. The Mujahid allegedly claimed to fight for an autonomous Muslim area, but even modern Rohingyas have rarely invoked the Mujahids as model fighters for a national cause. Not only did they attack security forces, but they terrorized the local population, too. They were accused of bringing illegal migrants from East Pakistan to Arakan and controlling rice-smuggling networks. Annual campaigns by the army disabled their military capacity up to 1954, and yet the last rebels surrendered only in 1961.22
Conservative political leaders chose parliamentary politics to further their own ambitions and Muslim interests. Arakan Muslim candidates participated in the elections of 1947, 1951, 1956, and 1960. Four of five Arakan Muslim representatives at the Constituent Assembly of 1947 were elected as members of the Jam’iyyat ul-Ulama. In the 1951 Charter of the Constitutional Demands of the Arakani Muslims, Muslim leaders unsuccessfully reiterated their requests.23 Yet the appointment of Sultan Mahmud, a wealthy town notable and head of the Arakan Muslim Association, as minister of health in 1956 appeared to be the result of pragmatic Muslim politics. Facing the strident calls of the Arakan National Union Organization (ANUO) for the creation of an ethnic Arakan state, Prime Minister U Nu allied himself with Sultan Mahmud against the Arakanese nationalists.24
At the same time, a younger generation of unsatisfied Arakan Muslims pushed for a more affirmative posture on their acclaimed identity and Muslim autonomy. The choice and widespread adoption of a common name, Rohingya, created a decisive but also contentious moment. Importantly, it gave Muslim nationalists a likeness of unity that they had lacked throughout the 1950s.25
The discussion of how to spell the name continued for years, coming to an end only around 1963. Rwangya had briefly circulated among members of the old Arakanese Muslim community in the late 1940s to distinguish themselves from the later migrants. Its use shifted ten years later, when Chittagonians were referred to as “Rwangyas” to differentiate them from illegal migrants from East Pakistan. In Burmese and English sources, one can find various spellings, such as Rowannhyas, Rawengya, Royankya, or Rohinjas, and Ruhangya.26 In his early articles, Mohammed A. Tahir Ba Tha, the father of Rohingya Muslim history, preferred Roewengyas, using the now-orthodox Rohingyas only since 1963.27
Quoting these variants is not a superfluous point. They show that the term had not been put into writing previously, but rather was in oral use among people who pronounced it differently and still were unsure about how to spell it. Although historical linguistics can explain its derivation from Ra(k)khanga, a literary Pali term, nonscientific etymologies have flourished, linking Rohingya to Arabic words and even Arakanese expressions. Certainly, it was not an invention, but with its adoption by a group of tightly knit nationalists, it was instantly impregnated with the group’s political messages. Sultan Mahmud disagreed. He may have shared the political objectives of the younger nationalist generation, but he remained opposed to the choice of a distinctive yet divisive ethnonym to denote the Arakan Muslim community.
The Jam’iyyat ul-Ulama, based in Maungdaw adopted the name Rohing[y]a at an unspecified date, while five new organizations including the term in their name were founded between 1956 and 1960 in Rangoon (United Rohinga Organization, Rohinga Youth Organization, Rohinga Students Organization, Rohinga Labour Organization, and Rohinga Rangoon University Students Organization).28 The early development of the Rohingyas as a movement of young educated Muslim nationalists was driven by the political requirements of the day. When U Nu won the 1960 parliamentary elections, he was prepared to grant Arakan statehood within the Union. This led to “frantic activities” by the Muslims around Sultan Mahmud and the Rohingya organizations.29 Sultan Mahmud’s Arakan Muslim Organisation ultimately was ready to compromise and accept the creation of an Arakan state if the Muslims were given religious, cultural, economic, political, and educational guarantees.30
The Jam’iyyat ul-Ulama also gave detailed conditions under which it was ready to accept an Arakan state. But the creation of that state was still perceived by Rohingya leaders as a bad political option, as it implied the risk that North Arakan Muslims had to coexist with the Arakanese under an unsympathetic administration controlled by Buddhists. In 1960 and 1961, Rohingya speakers expressed widespread opposition. Yet it was not the Rohingyas, but rather the military putsch of March 2, 1962, that spoiled Arakanese Buddhist expectations. The Arakan state did not come into existence before 1974.
In the short run, the Muslims were the political winners. In early May 1961, following months of consultation, U Nu’s government created the special Mayu Frontier Administration (MFA) to satisfy Muslim demands. It included the areas dominated by Muslims (i.e., Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and a part of Rathedaung township). The surrender of the last few hundred Mujahids in July and November 1961 hailed a return to political stability in the region, and it went with an official declaration by the deputy chief of defense, Brigadier General Aung Gyi, recognizing the Rohingyas as an ethnic group despite the relatively recent adoption of this name. The Rohingya leadership in Maungdaw saw the creation of the MFA as the beginning of a “new era” and an explicit recognition of Rohingya ethnic claims.31
Yet while the MFA, run by army officers in Rangoon, offered a separate status, it was hardly the type of self-administration for which the Muslims had fought. The MFA looked rather like an administrative refashioning of the Frontier Areas Administration (FAA), created by General Ne Win during his caretaker regime (1958–1960). The FAA should have improved the economic and social development of the region, but primarily it extended the army’s sway over an ill-controlled border region seen as a hideout for rebels and smugglers and an open gate for migrants from Pakistan. The border agreement with Pakistan concluded in 1961 had a similar purpose. In 1964, two years after the putsch, the MFA was reintegrated into the Akyab (now Sittway) district by General Ne Win’s administration.
Although the MFA died an early death, the ideas and motives of the Rohingya organizations did not. Having emerged as a group of political enthusiasts who competed with the pragmatism of the older generation of Muslim notables, the Rohingyas were nonetheless more than a radical movement. Unlike their predecessors, who had brought to mind historical nostalgia and war memories to demonstrate their Muslim roots and prowess, the Rohingyas stepped up efforts in English-language (and less so in Burmese-language) media to inspire their movement with a set of core beliefs. By fusing their ethnic identity claims with their political goals and a record of the past, they attempted to mirror the causes of other ethnic minority groups who were looking for recognition and a state of their own within the Union. Such was the case of the ethnic Mon, and more visibly the loathed Arakanese Buddhist nationalists, who struggled for increased rights and autonomy qua their ethnic status, too. Defining themselves as a distinctive ethnic group within the Union and transforming the local Muslim imaginaire into an exclusive ideology, the Rohingyas set the Muslims of North Arakan apart from other Muslim groups in the country.

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