Looking at history and debunking some myths about the Rohingya
Myanmar’s propaganda often castigates the Rohingya as either Bengalis, Chittagonians, or illegal immigrants. It is important to counter this propaganda head on. Historical evidence supports the identity of the Rohingya as one of the native ethnic groups of Myanmar.
The Rohingya were known as Arakanese until 1982 when the Burma Citizenship Law deleted the term “Arakanese” from the list of eight indigenous groups and replaced the term with “Rakhine.” This change was opposed by Arakanese Muslims because the term “Rakhine” denoted only the Buddhist community in Arakan State.
The term “Arakanese” referred to Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians in Arakan. In 1989, Arakan State was renamed as Rakhine State. Burma was renamed as Myanmar. It was against this backdrop that the term “Rohingya” gained more traction. The term Rohingya is linked to the ancient local names of Arakan, including Mrohaung and Roshang.
The misuse of nomenclature as a policy of segregation and cultural genocide was seen during the Holocaust. Raphael Lemkin, the lawyer who coined the word genocide, describes in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe about how the Nazis changed the Jewish names of public venues as part of erasing any trace of Jewish identity. The removal of “Arakan” and “Arakanese” in Burmese law deprived the Rohingya of their civic identity as stakeholders in the Union of Burma.
Myanmar’s military rulers like to contend that the Rohingya are illegal settlers who arrived during the period of British colonial rule. They are equated with other immigrants from British India, including migrants from north and south India who proliferated Burmese port cities during British rule. But the truth is that the Rohingya are a native community and an integral part of Arakanese history.
Arakan stands out in Southeast Asia for its unique interaction with the Indian sub-continent, particularly Bengal. The historian Pamela Gutman, whose doctoral thesis concerned the cultural history of Arakan, notes that Arakan’s heartland was in its north near the border with Bengal. Separated from Burma proper by the Arakan Mountains, the coastal region of Arakan was open to influence from the Indian sub-continent via Bengal and the Bay of Bengal.
The early history of Arakan
Between the 4th and 8th centuries, the Candra dynasty in the city of Vesali ruled Arakan. They were related to the Candra dynasty of Harikela in southeastern Bengal. Archaeological excavations from the pre-Islamic period have also unearthed artefacts containing the proto-Bengali script in Arakan. Historian Paul Wheatley has described the “Indianization” of Arakan in the pre-Islamic period.
The Arakan-Bengal relationship reached its high point in the 15th century. The Na Mi rajawan is a chronicle of Arakanese oral history. It relates to the exile of Min Saw Mun, the ruler of Laungyet who is believed to have fled to Bengal during a Burmese invasion.
Jacques Pierre Leider estimates that Min Saw Mun fled to Bengal in 1406 and returned to Arakan in 1428.
This means Min Saw Mun arrived in Bengal during the reign of Sultan Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah (1389-1410) and left during the reign of Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah (1415-1432).
An academic consensus prevails that Min Saw Mun returned to Arakan, regained the throne and shifted the capital from Laungyet to Mrauk-U (erstwhile Mrohaung). The establishment of the capital at Mrauk-U heralded the most significant period in the history of Arakan. In Arakanese traditional history, the restoration of the throne is described in glowing terms.
The book Bengal-Arakan Relations (1430 to 1666 AD) by Mohammad Ali Chowdhury provides valuable references regarding the Bengali role in Arakanese affairs. Bengali literary texts are among the chief primary sources to detail the history of Arakan during the Mrauk-U period.
Nasrullah Khandakar’s Shariatnamah tells us that a Bengali aristocrat named Burhanuddin settled in Arakan with his group of soldiers. Burhanuddin is the first recorded Muslim defence minister of Arakan.
There is much academic literature which speculates that Min Saw Mun regained control of Arakan with the help of forces from Bengal. Arakanese traditional history states that Arakan was a tributary state of the Bengal Sultanate for a certain period. Arakan later became independent.
The Islamic influence
Between 1430 and 1638, a total of 16 Arakanese kings are recorded to have used Muslim titles.
The most enduring evidence of Indo-Islamic influence in Arakan is currency. Coins of the Mrauk-U period provide crucial evidence of the influence of Bengal in Arakan. After the restoration of Min Saw Mun, Arakanese coins were inspired by Bengali currency. Post-restoration Arakanese coinage featured Perso-Arabic and Bengali scripts.
It is important to understand the demographics and economy of Arakan during the Mrauk-U period. Arakan became home to a growing Muslim community due to its position as a coastal trading power. While Bengal was famous for its muslin exports, Arakan became a haven for the slave trade in conjunction with the Portuguese.
Arakan’s pirate raids against Bengal resulted in the forced deportation of thousands of people into its territory. They included farmers who cultivated the royal lands of the king of Arakan; artists, craftsmen, scholars, horsemen, guards, sailors, rowers, soldiers, archers, weavers, priests, and bureaucrats.
During the 17th century, Arakan was a haven of Bengali culture. Some of the most prominent poets of the Bengali language in the 17th century lived in Arakan. Alaol, the bard of middle Bengali literature, resided in Arakan. Alaol was a versatile genius. He was an accomplished horseman and a scholar of Sanskrit, Bengali, Arabic, Persian, and Hindustani. Alaol authored at least six books, including the Padmavati and the Iskandarnama (tales of Alexander the Great).
During the 18th century, the Burmese invasion of Arakan resulted in a demographic vacuum. The elite of Arakan were deported to central Burma while many in the general populace migrated to Bengal. The Rakhine community in Barisal are descendants of refugees who came from Arakan in the 18th century.
Enter the British
British rule in Arakan started with the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1823.
The British were keen to repopulate Arakan. As a result, British policy encouraged migration from the Chittagong Division of Bengal into the Arakan Division of Burma. As both Bengal and Arakan were ruled by the same sovereign power, this migration was lawfully permitted and encouraged.
Much of this migration was seasonal instead of permanent. Most Bengalis migrated to Arakan temporarily for jobs. A minority became permanent residents and assimilated with the local Muslim population.
British migration policy aimed to stimulate the rice economy in Arakan. It was a relative success. The farmlands south of the Naaf River became an extension of the rice economy in Chittagong Division.
Bengal was one of the principal buyers of Arakanese rice. Due to the civil war in the United States and the opening of the Suez Canal, Europe turned to Arakan and the rest of Burma for rice imports.
The Muslim population in Arakan grew from 12.24% in 1869 to 25.56% in 1931. Migration from Bengal contributed to population growth until the early 1900s when land became more expensive. Fertility was the most important factor for population growth in the early 20th century. By the 1920s and 1930s, 75% of the Muslim population in Burma were born within Burma. Arakan Division had the largest percentage of Muslims in British Burma.
Colonial census reports in 1921 and 1931 described Arakanese Muslims with various terms, including “Arakan Mahomedans,” “Chittagonian Mahomedans born in Burma,” “Chittagonian Mahomedans born outside of Burma,” “Bengali Mahomedans born in Burma,” “Bengali Mahomedans born outside of Burma,” “Indian Muslims” and “Indo-Burmans.”
In hindsight, these labels were deeply flawed. A person born in Arakan should simply have been called Arakanese and not a Bengali or Chittagonian.
In 1937, Burma was separated from British India into a distinct crown colony. Burma’s 1947 constitution promised citizenship to all residents in its territory, including those born in Burma or born “within His Britannic Majesty’s dominions.” When British rule ended in 1948, the Rohingya were legally recognized as Arakanese and enjoyed rights as full citizens in the newly formed Union of Burma.
Umran Chowdhury works in the legal field.