Muslims in Early Modern and Colonial Arakan

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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.

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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.

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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.