Letter from America: The Rohingya Question

By Dr. Habib Siddiqui

To many Burmese and Rakhine Buddhists of today’s Myanmar the existence of the non-Buddhist Rohingya people is mostly seen as a direct result of Indian, or more particularly, Bengali immigration during the post-1826 era of British occupation of the territories.

To them, the Rohingya history starts with the British occupation of Burma, dating back to 1826 after the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-26 in which Arakan and Tenasserim came under the East India Company, with its bases in Calcutta (today’s Kolkata in West Bengal of India). The so-called Indian immigration to Burma is intimately linked with the colonial administration’s desire to transform Burma into a rice bowl for the British Empire.
In this paper an attempt is made to reappraise the events during the British occupation of Burma starting with its annexation of Arakan and its commercial attractiveness which drew people from other parts of the region to settle – mostly temporarily – there. The questionable influx of Bengalis, or more particularly Chittagonians (from nearby Chittagong District of British Bengal), to beef up the number of Arakanese Muslims, especially, the Rohingyas of Burma is also examined from available sources.
The First Anglo-Burmese War
This war, the first of the three wars fought between the Burmese Empire (Kingdom of Ava) and the British in the 19th century, dealt a crushing blow to the Burmese pride beginning the end of their independence. The third Burmese Empire, founded by Alaungpaya just over half a century ago, was crippled and forced to pay an indemnity of one million pounds sterling, and sign a commercial treaty. The British would make two more wars against a crippled Burma, and swallow up the entire country by 1885.
The outcome of that war was a matter of great relief for the surviving inhabitants of Arakan – Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, who were savagely persecuted during the long rule of Bodawpaya (1780-1819), the fanatic, blood-thirsty Buddhist monarch who had fathered 62 sons and 58 daughters by nearly 200 consorts. Bodawpaya, like all fourth brothers in Burmese folklore, was an eccentric and unpredictable figure who grew into a despot and a tyrant. His blood-baths had secured his throne against his rivals and had let to the mass exodus of the vanquished people. In Lower Burma tens of thousands of Mons had fled to Siam (today’s Thailand). In Arakan his invasion, led by his son in 1784, let to the massacre of tens of thousands of Arakanese Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. He had no respect for the past and had destroyed mosques and Muslim shrines that once dotted the shorelines of Arakan. He claimed himself to be a Future Buddha and proclaimed that all monks must wear their robes in the orthodox manner. He ordered the study of the Buddhist scriptures by all laymen and laywomen, and built pagodas and Buddhist monasteries from exorbitant taxes and revenues he charged for such pet projects.
Bodawpaya’s Burmese subjects looked upon him with admiration and love, and occasionally amusement. But his Arakanese subjects hated him. Speaking about the Burmese cruelty, historian Harvey said that to break the spirit of the people, “they would drive men, women and children into bamboo enclosures and burn them alive by the hundreds.” This resulted in the depopulation of minority groups such that “there are valleys where even today the people have scarcely recovered their original numbers, and men still speak with a shudder of ‘manar upadrap’ (the oppression of the Burmese).”
During Bodawpaya’s tyrannical rule, some 200,000 Arakanese fled to Bengal (today’s Bangladesh). His forces enslaved 20,000 Arakanese – including 3,700 Muslims (known as the ‘Thum Htaung Khunya (Three thousand seven hundred)’) – who were forced to carry the Maha Muni statue to Amarapura. Thousands of Arakanese were forced to widen a mountain pass to enable the statue to pass through. When the Arakanese protested against Burmese persecution, the Burmese army became more arrogant and started to deport them to Burma for re-settlement there. When in 1785 Bodawpaya invaded Siam, Arakanese levies were impressed for service in those expeditions.
Bodawpaya also built a number of temples, including a large temple at Mingun on the opposite bank of the river above Ava. He ordered enslaved Siamese and Arakanese craftsmen to work together and cast a great bell for the temple. Mingun was infested with mosquitoes and people working there were very prone to malaria attack. Learning of the shortage of labor for king’s project, the army in Arakan deported more Arakanese to Mingun. To pay for his project, the king raised many taxes. Burdened by such taxes, many inhabitants whispered, “When the pagoda (at Mingun) is completed, the great king shall die.” As noted by Burmese historian Maung Htin Aung, it was not a mere protest but a bitter curse.
Since its conquest and the removal of its great image, Arakan had been restless, and the Burmese army did not dare withdraw lest rebellion should break out. According to Aung, “After ten years the Arakanese had suffered so much that even the presence of the army could no longer intimidate them, and in 1794 they rose in rebellion, led by one of their chiefs. The rebellion was easily suppressed but the survivors crossed the frontier into British territory (of Bengal).” The Burmese troops followed them and camped inside Bengal, who were asked by a British force to withdraw. Subsequently, an agreement was reached between the two sides in which the Burmese would send a request in writing to the British authorities for any such hot pursuits. Nevertheless, Arakanese rebels became active again, esp. in 1799 when England was locked in battle with Napoleon’s France. A Burmese force pursued them inside Bengal where they were intervened by a small British force. The Burmese commander, realizing that he had acted unwisely, withdrew into Burmese territory, thus avoiding a general conflict. Lord Wellesley, the English governor general was angry and refused a written request from the Burmese military governor of Arakan for surrender of the rebels.
In 1811 an Arakanese leader, Chin Byan, who had been a refugee in Bengal, collected a force of refugees who had fled Arakan, and Bengali sympathizers, armed with latest British weapons, including cannons. He crossed into Arakan and attacked the Burmese forces, and occupied the capital. He declared himself king and appealed to the English governor general for assistance and recognition, which was, however, rejected. Soon Chin Byan was defeated by the Burmese forces, leading to his return to Bengal, where his movement was closely watched and he was prevented from crossing the frontier again.
With a long Anglo-Burmese frontier from Assam to Bengal and rebel activities originating from English-held territories and subsequent hot pursuits by the Burmese forces, it was only a question of time when a full-fledged war between the two neighbors would take place. Outside the Naaf River there was nothing to demarcate the borders between the two territories. When Lord Amherst, the governor general sent two officers to inspect the border area, they were arrested by the Burmese forces. British troops then occupied an island in the river, but the Burmese attacked and overcame them.
Overconfident with victory, the Burmese marched into Cachar in January 1824 and in the following March the British forces declared war against the Burmese. Instead of fighting in hard terrain, the British armada entered the harbor of Rangoon and took it by surprise on May 11, 1824. Pursuing a scorched-earth policy, the Burmese abandoned the city and instead chose to fortify positions outside the city. By mid-December of that year, the Burmese had lost 23,000 of their forces to superior cannon power of the British. General Maha Bandula who commanded the Burmese forces retreated to Danubyu at the head of the Irrawaddy delta. On April 1, 1825 the British launched a major attack and Bandula was killed by a mortar shell. The demoralized Burmese forces abandoned Danubyu. On the same day, Arakan also fell to the British forces. The British also took Prome.
A Burmese peace mission came to discuss terms with the British commander, but finding his demands too harsh they returned to the capital. The British fought on until they reached Yandabo, only fifty miles from Ava – the royal palace. The Burmese authorities were then left with no choice but to accept an even more cruel and harsh treaty on February 24, 1826. The territories of Arakan and Tenasserim were ceded to British Bengal along with Manipur and Asssam.
The new governor general Lord Dalhousie famously said, “Among all the nations of the East, none is more arrogant in its pretensions of superiority, and none more pertinacious in its assertion of them, than the people of Burma.” With the humiliating defeat in 1826, thus began the process of taming one of the most arrogant of the nations!
While tens of thousands of Burmese forces died in the war, the casualty on the British side, fought jointly by English troops and Indian sepoys, was not small either. Some 15,000 were killed, and the cost of war was estimated at thirteen million pounds sterling, an enormous sum of money in those days. Burdened by indemnity, which left the Kingdom of Ava bankrupt, it took two more wars in 1852 and 1885 – much easier ones – to eventually swallow up the crippled country in its entirety.
Arakan was devastated in the 40-year long Burmese rule. Its capital city of Mrauk-U, once a highly cosmopolitan center, had become almost desolate. The once thriving kingdom, per account Mr. Paton who was the first British Controller of Civil Affairs in Arakan in 1826, had only a hundred thousand inhabitants – 60,000 Magh Buddhists, 30,000 Rohingya Muslims and 10,000 Burman Buddhists (remnants from the Burmese occupation era).
As noted by historian Robert Taylor, the establishment of British rule in Arakan (and Tenasserim) evoked little violent opposition after the surrender of king’s forces for a number of reasons:
Arakan was not integrated administratively or ethnically into the pre-colonial order, significant rebellion and resistance had always persisted against the Burman rule, and being a marginal territory a significant proportion of its people had fled from one authority to another, who did not share either a religious or ethnic identity with the monarchical state, and indeed, who had little sense of loyalty or belonging to any state in the region. The rapid agricultural and commercial expansion of the region also greatly helped towards peaceful establishment of British colonial rule in Arakan.
When the British occupied Arakan, the country was a scarcely populated area. Consequently, formerly high-yield paddy fields of the fertile Kaladan and Lemro river valleys germinated nothing but wild plants for many years.

It is worth noting here that those valleys in the pre-Burman colonization period used to be cultivated by Rohingya Muslims and Hindus, whose forefathers were abducted from Bengal in the 16th and 17th centuries by the Magh and Portuguese pirates to work as slave labors.

Rice Cultivation, Indian Immigration and the Chettiars

With the overthrow of a despised regime and the emergence of a new friendlier administration promising an era of prosperity and encouraging return of the refugees, the descendants of some of those former refugees to British Bengal (today’s Bangladesh) who had fled Bodawpaya’s persecution were lured back to Arakan.

As noted elsewhere by this researcher and others, the vast majority of these returnees, however, were Maghs and not the Rohingya Muslims and Hindus who had settled permanently in more prosperous southern parts of the Chittagong District and came to be known as the Rohis by the local population. Likewise, most of the Chakmas, many Marmas and other smaller tribes (and even many Maghs) refused to go back to Arakan from Bengal. [The latter enjoy full citizenship rights in Bangladesh.]

As the demand for rice increased – not just in fertile deltas of Bengal and Burma, and the nearby territories of Thailand and Malaysia but also in far away Europe, the British began to develop Burma as the rice bowl for the British Empire.

As noted by Sean Turnell, a political economist, Burma’s entry into the commercial imperatives of the British Empire, the conversion of the Delta into rich paddy-producing land initially required little capital. Britain’s great ‘exchange banks’ took care of shipping, milling and other export-finance needs, and up until the middle of the 19th century the amount of capital required ‘on the ground’ in land preparation was slight.

In the early years of British rule in ‘Lower Burma’ the growth in rice exports was founded on cheap and surplus labor within cultivator families, and upon abundant land that required little more than clearing. That is, in those early years of British occupation, make-up labor from outside was not necessary to grow rice in Burma.

In 1857, after the Sepoy Mutiny in India (or more appropriately, India’s First War of Independence) was suppressed by the British colonial government, the price of rice increased by some 25%. With the increase in rice price, land holdings were extended by cutting down the mangrove forests and by draining swamps, which required money. Thus came the Chettiars from Tamil Nadu to provide the necessary loan for cultivating land, because the British banks would not grant loans on mortgage of rice lands and the British government did not consider it necessary to open land mortgage banks or agricultural loan agencies. The Chettiar money-lenders charged an interest rate that was considered to be exorbitant by vast majority of the loan-seekers. In line with its policy of laissez faire the British government did not attempt in any way to control the usurious rates of interest.

Who are the Chettiars?

Sean Turnell provides some useful information which is worth sharing here. The Chettiars (also spelled Chettyars), or more properly the Nattukottai Chettiars, Hindus by faith, came from the Chettinad tract of what is now Tamil Nadu. Chettinad was a collection of 76 villages which, at the time of their activity in Burma, stretched from Ramnad District and into Pudukottai State of ‘British’ India. The Chettiars were originally involved in salt trading, but sometime in the 18th century they became more widely known as financiers and facilitators for the trade in a range of commodities. By the early 19th century finance had become the primary specialization of the Chettiars, and they became famed lenders to great land-owning families (zaminders) and in underwriting their trade in grain through the provision of hundis and other indigenous instruments. Of course, they became known to the British Imperial authorities as bankers who had been ‘for centuries developing and perfecting to a remarkable degree a system of indigenous banking’.

The first Chettiars seem to have arrived in Burma at the outset of British rule – in 1826 accompanying Indian troops and laborers in the train of the British campaign in Tenasserim during the first of the three Anglo-Burmese wars. By 1880 the Chettiars had fanned out throughout Burma and by the end of the century they had become by far the ‘the most important factor in the agricultural credit structure of Lower Burma’. By 1905 it was estimated that there were 30 Chettiar offices in Burma. According to the Burma Provincial Banking Inquiry Report (BPBE), the most dependable source on the extent of Chettiar operations, this number had increased to 1,650 by 1930. Nearly every well-populated part of Lower Burma there was a Chettiar within a day’s journey of every cultivator. They essentially became the money lenders in the agricultural sector.

One example highlighted by the BPBE was in Prome, where it was estimated ‘that Chettiars lend one-third of all the crop loans directly and finance the Burman lenders to such an extant that Chettiar money forms altogether two-thirds of all loans’. In terms of functional distribution, Chettiar loans were overwhelmingly employed in agriculture. Two-thirds of all Chettiar loans outstanding in 1930 were held by agriculturalists, the remainder roughly categorized as ‘trade’. Chettiar lending was secured against collateral, and mostly against title to land.

The influx of paper money in the Burmese economy brought in temporary laborers, coolies, clerks, mechanics, cooks, etc. from the British Empire. (Even U.S. President Obama’s Kenyan born Muslim grandfather served as a cook to a British officer in Burma.) As we shall see below, most of those temporary workers did not live longer than the cultivation-harvest period. The Chittagonians who were even closer and costing the least money to cross the Naaf River did not stay longer than required to finish such tasks as planters and harvesters.

Burma has always been xenophobic, racist and bigotry-ridden. But no other group was probably as much vilified as the Hindu Chettiars were in the British colonial period. Sean Turnell writes, “The economic history of Burma contains a number of contentious themes, but none has been as divisive as the role of the Chettiars. Celebrated as the crucial providers of the capital that turned Burma into the ‘rice-bowl’ of the British Empire, this community of moneylenders from Tamil Nadu were simultaneously vilified as predatory usurers whose purpose was to seize the land of the Burmese cultivator.

The truth, as in so many things, was more nuanced. The Chettiars were the primary providers of capital to Burmese cultivators through much of the colonial period, but the combination of the collapse of paddy prices in the Great Depression, the Chettiar insistence of land as collateral, and the imposition of British land-title laws, did bring about a substantial transfer of Burma’s cultivatable land into their hands. The Chettiars did not charge especially high interest rates and, indeed, their rates were much lower than indigenous moneylenders. Nor did the Chettiars set out to become landlords, fearing that this would only antagonize the local population and lead to reprisals against them. Their fears were prescient, for in the end the Chettiars were expelled from Burma, in the process losing the land they had acquired and much of their capital.”

With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the price of rice soared, which, led to more acreage for cultivation in Lower Burma.
Chettiar success in Burma came to a terrible end with the onset of the global Depression of the 1930s. Paddy prices had been trending downwards across the latter half of the 1920s, but they went into a steep decline in 1930 and remained at unremunerative levels until after the Second World War.

The impact of the collapse in paddy prices was soon felt amongst the cultivators of Burma’s lower delta, whose general situation was summarized by Burma’s Commissioner of Settlement and Land Records in his annual report to the Government for 1930-31: “The year was one of extreme depression for agriculture in Burma. The…agricultural economy had for many years had been based on the assumption that the price of paddy would be Rs.150 or more per 100 baskets. The result was that contracts for wages were made and loans were taken on the same scale as in previous years at the beginning of this cultivating season. Consequently when the crop was harvested, after the labour had been paid for at the rates agreed upon, and the rents paid in kind at the old rates, the tenant though left with the same share of produce, found its value reduced by half, and was unable to repay his loan and often not even able to pay the interest.”

It is worth mentioning here that a handful of British farms entirely controlled the wholesale trade in rice, and Indian and Chinese merchants controlled the retail trade. As noted by Aung, the British farms agreed upon themselves not to buy any rice until the harvesting season was long past and the new planting season was approaching. The farmer, therefore, had no option but to sell the rice at a lower price, and, thus, default on loan payments. Of course, at the end of this cycle of distress were the Chettiars. Unable to collect even interest payments on their loans, let alone the principal, increasingly Chettiars came to foreclose on delinquent borrowers and to seize the pledged collateral. For the most part this was land. By 1936 they have become owners of 25% of land in the 13 Principal Rice-Growing Districts of Burma.

Exposed to the understandable anger of indigenous cultivators and the demagoguery of Burmese nationalists of all stripes, they became easy scapegoats not just for the current economic distress, but the foreign domination of Burma’s economy. According to historian Harvey, “Alien in appearance and habits, the Chettyar was the butt of the Burmese cartoonist, he was depicted as Public Enemy No.1, and the violence of the mob was directed against him, a canalization, a projection of the people’s own faults and failings on to a convenient victim.”

In the vernacular press the demonization of the Chettiars soared to extreme heights, and they were accused of all manner of barbarities well beyond a mere rapacity for land. Forgotten there was the fact that the total Chettiar loans outstanding as at 1939 was £50 million, a figure, which according to Furnivall was ‘the equivalent of all British investments in Burma combined’.

According to Turnell, “The Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942 brought with it many harrowing scenes, but few would match that of the flight of the Diaspora of Indian merchants, workers, administrators and financiers who had done much to transform Burma in the colonial era.

Prominent amongst those fleeing the onslaught of the Japanese, just as they had been prominent in the transformational role played by Indians in Burma beforehand, were the Chettiars of Tamil Nadu. Scapegoats then and now for the misfortunes that heralded the breakdown of Burma’s colonial economy, the Chettiars were not allowed to return to their lives and livelihoods following the granting of Burma’s independence in 1948. Portrayed by British colonial officials and Burmese nationalist politicians alike as almost pantomime villains in Burma’s 20th century dramas, they left the stage as unambiguous victims.”

To be continued…

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