By Dr. Habib Siddiqui
As we have noted elsewhere there are other records, including British, which mention the name Rohingya. Consider, for instance, the account of the English surgeon to Embassy of Ava, Dr. Francis Buchanan (1762-1829 CE), who visited Burma decades before the British occupied the territory.
He published his major work “A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire” in 1799, in the fifth volume of Asiatic Researches, which provides one of the first major Western surveys of the languages of Burma. What is more important is that his article provides important data on the ethno-cultural identities and identifications of the various population groups in the first half of Bodawpaya’s reign (1782-1819).
He wrote, “I shall now add three dialects, spoken in the Burma Empire, but evidently derived from the language of the Hindu nation. The first is that spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan. The second dialect is that spoken by the Hindus of Arakan. I procured it from a Brahmen [Brahmin] and his attendants, who had been brought to Amarapura by the king’s eldest son, on his return from the conquest of Arakan. They call themselves Rossawn, and, for what reason I do not know, wanted to persuade me that theirs was the common language of Arakan.
Both these tribes, by the real natives of Arakan, are called Kulaw Yakain, or stranger Arakan. The last dialect of the Hindustanee which I shall mention is that of a people called, by the Burmas, Aykobat, many of them are slaves at Amarapura. By one of them I was informed, that they had called themselves Banga; that formerly they had kings of their own; but that, in his father’s time, their kingdom had been overturned by the king of Munnypura [Manipur], who carried away a great part of the inhabitants to his residence. When that was taken last by the Burmas, which was about fifteen years ago, this man was one of the many captives who were brought to Ava. He said also, that Banga was seven days’ journey south-west from Munnypura: it must, therefore, be on the frontiers of Bengal, and may, perhaps, be the country called in our maps Cashar [Cachar].” [Notes: 1. In the above account, the word Rohingya is spelled as Rooinga.. 2. Cachar district, part of the state of Assam in India, is located north-east of Sylhet in Bangladesh; it is located between the Indian state of Manipur and Bangladesh.]
Dr. Buchanan’s above statement is very revealing in that it shows that before the British occupied Arakan and the rest of Burma there were already Muslims living there who had identified themselves as the Rohingya, and that it was not an invented term. This observation squarely contradicts the current campaign by ultra-nationalist Rakhines and Burman racists that the Rohingyas settled in the Arakan only after the British occupation.
In his massive work – A Geographical, Statistical, and Historical Description of Hindostan and the Adjacent Countries in Two Volumes, published in London in 1820, Walter Hamilton wrote about Arakan (the Rakhine state), “The Moguls know this country by the name of Rakhang, and the Mahommedans, who have been long settled in the country, call themselves Rooinga, or the natives of Arracan.”
Thus, we can draw the conclusion that before the British even entered Arakan, the Muslim inhabitants called themselves by that name and were known as such by others.
These revelations about the Rohingya people from Buchanan and Hamilton should not come as a surprise to any genuine researcher of Arakanese and Burmese history. Numerous research works have demonstrated that a substantial portion of Arakan’s Muslim population was made up of descendants of Muslims who had lived in Arakan for centuries.
In his first hand account of the Arakanese Muslims, Charles Paton, wrote, “The Musselman Sirdars generally speak good Hindustani, but the lower orders of that class, who speak a broken sort of Hindustani, are quite unintelligible to those who are not thoroughly acquainted with the jargon of the southern parts of the Chittagong district.” It is not difficult to understand why the elites (Sirdars or Sardars) within the Arakanese Muslim society – the descendants of those attached to royalty and those in high offices – were more familiar with Hindustani, which is closer to Farsi, than the less educated cultivator class. Many of the forefathers of those elites came as the soldiers of generals Wali Khan and Sandi Khan who came to restore the kingdom of Nara-meik-hla in the early 15th century, and courtiers, ministers and administrators – as we shall see below – that later attached themselves with the Arakanese royalty in Mrohaung.
In his travelogue, the Augustine monk Friar Sebastian Manrique mentioned Arakanese king’s coronation ceremony in the early 17th century in which the parade was opened by Muslim cavalry unit of Rajputres from India, which was led by its cavalry leader.
Michael Charney in his doctoral dissertation (under the supervision of Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan) mentions about the emergence of Muslim ‘cultivator’ class in Arakan from at least the 17th century when large number of Bengalis were kidnapped by Maghs and Portuguese slave traders to work in the Kaladan valley. Quoting Manrique, he says that from 1622 to 1634, some 42,000 Bengali captives were brought in by the Portuguese pirates. By 1630, there were probably 11,000 Bengali families living in rural areas of Danra-waddy. The actual number is, however, significantly higher since there were also royal-sponsored campaigns to bring Bengalis as captives. Charney estimates that between 1617 and 1666, the total number of those Bengali captives could be 147,000. He also mentions about Bengali captives brought from Chittagong to Arakan as late as 1723 during the reign of Sanda-wizaya-raza. Those captives were called Kala-douns in the Arakanese chronicles, “who were then donated as pagoda-slaves in the ordination halls and monasteries, including the Maha-muni shrine complex.”
As noted by Professor Moshe Yegar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the capture and enslavement of prisoners was one of the most lucrative types of plunder of Bengal by joint Magh and Portuguese pirates. In his article, “The Crescent in the Arakan”, Yegar wrote, “Half the prisoners taken by the Portuguese and all the artisans among them were given to the king; the rest were sold on market or forced to settle in the villages near Mrohaung. A considerable number of these captives were Muslims.” It is not difficult to surmise that those abducted slaves and their descendants would identify themselves as the Rohingya.
Charney writes, “It is not surprising that in the late 1770s, as observers based in Chittagong explained, ‘Almost three-fourths of the inhabitants of Rekheng [Danra-waddy] are said to be natives of Bengal, or descendants of such… In short, despite the lack of complete data, it is still apparent that the demographic contribution of Bengali captives to Danra-waddy’s population is considerable.”
Charles Paton, similarly, mentioned the reason why the Rohingya Muslims were traditionally employed in farming: “The Mugs being particularly fond of hunting and fishing, do not make such good farmers as the Musselmans; however, as Banias and shop-keepers, they surpass the Bengalis in cunning, and, on all occasions try, and very often successfully, to overreach their customers: stealing is a predominant evil amongst them …” The Arakanese (Rohingya) Muslims and Hindus, as children of the indigenous people of the soil, were mostly involved in wet farming since time immemorial, a tradition which they retained before and after the British moved into Arakan.
Charney also mentions about the existence of a small group of Muslims dating as far back as the 9th century. He also cites Arakan traditions which hold that ship-wrecked Muslims had settled in Arakan as early as the 8th century. The Muslim population grew significantly with the Mrauk-U dynasty. Even Muslim mercenaries were brought in to fight in special campaign or to solve special problems within Arakan. He writes, “It is unlikely that these mercenaries had no influence in terms of advertising Islam to the Arakanese. After all, the Muslim mercenaries who helped restore Nara-meik-hla to his throne seem to have built the Santikan mosque in Mrauk-U in about 1430. There was also certainly a small Muslim presence among the intermediary service elites in the royal city during the early Mrauk-U period… At the beginning of the seventeenth century, there were many Muslims in the Arakanese court, including a Turkish courtier … who seems to have become a kind of royal adviser.”
There was also a small, but wealthy and influential community of Muslim traders in Arakan. “Even higher status Muslims arrived as political refugees from Bengal with Shah Shuja in the mid-seventeenth century. Together, Muslims in the royal city formed a special social group with a privileged and unique socio-political role than their rural counterparts enjoyed, with different connections to the Muslim world,” notes Charney. Suffice it to say that before Bodawpaya’s invasion of Arakan, Arakanese Muslims (also known as the Rohingya) were employed in various professions: from high ranking courtiers in the capital city to non-elites and agriculturalists into the countryside.
Quoting British census, Charney says that in 1891 there were 126,586 Muslims in Arakan (most of whom were concentrated in Danra-Waddy, wherein sat the capital), comprising roughly 19% of the total population. This figure should not come as a surprise given the fact that in the 1830s, at least 30% of Arakan’s general population was Muslim. For the original number to increase to the 1891 number, only a growth rate of 2.24% was necessary. This annual growth rate is below what was prevalent in those days amongst the Muslim population in Bengal and Arakan suggesting rather strongly that to grow to that size it did not require an influx from outside.
As I have pointed out in an earlier work on demography in Arakan, a rational basis for understanding the size of the Rohingya population in Burma during the British period lies in Charles Paton’s data when the East India Company colonized Arakan. As the Sub-commissioner in Aracan (Arakan), he was able to estimate the population soon after Arakan came under British rule. He said, “The population of Aracan and its dependencies, Ramree, Cheduba, and Sandoway, does not, at present, exceed a hundred thousand souls, and may be classed as follows: Mugs, six-tenths; Musselmans, three-tenths; Burmese, one-tenth; total, 100,000 souls.”
The questions that an unbiased researcher, therefore, has to ask are: what happened to those 30,000 Arakanese Muslims whom Paton called Musselmans? During the British period in 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911, 1921, 1931 and 1941 or thereafter what was the size of their population?
Ignoring such obvious signs and records of presence, many Rohingya-deniers continue to say that the Rohingyas are not an ethnic group in Myanmar. And in recent months we have witnessed quite a few state-managed demonstrations, which even included highly politicized pro-government, ultra-racist monks carrying placards that demanded that the 1982 constitution – responsible for making the Rohingya people stateless – should be strictly followed by the government so that they can be removed from Myanmar. Claims and demands of this kind are symptomatic of the depth of racism and bigotry that has penetrated the Buddhist society inside Myanmar. Consequently, the latest genocidal campaign to ethnically cleanse the Rohingya which began in June of 2012 has already succeeded in uprooting more than a hundred thousand Rohingya people who are now forced to live in concentration camps, unless they choose to settle for a life of uncertainty elsewhere. They cannot go out to fetch livelihood. As al-Jazeera’s documentary film ‘The Hidden Genocide’ revealed, they are starving to death. It is a slow death camp for them!