Letter from America: The Rohingya Question – Part 1
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 became 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.
===?> To be continued…
- Asian Tribune -