Sunday, September 25, 2011

Letter from America: Muslim Identity and Demography in Arakan

By Dr. Habib Siddiqui
2. Analysis: The Land and the Indigenous People of Arakan

To incite violence and bigotry against Rohingya Muslims of Arakan, Khin Maung Saw does not waste any time. He starts with a picture of a Muslim congregational prayer on the front page, followed by a photo of some soldiers (or possibly guerillas) sitting on the ground. The connotation is quite obvious.
However, such fear-mongering tactics will not succeed and would only lay bare the hideous character of their accusers, as it did in Norway. After all, of all the various communities that call Arakan their home, it is the Rakhine Maghs of Burma that have continued to practice violence; they want a ‘free’ Arakan away from the no less monstrous military brutes of Burma, while still purporting to retain its racist, non-democratic and fascist character that does not allow integration and multi-culture. 

In his prologue Saw mentions the story of an ‘ungrateful’ camel that had dislodged its master from the tent. He does not duck the connotation by stating that the Rohingyas of Burma are like that camel in the story that are trying to dislodge the ‘owner’ of the tent. By ‘owner’, he obviously means his own race - the Rakhine Magh.

Fact is, however, opposed to this make-belief fictional story put forth by the chauvinist Rakhine: the Rohingyas are neither the guests of Arakan nor are they trying to dislodge anyone. Far from the false Rakhine propaganda of being the outsiders who had settled in Arakan during the British rule of Arakan -- a persistent theme in the propaganda materials of Aye Kyaw, Aye Chan, Khin Maung Saw and other ultra-chauvinist racists of Arakan -- the existence of the Rohingya in the soil of Arakan predates the Magh influx to the territory from Tibet and other parts of Burma.

As credible research work by unbiased historians and researchers have amply shown, these Rohingyas, derogatorily called the Kalas (by the racist Maghs of Arakan), are the descendants of the indigenous people of Arakan – the true Bhumiputras (adibashis) -- of the land.

Separated to the north by the high hills and deep forests of the Chin State and to the east by the almost insurmountable Arakan Yoma mountain range which divides the Arakan coastal area from the rest of Burma, the region came to be known as the land of the ‘Kala Mukh’ (Land of the ‘Black Faces’), inhabited by these dark brown-colored Indians who had much in common with the people (today’s Bangladeshis, or more particularly Chittagonians) living on the north-western side of the Naaf River, along the adjoining coastal areas of the Bay of Bengal. The resemblance was not limited to physical features like skin color, shape of head and nose alone, but also in shared culture and beliefs. They thrived on rice cultivation on the fertile planes and the abundant supply of fish in the nearby rivers, streams and the Bay of Bengal. The one-mile wide Naaf River was no barrier to sustain family and cultural ties between these sea-faring people living on either side of the river. Arakan’s northern part Mayu, as noted by Dr. Moshe Yegar, can be seen as ‘an almost direct continuation of eastern Bengal’ [Bangladesh].

The Arakan Mountain range also served as a barrier inhibiting Burmese invasions, and allowing Arakan to develop as a separate political entity. As also concurred by all historians the influx of the Sino-Tibetans (with Mongoloid features) in Arakan, resembling today’s Rakhine stock, did not happen until after the collapse of the Vaisali kingdom in the 10th century CE.

What happened to the region in the centuries before and after this invasion? As evidenced by numerous archeological finds, it is obvious that the Hindu colonists, fuelled by their need for trade and commerce, gold and silver, first colonized the region in the early 1st century CE. According to Dr. Emil Forchhammer, a Swiss Professor of Pali at Rangoon College, and Superintendent of the newly founded Archaeological Survey (1881): “The earliest dawn of the history of Arakan reveals the base of the hills, which divide the lowest courses of the Kaladan and Lemro rivers, inhabited by sojourners from India… Their subjects are divided into the four castes of the older Hindu communities…”

By the 3rd century (CE), the coastal region of Kala Mukh (Arakan) had been settled with the colonists dominating and coexisting warily with the indigenous people. In the sites of major habitation Sanskrit became the written language of the ruling class, and the religious beliefs were those prevalent at that time in south-Asia (or Indian sub-continent). The Hindu kings that ruled the coastal territories of Chittagong also ruled the crescent of Arakan. Presumably, the indigenous people of Arakan, much like their brothers and sisters living to the north-west of the Naaf River in (today’s) Chittagong, practiced some loose form of Hinduism.

The second phase of Indianization of Arakan occurred between the 4th and the 6th century CE, by which time the colonists had established their kingdom, and named their capital Vaishali. As a port city, Vaishali was in contact with Samatat (the planes of lower Bangladesh) and other parts of India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Historically, these early rulers came to be known as the Chandras and controlled the territories as far north as Chittagong.

The Anand Chandra Inscription, which contains 65 verses (71 and a half lines) and now sited at the Shitthaung pagoda, provides some information about these early rulers. Interestingly, neither the name of the kingdom or the two premier cities – Dhanyavati and Vaishali – is mentioned. This 11-foot high monolith, unique in entire Burma, has three of its four faces inscribed in a Nagari script, which is closely allied to those of Bengali and north-eastern India. As noted rightly by Noel Singer had it not been for Professor E.H. Johnston of Balliol College, Oxford, who translated the Sanskrit script and the Indian epigraphists before him, the contents of the Inscription which remained inaccessible for well over a thousand years would never have been known.

The script on the panel on the east face is believed by Johnston to be the oldest. According to Pamela Gutman it was similar to the type of script used in Bengal (Bangladesh) during the early 6th century CE. As to the panel on the north face, Johnston mentioned that several smaller inscriptions in Bengali characters had been added in the 10th century. Gutman however felt that the principal text in this section is of the mid-11th century CE. The panel on the west face, which is reasonably preserved, is believed by Gutman to be of the earlier part of the 8th century. This priceless document not only lists the personalities of each monarch but also some of the major events of every reign.

So who is this Ananda Chandra? In verse 64, it clearly says that he was a descendant of the Saiva-Andhra monarchs [presumably of Banga or Bangladesh] whose kingdom was located between the Godavari and Krishna Rivers of Bengal, and close to the Bay of Bengal. The founder of this new dynasty was Vajra Sakti who reigned circa 649-665 CE. His successor was Sri Dharma Vijaya, who reigned from circa 665-701. As noted by Singer, and much in contrast to Rakhine claims, Dharma Vijaya was not a Theravada Buddhist, but probably a Mahayanist. The next in line was Narendra Vijaya who reigned from circa 701 to 704 CE. The next to rule was Sri Dharma Chandra, who reigned from 704 to 720 CE. He was the father of Ananda Chandra who was a munificent patron of Mahayana Buddhism and Hindu institutions.

As can be clearly seen from the above brief review, the rulers that ruled Arakan, in centuries before the Sino-Tibetan invasion, were of Indian descent, as were the people (the so-called Kalas) who lived there. They had much in common with Banga, or today’s Bangladesh.

So what happened to those indigenous people after the invasion of Arakan in 957 CE by the Sino-Tibetan race? We have absolutely no historic evidence to suggest that they were exterminated. It is not difficult to understand that while the kingdom had changed hands, a majority of those indigenous people (the ‘Kalas’) continued on with their lives as usual, paying taxes (e.g., in grains) to their new rulers, as they had done before to the previous rulers. Some perhaps changed their faith to Buddhism, while many retained their ancestral religion. Theravada Buddhism, imported mostly from Sri Lanka, took centuries to take its root in Arakan, gradually replacing the Mahayanist Buddhism of the latter Vaisali rulers.

It is also important to note that many of the Sinhalese Buddhists, who later came as monks and settlers to Arakan, were the descendants of Bengali Buddhists who had fled the country as a result of internecine wars that took place between the forces of Hinduism and Buddhism in nearby Bengal in the centuries before Islam came to the region. As Buddhism was almost wiped out in Bengal by the Hindu rulers and the Brahmin clergy, it found a safe haven in Sri Lanka where it flourished. And who would have thought that centuries later those Singhalese Buddhists (with a remarkable facial similarity with the people of Bengal), the progenies of fleeing Buddhists from Bengal, would one day become the harbinger of the new faith - Theravada Buddhism -- in Arakan and rest of Burma?

While the previous Vaishali rulers looked westward, the newer Sino-Tibetan rulers looked eastward, thus allowing mixing of its race with Burman people of today’s Myanmar proper. Over the centuries, two communities emerged – one the indigenous with Indian (Bengali/Arakanese) features (the forefathers of today’s Rohingya Hindus and Muslims) and the other, the new-comer with Mongoloid features (the forefathers of today’s Rakhine Buddhists). It is not difficult to also conclude that in those days of porous borders across land and sea there were migration of other races and religions to this region. Buddhist monks, e.g., came from Sri Lanka bringing in their Theravada Buddhism, as did others, slowly changing the culture of the people living there.

It is simply regrettable to notice how today’s ultra-chauvinist Rakhine and Burman intelligentsia with tunnel-vision refuses to widen their knowledge of the ‘other’ people, Hindus and Muslims, who share the same territory. Anything Indian/Bengali/Chittagonian is usually looked down and frowned upon. It is pure racism at its worst.

[Dr Siddiqui’s book - The Forgotten Rohingya: Their Struggle for Human Rights in Burma – is available from]
To be continued

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