As I have noted elsewhere, the above ethno-religio-supremacist narrative of the Buddhist neo-fascists in Myanmar is utterly false and debunked by credible history. [Interested readers may like to read this author’s book – ‘Muslim Identity and Demography in the Arakan State of Burma’ and the series of articles on ‘The Rohingya Question.’
Arakan – the coastal territory that is separated from today’s Bangladesh by the Naaf River – where the Rohingyas originate from was once ruled for hundreds of years by the Chandra Dynasty who were racially Indian before a Mongolian invasion in 957 C.E. that swept over the capital city of Vesali (Vaishali), killing Sula Chandra, the last king of the Vesali dynasty to rule Arakan. The original inhabitants – the first settlers to the crescent of Arakan – were racially Indian/Bengali, too, and religiously Hindus (mostly worshippers of Shiva), Mahayana Buddhists or animists. They had much in common – linguistically, culturally and religiously - with the Bengali people that lived in the southern part of Chittagong in today’s Bangladesh. The rule of the Chandra kings extended to the southern parts of Chittagong.
The Anand Chandra Inscription at the Shitthaung pagoda provides some information about these early Indian rulers. 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.
During the reign of Mahataing Sandya (Chandra), ca. 788-810 C.E., several Arab/Muslim ships were wrecked on Ramree (Rambi) Island whose surviving sailors and merchants were allowed to settle in Arakan. As the territory was well known to the Arab merchants and traders some Muslim settlements continued to dot the coastal areas of Arakan since at least the late 8th century C.E. Mixing with the local population these Muslim settlers set the stage for the early nexus of today’s Rohingya population.
As hinted above, since the mid-10th century with massive Tibeto-Burman incursions following the overthrow of the Chandra dynasty, the demography of Arakan started changing drastically. The new rulers introduced Theravada Buddhism, which would become over the next few centuries the religion of the majority of the inhabitants of Arakan.
While the previous Vaishali rulers looked westward, the newer rulers looked eastward, thus allowing mixing of its race with the Burman people of today’s Myanmar proper. Eventually Arakan became subservient to the Burman rulers of Pegu until 1287 CE. Over the centuries, thus, 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-comers 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 - e.g., the Sufis, Muslim merchants and traders - slowly changing the culture of the people living there.
Fast forward to the early 15th century. Narameikhla Min Saw Mon, the Buddhist king of Arakan flees to Gauda (Gaur), the capital of Muslim Bengal in 1406 seeking his help to be reinstalled after being dethroned in 1406 by the Crown Prince Minye Kyawswa of Ava. The help would come in 1429 under the order of Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah. His general Wali Khan after defeating the Avan (precursor to Burmese) usurper, however, declared himself the new monarch of Arakan, thus betraying the trust of the Sultan. The infuriated Sultan then sent General Sandi Khan to overthrow Wali Khan with even a larger force and install Narameikhla, a task which was promptly carried out in 1430.
Narameikhla ascended the throne of Arakan for the second time, and took the title Sulayman Shah. Arakan became a vassal state of Bengal and many of the 50,000 Muslim soldiers that had restored the throne of Sulayman Shah permanently settled in Arakan because their services were needed by the reinstated king to defend the country from any future Burmese (Avan) incursion. Sulayman Shah decided to move the capital from Launggyet to Mrauk-U (Mrohaung). The new capital, though not far from Launggyet, was much more strategically located, and would prove much more difficult for invaders to attack. The Muslims who went to Arakan from Bengal settled in the new capital city in large number and built the Sandi Khan (Santikhan) mosque (to be razed during the military rule of Burma some 500 years later).
As duly noted by historian Abdul Karim, “Mrohaung was called by the Bengali poets Roshang which in the mouth of the local people of both Arakan and [adjoining] Chittagong became Rohang, ‘sha’ being turned into ‘ha’ and thus the people came to be known as Rohangi or Rohingya.”
[It goes without saying that Arakan would have a different history today had the Sultan of Bengal let his General Wali Khan rule the country and ignored the pleas of the Arakanese Buddhist king.]
The practice of adopting a Muslim name or title by the Arakanese kings would continue until 1638. Arakanese kings also issued coins bearing the inscription of Muslim Kalema (the profession of faith in Islam) in Arabic script. The State emblem was also inscribed in Arabic word Aqimuddin (establishment of God’s rule over the earth). The Arakanese court’s adoption of many Muslim customs and terms were other noteworthy signs to the influence of Islam in Arakan. Mosques began to dot the countryside and Islamic customs, manners and practices came to be established since this time. To quote historian Bisveswar Bhattacharya, “As the Mohammedan [Islamic] influence was predominant, the Arakanese kings, though Buddhist in religion, became somewhat Mohammedanized [Islamic] in their ideas.”
According to historian, Professor Abdul Karim, “In the 17th century the Muslims thronged the capital Mrohaung and they were present in the miniature courts of ministers and other great Muslim officers of the kingdom. An idea of their presence is available in the writings of Muslim poets like Alaol who wrote that people from various countries and belonging to various groups came to Arakan to be under the care of Arakanese king. The Portuguese Padre Fray Sebastien Manrique visited Arakan and stayed for some time; he was also present in the coronation ceremony of the Arakanese king held on 23 January 1635. He gives a description of the coronation procession and says that of the several contingents of army that took part in the coronation, one contingent wholly comprised of Muslim soldiers, let by a Muslim officer called Lashkar Wazir. The leader rode on Iraqi horse, and the contingent comprised of six hundred soldiers. In other contingent, led by Arakanese commanders also there were Muslim soldiers. This evidence of Sebastien Manrique combined with the fact that there were several Muslim ministers in Arakan gives a good picture of the presence of the Muslim in Arakan in the 17th century. The influence of the Muslim officers over the king of Arakan is also evident from the episodes mentioned by Sebastien Manrique.”
Another major influx of Muslims to Arakan owes it to the Rakhine Magh and Portuguese pirates who terrorized coastal territories of Muslim Bengal for centuries during the Mughal rule kidnapping Bengalis. The victims included both Muslims and Hindus who were kidnapped, enslaved and forced to work as slaves – in paddy fields and Buddhist pagodas.
Mughal Historian Shihabuddin Talish describes: “They [the pirates] carried off the Hindus and Muslims, male and female, great and small, few and many that they could seize, pierced the palms of their hands, passed thin canes through the holes and threw them one above another under the deck of their ships.” Historian G.E. Harvey writes, “Renell's map of Bengal, published in 1794 AD marks the area south of Backergunge 'deserted on account of the ravages of the Muggs (Arakanese)'.... The Arakan pirates, both Magh and feringhi, used to come by the water-route and plunder Bengal.... Mohammedans [Muslims] underwent such oppression, as they had not to suffer in Europe. As they continually practised raids for a long time, Bengal daily became more and more desolate and less and less able to resist them. Not a house was left inhabited on their side of the rivers lying on their track from Chittagong to Dacca. The district of Bakla [Backergunge and part of Dhaka], which formerly abounded in houses and cultivated fields and yield a large revenue as duty on betel-nuts, was swept so clean with their broom of plunder and abduction that none was left to tenant any house or kindle a light in that region.”
The Magh-Portuguese piracy was a menace to the peace of Bengal until 1666 C.E., when the Mughals, under the governorship of Shaista Khan (1664-1688) conquered Chittagong from the Arakanese control (1580-1666 C.E.). However, plundering by the Magh-Portuguese pirates continued throughout the 18th century.
As to the number of enslaved Bengalis brought to Arakan, Dr. Michael Charney who specializes on Arakan history estimates that between 1617 and 1666, the total number of those Bengali captives could be 147,000. 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.”
Professor Moshe Yegar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem noted that 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 why 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, the first British Sub-Commissioner to Arakan, mentioned the reason why the Rohingya Muslims were traditionally employed in farming: “The Mugs [Maghs] being particularly fond of hunting and fishing, do not make such good farmers as the Musselmans [Muslims]; however, as Banias and shop-keepers, they [Maghs] 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 …”
Arakan retained its independent state until 1784 when it was occupied by Burmese king Bodawpaya. His forces stole the Mahamuni Buddha statue to Mandalay. He may rightly be called the harbinger for destroying everything Islamic in Arakan and sowing the seed of distrust between the two major communities - Muslims and Buddhists. His atrocities, however, did not leave out the Arakanese Buddhists whom he considered not religiously Thereveda Buddhist enough. During his annexation and occupation of Arakan, tens of thousands of Arakanese Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists were killed, 200,000 fled to British Bengal (today's Bangladesh), and another 20,000 (including some 3700 Rohingya Muslims) were taken as slaves by the occupation Burmese forces.
The Burmese rule of Arakan lasted for only 40 years when the territory was occupied by the East India Company in 1824 (after the First Anglo-Burmese War). Arakan was made part of the Province of Bengal (which also included Assam), an administrative decision by the British government which was to continue until 1937 when Burma was separated from India and Arakan made part of Burma – for administrative purpose.
The rest is history. Burma became an independent state on January 4, 1948, and the fate of the Arakanese people including the Rohingyas was sealed within the Union of Burma where divide and rule became a fair game for the military and chauvinist politicians to exploit ethnicity and religion to hold onto power. To cleanse Burma of Muslims, esp. the Rohingya, they were declared stateless, which allowed the pariah state to violate every Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations.
As shown above, the Rohingyas are treated as outsiders in spite of their history to Arakan that predates those of the Rakhine Buddhists.
This false narrative of the Buddhist majority is nurtured and fueled by the people of influence – monks, politicians, military, security forces and government - within Myanmar, and has had a very devastating effect on the Rohingya people who have been victims of genocide in a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.
As genocide experts Drs. Greg Stanton and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen have repeatedly mentioned such denials of the self-identification is part of the 8 (or 5, respectively) stages of genocide, which the Rohingyas are facing today. The denial of the Rohingya identity - their very root to the soil of their forefathers – forms the very basis to justify their heinous crimes.
It is said that no matter how one tries to show the obvious and scream at a deaf and blind person, the latter will neither hear nor see the obvious. The problem with the neo-fascists inside the Rakhine state, in particular, and Myanmar, in general, is that they are deaf and blind by design – an evil national project – to eliminate the Rohingyas from Myanmar (and the Rakhine state), and sadly, like to remain in such a cocoon state of absurdity. All our efforts to appeal to their humanity, if anything is left of it within them, are proving to be wasted efforts.
However, Rohingyas don’t need certification from neo-fascists to self-identify themselves. History has recorded their very existence since the time of great Bengali poet Alaol (early 17th century). Period! That is sufficient.