Burma can thank the British for its current mess


Since my last post on the Rohingya I’ve kept reading up on the topic, mostly in relation to their origins. Google scholar has been of minimal help to be honest, though this draft of a presentation given to Southeast Asia scholars in 2014 has been one of the better analyses I’ve seen, with lots of citations that you can follow up.

For me the biggest hard fact that one can not deny is that there was massive increase in the number of Muslims in Arakan recorded in the censuses of 1871, 1901, and 1911. The number of Muslims tripled in this period, and work out to an annual growth rate of 5.5%; far above anything recorded in South and Southeast Asia at the time (where growth rates were closer to 1%).

The most plausible model seems to be that most of the self-identified Rohingya in Burma today descend from a population which was part of the broader migration of peoples from the Indian subcontinent during the period of the British Raj. Between 1874 and 1917 nearly 100,000 Indians emigrated to Trinidad. In fact millions of Indian peasants were sent to far flung regions of the British Empire in the period between 1830 and 1920 (as well as merchants and traders to East Africa and elsewhere).

So where does this idea of Rohingya being in Arakan for 900 years come from? There are many websites on the internet litigating the Rohingya issue from both sides. Let me quote from one such site, Voice of the Rohingya:

The Origin of Rohingya

Rohang, the old name of Arakan, was very familiar region for the Arab seafarers even during the pre-Islamic days. Tides of people like the Arabs, Moors, Turks, Pathans, Moghuls, Central Asians, Bengalees came mostly as traders, warriors, preachers and captives overland or through the sea route. Many settled in Arakan, and mixing with the local people, developed the present stock of people known as ethnic Rohingya. Hence, the Rohingya Muslims, whose settlements in Arakan date back to 7th century AD are not an ethnic group which developed from one tribal group affiliation or single racial stock. They are an ethnic group developed from different stocks of people. The ethnic Rohingya is Muslim by religion with distinct culture and civilisation of their own. They trace their ancestry to Arabs, Moors, Pathans, Moghuls, Central Asians, Bengalis and some Indo-Mongoloid people. Since Rohingyas are mixture of many kinds of people, their cheekbone is not so prominent and eyes are not so narrow like Rakhine Maghs and Burmans. Their noses are not flat and they are a bit taller in stature than the Rakhine Maghs but darker in complexion. They are some bronzing coloured and not yellowish. The Rohingyas of Arakan still carried the Arab names, faith, dress, music and customs. So, the Rohingyas are nationals as well as an indigenous ethnic group of Burma. They are not new born racial group of Arakan rather they are as old an indigenous race of the country as any others.

The Origin of Rakhine

In the year 957 AD, a Mongolian invasion swept over Vesali, and killed Sula Chandra, the last king of Chandra dynasty. They destroyed Vesali and placed on their throne Mongolian kings. Within a few years the Hindus of Bengal were able to establish their Pala Dynasty. But the Hindus of Vesali were unable to restore their dynasty because of the invasion and migrations of Tibeto-Burman who were so great that their population over shadowed the Vesali Hindus. They cut Arakan away from Indians and mixing in sufficient number with the inhabitants of the eastern-side of the present Indo-Burma divide, created that Indo-Mongoloid stock now known as the Rakhine Arakanese. This emergence of a new race was not the work of a single invasion. But the date 957 AD may be said to mark the appearance of the Rakhine in Arakan, and the beginning of fresh period.

If you didn’t connect the dots here, what is going on is that the Rohingya are being presented as the more indigenous population of Arakan in comparison to the Rakhine majority in the text above! This is almost certainly wrong in any straightforward reading…but imagine how Rakhine react to this sort polemic, even though it is almost certainly a reaction to Rakhine nativism.

The Rohingya extensively cite their Arab and assorted West Asian antecedents in Arakan. The admission of a Bengali contribution is typical, but, it is rarely given outsized influence or importance. This, despite the fact that Rohingya are physically indistinguishable from the peasants of southeast Bengal, and their language closely resembles the Chittagong dialect of that area.

I can make judgments on the issues of physical appearance and language. My own family is from a nearby region (Comilla, and some branches of the family, Noakhali), and I have been to Chittagong. I can understand to some extent the Chittagong dialect, and the Rohingya language is clearly related to it (the peasant Bengali of the region of Bangladesh my family is from is almost certainly closer to Chittagong dialect than standard Bengali because of proximity).

But it does seem clear that some Muslims were present in Arakan at a relatively antique date. The romance of Sinbad the Sailor reflects that even in the period before 1000 AD Muslim travelers and traders were a common on the shipping lanes of the Indian ocean, even as far east as the trading entrepot of Guangzhou in Tang China. This can be confirmed by the fact that Muslim conflict with Chinese occurred in 758 and culminated with a well known massacre of foreigners, mostly Muslims, in 875. They were certainly in Arakan by this period in some numbers.

Nevertheless this Arab connection to Arakan is tenuous at best. The Muslims of Arakan are of the Hanafi school of shariah, which is dominant in the Turco-Persian-Indian world. In contrast, Arabs tended to transmit the Shafi school to the eastern shores of the Indian ocean. This is evident among the Muslims of Kerala, who have long had a relationship with southern coastal Arabia, and so adhere to the Shafi school unlike the vast majority of India’s Sunni Muslims (Southeast Asia is Shafi as well).

More concrete and substantive is the association of kingdom of Mrauk U with Islamicate civilization, and in particular the Sultanate of Bengal and later the Mughal Empire. This polity flourished between the 15th and 18th centuries. In the early period the Muslim rulers of Bengal to the north and west patronized the dialect of the region, what was becoming Bengali (elite support for Bengali among Muslims declined during the Mughal period). This is also when large scale Islamicization began on the eastern frontier according to The Rise of islam on the Bengal Frontier. A number of Muslims settled in Mrauk U during these centuries, often in association with the sultan’s court. It seems likely from the literature I have seen that the term Rohingya began to become popular among Muslims in Arakan during this period at the latest. Even before the British conquest of Arakan they noted the existence of a community of Muslims who called themselves Rohingya.

So what is the connection between the Rohingya, who certainly existed as a community in Arakan before British conquest, and the modern Rohingya, who probably descend from peasants who arrived from southeast Bengal in the 19th century?

First, one needs to be reminded that at in 1940 16% of Burma’s population was of recent Indian subcontinental origin. They spanned the gamut from wealthy Chettiar financiers to middle class Punjabi police to peasants from Bengal. In the decades after World War II the majority left the country, especially the prosperous ones. The literature I’ve read indicates that the less prosperous ones, who did not have portable skills or assets, were less likely to leave. Many of them have assimilated to Burmese culture in cities such as Yangon (many Hindus have switched their religious affiliation to Buddhism, while all Burmese with total fluency).

The Rohingya were drawn exclusively from a peasant culture, and exist in concentrations in a particular region where they are preponderant (northern Arakan), and so exhibit cultural critical mass. The Rohingya are by and large not a literate people. At least until recently. Though their language is clearly Indo-Aryan, and closely related to Bengali, they do not use Bengali script.

In Bangladesh there are two regions where Bengali-related dialects are extensively spoken. In Sylhet in the northeast and Chittagong in the southeast the local dialects are unintelligible with standard Bengali. But because Bengali is a dialect continuum (standard Bengali derives from a particular region of West Bengal, in what is today India) I have better understanding of Chittagong dialect that most Bengali speakers, as I also understand to some extent rural Comilla speech, which is nearer to the Chittagong dialect. People in Sylhet and Chittagong can generally speak standard Bengali, and though both groups exhibit some ambivalence they do consider themselves Bengali.

So why are the Rohingya different? The period when the Rohingya migrated to Burma was also the period when European-style conceptions of nationalism, based around a common written language, were starting to take hold in South Asia. South Asians of all religions, at least of an elite background, understood themselves as being part of Hindustan, which was characterized by its own unique traits. But their identity on a national level, bound by language, was weak. This is in part because the languages favored by the elites were Persian or Sanskrit, with the simultaneous emergence in North India of the dialects that later became Urdu and Hindi (South India had its own independent traditions).

In Germany, Italy, and France, the standard national languages spread in the 19th and 20th centuries so that local dialects went extinct. That process in a place like South Asia has been much slower because the illiterate agricultural peasant majority has been more insulated from literacy. Just as Italian is based on the dialect of Florence, so standard Bengali derives from a particular region in modern West Bengal, and spread as an elite language across the Bengali dialect continuum (when I was a very small child in Bangladesh my parents made an effort to speak in very standard Bengali so that that was my native language, as opposed to a lower status dialect).

From what I can tell the Rohingya were untouched by the changes triggered by the Bengali Renaissance in the early 19th century, which first captured the imaginations of the Bengali Hindu upper castes, and then spread over the decades to the middle classes of all both religions and all regions. In lieu of a Bengali identity the Rohingya seem to have co-opted the identity of the earlier Muslim community of Arakan, whom they likely absorbed. This is not entirely fantastical. I have some experience talking to peasants in the countryside of Bangladesh, and even now the lower classes are vague about their national and ethnic identity. Rather, they focus on their village and locality, and exhibit little sense of scale of difference in relation to outsiders. In 1990 when I was visiting rural Bangladesh I remember being introduced to a woman from Bogra district as a “fellow foreigner.” Bogra was less than 200 miles from where I was at the time, but for these peasants it was another world, and we were interchangeable in our alienness.

There is a clear analogy to what might be happening with the Rohingya, and that exists in the Central Asia. In the 19th and early 20th centuries a broad group of settled Turks and Iranians in Central Asia under Chinese nationalist and Russian rule transformed their ethnic identities into those we know today. Groups like Uyghurs and Uzbeks have tenuous connections to the historical groups which were called Uyghurs and Uzbeks. The decision of the various Turkic speaking groups of the oases of Xinjiang to call themselves Uyghur, and so established a connection to the Turkic confederation which flourished more than 1,000 years earlier, occurred in the 1920s. Of course today we don’t say that the Uyghurs aren’t real Uyghurs; the assent of the Turkic speaking population to the term Uyghur has resulted in that becoming their new self-identity.

Similarly, a reshaping of the self-identity of the people who became Rohingya in Burma likely occurred in the 20th century. Without an educated upper class which was literate they were totally detached from the emergence of a modern Bengali identity. Rather than become Bengali the more upwardly mobile members of the Rohingya elevated their own dialect into its own language (and adopted a non-Bengali script as well). Additionally,  they synthesized various aspects of Islamic history in Arakan and integrated it into their own identity, and so establishing their bona fides as sons of the soil.

To the question of whether Rohingya have been present in Arakan for 900 years, I think it is clear I believe that the answer there is no, not at all. But, to the question of whether they actually Bangladeshi, I would also have to say at this point, no. This is a subtle and nuanced issue, but the existence of a Bangladeshi national identity is relatively new, just as the nation is new. But it is has likely been on the order of 100 years or more since most of the ancestors of the Rohingya left the districts of southeastern Bengal to which they were originally native. Not only have the ancestors of the Rohingya never lived in Bangladesh, but they never lived in Pakistan. It would be somewhat similar to suggesting that an Indo-Trinidadian would be comfortable in India, though the gap here is larger because most Indo-Trinidadians lack fluency in any South Asian language today.

The non-Bengali identification of the Rohingya has also made their Islamic identity more salient. If you Google image Bangladeshi women as opposed to Rohingya women, the latter look far more Muslim. I’m no expert, but the Rohingya seem partial to the headscarves of the sort common in places like Malaysia, again attesting to their attempt, conscious or not, at indigenization. Without a connection to Bengali elite culture, which is multireligious, and of a secular bent due to that fact, the Rohingya will naturally gravitate toward an Islamic identity when they attempt to transcend their peasant origins.

Why does any of this matter? Obviously the truth matters. And if the world community is to foster peace in Burma it will not help its cause by promoting false narratives created by the Rohingya as a counterargument against those Burmese who deny their national status. The Rohingya have established their non-Bengali identity, as they have created a different one in Burma. But attempts to the deny their relatively recent origins in South Asia will almost certainly inflame and agitate the Rakhine majority and the Burmese state even more than is the case now. It will also undercut any credibility that outsider have in fostering moderation and peace.

Rohingya unmasking complexity in a world we want simple

There is currently a major humanitarian crisis in Burma as Rohingya Muslims flee conflict between the military and separatist militants. Obviously this is a developing story. Unfortunately, very few in the West and the media have a well developed understanding of the history of Burma. Therefore the easiest framework is something worthy of a DC superhero film: there is the good, and there is the bad.

Just because such black and white dichotomies tend to collapse complexity doesn’t mean they are wrong. In World War II the Nazis were the bad. But details are often illuminating and informative. The Soviet Union was on the side against the Nazis, but it wasn’t exactly a “good” actor. Similarly, Finland at points made common cause with Nazi Germany, but that was less about its affinity with Hitler’s regime and more about surviving a Soviet invasion. There are people who are good and bad. But there are also people in situations, which dictate actions which are bad, or enable actions which seem good. (and a mix)

If you want a broader view of mainland Southeast Asian history, which Burma plays a large part in, I’d recommend Strange Parallels: Volume 1, Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830. Unlike Africa (with the exception of Ethiopia and Egypt), Indonesia, and much of the Middle East (Iran and Turkey excepted), mainland Southeast Asia developed nation-states organically. Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma, were not dreamed up by European colonialists, but evolved through their own historical logic (in this case, the migration out of southern China of Tai peoples and the response of the older Southeast Asian polities, being the central narrative thread).

The only book about Burma’s history I’ve read is The River of Lost Footsteps. It has a lot of personal detail, as the author is himself a member of the Burmese Diaspora, and seems to come from an elite family with many connections the people who have run the country since independence.

In The River of Lost Footsteps the author alludes to the fact that Burma in the early modern period was on the edge of Islamicate civilization. At its peak the Mughal Empire had within its penumbra the Burmese polity, and it was impossible for the latter not to be influenced by the former (the influence actually pre-dates the Mughals, though intensified with them). The Buddhist kings of Arakan styled themselves sultans, and employed Muslims of Indian (or West and Central Asian) origin in their armies.

The descendants of these soldiers are part of the story of Islam in Burma. Too often the media representations of Islam in Burma reduce them to the Rohingya. The reality is that there are several Muslim communities within Burma, with different relationships to the majority Theravada Buddhist ethnicities. The River of Lost Footsteps claims that Aung San Suu Kyi herself (or more precisely her father) is in part from a family whose ancestry includes some of these Muslim soldiers.

Aung San Suu Kyi of course is at the heart of current events right now. Many are confused as to why this person, who has put her life on the line to defend the rights of self-determination of the Burmese people in the past, will not speak up for the Rohingya now. To a great extent this reminds me of the Lewis’ trilemma in relation to Jesus, that he was either a liar, lord, or lunatic. For many of us the answer may not be any of the above. Aung San Suu Kyi is a complex person at the heart of complex events. It was easy to portray her as a selfless saint, who was always on the side of the good as we understand it, but current events show that she was never immune to the exigencies of reality and practicality. Just as she was not saint in the past, I doubt she is a monster in the present, even if she has become caught up in events of monstrosity. Remember, if Gandhi was alive today he would surely be excoriated for his lack of solidarity with other people of color at least, and his racism at most.

Stepping aside from Aung San Suu Kyi, I think it is no surprise that democratization of Burmese society and culture has been occurring while there has been a rise in aggressive Buddhist chauvinism. Americans often do not want to admit that democratization and liberal tolerance do not go hand and hand. In places like China, and yes, Burma, authoritarian governments likely keep a lid on ethnic tensions because they are destabilizing for the public order. It was with universal white male suffrage in the United States that the racialized character of the American republic became much more explicit. Similarly, popular nationalism in Europe was associated with drives toward homogeneity and assimilation of subordinate groups.

Why are the Rohingya so hated in Burma? There are several possible reasons:

– They are racially distinct (all the photographs make it clear that they are not physically different from Bengali peasants) from most of the other ethnicities in Burma (including some groups of Muslims who descend from intermarriages with the Bamar majority).

– Their Muslim religion is very distinct from that of the dominant culture in Burma, Theravada Buddhism. Unlike China, where Buddhism is a strand within the national culture (and not a dominant one), in Burma Buddhism occupies the role that Christianity does in Northern Europe: the religion’s arrival was associated with the rise of complex societies, and political self-awareness. Though the Theravada Buddhism of Burma has local flavors (nat worship), it unites many of the disparate ethno-linguistic groups together, from the majority Bamar, to the Tai Shan, to the Austro-Asiatic Mon.

The Muslim religion of the Rohingya also enforces a stronger divergence from the majority religion than the Hindu background of other South Asians in Burma. Though most Indians left Burma in the years after independence, a substantial number have remained. The ethnographic literature I’ve seen indicates that many have re-identified as Theravada Buddhist, though no doubt maintaining many Hindu customs and practices within the community. This is not that difficult when you consider that Burmese Buddhism has many indigenous and Hindu influences already. Additionally, Hinduism and Buddhism are connected traditions, and arguably exhibit a level of commensurability that makes identity switching less stressful for both individuals and communities.

– They are perceived to relatively recent migrants to the Arakan coast from Bengal, and so not an indigenous ethnic community within Burma. Note that there are Muslim communities, even within Arakan, which are not Rohingya, which are recognized as indigenous. Not only are they perceived to be migrants, but their numbers threaten the dominance of the Rakhine people of the region.

In highlighting these elements I’ve suggesting that the Rohingya are arguably the most marginalized group in Burma. There are other Muslims ethnicities in Burma, but most are not demographic threats, derive from attested older migration events, and have intermarried with local populations so that the physical differences are not quite as salient. There are Christian minorities, such as the Chin, which have been targeted for persecution based on the religious differences, but the Chin are not perceived to be alien to Burma, simply unassimilated to dominant Theravada cultural complex. Additionally, there is no large racial difference between the Chin and the Theravada groups.

Much of the public debate revolves around the issue of Rohingya indigeneity or lack thereof. Though I have only modest confidence in my position, I believe that most of the Rohingya presence in Arakan dates to the period of British rule. Though the Rohingya language is not intelligible with standard Bengali, it is rather close to the dialect of southeast Bangladesh, Chittagong. My family is from Comilla, which borders the Indian state of Tripura. When I listen to Rohingya speak it’s only slightly less intelligible to me than the dialect of West Bengal (which is the basis for standard Bengali). In fact, the accent of Rohingya men is uncannily similar to what I remember from peasants in rural southeast Bangladesh when I visited in 1990!

If the Rohingya are not Bengali, they are something very close.

But the Rohingya will tell you something different. They do not self-identify as Bengalis, but as Burmese. Additionally, like some South Asian Muslims they deemphasize their South Asian origins, and create fictive extra-South Asian genealogies. It is important to note that the Rohingya do not write their language in the Bengali script. This means that their intelligentsia has no strong consciousness of being Bengali, because they are not part of the world of Bengali letters.

Earlier on I noted that mainland Southeast Asian had polities which easily transitioned to nation-states, because of the organic development of their identities. This is not true in South Asia. There is a bit of artificiality in the construction of South Asian polities (perhaps with the exceptions of Bhutan and Sri Lanka). Though South Asians no matter their identity are clearly defined and demarcated from other peoples, among themselves religion and community, rather than nationality scale ethnic identity, have been paramount.

In The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier the author points out that a Bengali cultural identity evolved relatively slowly over the past 1,000 years. He makes the case that the Islamic character of eastern Bengal had to do with its underdeveloped state, and that land reclamation projects under the aegis of Islamic polities stamped the local peasantry who were settling the territory with the religion of the regnant order. And yet until recently the Muslim elite of Bengal was not culturally Bengali; they were Urdu speaking. The Bengali dialects of the peasantry were not prestigious, while the Bengali Renaissance was predominantly driven by upper case Hindus who helped shaped what standard Bengali became.

I will elide over the details of the emergence of a self-consciously Bengali and Muslim intelligentsia. It is something which I am only aware of vaguely, though I have seen fragments of it in my own extended family and lineage, as people from Urdu-speaking backgrounds have allowed their children to grow up speaking only Bengali, and fully assimilated to a Bengali identity without any qualification.

But the development of a Bengali and Muslim self-identity was occurring at the same time the ancestors of the Rohingya were pushing beyond the borders of traditional Bengal, into Arakan. Their lack of Bengali identity comes honestly because peasant identity has always been more localized and inchoate, and the Rohingya intelligentsia crystallized around other identifiers which could distance themselves from their relationship to Bengalis. In particular, the Rohingya seem more uniformly Islamic in their orientation. The female anchor for Rohingya news updates always seems to wear a headscarf, as opposed to those for Dhaka news reports.

In the short-term the killing of infants and raping of women has to stop. But these simple answers have behind them lurking deeper complexities. While agreeing upon the urgency of action now, we need to be very careful to not turn complex human beings into angels and demons. We have enough history in the recent past that that sort of model only leads to tragedy down the line, as those who we put utmost faith in fail us due to their ultimate humanity.