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.

11 thoughts on “Burma can thank the British for its current mess

  1. I’m no expert, but the Rohingya seem partial to the headscarves of the sort common in places like Malaysia

    As an aside, I moved with my British expat folks from India to Singapore at the age of 10 in 1970 and we used to take family holidays up in Malaysia, driving up the East coast – you had to take regular car ferries to cross the rivers in those days. When we first went to Malaysia few Malay women and young girls wore head-scarves. It was noticeable that these rapidly became common as the 70s progressed. I remember seeing uniformed school girls whose hair was shimmering so black it was almost blue…and then over a short period suddenly the heads of the Malay girls were covered. The 20% or so of the population who are Chinese and the Tamil minority still didn’t cover their heads.

    Our family moved back to the UK in the mid 70s. But I returned and cycled through from Singapore right through Malaysia on my own in the late 80s and the hard core Islamification – including many gleaming new mosques – was noticeable. Even in Singapore, by then, Malay women were wearing head-scarfs, which they hadn’t in the early 70s.

    I didn’t understand it at the time when I started to notice the change in teh early 70s as I was only a kid. But later learned that it was a collateral effect of Saudi money – and its Salafi influence – being pumped into the mosques. Especially after the quadrupling of the price of crude around the brouhaha surrounding the Yom Kippur war in 1973, gave the Saudis enhanced wherewithal to fund the promulgation of their pugnacious Wahhabism.

    This has caused much belligerence from Sunni communities in South East Asia, including in Indonesia and Southern Thailand – which has had a nasty violent Jihadi insurgency for 3 decades now. Much the same has happened in Muslim communities in the Philippines. This Salificiation is unlikely to have missed Western Burma and I strongly suspect is a large contributor to the less than harmonious relationships we are seeing there now.

  2. I learned from Graham Robb’s book *The Discovery of France* that the process of language standardization there was still going on at the beginning of the 19th century.


    1794 survey: “more than 6 million French citizens were completely ignorant of the national language. Another 6 million could barely conduct a conversation in it. … France itself had no more than 3 million ‘pure’ French speakers (11 percent of the population)…


    And there are still a few Greko speakers in Calabria


  3. 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… Uyghurs and Uzbeks…

    Do you mean Uyghurs and Tajiks, not Uzbeks?

    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…

    Thank you for the excellent summation. This situation reminds of the Palestinians in the sense that they too 1) have some historical claim on the basis of earlier (and a much smaller number of) Arab residents of what is today called Palestine and 2) yet most of the current population of “Palestinians” are actually descendants of more recent arrivals.

    Situations such as these tend to create long-lasting conflicts, so I think there is often a temptation to create a “total victory” (and mass eviction/ethnic-cleansing) by one side.

  4. Do you mean Uyghurs and Tajiks, not Uzbeks?

    tajiks too. so as u probably know the ‘uzbek’ tribes invaded what is uzbekistan in the 16th century. but the language of the uzbeks is chagatai turkish…which predates the uzbeks. basically i think it is clear that the turkification of the uzbek lands dates to a period before the arrival of the uzbek tribes, who were a different group than the farmers who today claim to be uzbeks.

  5. the farmers who today claim to be uzbeks

    Many of those “Uzbeks” are actually Tajiks who simply assumed (legally, I think, under the Soviet rule) Uzbek identity so that could continue to farm in the more fertile Uzbekistan.

    Fergana Valley is an ethnic cauldron with A LOT of layers. The earliest known existing historical population was probably Indo-Aryan in the main, then there was Turkification, some Arabs and Persians, the later Mongol superstrate, then the Uzbeks, then the Tajiks, a few Russians, and so on. Even now, the Tajiks tend to be town merchants and farmers rather than pastoralists as the Turkic people are.

    By the way, the U.S. had a quite a run-in with the Uzbeks in the Operation Anaconda (Shah-i-Kot Valley, 2002). Although the conventional military capacity of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was essentially destroyed in that series of battles, the Uzbeks put up quite a fight unlike the local Pashtuns. For some reason, though, the Uzbeks were thought by the locals to be “Chechens.” For some time after that, “The Chechens are over the mountains and they are coming” was, semi-jokingly, the “Hannibal ad portas” for American military units in the area.

  6. For some reason, though, the Uzbeks were thought by the locals to be “Chechens.”

    no matter their ethnicity many people from the former soviet union still speak russian as their first language (remember, the boston bombers native language was russian, not chechen or avar). this was true in much of central asia, where linguistic nativization was pretty laborious (and incomplete).

    The earliest known existing historical population was probably Indo-Aryan in the main, then there was Turkification, some Arabs and Persians, the later Mongol superstrate, then the Uzbeks, then the Tajiks, a few Russians, and so on.

    east iranian. it basically is at the heart of ancient sogdia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sogdia

    there are still some descendants of these sogdians culturally: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fergana_Valley

    i don’t know of indo-aryans, though no doubt they were a presence in antique times, but lots of diverse iranian groups were present until the medieval period, when they all got bracketed into tajiks. i believe the majority now speak dari persian, but this was not always so….

  7. no matter their ethnicity many people from the former soviet union still speak russian as their first language

    That may have played a part, but I think it was more the physical appearance of these “Uzbeks” that led the local Afghans to call them “Chechens.” Apparently they looked Russian to the locals. I am not certain though.

    east Iranian

    Thank you for the correction. I was thinking “Scythian” as the earliest known inhabitants of the area, but for some reason wrote “Indo-Aryan.” I think I was having several related thoughts at the same time.

    i believe the majority now speak dari Persian

    Tajiks in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan speak Tajik (and write in Cyrillic). Tajiks in Afghanistan speak Dari (which is written in Persian). I think Tajik was much more influenced by both Uzbek and Russian, whereas Afghan Dari has retained more of the earlier Persian court dialect.

  8. Dari in Afghanistan and Tajik in Tajikistan are mutually intelligible version of Persian, with only slight difference from Persian spoken in Iran. They are all Persian. Tajik spearkers from Tajikistan, Dari speakers from Afghanistan, and Farsi speakers from Iran can understand each other without much difficulty. With Tajik and Dari basically same, just different name.

    Among “Tajik” there is a division between “plain Tajik” who spoke Persian and primarily Sunni and “Mountian Tajik” who spoke various East Iranian Pamir languages. Sarikoli speakers in Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County, Xinjiang falls under 2nd category. Sarikoli and Wakhan speakers self-identify as Tajik in China, but they don’t speak Persian unlike Plain Tajiks of Tajikistan. Also Chinese Tajiks are Shiite Ismaili. Aga Khan’s organization have made attempts to re-establish contact with Chinese Tajiks.

    Chinese state is happy to employ many Tajiks as PLA border guards because there is little love lost between Tajiks and Uyghurs in the area.

  9. Nice post, I’d just like to add two details:

    1) Indian migrants in the 19th century went further than the British Empire. They actually went as far as the French Caribbeans, first as workers recruited in Pondichery c.1850 and then from the Tamil region after an agreement signed between colonial powers in 1861.


    2) What you said about the strong parochialism of the South Asian region reminds me of a recent interview of Manan Ahmed Saif about his recently published A Book of Conquest where he mentions these local historians considering that their villages has never been conquered despite clear memories of the British empire because their customs and traditions have not been changed and this is what matters, a lot more than who seats on the throne of the Raj.


  10. With Tajik and Dari basically same, just different name.

    As I wrote earlier, Tajik is written in Cyrillic and Dari in Persian script. Tajik pronunciations also sound different from Dari, and the former seems to have many more loanwords from Uzbek and Russian. Of course, they are – as you pointed out – all Persian dialects and are mutually intelligible without much difficulty, but they are not the same.

  11. Similarity and difference is all relative. Difference in pronunciations betwee n Tajik and Dari is like that between Southwestern Mandarin spoken by person from Sichuan vs person from Yunnan. Yes, slight detectable difference, but doesn’t really make a difference in communication. But Beijing person would not understand much of either. Even tho Southwestern Mandarin and Standard Mandarin all fall into same Mandarin family. Boston accent is very different from East Texan too, so there. Consider the low literacy rate in Afghanistan, what script the language is written matters little in everyday life

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