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

The First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-26, 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 Assam.

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.

Rice Cultivation, Indian Immigration and the Chettiars

When the British occupied Arakan, the country was a scarcely populated area. Consequently, formerly high-yield paddy fields of the fertile Kaladan and Lemro river valleys germinated nothing but wild plants for many years. It is worth noting here that those valleys in the pre-Burman colonization period used to be cultivated by Rohingya Muslims and Hindus, whose forefathers were abducted from Bengal in the 16th and 17th centuries by the Magh and Portuguese pirates to work as slave labors.

With the overthrow of a despised regime and the emergence of a new friendlier administration promising an era of prosperity and encouraging return of the refugees, the descendants of some of those former refugees to British Bengal (today-s Bangladesh) who had fled Bodawpaya-s persecution were lured back to Arakan. As noted elsewhere by this researcher and others, the vast majority of these returnees, however, were Maghs and not the Rohingya Muslims and Hindus who had settled permanently in more prosperous southern parts of the Chittagong District and came to be known as the Rohis by the local population. Likewise, most of the Chakmas, many Marmas and other smaller tribes (and even many Maghs) refused to go back to Arakan from Bengal. [The latter enjoy full citizenship rights in Bangladesh.]

As the demand for rice increased – not just in fertile deltas of Bengal and Burma, and the nearby territories of Thailand and Malaysia but also in far away Europe, the British began to develop Burma as the rice bowl for the British Empire. As noted by Sean Turnell, a political economist, Burma-s entry into the commercial imperatives of the British Empire, the conversion of the Delta into rich paddy-producing land initially required little capital. Britain-s great -exchange banks- took care of shipping, milling and other export-finance needs, and up until the middle of the 19th century the amount of capital required -on the ground- in land preparation was slight. In the early years of British rule in -Lower Burma- the growth in rice exports was founded on cheap and surplus labor within cultivator families, and upon abundant land that required little more than clearing. That is, in those early years of British occupation, make-up labor from outside was not necessary to grow rice in Burma.

In 1857, after the Sepoy Mutiny in India (or more appropriately, India-s First War of Independence) was suppressed by the British colonial government, the price of rice increased by some 25%. With the increase in rice price, land holdings were extended by cutting down the mangrove forests and by draining swamps, which required money. Thus came the Chettiars from Tamil Nadu to provide the necessary loan for cultivating land, because the British banks would not grant loans on mortgage of rice lands and the British government did not consider it necessary to open land mortgage banks or agricultural loan agencies. The Chettiar money-lenders charged an interest rate that was considered to be exorbitant by vast majority of the loan-seekers. In line with its policy of laissez faire the British government did not attempt in any way to control the usurious rates of interest.

Who are the Chettiars? Sean Turnell provides some useful information which is worth sharing here. The Chettiars (also spelled Chettyars), or more properly the Nattukottai Chettiars, Hindus by faith, came from the Chettinad tract of what is now Tamil Nadu. Chettinad was a collection of 76 villages which, at the time of their activity in Burma, stretched from Ramnad District and into Pudukottai State of -British- India. The Chettiars were originally involved in salt trading, but sometime in the 18th century they became more widely known as financiers and facilitators for the trade in a range of commodities. By the early 19th century finance had become the primary specialization of the Chettiars, and they became famed lenders to great land-owning families (zaminders) and in underwriting their trade in grain through the provision of hundis and other indigenous instruments. Of course, they became known to the British Imperial authorities as bankers who had been -for centuries developing and perfecting to a remarkable degree a system of indigenous banking-.

The first Chettiars seem to have arrived in Burma at the outset of British rule – in
1826 accompanying Indian troops and laborers in the train of the British campaign in Tenasserim during the first of the three Anglo-Burmese wars. By 1880 the Chettiars had fanned out throughout Burma and by the end of the century they had become by far the -the most important factor in the agricultural credit structure of Lower Burma-. By 1905 it was estimated that there were 30 Chettiar offices in Burma. According to the Burma Provincial Banking Enquiry Report (BPBE), the most dependable source on the extent of Chettiar operations, this number had increased to 1,650 by 1930. Nearly every well-populated part of Lower Burma there was a Chettiar within a day-s journey of every cultivator. They essentially became the money lenders in the agricultural sector.

One example highlighted by the BPBE was in Prome, where it was estimated -that Chettiars lend one-third of all the crop loans directly and finance the Burman lenders to such an extant that Chettiar money forms altogether two-thirds of all loans-. In terms of functional distribution, Chettiar loans were overwhelmingly employed in agriculture. Two-thirds of all Chettiar loans outstanding in 1930 were held by agriculturalists, the remainder roughly categorized as -trade-. Chettiar lending was secured against collateral, and mostly against title to land.

The influx of paper money in the Burmese economy brought in temporary laborers, coolies, clerks, mechanics, cooks, etc. from the British Empire. (Even U.S. President Obama’s Kenyan born Muslim grandfather served as a cook to a British officer in Burma.) As we shall see below, most of those temporary workers did not live longer than the cultivation-harvest period. The Chittagonians who were even closer and costing the least money to cross the Naaf River did not stay longer than required to finish such tasks as planters and harvesters.

Burma has always been xenophobic, racist and bigotry-ridden. But no other group was probably as much vilified as the Hindu Chettiars were in the British colonial period. Sean Turnell writes, “The economic history of Burma contains a number of contentious themes, but none has been as divisive as the role of the Chettiars. Celebrated as the crucial providers of the capital that turned Burma into the -rice-bowl- of the British Empire, this community of moneylenders from Tamil Nadu were simultaneously vilified as predatory usurers whose purpose was to seize the land of the Burmese cultivator. The truth, as in so many things, was more nuanced. The Chettiars were the primary providers of capital to Burmese cultivators through much of the colonial period, but the combination of the collapse of paddy prices in the Great Depression, the Chettiar insistence of land as collateral, and the imposition of British land-title laws, did bring about a substantial transfer of Burma-s cultivatable land into their hands. The Chettiars did not charge especially high interest rates and, indeed, their rates were much lower than indigenous moneylenders. Nor did the Chettiars set out to become landlords, fearing that this would only antagonize the local population and lead to reprisals against them. Their fears were prescient, for in the end the Chettiars were expelled from Burma, in the process losing the land they had acquired and much of their capital.”

With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the price of rice soared, which, as shown in the Table 1, led to more acreage for cultivation in Lower Burma.

With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the price of rice soared, which, as shown in the Table 1, led to more acreage for cultivation in Lower Burma .

Table 1: Paddy Prices and Land under Cultivation – 1845-1900 

Year Paddy price,
Rs./100 basket
Paddy Type Land Acreage
in Lower Burma
1845 8 354
1850 24 679
1855 45 993
1860 45 1,333
1865 50 1,627
1870 70 1,965
1875 65 2,704
1880 85 3,402
1885 95 4,011
1890 95 4,865
1895 95 5,765
1900 95 6,832

Chettiar success in Burma came to a terrible end with the onset of the global Depression of the 1930s. Paddy prices had been trending downwards across the latter half of the 1920s, but they went into a steep decline in 1930 and remained at unremunerative levels until after the Second World War.

Table 2: Paddy Prices Rs./100 baskets

Year Price/100 basket, Rs.
1926 202
1927 190
1928 169
1929 169
1930 133
1931 80
1932 92
1933 64
1934 70
1935 93
1936 89
1937 97
1938 90
1939 97

The impact of the collapse in paddy prices was soon felt amongst the cultivators of Burma-s lower delta, whose general situation was summarized by Burma-s Commissioner of Settlement and Land Records in his annual report to the Government for 1930-31: “The year was one of extreme depression for agriculture in Burma. The… agricultural economy had for many years had been based on the assumption that the price of paddy would be Rs.150 or more per 100 baskets. The result was that contracts for wages were made and loans were taken on the same scale as in previous years at the beginning of this cultivating season. Consequently when the crop was harvested, after the labour had been paid for at the rates agreed upon, and the rents paid in kind at the old rates, the tenant though left with the same share of produce, found its value reduced by half, and was unable to repay his loan and often not even able to pay the interest.”

It is worth mentioning here that a handful of British farms entirely controlled the wholesale trade in rice, and Indian and Chinese merchants controlled the retail trade. As noted by Aung, the British farms agreed upon themselves not to buy any rice until the harvesting season was long past and the new planting season was approaching. The farmer, therefore, had no option but to sell the rice at a lower price, and, thus, default on loan payments. Of course, at the end of this cycle of distress were the Chettiars. Unable to collect even interest payments on their loans, let alone the principal, increasingly Chettiars came to foreclose on delinquent borrowers and to seize the pledged collateral. For the most part this was land. Table 3 below conveys what followed clearly.

Table 3: Classification of Land Holdings in the 13 Principal Rice-Growing Districts of Burma (‘000s of acres)

Year Total Land Land occupied
by Chettiars
1930 9,249 570 6
1931 9,305 806 9
1932 9,246 1,367 15
1933 9,266 1,782 19
1934 9,335 2,100 22
1935 9,408 2,293 24
1936 9,499 2,393 25
1937 9,650 2,446 25
1938 9,732 2,468 25

As can be seen, the Chettiars came to possess one quarter of the total land as early as 1936. Exposed to the understandable anger of indigenous cultivators and the demagoguery of Burmese nationalists of all stripes, they became easy scapegoats not just for the current economic distress, but the foreign domination of Burma-s economy. According to historian Harvey, “Alien in appearance and habits, the Chettyar was the butt of the Burmese cartoonist, he was depicted as Public Enemy No.1, and the violence of the mob was directed against him, a canalization, a projection of the people-s own faults and failings on to a convenient victim.”

In the vernacular press the demonization of the Chettiars soared to extreme heights, and they were accused of all manner of barbarities well beyond a mere rapacity for land. Forgotten there was the fact that the total Chettiar loans outstanding as at 1939 was 50 million, a figure, which according to Furnivall was -the equivalent of all British investments in Burma combined.

According to Turnell, “The Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942 brought with it many harrowing scenes, but few would match that of the flight of the Diaspora of Indian merchants, workers, administrators and financiers who had done much to transform Burma in the colonial era. Prominent amongst those fleeing the onslaught of the Japanese, just as they had been prominent in the transformational role played by Indians in Burma beforehand, were the Chettiars of Tamil Nadu. Scapegoats then and now for the misfortunes that heralded the breakdown of Burma-s colonial economy, the Chettiars were not allowed to return to their lives and livelihoods following the granting of Burma-s independence in 1948. Portrayed by British colonial officials and Burmese nationalist politicians alike as almost pantomime villains in Burma-s 20th century dramas, they left the stage as unambiguous victims.”

The Burmese history is replete with accusations against the British government of following a policy of divide and rule; deliberately separating the hilly people from the Burmans/Burmese. According to historian Maung Aung, this policy had the full support of the Christian missions, who wanted to convert the hilly people to Christianity. The British government also kept the racial groups further apart by denying military training to the Burmans and Shans, and giving that privilege to Chins, Kachins and Karens. The latter fought alongside the British and Indian forces – drawn mostly from the Gurkha (Nepalese) and Sikh population – in campaign against the guerillas. The Burmese also hated that in the Anglo-Burmese wars, the Indian troops had fought side by side with the British in their regiments.

Anti-Indian Riots in British Burma 

The race relationship inside Burma worsened after the First World War, especially, after the Great Depression which made most cultivators poor and broke. With the general peasantry feeling victimized by the Chettiars, with nationalist sentiments running high amongst students of the newly created Rangoon University and with the Buddhist monks agitating the population against the non-Buddhists who had settled in Burma – permanently or temporarily – it was a question of time when the mass anger would be directed against not only the Chettiars but also against anyone who looked different than a Burman.

A broad rebellion of Burman peasants led by U Saya San, a disrobed monk and mystic pretending to be the heir to the Burmese monarchy (minlaung), shook the province of Burma in 1930-32. The rebellion handled by Indian, Karen, Chin and Kachin police forces, working for the government, left between 1,700 and 3,000 dead after 18 months of unrest.

A night-long riot on May 26, 1930 stirred up by ethnic Burmans in Rangoon-s Indian quarters left hundreds of people of Indian origin dead as well as nearly 2000 injured. The problem started in the port of Rangoon where a British firm had laid off hundreds of Indian dock workers who had went on strike demanding higher pay. The British firm irresponsibly hired temporary Burmese workers to fill in those positions who were let go when the Indian coolies or dockworkers gave in and ended their strike. Next morning when the Burmese workers came and reported for work they were told by the British firm that their service was no longer needed. Some Burmese workers were angry and started attacking Indians who retaliated. It grew rapidly into an anti-Indian (including anti-Muslim) riot. Even within the first half-hour at least two hundred Indians were massacred and flung into the river. Authorities ordered the police to fire upon any assembly of five or more who refused to lay down their arms, under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. Within two days, the riot spread all over Burma from Rangoon to surrounding towns, and especially to the Hanthawaddy district towns of Kayan, Thongwa and Kyauktan, where a concentration of Indian landowners and tenants had gained footholds among the predominantly Burmese lands.

Anti-Chinese riots led by Burmese mobs erupted in Rangoon-s Chinatown (near the Indian town) in January of 1931 in which 12 Chinese died and 88 were wounded. The rioting spread to parts of Toungoo, Pegu and Hanthawaddy districts. As to the reason behind the riot, Robert Taylor notes, “Though the Chinese population of Burma was then relatively small, and relations between Chinese and Burmese had never suffered from the cultural and economic strains that affected Burmese-Indian relations, the indigenous population felt a mounting hostility toward any group which seemed to be prospering during the current conditions.”

Following the 1935 Government of India Act-s reforms, the British granted Burma a larger autonomous status with the Government of Burma Act. However, with very few educated Burmese available to do the necessary tasks, most of the government affairs continued to be run by the Indian subjects. This attitude of the British government was resented by most Burmese who started the -Burma for Burmese only- Campaign. The Burmese mob marched to the Muslim (Surti) Bazaar. While the Indian Police broke the violent demonstration, three monks were hurt. Burmese newspapers uses the pictures of Indian police attacking the Buddhist monks to further incite the spread of riots. Muslim properties: shops, houses and mosques were looted, destroyed and burned. They also assaulted and killed Muslims. It spread all over Burma and a recorded 113 mosques were damaged. The Burmese also resented the fact that all the anti-government and race riots were quelled by Indian (and Karen, Chin and Kachin) troops and police forces.

New waves of anti-Indian violence (more specifically anti-Muslim) were stirred up in July-August 1938 by the Burman population in the country-s major cities while general strikes (workers, civil servants and students) paralyzed the economy of the province. Riots began on July 26 in the capital of Rangoon and spread to almost all of southern and central Burma, including Mandalay. The rioting lasted for a month, officially causing the death of 204 people and leaving 1,000 injured. Buddhist monks took a leading role in organizing these riots. On September 2, 1938 another outbreak of anti-Indian rioting occurred in Rangoon. Although somewhat less severe and restricted to Rangoon only, the disturbance lasted for six days.

On September 22, 1938, the British Governor set up an inquiry committee to investigate the reasons behind the riots. The Riot Inquiry Committee found out that the real cause was the discontent in the Ba Maw government regarding the deterioration in sociopolitical and economic conditions of Burmans. In these riots, as noted by historian Moshe Yegar, the real agenda was aimed at British government but the Burmese dared not show this openly. Growing Nationalistic sentiments were fanned by the local media and disguised as anti-Muslim to avoid early detection and notice.

In March 1939 there were serious communal and agrarian troubles in Shwebo and Myaungmya. Later in the same month additional Military Police units had to be sent to Myaungmya because of Burmese attacks on Indians. Military Police units were also sent to patrol Shwebo and parts of Katha in the north because of attacks by Burmese on Muslim and Zerbadi (Indo-Burmese Muslim) villages. The troubles spread to Tharrawaddy district as well. According to an intelligence report, cited by Taylor in -The State in Burma-: “In fact, my firm conviction is that the basis of half of the Tharrawaddy trouble consists in the exorbitant rents charged by the Chettyars and moneylenders. This rent will have to come down if we are going to expect even comparative peace here. In fact these Chettyars who live safely in Rangoon and come to the district only to screw the last basket of paddy out of the tenants are the direct cause of crime and should be made to pay for the results.”

By April, 1939, riots had spread to Bassein, Pyapon, Pegu, Lower Chindwin, Shwebo and Myaungmya. The Burmese rioters followed a rick and hut burning campaign in an effort to drive off Indian tenants. The burning of hayricks and field huts continued mostly in Pegu and Irrawaddy divisions. Communal riots continued throughout June, July and August.

The Baxter Report

A commission of inquiry, formed in 1939 by the Governor of Burma, examined the question of Indian immigration into Burma. It was prompted by communal disturbances during the previous year due to “the existence of a serious misapprehension in the minds of many Burmans that Indian immigration was largely responsible for unemployment or under-employment among the indigenous population of Burma” (Joint Indo-Burmese Statement). The Commission was headed by James Baxter, Financial Secretary, Tin Tut, Barrister-at-Law and the first Burmese member of the prestigious Indian Civil Service, and Ratilal Desai MA.

The Report of the Commission, more commonly known as the Baxter Report, was completed in October 1940 and was published in Rangoon in 1941 by the Government Printing and Stationery Office. The Report made recommendations which were generally accepted by the Governments of Burma and India. The Agreement provided that the existing Immigration Order of 1937 would continue at least until 1 October 1945, while Indian immigration into Burma would be subject to the new rules contained in the Agreement with effect from 1 October 1941.

Since the Baxter Report is often cited by anti-Rohingya propagandists, including Myanmar and Rakhine government officials, to claim that the Rohingyas are a product of the British-era influx, it is important to analyze this report in great length to understand the so-called immigration of the Indians, in general, and the Bengalis and Chittagonians, in particular.

Contrary to popular myths today, the so-called Baxter Report, however, found: “Unlike immigrants in general in other parts of Burma who commonly spend periods of three years or thereabouts in the country without returning home, the bulk of the Chittagonian immigrants in Arakan who come to reap the paddy crop go back to Chittagong when the harvesting operations are over. The nearness of their homes and the small amount of money required for the journey make this possible.”

The report also makes it clear that except in 1872 when the census was taken in August 15, in other years – 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911, 1921 and 1931 – the censuses were taken on a single date, which ranged from February 17th to March 18th, that is when paddy reaping season was nearing its end or had definitely ended and that outbound passenger traffic to Indian ports outnumbered those incoming passengers.

As noted by Michael Charney in his doctoral dissertation, it is unclear who the census takers were in 1872, and there is strong possibility that the census on Muslims was incorrect. It is worth noting here that for the Muslim population to become 58,255 in 1871 from 30,000 in 1826 it would have required a growth rate of only 1.48%, which is well below the norm, suggesting that many Muslims probably were not counted in that census.

As to the census between 1921 and 1931, the report says, “A difference in census dates such as that between the 1921 census (March 18th) and the 1931 census (February 24th) may therefore appreciably influence the record size of the Indian population and its occupational distribution. The numerical effect would be greatest in Akyab District where the large number of Chittagonians who come annually to reap the rice crop would to a considerable extent have gone home by February 17th but to a still great extent by March 18th. In Lower Burma the effect on total numbers would be less marked but the degree to which the Indian population is engaged in agriculture or employed in other occupations would be sensibly different on February 24th than on March 18th.”

As a newer territory under the British Raj, it is not difficult to understand such seasonal migration patterns of skilled laborers to Burma to make up for the internal demand. In the same colonial period, there were also many Burmese and other nationalities who migrated to Bengal and other parts of India. For instance, Calcutta was a favorable destination for many of these Burmese. Very rarely did any of these migrants permanently settle in territories away from their place of birth or rearing.

Consequently, the report says in Section 5, pages 3 and 4, “It is not known what proportion of Indians born outside Burma had settled down in Burma and regarded it as their permanent residence. The attempt made to distinguish between Indians permanently resident and Indians temporarily resident in Burma failed because of suspicion in the minds of many Indians regarding the motive behind the inquiry. Some part of the “born out” Indian population in Burma will of course have been long resident in the country and have adopted it as their home. But how large or how small this part may be, there is no means of ascertaining. When a special industrial census was taken in 1921 of labourers employed in a number of the principal industries such as rubber, minerals, wood, metals, rice, oil-refining and the construction of means of transport, it was found that out of a total of 62,498 male Indian labourers born outside Burma and engaged in these industries, only 2,598 reported that they intended to reside permanently in the country. Whether the same proportion would hold good for Indians born outside Burma employed in agriculture, trade, or industries other than those mentioned, it is impossible to say. Broadly however it will be assumed in this report that Indians born in Burma are permanently settled and that Burma is the country of their adoption whereas Indians born outside Burma will be regarded as constituting a population the great bulk of which regards Burma as a place of temporary residence where under the compelling force of economic necessity many Indians spend a part, sometimes a considerable part, of their lives but with the intention, or at least the hope, of eventually returning and settling down in the country of their birth.”

The Baxter report on Indian population in British occupied Burma notes, “The tracing of the growth of the Indian population through the series of census reports is a matter of some complexity. It was not until the sixth census, that of 1921, that a racial classification of the population was attempted. In previous censuses the population was classified by religion only.” It continues, “It is assumed in the following tables that the Indian population at the time of the first census in 1872 is the sum of the Hindu and Mohamedan populations as recorded in the census of that year. There is little objection to assuming that all the Hindus were Indian but it is not so true to assume that all the Mohamedans were Indian. There was an Arakanese Muslim community settled so long in Akyab District that it had for all intents and purposes to be regarded as an indigenous race. There were also a few Mohamedan Kamans in Arakan and a small but long established Muslim community around Moulemin which could not be regarded as Indian. There is no record of the numbers of any of these categories of Mohamedans in the 1872 census returns and consequently no allowance can be made for them by way of deduction from the Hindu and Mohamedan population figures.” It is worth noting here that by the phrase -Arakanese Muslim- community above, mostly the Rohingya community (the other groups being Kaman, Turko-Pathans and Tambukias) are meant.

As to the classification by races in 1921 and 1931, the report says, “For these years the Indian constituent of the population is taken to be the number of persons who then returned themselves as belonging to one of the forty specified Indian races, or who were tabulated as “Indians of unspecified race” where their records though indefinite showed they belonged to an Indian race.” It is, thus, not difficult to understand why the British authority would classify the Rohingya Muslims, more like a force field analysis, under Bengali or Chittagonian race.

In the table provided on Section 8, page 5 of the report it shows the total number of Indians (Hindus and Muslims) in 1872 at 136,504 in a total Burmese population of 2,747,158 – representing 4.9%. (As noted earlier, however, since the 1872 census was done on August 15 and not during the February-March period, which is the case for other censuses that followed, a valid comparison with other years is not possible.) In 1911, the corresponding numbers are 743,288 and 12,115,287 – representing 6.1%. As to the probable reason behind higher percentage, the report notes, “The Indian population figures for the censuses 1881 to 1911 inclusive are probably too high. There is reason to believe that some of the Arakanese Mohamedans returned an Indian vernacular as their mother tongue since although they use Burmese in writing, among themselves they commonly speak the language of their ancestors.”

It is not farfetched to conclude from the above statement that the census process was far from being accurate, and that many Arakanese Muslims who were bi- or multi-lingual felt coerced by the British census bureau to be categorized as Indians simply because of their looks or familiarity with any of the Indian vernaculars.

Commenting on the Indian population in Lower Burma the report notes, “To the extent that the language returns in the 1881 to 1911 censuses give an Indian population higher than the real one mainly because of the inclusion of a proportion of the Arakanese Muslims, the figures are inaccurate.”

What is obvious from the report is that while the Indian population in Burma increased, mostly due to temporary residents who worked in the fields, factories, ports and offices, the increase within the Arakanese Muslim population cannot be ascribed to such factors, but it was an organic one by any count. [See below for supporting evidences.]

Commenting on the Indian population in Upper Burma, where the table showed that there were 62,658 Indians in 1891 and 61,645 in 1901, the report notes, “There would seem to be an error in the 1901 figure. The Hindu and the Mohamedan populations in Upper Burma then numbered together 88,670 or 2.3 percent of the whole population, an increase of 17,233 on the 1891 figure. In view of this increase, it is hardly credible that the number of persons using as an Indian vernacular as their customary speech should have diminished.”

Commenting on the population in the Arakan Division, which showed an Indian population of 197,990 in 1911 against a total of 839,896, the report says, “For the reasons already given, the 1881 to 1911 Indian population figures are probably too high since they are believed to include a considerable number of Arakanese Muslims. In 1911, for example, the Hindu and Mohamedan populations in Arakan together amounted to 202,320 persons or only 4,330 more than the number who returned an Indian vernacular.” It is also important to note here that the percentage of Indian population in Arakan actually show a downward trend from 1911 to 1931 going down from 23.5% to 22.7% in 1921 to 21.6% in 1931. The places where Indian population grew more than local population were Pegu, Irrawaddy and Tennasserim divisions. The increase in the Indian population in Rangoon was due to the fact that the city had essentially become the economic hub of Burma, which required skilled laborers and educated workers to meet the demand of a growing city for which little skilled Burmese could be found. As noted by Burmese historians like Aung, the colonial administration did not pay much attention to education of the local people, and would rather depend on Indian clerks, police, and soldiers to fill in those positions. For example, the Gurkha population (mostly employed as soldiers and police for the British government) rose by 78% from 22,251 to 39,352 between 1921 and 1931.

The Section 13, page 8 of the report makes it abundantly clear that an estimate of the number of persons of Indian race was no easy matter because of the lack of reliable data on Indian births and deaths and because of the substantial discrepancies between the returns of immigrants and emigrants made by the shipping companies to the Port Commissioners and the records kept by the Port Health Officers. It notes, “The probable error in any calculations based upon these data is considerable and an estimate of the size of the Indian population in 1939 can only be regarded as a rough approximation.” The report mentions that according to Dr. Bernardelli, who had used available material, the Indian population towards the end of 1939 was in the neighborhood of 918,000, and that it had declined by 100,000 since 1931. Nonetheless, the report mentions about steady increase in the percentage of Indians born in Burma (except in 1901 where it fell). This can easily be explained away by the fact that Buddhist population traditionally had a smaller growth rate compared to both Hindus and Muslims.

The report also mentions that in 1931, the total number of Indians living inside Lower Burma was 849,000 representing 10.9% of the entire population. Of the Indians, 83.4% lived in Lower Burma, 13.2% in Upper Burma and 3.3% in the Shan States and Karenni. Rangoon and Akyab Districts accounted for 21% apiece. As to the large percentage in Akyab, which comprised one third of the total city population, the report mentions the indigenous nature of those settled communities. Outside Akyab, the other places where the Indian population lived in large numbers were Rangoon and the districts within easy reach of the capital and connected with it by rail and river, again highlighting the fact that they were there because of the attractiveness of those places as economic hubs of Burma. In Rangoon, where the Indian population was roughly 53% of the city, many of these Indians were employed in administrative jobs.

The 1931 census shows that there were some 252,000 so-called Chittagonians living in Burma, in addition to another 66,000 so-called Bengalis out of a total Indian population of 1,017,825. That is, approximately 31% of the Indian population was culturally identified with those in nearby Bengal and Chittagong.

The report also provides sex and age distribution of the Indian population inside Burma. It notes, “Except in Akyab District where the Indian community is predominantly settled, the age and sex distributions of the Indian population were in a state of acute disequilibrium due to the presence of a large excess of immigrant males especially in the age groups of 15 years and over.” This statement again points to the fact that most Indians living in Burma were temporary workers who did not intend to settle there, and that the reason for Akyab having balanced sexes within the Indian population was that they were a settled community (unlike the seasonal migrants from other parts of India).

The report shows that in 1931 out of a total population of 1,008,538 in Arakan, the Indian population counted for only 217,801, of which 210,990 lived in Akyab District. It is not difficult to understand the reason: being a busy port, Akyab, by then with a population of 637,580, had become a major attraction for job seekers. Of the Indian population in Akyab, 167,000 identified themselves as having been born in Burma, and were split roughly equally between the sexes. Since the number of Hindustanis and Oriyas in Akyab comprised only 6% of the total population, it is safe to assume that the Indian population there is almost all Rohingya population. A vast majority of the Indian population in Akyab was engaged in agriculture sector. It is worth pointing out here that the original Rohingya population of 30,000 in 1826 could have easily grown to 362,000 by 1931 with an annual population growth rate of 2.4%. So, it is plausible that the census was not reliable or that a majority of the Rohingya indigenous community by 1931 had moved away from Akyab to other parts of Burma. Additionally, the 1931 census figure for Akyab shows that there were 210,990 Indians, which is actually smaller than the 1922 census for combined Hindus and Muslims. It is difficult to explain such an anomaly considering the fact that Akyab, like Rangoon, had become an important port unless the 1922 and/or 1921 census data were unreliable, a theme that was repeated within the body of the report a number of times.

The report also provides some information about the so-called Indians living – permanently or temporarily – inside Burma and Arakan when the censuses were taken.


Total Indians
in Burma

Born in India Born in Burma



1891 429,830 282,947 146,883
1901 568,263 419,863 148,400
1911 743,288 499696 243,592
1921 887,077 586,243 300,834
1931 1,017,825 630,090 387,735

There was a major influx of Indians moving into Burma after the entire country was colonized by the British government. As already noted, many of them came with the colonial administration. A comparison with the census data in 1891 also points to the fact that the 1881 census data for the so-called Indian population born in Burma is unreliable. As we have already noted above, the original Rohingya population could have grown to above 360,000 by 1931; as such the 1931 figure for the so-called Indians born in Burma may well be from the Rohingya community alone. If the data for 1891 and 1931 could be trusted as reliable, the annual population growth rate within those born inside Burma was 2.46%, which was not that unrealistic.

If the population data of the so-called Indians in Burma is compared against those in Arakan, we notice that until 1881, the bulk of the Indian population who were born in Burma were from Arakan, again pointing out the indigenous nature of those people. Between 1891 and 1931 the Indian population inside Arakan who were born there grew by only 2%, well below comparable numbers for other Indians, reflecting the fact that the growth was an organic one and did not have anything to do with influx from outside. It is quite possible that many of those Indians born in Arakan had moved to divisions outside Arakan. At the time of 1931 census nearly 77% of the Indians in Arakan were born in Burma.

It is also worth pointing out that while the total Indian population in Burma grew by 2.9% between 1881 and 1931, the same cannot be said about them within Arakan where they grew by only 1.3%. The lower-than-expected growth rate also points to the obvious fact that many of those Indians living inside Arakan were temporary workers or laborers. On the other hand, as to those Indians born in Arakan, an annual growth rate of only 2% is required to explain the growth between 1891 and 1931, pointing to the organic nature of the population growth, and not a superficial one. [As noted above, a fraction of those born in Arakan may have also moved to other parts of Burma by 1931.]


Total Indians
in Burma

Born in India Born in Burma



1901 173884 76445 97439
1911 197990 46591 151399
1921 206990 51825 155165
1931 217801 50565 167236

On the matter of annual increase or decrease in the Indian population in Burma due to immigration from and emigration to India, the report notes, “Unfortunately, the records are so flagrantly at variance and lead to conclusions so widely different that it seems hardly worth while trying to draw any inferences whatsoever from such dubious material.” As to the nature of such trends, the report says, “Indian immigrants ordinarily spend from two to four years in Burma before going home, the period being shorter or longer according s the savings they accumulate are greater or less. Immigrants arriving in 1927 and 1928 would expect to revisit their homes in India in about 1930 and 1931. High immigrant figures in 1927 and 1928 would therefore connote high emigrant figures about 1930 and 1931.”

As to the causes governing periodic fluctuations in the volume of Indian immigration and emigration, the report says, “Immigrants are in search of work and it would seem reasonable to suppose that they come to Burma either because employment at home is hard to find or is not sufficiently remunerated to content them and because they expect to find work more easily in Burma or earn higher wages. The evidence indicates that wage levels in Burma, though only sufficient to support a low standard of living, are attractive to the Indian immigrant in comparison with the levels in his province of origin. As already stated, he comes with the intention of staying in Burma for three years or thereabouts after which he revisits his home and in the majority cases returns to Burma after an interval varying from a few months to the best part of a year, but probably on an average of about six months.”

A closer look at the Baxter Report, therefore, shows that the Chittagonian workers who came to Arakan came as seasonal workers and left when their job was terminated or ended in Burma. Unlike Indian workers, who had to save enough money to return to their homes, the proximity of Chittagong did not require them to overstay. It would be a terrible mistake to confuse those migrant workers with the indigenous community of Arakanese Muslims (e.g., the Rohingyas of Burma), who were culturally Indian/Bengali/Muslim.

Japanese Occupation of Burma

No discussion on anti-Indian riots is, however, complete without a mention of the Japanese invasion of Burma.

In January 1942, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Burma from Thailand with the help of the Burma Independence Army (BIA), a military force made-up of 4,000 Burman nationalists led by 30 officers (the so-called Thirty Comrades) who had been trained and equipped in Japan since 1940. As the British forces quickly retreated to India, nearly 400 Karen villages were torched and destroyed while 1,800 Karen civilians were reportedly murdered by the BIA troops in the first two months of the invasion (January-March, 1942).

As they started their massacre of the Indian population, more than half a million Indians, Anglo-Burman and other ethnic groups, who were considered pro-British, fled on foot, heading towards India between March and April. Their dramatic exodus through western Burma-s dense jungles left tens of thousands of victims dead. More than a hundred thousand Rohingya Muslims were massacred by Arakanese Buddhists that were allied with the BIA and the fascist Japanese occupation forces during the pogroms of 1942; another 80,000 Arakanese Muslims fled to Bengal. The Muslim population was depopulated in the south and pushed north, close to today-s Bangladesh-Burma border. The pogrom of 1942 against the Arakanese Muslims (Rohingya) almost permanently destroyed any possibility of reconciliation with the Arakanese Buddhists (Rakhine).

In April 1942, the British had built up a guerrilla force – the V Force – which operated along the whole front line between the British and the Japanese armies. The Arakanese Muslims (Rohingyas) were heavily recruited into this force and played an important role in gaining information, guiding troops, and rescuing pilots when they were shot down by the Japanese forces. In January 1944, the British took Maungdaw, with V Force playing an important supporting role. It was not until December 1944, however, that the British forces finally took Buthidaung. Once this stronghold had been captured the Japanese position rapidly collapsed, and by early January 1945 most of the Arakan was in British hands.

According to Kurt Jonassohn and Karin Solveig Bjrnson, “During World War II the Rohingyas remained loyal to the British, even when they retreated to India. They paid dearly for this choice: advancing Japanese and Burmese armies tortured, raped, and massacred thousands of Rohingyas … After reconquering the region in 1945, the British rewarded the Rohingyas for their loyalty by setting up a civilian administration for the Rohingyas in Arakan.” The dream of Rohingya autonomy was rather short-lived as Arakan was incorporated into Burma which gained independence in January 4, 1948.

With General Aung-San and his entire cabinet killed on July 19, 1947 (by the Buddhist extremists that were affiliated with his political opponent U Saw) before Burma gained independence and the Burman-Rohingya relationship rather jittery from the past experience, the Rohingyas faced severe discrimination in the new state. They were barred and removed from the Military, Police and civil services and their leaders were placed under arrest. Rohingya refugees who had fled to India (British Bengal) during the pogroms of 1942 were not permitted to return to their ancestral homes. Considered illegal immigrants by the highly racist and xenophobic Burmese government, their properties were seized and resettled by Burman and Rakhine Buddhists.

>>>>> Continue to Part 2


Dr Habib Siddiqui has authored 10 books. His latest book – Devotional Stories – is now available from A.S. Noordeen, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.


One Comment

  1. The UN and the whole Muslim Ummah should work hard to help the

    displaced Rohingya tribes.None of you can be a true believer unless he

    loves for his brother what he loves for himself.Jazakallah for drawing

    our attention for the unfortunate plight of these people.We should

    continue to make fikr and the least we can do is dua for our brothers

    and sisters all over the Globe May Allah give us and them hidayah and

    we become the means of the guidance for others Amen.

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