The Mujahid Revolt in Arakan in 1952 (and a SOAS report on the Rohingyas)

The following is a report prepared by the British Foreign office about the “Mujahid Revolt” in Arakan around the time of Burmese independence. It provides good background on the Rohingya issue and is worth a read..

Below that is a report prepared by a researcher at SOAS in 2005, which gives some more background..

“This document is a transcript of an original British Foreign Office document held at the National Archives in Kew, Richmond, Surrey under File Reference FO 371/101002 – FB 1015/63”

FB 1015/63
The Mujahid Revolt in Arakan


1. The Akyab district of Arakan, the northern parts of which are now the scene of a Muslim rebellion, is even less well provided with communications than are most parts of Burma, and its inaccessibility and its remoteness from the centre of government are principal factors in making the rising possible. The district is separated from Burma proper by the hills of the Arakan Yoma, and west of this range a series of rivers, running roughly from north to south and divided from one another by parallel ranges of higher ground, split the district into several parts between which, as between the district as a whole and the rest of Burma, communication is difficult. On the west, the Naf river flows south to the sea, and in its lower reaches forms the frontier between Burma and East Pakistan.
2. The northern part of the Akyab district comprises two administrative areas, known as townships, namely, the Buthidaung township consisting of the upper part of the Mayu river valley and the adjacent hills, and the Maungdaw township consisting of the lower Naf valley with the coastal strip running south from its estuary. The two townships, now the scene of so much disorder, are separated by hills known as the Mayu range. Though most of the Buthidaung township consists of hills, the Maungdaw townships contains the flat, intensively cultivated land along the lower Naf, and this is one of the most fertile and densely populated parts of Burma. In both townships, the people depend on agriculture for their livelihood, and apart from minor village handicrafts, there is no industry.
3. Owing to the nature of the country, the easiest means of communication both within it and between it and other parts of Arakan is water-transport, either by coastal craft plying to the Naf estuary or by inland-water transport along the Naf and Mayu rivers. Roads are few and poor; railways do not exist. Formerly a light railway ran from the town of Maungdaw on the Naf to the town of Buthidaung on the Mayu, passing through two tunnels on the way; it was constructed by the Arakan Flotilla Company to link their services on the Naf with those on the Mayu and to provide an inland route by which the rice of Maungdaw might reach the rice-mills at Akyab, but it was later abandoned and developed into a metalled roadway. In general, land movement in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships must be effected by bullock-cart track or by jungle-path. Thus the north of the Akyab district is essentially isolated.

4. The area necessarily has an intimate connexion with East Pakistan. The Naf river, which forms the boundary, serves like other river-frontiers rather to bring the inhabitants of the two parts together than to separate them, for it provides a means of transport common to both while the general conditions on the one side of the river closely resemble those on the other. The Naf has, indeed, no great antiquity as a frontier: the old Kingdom of Arakan which the Burmese suppressed in 1785 at one time extended over all the Chittagong district of East Pakistan. Ethnically and linguistically, Akyab and Chittagong districts present much the same mixture of peoples. Traffic across the frontier is considerable and long has been; and the troubles which today prevail on the border have had their parallel in the past. For years after the Burmese annexation in 1785, refugees from Arakan sought safety in Chittagong and used Chittagong as a base for trans-frontier raids against the Burmese; these troubles persisted almost up to the date of the first Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26) of which they were a major cause, for the remote and wild nature of the country made it impossible for the authorities on either side to exercise effective control. The transfer of Arakan to the East India Company in 1826, however, ended this prolonged state of undeclared war, and for well over a hundred years the frontier enjoyed peace, till the breakdown of British authority in 1942 and its final eclipse in 1947-48 reproduced the conditions of an earlier epoch.
5. The indigenous inhabitants of the Maungdaw-Buthidaung area are Arakanese, an offshoot of the main Burmese stock, and by religion they are Buddhists: Buddhists of the same racial origin are also found in not inconsiderable numbers in the Chittagong district, where in 1941 they numbered 80,105, or 4 per cent of the district’s population. Intermingled with them are people of other stock, largely Muslims by religion and, to use an outmoded terminology, “Indian” in origin. The great pressure of population1 in Bengal has led over the years to a steady movement southwards, with the result that the Chittagong district has become predominantly Indian-Muslim in character and has also become over-populated in relation to its resources; and there has naturally been an overspill into Northern Akyab. Particularly in the nineteenth century, when not only had the frontier been eliminated but also the extension of the Pax Britannica over India as a whole led to a rapid growth of population, this movement southwards developed and accelerated. In normal times, every year saw a large seasonal influx from Chittagong into Akyab district of coolies coming to work in the
rice-fields: some went by sea direct to the port of Akyab, but many crossed the Naf river to Maungdaw and spread thence on foot. Naturally, some of them finally settled in the country, especially in the parts nearest their former homes, so that in 1917 the Settlement Officer

1 The Bengali name for Chittagonian Buddhists is Magh (perhaps ultimately from Magadha, the name of an ancient kingdom in Behar from whose royal house the Kings of Arakan may have been descended). The term Magh is, however, sometimes applied in Bengal to Arakanese, and sometimes applied in Burma to all Chittagonians and not only to Chittagonian Buddhists.

reported that “Maungdaw township has been overrun by Chittagong immigrants. Buthidaung township is not far behind”. The opportunity which the area provided for immigration is shown by the circumstance that whereas in 1931 the Chittagong district had an average population of 699 to the square mile, the comparative figures were only 264 in Maungdaw and 115 in Buthidaung. As a result, by 1931, the last year for which details of population are available, Indian Muslims, nearly all originating in Chittagong, formed 57 per cent of the population of the Maungdaw township and 56 per cent of the population of Buthidaung.
6. There was intermarriage between the immigrants and Arakanese women, and as a rule the offspring of such marriages adopted the religion and ways of life of their Chittagong fathers, though usually regarding themselves at the same time as nationals of Burma. The Census reports describe these products of mixed marriage as “Arakanese Mohamedans”, but in Burmese they are referred to as Yakhaing Kala (Arakanese Indians); they prefer to call themselves Rwangya, a word of uncertain derivation2. The 1931 Census report shows 48,320 of this community in Akyab district.
7. Thus the two townships came to be inhabited more by Muslims whose origins and to a great extent sympathies lay across the frontier than by Arakanese; and it is not surprising that the Arakanese should feel that they were being driven out of their own homeland. The fact that the yearly influx of Chittagonian labour undercut indigenous labour was an added source of grievance. Communal tension was unavoidable, and was intensified when the development of self-government in Burma from 1923 onwards, with its accompaniment of communal representation in the legislature, tended to emphasise the dissimilarities between communities. The tension found its expression in 1938, when Maungdaw and Buthidaung were involved in the anti-Muslim rioting which spread over Burma in that year.
8. The collapse of authority in 1942 at the time of the Japanese invasion gave an opportunity for this friction to express itself once more, and in April 1942 Akyab district was the scene of civil war, in which unknown numbers were slaughtered and many perished of starvation and exposure in attempting to find refuge elsewhere. The devastation caused by the military operations of the next three years caused a continued flight of population: where possible, Arakanese from the north fled southwards, and Muslims fled to Chittagong where refugee camps had to be provided for their accommodation. The general position was that the Japanese held the southern, mainly Buddhist, part of Akyab district, while the British managed to re-establish a hold on the northern part which was predominantly Muslim; and,


2 Possibly from rwam, meaning “midway between”, and kya, meaning “in between”, so implying the occupant of an intermediate position, i.e. a half-caste.

perforce, the Buddhist Arakanese in the south paid lip-service to the Japanese, while the Muslims of the north gave their services to the British.
9. The aid lent by the Muslims to the British cause is partly the explanation of the current disorders. In 1942, during the interim between the collapse of British administration and the re-establishment of control in the northern parts, local bodies of armed Muslims were formed for the protection of the community, such as the “police” organised by a “Central Peace Committee” in Maungdaw. In the autumn of 1942, members of these bodies were organised as part of a para-military formation known as “V Force”, and were trained, clothed, armed and paid by the British. The Muslim V Force was active for the remainder of the war in Arakan, and became a large and powerful – though ill-disciplined – intelligence and intruder agency, which, incidentally, used its intelligence duties as a means of smuggling textiles into Japanese-occupied territory, much to its own profit. The Muslims who constituted this Force had but lately been engaged in civil war with the Arakanese Buddhists; the Arakanese Buddhists now bore the complexion of being collaborators with the Japanese; and so to the communal bitterness which had been so strong in the mid-months of 1942 was added the conviction amongst the Muslims that whereas they themselves were standing loyally by the British, the traitorous Arakanese had deserted to the enemy. This attitude of mind intensified and made permanent the communal hostility which had lain below the surface for years and had erupted so violently in 1938 and 1942. The regular Indian troops, and particularly the Muslims among them, naturally became infected with the same point of view, and their behaviour when in 1945 the British finally advanced southwards added to their troubles. The formation of V Force also had the effect of providing the Muslims with a considerable store of arms which was by no means all given up when the war ended.
10. By the end of the war, non-Muslims had to a very great extent vanished from northern Akyab, and so behind the advancing forces the Muslims moved back into the empty spaces. The year 1945 thus saw the Muslims in effective occupation of the Maungdaw and Buthidaung areas, though many of them were in occupancy of houses and land which were the lawful property of Arakanese absentees. This conflict of interest over property added further fuel to the flames of communal discord.
11. Arakan as a whole failed to settle down after the termination of hostilities, and when the Nationalist agitation in Burma grew in intensity during 1946 and 1947 the situation in Arakan became increasingly uneasy. The prospect that Burma would become completely independent caused concern in the minds of non-Burmans everywhere, and in the case of Maungdaw and Buthidaung communal feeling was deepened by the memory of recent conflicts and by present disputes about property. The idea of incorporating the townships

into Pakistan appeared, and some of the local leaders interviewed Mr. Jinnah in 1947 with this in view, but they received no encouragement. Disorder grew, and as early as August 1947 a Burmese newspaper stated that there were widespread disturbances in the Maungdaw area where “Indian enemies” were trying to assassinate the local Burmese officials. In 1948 the troubles increased.
12. When Burma became independent in January 1948, the new Government had their hands full with troubles elsewhere: before the country could adjust itself to its new situation the Communist rebellion began, followed before long by the Karen rebellion. The Government had little time to spare for the troubles of so outlying and remote an area as north Arakan, and in any case lacked the resources in men to enforce authority there. It was stated in the press in June 1948 that the area was in reality unadministered: smuggling was carried on at will across the Naf, and foreigners entered and left freely; bands of “Indians”, it was said, were setting up a parallel government, and as civil officers and police dared not enter the area, local Burmese or Arakanese morale was low and many were taking to flight. In their place, more foreigners were coming in.
Rebel Objectives

13. The rebels called themselves mujahids, or “soldiers of the holy war”, but they are occasionally referred to as “Muslim pyaukkyas”, i.e. Muslim guerrillas. Their avowed aim is the formation of a Muslim State in the two townships, and though it has not at all times been clear whether this State was to be associated with Burma or with Pakistan, it is obvious that, if formed, it must gravitate towards the latter.
14. Besides the politico-religious inspiration, however, the movement from an early date had a less honourable motive also. Like the Muslims of V Force, with whom, indeed, many of them are probably to be identified, the Muslim rebels have been consistent smugglers. The principal commodity in which they have dealt has been rice, which they carry across the Naf river from the fertile fields of Maungdaw to the deficit area of Chittagong. Boat-owners have been encouraged to transport rice also, and a regular customs-tariff has been levied: according to one account, Rs.15 had to be paid on each boat-load, on pain of confiscation. To a large extent, the rebellion seems to have degenerated into little more than a smuggling racket plus a fair amount of dacoity, from which the insurgent leaders made a very good profit.
15. Possibly owing to differences arising from these devious financial interests, the movement soon broke up into rival gangs. Some of the original leaders, whose names are given as Sultan Ahmed and Jaffar Hussein, seem to have taken up residence in Chittagong,

nominally to organise supplies with the aid of sympathisers in that district, but perhaps because they wish to enjoy their ill-gotten gains in comfort; other leaders thus came to the fore, and during 1951 “Major-General” Abdul Kassim and one Raschid were prominent as rivals for supremacy. By the end of 1951, however, agreement seems to have been reached between the leaders on both sides of the frontier, and some measure of co-operation was achieved in the field between the supporters of Kassim and of Raschid. Also sometimes mentioned as a leader of the rising is one Omra Meah, a former school-teacher who was active in the Maungdaw Peace Committee in 1942 and later did good service as a temporary civil servant in that area under the British military administration; but there is some doubt whether, though doubtless an ardent supporter of the principle of a Muslim State in northern Akyab, he has in fact approved violent measures.
16. Despite their more material interest, however, the various mujahid leaders have at all times maintained the claim that they sought to secure Muslim interests, and adhesion to Pakistan has certainly been avowed by some of them as their aim. Thus in 1951 they gave orders that the Pakistan flag must be flown in all villages under their control, and in the course of collecting money and recruits Kassim informed the people that their support was needed on account of the Kashmir crisis: the area of northern Akyab must, he said, become a Muslim State so that its people could fight alongside Pakistan against India.
Military Operations

17. During 1948 the mujahid gangs, some clad in an attempt at uniform comprising black shorts, green berets, and a badge on the shirt showing the star and crescent, gained complete control over the northern part of the two townships, and by November they were ambushing traffic on the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road. They were also in strength in the Mayu valley, where they shot up rivercraft. Training received during the war in V Force no doubt stood them in good stead in these operations. In November, however, the Government were able to send troops and levies to the area: they found the rebels strong near Buthidaung, where they were well dug in and where they had thrown a boom across the Mayu. The troops failed to achieve anything in this sector, but were more successful around Maungdaw: there they cleared the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road and repelled rebel attacks on the hamlets of Keinchakata and Kanyindan, close to Maungdaw town; they also burnt 13 villages, including six mosques, and reported the deaths of 49 rebels. By the end of the month the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road was again cut, while the rebels ambushed one formation of troops which was wiped out with the loss of 75 rifles, 2 sub-machine guns and 70 boxes of ammunition; they also ambushed a naval launch on the Mayu, though it managed to escape. The troops reopened the road in January 1949, but traffic could move

only under escort; and though they claimed to have driven a number of rebel bands over the frontier, they had failed to take many prisoners or inflict many casualties, and the bands remained intact. Then in February 1949 the outbreak of the Karen revolt elsewhere led to the withdrawal of the 5th Burma Rifles, and the situation again deteriorated.
18. The raids of the insurgents were now carried further south: in July 1949 they attacked the village of Godusara, 10 miles south-east of Maungdaw, and in August held for a time the village of Alethangyaw, on the coast south of the Naf estuary. Again early in 1950 the rebel bands were astride the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road, and were once more raiding as far as Godusara; in April they drove the Government’s forces from Bawli Bazaar, the principal village north of Maungdaw.
19. It does not appear that the numbers of the insurgents were over large. It is improbable that those in the field ever totalled more than a thousand; but, in the absence of effective security forces, they were able to deprive the administration of all control outside one or two main centres, and in 1951 the authorities seem to have abandoned all hope of regaining the country north of the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road and to have contented themselves with trying to prevent the rebels from raiding southwards. In July of that year the 3rd Burma Rifles, composed largely of Arakanese who were formerly enlisted as levies, were redeployed so as to provide additional posts south of Maungdaw and Buthidaung towns; and these measures seem to have prevented raiding southwards, though the rebels were still able to impede the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road, where on one occasion they tried to blow up the tunnel at the 8th mile. As against the efforts of the Government’s forces to provide a line of defence, the rebels seem to have had a similar notion, for towards the end of 1951 villagers were being forced to construct military works at the Ngakyedauk Pass, controlling the war-time route from the Mayu to the Naf valley north of the Maungdaw- Buthidaung road. It was reported at this period that they had established a workshop in the Maungdaw township where four Pathans were repairing and even manufacturing .303 rifles.
20. During 1952 the general improvement in Burma showed its effect. The Burma Navy became active on the Naf and Mayu, and towards the end of the year land operations also developed. Hard-pressed, the rebel leaders quarrelled; Rashid surrendered, while Kassim, with only 150 men left, was driven into the far north of Akyab district and even, according to Burmese reports, across the border. For the moment at least the rebellion has collapsed.
Conduct of Government Forces

21. The chaotic conditions produced by the rebellion caused great hardship to the people of the district, most of whom desired nothing more than to be allowed to carry on their

cultivation in peace. Non-Muslims suffered severely at the hands of the rebels, and many had to flee to the towns of Maungdaw and Buthidaung, where in May 1950 the number of destitute was 2,624 and 1,604 respectively. The levies of men and money by the rebels and their ill-treatment of anyone so ill-advised as to refuse caused great hardship to the Muslims also; but unfortunately even more ill-feeling was caused amongst the Muslims by the conduct of the Government’s forces. The 5th Burma Rifles, operating in the area at the end of 1948 and the beginning of 1949, were accused of grievously maltreating the people, many of whom fled to Chittagong where the Pakistan authorities established refugee camps for them. So strong was the feeling, that even Muslim leaders who supported the Government made a protest to the Prime Minister in March 1949. When the 5th Burma Rifles were withdrawn, the situation became worse, for they were replaced by “levies” recruited from the Buddhist Arakanese, many of whom probably had personal scores to settle, and such was their misbehaviour that in August 1949 the Commissioner, Arakan Division, demanded their withdrawal as they were only inflaming communal ill-feeling. The attitude of those irregulars was illustrated at Taung Bazaar in May 1950: the Township Officer of Buthidaung, the Inspector of Police, and the president of the local branch of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (the Government’s political organisation) accompanied the local levy commander to the village as a “peace mission”, but when the Muslim elders complained of the misbehaviour of the levies, the commander drew his revolver and fired three rounds at the crowd, which dispersed in haste. Again, when at about the same time the local branches of the AFPFL elected some Muslim office-bearers in place of the former all-Buddhist committee the levies at Maungdaw stoned the house of the new president.
22. Exactions by the forces of free labour and free food were added irritation.

Political Moves

23. When in 1948 the Government appointed a Regional Autonomy Commission to consider claims for local self-government, Arakan was included in its terms of reference; the Commission visited Arakan and took evidence, but there the matter rested. Again in 1949 a new Commission was appointed to enquire into the causes of the insurrection and to consider the case for a partition of the Akyab district: but this Commission also seems never to have reported. Thus no serious attempt was made to solve the problem by peaceful means.
24. Not all the Muslims of the area supported the rebellion, and probably its measure of support tended to decrease rather than increase as time went on, owing to general disgust with the chaotic situation. Many of the Rwangyas, as distinct from the “Indian Muslims”, remained loyal to the Burmese Government, and an Arakanese-Muslim Peace Mission was

formed in 1949 in the hope of persuading the rebels to lay down their arms, but it had little success. It was handicapped by the suspicion with which the Burmese authorities eyed it and which was illustrated by the arrest of six of its members when they visited Akyab town in October 1949. Despite this, the leading Rwangyas continued to protest their loyalty to the Government while still complaining of the misconduct of the forces.
25. The problem of ownership of property remained, however, as a cause of friction. A Land Distribution Committee formed with official sanction in Maungdaw and Buthidaung was composed exclusively of Buddhists, despite the largely Muslim character of the population, and this Committee tried to reinstate the original, Buddhist, owners of land and to oust the de facto occupants who were usually Muslims.
26. The ill-feeling between the communities was emphasised in March 1952 when the members of the Arakanese Independent Parliamentary Group, consisting of non-Muslims, held a press conference in Rangoon at which they spoke strongly about the need for firm action, both to repress the rising and to stop the unauthorised inflow of Pakistani nationals which, they said, was still going on. They affirmed that the mujahid rising was even more dangerous to the unity of Burma than was the Kuomintang trouble in the Shan States: unless the situation were cleared up, the Maungdaw and Buthidaung area would be finally lost to Burma. They suggested, too, that the rising had the general support of Muslims in Arakan. These statements brought a sharp retort from the Members of Parliament for Maungdaw and Buthidaung, who were Rwangyas. These stated that the Arakanese Independent Parliamentary Group had magnified the affair out of all proportion by comparing it with the Kuomintang incursion and, by misleading the people of Burma about the peaceful, law- abiding and loyal Muslims of north Akyab, most of whom were opposed to the mujahids, were trying to increase communal discord. The Muslims of north Akyab were, they insisted, the real sufferers; hundreds had been killed by the mujahids and thousands rendered homeless; the Rwangyas, they said, were as strongly opposed to infiltration from Pakistan as were the Arakanese, nor did such infiltration now occur. The Arakanese Independent Parliamentary Group also suggested that the Jamiyat-ul-Ulema in Arakan was chiefly responsible for the rising but this body, largely composed of Rwangyas, denies all sympathy with the rebels. The political counterpart of the militant mujahids appears rather to be an organisation calling itself the “Arakanese Muslim Conference”, whose President is one Saleh Ahmad and its Secretary one Zahiruddin Ahmad, who in 1951 published an appeal to the Burmese Government under the title, “Stop Genocide of the Muslims who alone stand between Communism and Democracy in Arakan”; this appeal ascribed the troubles not to the insurgents but to the Arakanese, especially those enlisted in the Burmese Government’s forces.

Relations with Pakistan

27. The situation necessarily reacted unfavourably on Burma’s relations with Pakistan. The mass of Chittagonians had much sympathy for their fellow-Muslims across the border, with whom in many cases they had family connexions; and, in addition, an important economic factor was involved, for Chittagong urgently needed rice which, owing to the high price imposed by the Burma State Agricultural Marketing Board on exports, could be obtained cheaply only in defiance of the Burmese authorities, and which, owing to the low price paid by the Board to the actual producer, the cultivators were eager to sell illicitly.
28. There was much wrath in Chittagong about the misbehaviour of the Burmese Government’s forces. By the end of March 1949 there were over 8,000 refugees in camps in Chittagong, and many more, to the total of perhaps 20,000, scattered about the district in a state of acute poverty; and their accounts of their sufferings at the hands of the Burmese no doubt lost nothing in the telling. Such was local sympathy for the Muslims of Akyab, that the rebel leaders had no difficulty in obtaining a good deal of encouragement and aid. The influx of refugees was an embarrassment for the Pakistani authorities, for not only had they to be accommodated and fed but also there was the danger of complications from their using Chittagong as a base for trans-frontier raids. In February 1949, therefore, orders were issued for the closing of the frontier against any further entry of refugees; but in practice the border could not be sealed, and it may be doubted whether the local officials made any serious effort to enforce the order.
29. The attitude of the Central and Provincial Governments of Pakistan in regard to the mujahid problem has at all times been strictly correct, but the district officials in Chittagong have evidently shared the feelings of the mass of people in their area, and in consequence many Arakanese have come to suspect the hand of the East Pakistan Government in the rising. During 1949 it was firmly believed in Arakan that the civil officers at Cox’s Bazaar were supplying arms and ammunition to the rebels; and there is no doubt that rebel wounded both then and later received treatment at the Government hospitals at Cox’s Bazaar, Ramu and Teknaf. An unconfirmed report stated in 1949 that the Superintendent of Police and the Additional District Magistrate of Chittagong district had suggested that their Government should provide the rebels with arms and money, or better still, undertake military intervention. This proposal, if ever it was made, received no encouragement; but feeling in Pakistan was such that in April 1949 it was reported that the Pakistan Government had protested to Burma against the persecution of Muslims in Arakan. In this period it was rumoured in Burma also that uniformed guerrillas carrying the Pakistan flag had invaded the two townships and that Pakistan naval craft were standing by off the mouth of the Naf.

These reports, denied by the East Bengal Government, were doubtless false, but they indicate the danger to good relations which the situation produced. At later periods too rumours have circulated, for example in the early months of 1951, that Pakistan proposed to annex the disturbed area.
30. However correct the attitude of superior authority in Pakistan might be, the rebels could feel assured of the active support of many Chittagonians and of the tacit sympathy of the local officials, and they were given added confidence by the knowledge that they could at any time withdraw across the border. Indeed, logistically the unofficial aid given in Chittagong placed the rebels in a stronger position than were the Burmese Government forces, for, with Pakistan as their base, they were nearer their source of supplies than were the Burmese troops and police who had to operate at the end of long and difficult lines of communication.
31. The need for rice was clearly a dominating factor in the attitude of the district officials in Chittagong, and they seem to have gone to extremes to protect the smugglers. Thus in May 1950 a Burmese river-police launch in pursuit of two paddy-boats smuggling rice across the Naf was obstructed by a Pakistan police-launch whose personnel, according to the Burmese story, opened fire: a Burman constable was wounded and taken prisoner. This incident, again according to Burmese sources, took place in Burmese waters. Similarly, though early in 1952 an increase in the strength of Burmese naval forces and Customs launches on the Naf was said to have reduced smuggling very considerably, it was also reported by Burmese sources that a Pakistan police-launch was regularly patrolling the river and that not only did it refrain from co-operating against the smugglers but was quite likely to protect them from the Burmese forces and officials.
32. Communal tension in Akyab district was, moreover, reflected in communal tension in Chittagong, and higher authority in Pakistan was gravely concerned lest resentment against the ill-treatment of Muslims in Arakan should lead to reprisals against the many thousands of Buddhists in Chittagong; and this, if it should occur, might in turn endanger the many more thousands of Muslims in other parts of Burma.
33. The authorities in Pakistan appear further to have feared that the mujahids might ally themselves with the Burmese Communist rebels; the establishment of a Communist enclave in the immediate neighbourhood of East Bengal, already liable to be infected by the powerful Communist elements of West Bengal, would be far from welcome. There is, however, no evidence that the mujahids have had any inclination towards such a course of action, and they profess, indeed, to be preserving the area from Communism (see paragraph 26 above),

though their opponents in Burma are not averse to accusing them of Communist sympathies, and the Burma Communists would certainly like to capture the movement.
34. The effect of the mujahid rising has thus been to prejudice good feeling between Burma and Pakistan; the Pakistan Government and people resent the sufferings inflicted on their fellow Muslims, whether of Pakistani origin or whether Rwangyas: the Burmese Buddhists resent a Muslim rising against the authority of their Government and the suffering which has certainly been inflicted on Arakanese Buddhists. Fortunately the very physical remoteness which enables the troubles to go on also renders the troubles mentally remote: the Arakanese and Chittagonians may have strong feelings on the subject, but most Burmans and most Pakistanis have far graver and more pressing problems to solve. If, however, the situation in Burma as a whole and in the Indian sub-continent generally should settle down, a peaceful solution in the Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships will be very necessary unless relations between Pakistan and Burma are to become strained.



31st December, 1952. Research Department, Foreign Office.


[This document is a transcript of an original British Foreign Office document held at the National Archives in Kew, Richmond, Surrey under File Reference FO 371/101002 – FB 1015/63.]


SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, Vol. 3, No. 2, Autumn 2005, ISSN 1479-


The Development of a Muslim Enclave in Arakan (Rakhine) State of Burma (Myanmar)1

Aye Chan
Kanda University of International Studies

Who are the Rohingyas? Burma gained independence from Great Britain in 1948 and this issue is a problem that Burma has had to grapple with since that time. The people who call themselves Rohingyas are the Muslims of Mayu Frontier area, present-day Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships of Arakan (Rakhine) State, an isolated province in the western part of the country across Naaf River as boundary from Bangladesh. Arakan had been an independent kingdom before it was conquered by the Burmese in 1784. Rohingya historians have written many treatises in which they claim for themselves an indigenous status that is traceable within Arakan State for more than a thousand years. Although it is not accepted as a fact in academia, a few volumes purporting to be history but mainly composed of fictitious stories, myths and legends have been published formerly in Burma and later in the

1 The present paper was written for distribution and discussion at a seminar in Japan. During the seminar, there was a debate between the author and Professor Kei Nemoto concerning the existence of the Rohingya people in Rakhine (Arakan). Nemoto, in a paper written in Japanese, agreed with the Rohingya historians that the Rohingyas have lived in Rakhine since the eigth century A. D. The author contests the vailidity of these claims. The present paper was also read at the 70th Conference of Southeast Asian historians of Japan, held at the University of Kobe, on 4 to 5 February 2003.


©2005 AYE CHAN

United States, Japan and Bangladesh. These, in turn, have filtered into the international media through international organizations, including reports to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (Ba Tha 1960: 33-36; Razzaq and Haque 1995: 15).2
In light of this, it is important to reexamine the ethnicity of the ‘Rohingyas’ and to trace their history back to the earliest presence of their ancestors in Arakan. And history tells us that we do not have to go back very far. In the early 1950s that a few Bengali Muslim intellectuals of the northwestern part of Arakan began to use the term “Rohingya” to call themselves. They were indeed the direct descendants of immigrants from the Chittagong District of East Bengal (present-day Bangladesh), who had migrated into Arakan after the province was ceded to British India under the terms of the Treaty of Yandabo, an event that concluded the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826). Most of these migrants settled down in the Mayu Frontier Area, near what is now Burma’s border with modern Bangladesh. Actually, they were called “Chittagonians” in the British colonial records.
The Muslims in the Arakan State can be divided into four different groups, namely the Chittagonian Bengalis in the Mayu Frontier; the descendents of the Muslim Community of Arakan in the Mrauk-U period (1430-1784), presently living in the Mrauk-U and Kyauktaw townships; the decendents of Muslim mercenaries in Ramree Island known to the Arakanese as Kaman; and the Muslims from the Myedu area of Central Burma, left behind by the Burmese invaders in Sandoway District after the conquest of Arakan in 1784.

Mass Migration in the Colonial Period (1826-1948)

As stated above, the term “Rohingya” came into use in the 1950s by the educated Bengali residents from the Mayu Frontier Area and cannot be found in any historical source in any language before then. The creators of that term might have been from the second or third generations of the Bengali immigrants from the Chittagong District in modern Bangladesh; however, this does not mean that there was no Muslim community in Arakan before the state was absorbed into British India.

2 See for the report to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

When King Min Saw Mon, the founder of Mrauk-U Dynasty (1430-1784) regained the throne with the military assistance of the Sultan of Bengal, after twenty-four years of exile in Bengal, his Bengali retinues were allowed to settle down in the outskirts of Mrauk-U, where they built the well-known Santikan mosque. These were the earliest Muslim settlers and their community in Arakan did not seem to be large in number. In the middle of the seventeenth century the Muslim community grew because of the assignment of Bengali slaves in variety of the workforces in the country. The Portuguese and Arakanese raids of Benga (Bengal) for captives and loot became a conventional practice of the kingdom since the early sixteenth century. The Moghal historian Shiahabuddin Talish noted that only the Portuguese pirates sold their captives and that the Arakanese employed all of their prisoners in agriculture and other kinds of services (Talish 1907: 422). Furthermore there seem to have been a small group of Muslim gentry at the court. Some of them might have served the king as Bengali, Persian and Arabic scribes. Because the Mrauk-U kings, though of being Buddhist, adopted some Islamic fashions such as the maintaing of silver coins that bore their Muslim titles in Persian and occasionally appearing in Muslim costumes in the style of the Sultan of Bengal. Accordingly there were Muslim servants at the court helping the king perform these Islamic conventions (Charney 1999: 146). Arthur Phayre, the first deputy commissioner of Arakan, after the British annexation, reported about the indigenous races of Akyab District and the Muslim descendents from the Arakanese days as:

The inhabitants are, In the Plains – 1. Ro-khoing-tha (Arakanese)-2. Ko-la (Indian) – 3. Dôm(Low Caste Hindu). In theHills – 1. Khyoung-tha – 2.Kumé or Kwémwé – 3. Khyang –
4. Doing–nuk, Mroong, and other tribes… While the Arakanese held these possessions in Bengal, they appear to have sent numbers of the inhabitants into Arakan as slaves, whence arose the present Ko-la population of the country (Phayre 1836: 680 – 681).

During the four decades of Burmese rule (1784-1824), because of ruthless oppression, many Arakanese fled to British Bengal. According to a record of British East India Company, there

were about thirty-five thousand Arakanese who had fled to Chittagong District in British India to seek protection in 1799 (Asiatic Annual Register 1799: 61; Charney 1999: 265). The following report by Francis Buchanan provides a vivid picture of the atrocities committed by the Burmese invaders in Arakan:

Puran says that, in one day soon after the conquest of Arakan the Burmans put 40,000 men to Death: that wherever they found a pretty Woman, they took her after killing the husband; and the young Girls they took without any consideration of their parents, and thus deprived these poor people of the property, by which in Eastern India the aged most commonly support their infirmities. Puran seems to be terribly afraid, that the Government of Bengal will be forced to give up to the Burmans all the refugees from Arakan (Buchanan 1992: 82).3

A considerable portion of Arakanese population was deported by Burmese conquerors to Central Burma. When the British occupied Arakan, the country was a scarcely populated area. Formerly high-yield paddy fields of the fertile Kaladan and Lemro River Valleys germinated nothing but wild plants for many years (Charney 1999: 279). Thus, the British policy was to encourage the Bengali inhabitants from the adjacent areas to migrate into fertile valleys in Arakan as agriculturalists. As the British East India Company extended the administration of Bengal to Arakan, there was no international boundary between the two countries and no restriction was imposed on the emigration. A superintendent, later an assistant commissioner, directly responsible to the Commissioner of Bengal, was sent in 1828 for the administration of Arakan Division, which was divided into three districts respectively: Akyab, Kyaukpyu, and Sandoway with an assistant commissioner in each district (Furnivall 1957:29).
The migrations were mostly motivated by the search of professional opportunity. During the Burmese occupation there was a breakdown of the indigenous labor force both in size and structure. Arthur Phayre reported that in the 1830s the wages in

3 Puran Bisungri was an officer of the Police Station of Ramoo what is called Panwah by the Arakanese. He was a Hindu, born in Arakan and fled the country after Burmese invasion of 1784 (Buchanan 1992: 79).

Arakan compared with those of Bengal were very high. Therefore many hundreds, indeed thousands of coolies came from the Chittagong District by land and by sea, to seek labor and high wages (Phayre 1836:696). R.B. Smart, the deputy assistant commissioner of Akyab, wrote about the ‘flood’ of immigrants from Chittagong District as follows:

Since 1879, immigration has taken place on a much larger scale, and the descendants of the slaves are resident for the most part in the Kyauktaw and Myohaung (Mrauk-U) townships. Maungdaw Township has been overrun by Chittagonian immigrants. Buthidaung is not far behind and new arrivals will be found in almost every part of the district (Smart 1957: 89).

At first most of them came to Arakan as seasonal agricultural laborers and went home after the harvest was done. R. B. Smart estimated the number at about twenty-five thousand during the crop-reaping season alone. He added that about the same number came to assist in plowing operations, to work at the mills and in the carrying trades. A total of fifty thousand immigrants coming annually were probably not far from the mark (Smart 1957: 99).
Moreover, hunger for land was the prime motive for the migration of most of the Chittagonians. The British judicial records tell us of an increase in the first decade of the twentieth century in lawsuits of litigation for the possession of land. The Akyab District Magistrate reported in 1913 that in Buthidaung Subdivision, the Chittagonian immigrants stand to native Arakanese in the proportion of two to one, but six sevenths of the litigation for land in the court was initiated by the Chittagonians (Smart 1957: 163). Another colonial record delivers about a striking account of the settlements of the Bengali immigrants from Chittagong District as: “Though we are in Arakan, we passed many villages occupied by Muslim settlers or descendents of the settlers, and many of them Chittagonians” (Walker 1891(I): 15).
The colonial administration of India regarded the Bengalis as amenable subjects while finding the indigenous Arakanese too defiant, rising in rebellion twice in 1830s. The British policy was also favorable for the settlement of Bengali agricultural communities in Arakan. A colonial record says:

Bengalis are a frugal race, who can pay without difficulty a tax that would press very heavily on the Arakanese….(They are) not addicted like the Arakanese to gambling, and opium smoking, and their competition is gradually ousting the Arakanese ( Report of the Settlement Operation in the Akyab District 1887-1888: 21).

The flow of Chittagonian labor provided the main impetus to the economic development in Arakan within a few decades along with the opening of regular commercial shipping lines between Chittagong and Akyab. The arable land expanded to four and a half times between 1830 and 1852 and Akyab became one of the major rice exporting cities in the world.
Indeed, during a century of colonial rule, the Chittagonian immigrants became the numerically dominant ethnic group in the Mayu Frontier. The following census assessment shows the increase of population of the various ethnic/religious groups inhabiting Akyab District according to the census reports of 1871, 1901 and 1911. There was an increase of 155 percent in the population in the district. According to the reports, even in an interior township Kyauktaw, the Chittagonian population increased from 13,987 in 1891 to 19, 360 in 1911, or about seventy-seven percent in twenty years. At the same time the increase of the Arakanese population including the absorption of the hill tribes and the returning refugees from Bengal was only
22.03 percent.

The Assessment of the Census Reports for 1871, 1901, and 1911

Races 1871 1901 1911
Mahomedan 58,255 154,887 178,647
Burmese 4,632 35,751 92,185
Arakanese 171,612 230,649 209,432
Shan 334 80 59
Hill Tribes 38,577 35,489 34,020
Others 606 1,355 1,146
Total 276,671 481,666 529,943

It should be noted that all the Chittagonians and all the Muslims are categorized as Mohamedan in the census reports. There was an increase of 206.67 percent in Mahomedan population in the Akyab District and it was clear that only a few numbers of the transient agricultural laborers went home after the plowing and harvesting seasons and most of them remained in Arakan, making their homes (Smart 1957:83).4 The heyday of the migration was in the second half of the nineteenth century after opening of the Suez Canal, for the British colonialists needed more labor to produce rice which was in growing demand in the international market. In the 1921 Census, many Muslims in Arakan were listed as Indians (Bennison 1931: 213).

Communal Violence

Moshe Yegar suggests that during the colonial period the anti- Indian riots broke out in Burma because of the resentment against unhindered Indian settlements particularly in Arakan, Tenasserim and Lower Burma (Yegar 1992:29-31). But those riots that took place in Rangoon and other major cities in 1926 and 1938 never had had any effects on the peoples of Arakan. A peaceful coexistence was possible for the two different religious/ethnic groups in the Mayu Frontier till the beginning of the World War II. At the beginning of colonial era the establishment of bureaucratic administration by the British repealed the traditional patron-client relationship in the Arakanese villages. The elected village headman had little influence on the elected village council. As John F. Cady wrote, the government policy of forbidding the village headman to take part in the activities related to the nationalist movements weakened the position of the headman as the leader of village community, and as well as his connection with the Buddhist monastery because most of the Buddhist monks were vigorously active in the movements (Cady 1958: 172-273). On the other hand British administration to a certain extent gave the Muslim village communities religious and cultural autonomy. Maung Nyo, a kyun- ok (headman of the village tract) of Maungdaw Township recorded

4 See Appendix I. According to the 1872 Census Muslims had already formed
26.1 per cent of the population of Akyab, the capital city of Arakan Division. Also see Appendix II. According to the 1881 Census 68,809 people of the population of Arakan Division that numbered 276,877 were born in Bengal.

how the new comers from the Chittagong District set up their village communities in the frontier area. They occupied the villages deserted by the Arakanese during the Burmese rule and established purely Muslim village communities. The village committee authorized by the Village Amendment Act of 1924 paved the way for the Imam (moulovi) and the trusteeship committee members of the village mosque to be elected to the village council. They were also allowed to act as the village magistrates and shariah was somewhat in effect in the Muslim villages (Charter 1938:34-38). At least the Islamic court of village had the jurisdiction over familial problems such as marriage, inheritance and divorce. There was no internal sense of unrighteousness and presence of nonbelievers in their community, and accordingly they believe no internecine struggle was for the time being necessary.
However, the ethnic violence between Arakanese Buddhists and those Muslim Chittagonians brought a great deal of bloodshed to Arakan during the World War II and after 1948, in the opening decade of independent Burma. Some people of the Mayu Frontier in their early seventies and eighties have still not forgotten the atrocities they suffered in 1942 and 1943 during the short period of anarchy between the British evacuation and the Japanese occupation of the area. In this vacuum there was an outburst of the tension of ethnic and religious cleavage that had been simmering for a century. One of the underlying causes of the communal violence was the Zamindary System brought by the British from Bengal. By this system the British administrators granted the Bengali landowners thousands of acres of arable land on ninety-year-leases. The Arakanese peasants who fled the Burmese rule and came home after British annexation were deprived of the land that they formerly owned through inheritance. Nor did the Bengali zamindars (landowners) want the Arakanese as tenants on their land. Thousands of Bengali peasants from Chittagong District were brought to cultivate the soil (Report of the Settlement Operations in the Akyab District 1887-1888: 2, 21).
Most of the Bengali immigrants were influenced by the Fara- i-di movement in Bengal that propagated the ideology of the Wahhabis of Arabia, which advocated settling ikhwan or brethren in agricultural communities near to the places of water resources. The peasants, according to the teaching, besides cultivating the land should be ready for waging a holy war upon the call by their

lords (Rahman 1979: 200-204). In the Maungdaw Township alone, there were, in the 1910s, fifteen Bengali Zamindars who brought thousands of Chittagonian tenants and established Agricultural Muslim communities, building mosques with Islamic schools affiliated to them. However, all these villages occupied by the Bengalis continued to be called by Arakanese names in the British records (Grantham and Lat 1956: 41-43, 48-51). For the convenience of Chittagonians seasonal laborers the Arakan Flotilla Company constructed a railway between Buthidaung and Maungdaw in 1914. Their plan was to connect Chittagong by railway with Buthidaung, from where the Arakan Flotilla steamers were ferrying to Akyab and other towns in central and southern Arakan.
In the period of the independence movement in Burma in 1920s and 1930s the Muslims from the Mayu Frontier were more concerned with the progress of Muslim League in India, although some prominent Burmese Muslims such as M.A. Rashid and U Razak played an important role in the leadership of the Burmese nationalist movement. In 1931, the Simon Commission was appointed by the British Parliament to enquire the opinion of Burmese people for the constitutional reforms and on the matter of whether Burma should be separated from Indian Empire. The spokeman of the Muslim League advocated for fair share of government jobs, ten percent representation in all public bodies, and especially in Arakan the equal treatment for Muslims seeking agricultural and business loans (Cady 1958: 294).
In education, the Chittagonians were left behind the Arakanese throughout the colonial period. According to the census of 1901 only 4.5 percent of the Bengali Muslims were found to be literate while the percentage for the Arakanese was 25.5. Smart reported that it was due to the ignorance of the advantages of the education among the Chittagonian agriculturists. Especially Buthidaung and Maungdaw were reported to be most backward townships because the large Muslim population in that area mostly agriculturalists showed little interest in education. In 1894 there were nine Urdur schools with 375 students in the whole district. The British provincial administration appointed a deputy inspector for Muslim schools and in 1902 the number of schools rose to seventy-two and the students increased to 1,474 (Smart 1957: 207-209). Consequently, more Arakanese and Hindu Indians

were involved in the ancillary services of the colonial administration. Towards the middle of twentieth century a new educated and politically conscious younger generation had superseded the older, inactive ones. Before the beginning of the Second World War a political party, Jami-a-tul Ulema-e Islam was founded under the guidance of the Islamic scholars. Islam became the ideological basis of the party (Khin Gyi Pyaw 1960: 99).
Regarding the beginning of the ethnic violence in Arakan, Moshe Yegar wrote that when the British administration was withdrawn to India in 1942 the Arakanese hoodlums began to attack the Muslim villages in southern Arakan and the Muslims fled to the north where they took vengeance on the Arakanese in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships (Yegar 1972:67). However, an Arakanese record says:

When the British administration collapsed by the Japanese occupation, the village headman of Rak-chaung village in Myebon Township and his two younger brothers were killed by the kula (Muslim) villagers. Although the headman was an Arakanese, some of the villagers were kulas. The two Arakanese young men, Thein Gyaw Aung and Kyaw Ya, organized a group and attacked the kula villages and some inhabitants were killed (Rakhine State People’s Council 1986: 36).

It is certain that hundreds of Muslim inhabitants of Southern Arakan fled northward, and that there were some cases of robbing the Indian refugees on the Padaung-Taungup pass over the Arakan Yoma mountain ranges after the retreat of the British from the Pegu Division and southern Arakan. But the news of killing, robbery and rape was exaggerated when it reached Burma India border (Ba Maw 1968: 78). The British left all these areas to the mercy of both Burmese and Arakanese dacoits. However, N.R. Chakravati, an Indian scholar, gives a brief account of the flights of Indian refugees from the war zone in the Irrawady valley across the Arakan Yoma.

Most of the estimated 900,000 Indians living in Burma attempted to walk over to India…100,000 died at the time… Practically all Indians except those who were not physically fit

or were utterly helpless, began to move from place to place in search of safety and protection until they could reach India (Chakravarti 1971: 170).

The estimated number of Chakravarti includes all the Indian refugees from the whole Burma proper excluding Arakan. The number of Chittagonian refugees put by Yegar was close to twenty- two thousand (Yegar 1972: 98). However, the leaders of ANC (Arakan National Congress), formed in 1939 and that later becoming the Arakan branch of Anti-Fascist Organization (AFO) formed a de-facto government, before the Japanese troops and Burma Independence Army (BIA) reached there. The ANC announced that anybody or any organization looting or killing the refugees would be brought before the justice and would be severely punished (New Burma Daily 1942: May 28). The Japanese air force attacked Akyab on 23 March 1942 and the British moved their administrative headquarter to India on March 30. The administration by martial law began in Akyab District on 13 April 1942 and with this racial tension burst to the surface, giving way to the public disorder (Owen 1946: 26).
For all the bloody communal violence experienced by the Arakanese Buddhists in the Western frontier, I feel strongly that it is reasonable to blame the British colonial administration for arming the Chittagonians in the Mayu Frontier as the Volunteer Force. The V Force, as it is called by the British Army, was formed in 1942 soon after the Japanese operations threatened the British position in India. Its principal role was to undertake guerrilla operations against Japanese, to collect information of the enemy’s movements and to act as interpreters. But the British Army Liaison Officer, Anthony Irwin wrote that the participation of the local V Forces in the skirmishes with the Japanese in Arakan was discredited by the British commanders (Irwin 1946: 7-8, 16).
The volunteers, instead of fighting the Japanese, destroyed Buddhist monasteries and Pagodas and burnt down the houses in the Arakanese villages. They first killed U Kyaw Khine, the deputy commissioner of Akyab District, left behind by the British government to maintain law and order in the frontier area; they then massacred thousands of Arakanese civilians in the towns and villages. A record of the Secretary of British governor of Burma in exile dated 4 February 1943 reads:

I have been told harrowing tales of cruelty and suffering inflicted on the Arakanese villages in the Ratheedaung area. Most of the villages on the West bank of the Mayu River have been burnt and destroyed by the Chittagonian V forces…. The enemy never came to these villages. They had the misfortune of being in the way of our advancing patrols. Hundreds of villagers are said to be hiding in the hills… It will be the Arakanese who will be ousted from their ancestral land and if they cannot be won over in time, then there can be no hope of their salvation (British Library, London, India Office Records R/8/9GS. 4243).

After the Japanese occupation of Akyab (Sittwe), Bo Yan Aung, the member of the Thirty Comrades and commander of a BIA column, set up the administrative body in Akyab District and attempted to cease the violence in the frontier area. Bo Yan Aung discussed the matter with both Arakanese and Muslim leaders. He sent his two lieutenants, Bo Yan Naung and Bo Myo Nyunt to Maungdaw to negotiate with the radical Muslim leaders. They tried to persuade the Muslims to join in anti-imperialist and nationalist movement. But both of them were killed in Maungdaw and Bo Yan Aung was called back to Rangoon by the BIA headquarters (Rakhine State People’s Council 1986: 40-42).
For most of the Chittagonians it was a religious issue that would necessarily lead to the creation of a Dah-rul-Islam, or at least to being united with their brethren in the west. It also aimed at the extirpation of the Arakanese or being forced them to migrate to the south where there were overwhelming majority of Arakanese Buddhists. The events during the war contributed the Chittagonians’ fervent sense of alienation from the heterogeneous community of the Arakan. Anthony Irwin called the whole area a “No Man’s Land” during the three years of Japanese occupation (Irwin 1946:27). Irwin explained how the ethnic violence divided the Arakan State between Arakanese and Chittagonians:

As the area then occupied by us was almost entirely Mussulman Country … (from) that we drew most of our “Scouts” and Agents. The Arakan before the war had been occupied over its entire lenghth by both Mussulman and Maugh (Arakanese). Then in 1941 the two sects set to and

fought. The result of this war was roughly that the Maugh took over the southern half of the country and the Mussulman the North. Whilst it lasted it was a pretty bloody affairs…My present gun boy a Mussulman who lived near to Buthidaung, claims to have killed two hundred Maughs (Arakanese) (Irwin
1946: 21).

In the words of the historian, Clive J. Christie, the “ethnic cleansing in British controlled areas, particularly around the town of Maungdaw,” was occurring till the arrival of Japanese troops to the eastern bank of Naaf River (Christie 1996: 165). The British forces began to take offensive in the warfare against the Japanese in northern Arakan in December 1944. The Arakanese troops of AFO maintained law and order in the areas from which Japanese forces withdrew. Of course there were some prominent Arakanese guerrilla leaders who cooperated with the Japanese during the war. British Battalion 65 occupied Akyab, the capital city of Arakan on
12 December 1944. As soon as Akyab was captured the British Army began arresting the Arakanese guerrilla leaders. U Ni, a leader of AFO in Akyab was accused of one hundred and fifty-two criminal offenses and sentenced to forty-two years in prison. Another leader, U Inga was condemned to death by hanging five times, as well as forty-two-year imprisonment. Consequently many guerrilla fighters escaped into hideouts in the forests (Myanmaralin Daily 25 September 1945). On the contrary, Anthony Irwin praised the Chittagonian V Forces as follows:

It is these minorities that have most helped us in throughout the three years of constant fighting and occupation and it is these minorities who are most likely to be forgotten in the rush of Government. They must not be. It is the duty of all of us, for whom they fought, to see this (Irwin 1946: 86).

During the early post-war years both Arakanese and Bengali Muslims in the Mayu Frontier looked at each other with distrust. As the British Labor Government promised independence for Burma, some Muslims were haunted by the specter of their future living under the infidel rule in the place where the baneful Arakanese are also living. In 1946 a delegation was sent by the Jami-atul Ulema-e Islam to Karachi to discuss with the leaders of

the Muslim League the possibility of incorporation of Buthidaung, Maungdaw and Ratheedaung townships into Pakistan, but the British ignored their proposal to detach the frontier area to award it to Pakistan. The failure of their attempts ended in an armed revolt, with some Muslims, declaring a holy war on the new republic. The rebels called themselves “Mujahid.” A guerrilla army of 2700 fighters was organized (Khin Gyi Pyaw 1960: 99; The Nation Daily 1953: April16).
In fact the Arakanese were well on their way to rebellion. Under the leadership of two prominent and politically active Buddhist monks, U Pinnyathiha and U Seinda, a guerrilla force of four hundred to five hundred men was raised and assisted the Japanese in occupying the northern Arakan. U Pinnyathiha even announced that the Japanese government had agreed to his proposal for a separate Arakanese unit of Burma Independence Army. Later his force was known as the Arakan Defense Force, under the command of Kra Hla Aung, the protégé of U Pinnyathiha. Later two monks became leaders of Arakan Branch of AFO (Anti- Fascist Organization), turning their guns on the Japanese. At the middle of 1944 they were supported by the British with certain amount of arms to fight the Japanese. Brigadier Richard Gordon Prescott, Deputy Director of Civil Affairs reported to the governor:

As result of arming certain members of AFO under the leadership of U Pinnyathiha and Kra Hla Aung, the AFO (in Arakan) are endeavoring to set up a parallel government to that of the British Administration and in fact repeating their modus operandi at the time of Japanese invasion of Arakan (British Library, London, India Office Record M/2500).

In the meantime the AFO changed its name to AFPFL (Anti-Fascist and People’s Freedom League) with U Aung San, the ultimate hero of the Burmese independence movement, as its leader. When the AFPFL accepted the proposal of the governor of Burma to join the Executive Council, U Pinnyathiha remained as the AFPFL leader in Arakan while U Seinda was actively preparing a revolt. U Sein Da’s group was acting as a local government, controlling a number of villages in the Myebon township of Kyaukpyu District and Minbya township of Akyab District. The fact of the matter was that U Seinda was persuaded by the radical communists of Thakhin Soe’s

faction of the Communist Party of Burma to choose the way to independence by violence (British Library, London, India Office Records M/4/2500).
When the Aung San-Attlee Agreement was signed, U Seinda denounced it publicly. An All Arakan Conference was held in Myebon on 1 April 1947 and about ten thousand people from all parties in Arakan attended. U Aung San was openly assailed to his face as an opportunist by some people attending the conference, using rebellious slogans (British Library, London, India Office Records M/4/PRO: WO 203/5262). U Seinda with the communists behind him moved forward to the rebellion. Actually, Thakhin Soe’s Red Flag Communists took advantage of the misunderstanding between U Seinda and AFPFL. It was in fact an ideological struggle in the AFPFL, the national united front of Burma that was under the leadership of the charismatic leader U Aung San. On the other side some Arakanese intellectuals led by U Hla Tun Pru, a Barrister-at-Law, held a meeting in Rangoon and demanded the formation of “Arakanistan” for the Arakanese people (British Library, London, India Office Records, M/4/2503). All these movements of the Arakanese might have alarmed Muslims from the Mayu Frontier. In the wake of independence most of the educated Muslims felt an overwhelming sense of collective identity based on Islam as their religion and the cultural and ethnic difference of their community from the Burmese and Arakanese Buddhists. At the same time the Arakanese became more and more concerned with their racial security and ethnic survival in view of the increasingly predominant Muslim population in their frontier.
The ethnic conflict in the rural areas of the Mayu frontier revived soon after Burma celebrated independence on 4 January 1948. Rising in the guise of Jihad, many Muslim clerics (Moulovis) playing a leading role, in the countryside and remote areas gave way to banditary, arson and rapes. Moshe Yeagar wrote that one of the major reasons of Mujahid rebellion was that the Muslims who fled Japanese occupation were not allowed to resettle in their villages (Yegar 1972:98). In fact, there were more than two hundred Arakanese villages in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships before the war began. In the post-war years only sixty villages were favorable for the Arakanese resettlement. Out of these sixty, forty-four villages were raided by the Mujahids in the first

couple of years of independence. Thousands of Arakanese villagers sought refuge in the towns and many of their villages were occupied by the Chittagonian Bengalis (Rakhine State People’s Council 1986:58-60).
The Mujahid uprising began two years before the independence was declared. In March 1946 the Muslim Liberation Organization (MLO) was formed with Zaffar Kawal, a native of Chittagong District, as the leader. A conference was held in May 1948 in Garabyin Village north to Maungdaw and the name of the organization was changed to “Mujahid Party.” Some Chittagonian Bengalis from nearby villages brought the weapons they had collected during the wartime to the mosques in Fakir Bazaar Village and Shahbi Bazaar Village (Department of Defense Service Archives, Rangoon, DR 491 (56)). Jaffar Kawal became the commander in chief and his lieutenant was Abdul Husein, formerly a corporal from the Akyab District police force (Department of Defense Service Archives, Rangoon, DR 1016). The Mujahid Party sent a letter written in Urdur and dated 9 June 1948 to the government of Union of Burma through the sub-divisional officer of Maungdaw Township. Their demands are as follows (Department of Defence Service Archives, Rangoon: CD 1016/10/11):

(1) The area between the west bank of Kaladan River and the east bank of Naaf River must be recognized as the National Home of the Muslims in Burma.
(2) The Muslims in Arakan must be accepted as the nationalities of Burma.
(3) The Mujahid Party must be granted a legal status as a political organization.
(4) The Urdur Language must be acknowledged as the national language of the Muslims in Arakan and be taught in the schools in the Muslim areas.
(5) The refugees from the Kyauktaw and Myohaung (Mrauk-
U) Townships must be resettled in their villages at the expense of the state.
(6) The Muslims under detention by the Emergency Security Act must be unconditionally released.
(7) A general amnesty must be granted for the members of the Mujahid Party.

Calling themselves “the Muslims of Arakan” and “the Urdur” as their national language indicated their inclination towards the sense of collective identity that the Muslims of Indian sub- continent showed before the partition of India into two independent states. When the demands were ignored the Mujahids destroyed all the Arakanese villages in the northern part of Maungdaw Township. On 19 July 1948 they attacked Ngapru- chaung and near by Villages in Maungdaw Township and some villagers and Buddhist monks were kidnapped for ransoms (Department of Defense Service Archives, Rangoon: CD 1016/10/11). On 15 and 16 June 1951 All Arakan Muslim Conference was held in Alethangyaw Village, and “The Charter of the Constitutional Demands of the Arakani Muslims” was published. It calls for “the balance of power between the Muslims and the Maghs (Arakanese), two major races of Arakan.” The demand of the charter reads:

North Arakan should be immediately formed a free Muslim State as equal constituent Member of the Union of Burma like the Shan State, the Karenni State, the Chin Hills, and the Kachin Zone with its own Militia, Police and Security Forces under the General Command of the Union (Department of the Defense Service Archives, Rangoon: DR 1016/10/13).

Here it is again noticeable that in the charter these peoples are mentioned as the Muslims of Arakan. The word “Rohingya” was first pronounced by the Mr Abdul Gaffar, an MP from Buthidaung, in his article “The Sudeten Muslims,” published in the Guardian Daily on 20 August 1951.
However, the new democracy in the independent Burma induced some Muslim leaders to remain loyal to the state. The free and fair elections were held and four Muslims were elected to the legislature from Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships. Meanwhile the Mujahid insurgency threw the frontier area into turmoil for a decade. During his campaign for the 1960 elections, Burmese Prime Minister U Nu who succeeded U Aung San after the independence hero was assassinated, promised the statehood for Arakanese and Mon peoples. When he came to the office after a landslide victory the plans for the formation of the Arakan and Mon states were affected. Naturally the Muslim members of

parliament from Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships denounced the plan and called for the establishment of a Rohingya State.
General Ne Win took power in a coup d’etat in 1962, and almost all the Rohingya movement went underground. The first step of Ne Win’s Burmese Way to Socialism was the nationalization of the private enterprises in 1964. The plan was clearly aimed at the transfer of private assets owned by the Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs into state ownership in the form of the public corporations. Most of the Indian and Pakistani businesspeople, living in the major cities of Burma, left Burma. In the two years following the decision to nationalize the retail trade, some 100,000 Indians and some twelve thousand Pakistanis left Burma for their homeland. The flow of Indians returning to India as a result of these policies began in 1964 (Donison 1970: 199-200). But the Muslim agriculturists from Northern Arakan, most of them, holding the national registration cards issued by the Department of National Registration in the post-war decade, were not concerned with the event and remained in the frontier areas till the Citizenship Law of 1982 was enforced in 1987.
In 1973, Ne Win’s Revolutionary Council sought public opinion for drafting anew constitution. The Muslims from the Mayu Frontier submitted a proposal to the Constitution Commission for the creation of separate Muslim state or at least a division for them (Kyaw Zan Tha 1995:6). Their proposal was again turned down.When elections were held under the 1974 Constitution the Bengali Muslims from the Mayu Frontier Area were denied the right to elect their representatives to the “Pyithu Hlut-taw” (People’s Congress). After the end of the Independence War in Bangladesh some arms and ammunitions flowed into the hands of the young Muslim leaders from Mayu Frontier. On 15 July 1972 a congress of all Rohingya parties was held at the Bangladeshi border to call for the “Rohingya National Liberation” (Mya Win 1992: 3).
Burma’s successive military regimes persisted in the same policy of denying Burmese citizenship to most Bengalis, especially in the frontier area. They stubbornly grasped the 1982 Citizenship Law that allowed only the ethnic groups who had lived in Burma before the First Anglo-Burmese War began in 1824 as the citizens of the country. By this law those Muslims had been treated as

aliens in the land they have inhabited for more than a century. According to the 1983 census report all Muslims in Arakan constituted 24.3 percent and they all were categorized as Bangladeshi, while the Arakanese Buddhists formed 67.8 percent of the population of the Arakan (Rakhine) State (Immigration and Manpower Department 1987:I-14).
In the abortive 1988 Democracy Uprising, those Muslims again became active, hoisting the Rohingya banner. Subsequently when the military junta allowed the registration of the political parties they asked for their parties to be recognized under the name “Rohingya.” Their demand was turned down and some of them changed tactics and formed a party, the National Democratic Party for Human rights (NDPHR) that won in four constituencies in 1990 elections as eleven candidates of the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD) were elected to the legislature. However, the Elections Commission abolished both the ALD and the NDPHR in 1991. Some of the party members went underground and into exile.
Recently, the main objectives of the movement of some groups have been to gain the recognition of their ethnic entity in the Union of Burma and to obtain the equal status enjoyed by other ethnic groups. But some elements have adopted the radical idea of founding a separate Muslim state. The following are the Rohingya organizations currently active on the Burma-Bangladesh border (Mya Win 1992: 3):

1. RSO (Rohingya Solidarity Organization)
2. ARIF (Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front)
3. RPF (Rohingya Patriotic Front)
4. RLO (Rohingya Liberation Organization)
5. IMA (Itihadul Mozahadin of Arakan)


After Burma gained independence, a concentration of nearly ninety percent of the area’s population, the distinguishing characteristics of their own culture and the Islamic faith formed an ethnic and religious minority group in the western fringe of the republic. For successive generations their ethnicity and Islam have been practically not distinguishable. At the beginning they adopted the

policy of irredentism in favor of joining East Pakistan with the slogan, “Pakistan Jindabad,” (Victory to Pakistan). This policy faded away when they could not gain support from the government of Pakistan. Later they began to call for the establishment of an autonomous region instead. Pakistan’s attitude toward the Muslims in Arakan was different from the Islamabad’s policy toward Kashmiris. During the Independence War in Bangladesh most of the Muslims in Arakan supported West Pakistan. After Bangladesh gained independence Dhaka followed the policy of disowning those Chittagonians. Consequently they had to insist firmly on their identity as Rohingyas. Their leaders began to complain that the term “Chittagonian Bengali” had arbitrarily been applied to them. But the majority of the ethnic group, being illiterate agriculturalists in the rural areas, still prefers their identity as Bengali Muslims.
Although they have showed the collective political interest for more than five decades since Burma gained independence, their political and cultural rights have not so far been recognized and guaranteed. On the contrary the demand for the recognition of their rights sounds a direct challenge to the right of autonomy and the myth of survival for the Arakanese majority in their homeland. A symbiotic coexistence has so far been inconceivable because of the political climate of mistrust and fear between the two races and the policy of the military junta. The Muslims from the other parts of Arakan kept themselves aloof from the Rohingya cause as well. Thus the cause of Rohingyas finds a little support outside their own community, and their claims of an earlier historical tie to Burma are insupportable.

Appendix I

British Burma Census of 1872 (Akyab Town)

Group Male Female Total
Hindu 1,884 28 1,911
Mohomendan 3,516 1,502 5,018
Buddhist 5,892 5,627 11,519
Christian 216 109 325
Others 387 70 457
Grand Total 11,895 7,335 19,230

(Department of Revenue, Agriculture and Commerce 1875, 42)

Appendix II

The Statement Showing the Distribution of People According to their Birth Places British Burma Census of 1881 (Arakan Division)

Birth Place Male Female Total
Akyab Dist. 144,746 132,131 276,877
Bassein 721 518 1,239
Hanthawaddy 178 157 335
Henzada 230 232 471
Kyauk Pyu 79,487 79,180 158,667
Mergui 3 2 5
Moulmein town 24 23 47
North Arakan 7,138 6,853 13,991
Prome 805 628 1,433
Rangoon Town 112 75 187
Sandoway 27,410 27,363 54,773
Shway Gyin 1 4 5
Tavoy 17 1 18
Tharawaddy 4 9 13
Thayetmyo 704 599 1,303
Thone Gwa 6 5 11
Toungoo 9 3 12
Assam 8 8
Bengal 49,374 19,435 68,809
Bombay 5 3 8
Central 2 1 3
Diu 27 27
Goa 5 5
Madras 1,823 31 1,854
Nepal 49 10 59
N-Western Provices 246 14 260
Oudh 2 2
Punjab 63 6 69
Afganistan 4 4
Arabia 3 3
(Government of British Burma, British Burma Census, 1881: Appendix LXXVIII)


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Author: Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

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