Muslim Identity and Demography in Arakan – Part 5

Muslim Identity and Demography in Arakan – Part 5

By Dr. Habib Siddiqui
Asian Tribune
October 23, 2011

Part 5: The Demography Controversy

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the population in Arakan grew to 173,000 in 1831, 248,000 in 1839, 461,136 in 1871 and 762,102 in 1901. For the total population in Arakan to grow to those numbers it would have required yearly annual growth rates of 11.59%, 7.24%, 3.46%, and 2.74% within the first 5, 13, 45 and 75 years, respectively, since 1826. Since the first two growth rates (until 1839) cannot be explained away from natural growth, one must look at huge influx or migration from outside to Arakan as the key contributor to understand the phenomena.
K.M. Saw shares the table below about the demography in Akyab (the first 4 columns).
The above table from Burma Gazeteer, Akyab District (p. 86), clearly shows that there were at least 58,000 Rohingyas, who had identified themselves as Muslims, back in 1871, challenging, thus, Saw’s disingenuous claim that they were a product of the late 19th century British immigration policy for rice cultivation, and railway construction, etc. The Muslim population in the Akyab district should not come as a surprise given the fact that soon after the annexation of Arakan by the East India Company (EIC) in 1826, Mr. Paton, the British official who was the Controller of the Civil Affairs in Arakan, prepared an official report in which he mentioned that the total population of Arakan did not exceed 100,000 of which 60,000 were Maghs (Arakanese Buddhists) and 30,000 (Rohingya) Muslims. Here again, in contrast to Saw’s devious claims, there were already 30,000 Rohingyas living inside Arakan back in 1826. They could not have been planted by the EIC.
As the other three columns in the table above show from my calculation, the Muslim population within the district, which was 21% in 1871, became 33.7% in 1911, i.e., after 40 years. During the same period, Burmese population had jumped from 1.67% to 17.4%. Is this growth reasonable for both these population groups? What could also explain the negative growth rates amongst the Arakanese and Hilly people between 1901 and 1911?
A comparison of the population data in 1871 for the Akyab District vis-à-vis the Arakan Division shows that nearly 60% of the Division’s population lived inside the Akyab District, which had transformed itself from a fishing village in 1826 to a fast-growing town. As noted by the Imperial Gazeteer of India, nearly half the Muslim population of the province lived within the Akyab District, their total number could have been well over 100,000 (or at least 97,092) in 1871, thereby constituting nearly a quarter of the total population of 461,136 (per Britannica). The Muslim proportion in 1901 and 1911 census data is close to Mr. Paton’s report, albeit nearly three-quarter of a century later!
Assuming 62% share of the total population, the Rakhine population inside Arakan could have been at least 286,010 in 1871. It would take the Muslim (Rohingya) and Buddhist (Rakhine) population to grow annually by 2.64% and 3.53%, respectively, to reach those figures of 1871.
It must, however, be pointed out that owing partly to cultural norms of being celibate and/or marrying late, the fertility rate (~ 1%) amongst Buddhists has always been lower than Muslims and Hindus. The figure of 3.53% for the Rakhine Buddhist population is simply untenable by any measure, and could not have been possible without external factors like immigration from outside the territory. On the other hand, as we shall see below, the annual growth rate of 2.64% (between 1826 and 1871) amongst the Rohingya Muslims is not unrealistic at all. Even in this age of family planning (21st century), the yearly population growth rate amongst Muslims is about 2%, and figures as high as 3% are not too uncommon.
Amongst the racist elements within the Rakhine and Burmese Buddhist communities, much fuss has been made about the so-called influx of Muslim peasants from Chittagong. Given the EIC’s prime desire to increase its coffer, it is natural that it encouraged migration to Arakan of the descendants of the former refugees who had settled in Chittagong. Jacques Leider’s research does point out that “The major interest of the East India Company in Arakan lay in the extension of rice cultivation in the Kaladan and Lemro Valleys. This plan succeeded because the scores of Bengal Muslim labourers who had been imported from Chittagong in the middle of the nineteenth century, Akyab, the new capital, had indeed become a major port of export of rice for Europe.” One can notice that Leider mentions scores, and not thousands, of these laborers from Bengal. Such a small influx obviously did not alter the size of Muslim proportion. It is also possible that these seasonal migrant workers returned to Muslim-majority Bengal.
The sudden rise in population within the first few years of British occupation strongly suggests that there were more such ‘immigrants’ from within the Arakanese Buddhist population than any other community. For instance, there were extra 73,000 individuals in Arakan just within the first five years of British occupation, suggesting very strongly that they were recent immigrants from outside, notably from Bengal. Within the next eight years, another 75,000 individuals had added to the list of which probably 60,000 had moved from other places (the remainder being natural growth). As the law and order condition inside Arakan improved, especially after the second and third Anglo-Burmese wars, many other descendants of former refugees moved into Arakan.
As can be seen from the table below the annual growth rate of 7.8% between 1871 and 1911, esp. 10% between 1901 and 1911, amongst the Burmese population cannot be explained through natural process of procreation, and must have been influenced by external factors like migration to Arakan. The positive economic environment in Akyab must have contributed to such an influx of the Burmese people moving into the district. One can also notice that many Arakanese Buddhists had moved away to other places between 1901 and 1911. Thus, it is no accident that their percentage fell to 39.52% of the population in 1911 from being 47.9% in 1901. Could they have migrated to Chittagong Division? Since the 10% increase within the Burmese community seems unreasonable, is it possible that many of the Rakhines had identified them as Burmese and not as Arakanese Buddhists? Whatever may be the real answer, suffice it to say that the huge gain within the Burmese population (56,434) and loss (21,217) within the Rakhine population in 1901-1911 cannot be explained away without considerations or possibilities of such external factors. So is the case with the Hilly and Shan peoples of Arakan.
Interestingly, while Khin Maung Saw cries foul about the declining Arakanese (Rakhine) and Hilly population — becoming only 45.94% (=39.52+6.42) of the total population in Akyab in 1911, he pretends to suffer from selective amnesia about why there was the loss of 21,217 individuals amongst the Rakhines between 1901 and 1911. His silence about the loss of Hilly people whose numbers had steadily declined by 4557 from 1871 to 1911 (and 1469 between 1901 and 1911) is also strange. Only a half-educated intellectual fraud could ignore such obvious signs!
In the same period (1901-11) the Rohingya Muslim population in Akyab had only increased its share from 32.16% to 33.71%, which can be explained by 1.437% annual growth rate within the community. And this rate is only half the yearly growth rate common amongst Muslim population, and may suggest that some of the residents of the district could have moved elsewhere (including to the Chittagong Division).
As already hinted, amongst many third world countries with a sizable Muslim population the yearly growth rate of 3% or higher is not uncommon. Consider the case of Pakistan (erstwhile West Pakistan prior to 16 December 1971) whose population grew 5-fold from a mere 34 million in 1951, shortly after the partition of India, to 170 million in 2010 (i.e. in six decades). Between 1951 and 1972, when it ceded Bangladesh, the yearly growth rate was 3.2%. Thanks to the family planning program, this rate has significantly come down to 2.5% in the period between 1972 and 2010.
For our purpose here, we need not go all the way westward to Pakistan, but can compare the growth rate of Muslims inside Arakan to that in nearby Bangladesh. As can be seen from the above table, Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) had a 2.8% yearly growth rate between 1951 and 1972. Thanks again to the family planning program, this rate has significantly come down to 1.7% in the period between 1972 and 2010.
From the above analysis, it is quite obvious that the growth rate among the Muslims in Akyab (2.841%) between 1871 and 1911 is at par with the trends shown in Bangladesh (2.8%). Thus, all the fuss about massive migration of Muslims from Chittagong or Bangladesh to Arakan during the British rule is not only wrong and baseless, it is racist, to say the least.
Even if we are to assume the conservative estimate of 2.8% growth rate amongst Rohingya Muslims since 1826, it is not difficult to estimate that their number could have grown to at least 313,716 in Arakan by 1911. The Rohingya population in Akyab District, per Saw’s table, would have then comprised only 57% of their total population inside Arakan.
So far from the utterly false claims of racist elements within the Rakhine community, the likes of Khin Maung Saw, Aye Kyaw and Aye Chan, the growth within the Rohingya Muslim community of Arakan was an organic one – a natural one, which had nothing to do with so-called influx or migration from British Bengal or Chittagong. On the other hand, much of the early increase in Rakhine and Burmese population to Akyab and Arakan do clearly show that it was due to external factors like migration.
As every student of historiography knows the borders in those days were much porous, thus facilitating population movement. It is, similarly, not far-fetched to suggest that the many of those lost from Arakan census account of 1911, could well have migrated to places like Chittagong Hill Tract and Cox’s Bazar (southern Chittagong) in today’s Bangladesh.

In the above analysis of British-era demography of Arakan, in contradistinction to K. M. Saw’s bloated and unsubstantiated claims that while “Arakan was a colonie d’exploitation to the British, but to the Chittagonian Bengalis, Arakan became a colonie de peuplement” what one actually notices is a clear racist campaign by a half-educated Burmese/Arakanese Buddhist extremist who has no knowledge of demography. Unfortunately, Saw is not alone and there are many within his ethnic community that thrives on selling poison pills of racism and bigotry against the Rohingyas of Burma.
As we have noticed, the so-called influx to Arakan was caused by the Rakhines and not Rohingyas (or so-called Chittagonians from Bangladesh). The Rakhines of Arakan should be thankful that the Burmese government has not applied its highly racist and bigotry-ridden litmus test towards citizenship against them, many of whose ancestors had moved into the territory of Arakan from Bengal during the British rule. Their accusation against the Rohingyas of Arakan — who are the true Bhumi Putras (the indigenous children of the soil) — is like that of a criminal who accuses its victims.
Regrettably, xenophobia, sponsored by the Burmese government and aided by Rakhaing ultra-nationalists, has caused forced exodus of 1.5 million Rohingya Muslims to seek refuge outside Burma, internal displacement of at least a million, and death of another 50,000. Rohingyas are denied each and every right guaranteed under the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Extra-judicial killing and summery executions, humiliating movement restriction, denial of education, job and healthcare, rape of women, arrest and torture, forced labor, forced relocation, confiscation of moveable and immoveable properties, religious sacrileges, etc., are regular occurrences in Arakan, making the Rohingya people an endangered people of our time who require special protection under international laws.
As regional specialists like the distinguished historian – Professor David Ludden of the New York University (and previously with the Ivy League school – U Penn), have repeatedly shown through the massive scholarly works that bear their names – rather than having one singular origin, South Asia and South-East Asia have always included many peoples and cultures which had different points of origin and departures and followed distinctive historical trajectories. What is promoted by ultra-nationalist, narrow-minded revisionists, pseudo-historians as the single tree of their culture, rooted in their racial and religious myths, is actually more like a vast forest of many cultures filled with countless trees of various sizes, shades, ages, colors and types, constantly cross-breeding to fertilize one another. The profusion of cultures blurs the boundaries of the forest. The so-called cultural boundaries of our time are more like an artifact of modern national cultures than an accurate reflection of pre-modern conditions.
Will the revisionist historians and charlatan scholars of Burma reflect upon this fact and amend their ways to make a more inclusive world in our time?
It is high time that the government of Burma repeal its utterly criminal, morally indefensible, repugnant and inhuman Citizenship Law that has denied the right of citizenship and belonging to the millions of Rohingyas of Arakan, who are the true children of the soil.

************ Concluded *********

[Dr Siddiqui’s book – The Forgotten Rohingya: Their Struggle for Human Rights in Burma – is available from]

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