The institutional British colonial view on the Buddhist Arakanese

The institutional British colonial view on the Buddhist Arakanese
By Aman Ullah

In 1825, 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 (Buddhists Arakanese), Muslims Arakanese 30,000 and Burmese and others 10,000. The percentage of the Arakanese Buddhists was 60% while Muslims percentage was 30%. [1]

According to 1872 Census, after 47 years in 1872 the population of Arakan grew to 276, 671 of which 171, 612 were Arakanese Buddhists; 58, 255 were Arakanese Muslims and 4,632 were Burmese. In that year the percentage of Arakanese Buddhists was 63.83%; the Arakanese Muslims percentage was 21.05% and Burmese 1.6%. [2]

The Rates of Education and Literacy among Buddhist and Muslim Males over the Age of Twelve in Arakan according to 1872 Census was as follow : – [3]

Danra-waddy: –
Arakanese Buddhist Males = 64, 549
Educated Males = 31,938
% of total Buddhist Males = 49%
Arakanese Muslim Male = 22, 979
Educated Males = 11,589
% of total Muslim Males = 50%

Arakanese Buddhist Males = 43, 076
Educated Males = 38, 665
% of total Buddhist Males = 90%
Arakanese Muslim Males = 1, 409
Educated Males = 1, 244
% of total Muslim Males = 88%
Dwara-waddy :-
Arakanese Buddhist Males = 14, 807
Educated Males = 4, 174
% of total Buddhist Males = 28%
Arakanese Muslim Males = 733
Educated Males = 62
% of total Muslim Males = 8%

In early British colonial period the British had come to distrust the Buddhist cultivator class of Danra-waddy as trouble-makers (led by even more troublesome Buddhist monks), who found too much comfort in opium and indolence. [4] As for Buddhist Arakanese from Rama-waddy, Dwara-waddy, and Mekha-waddy, so the British claimed, some were hard-workers especially endowed with the abilities necessary to ensure agricultural productivity and strong sense of community, but most were given to crime and increasingly to the habit of opium-smoking. [5]

According to the settlement report for Akyab district, the (Buddhist) Arakanese were given to alcoholism and opium-smoking and: “Throughout the district villages are found either divided into factions or at feud with neighbouring villages. The pôngyi [Buddhist monk] is generally at the bottom of the quarrel.” [6] The institutional British colonial view of Buddhist Arakanese is reflected in Smart’s early twentieth century remarks that: “[T]hey are extravagant and hire more labour than is necessary rather than do a fair share of work for themselves. Among the many reasons brought forward by the Arakanese for not doing manual labour are that no two Arakanese can agree among themselves or trust each other and no one will take orders from another . . . [t]he [Buddhist] Arakanese not having been accustomed to hard manual labour for generations cannot and will not do it now.” [7] Smart, Burma Gazetteer:

According to the Report on the Settlement Operations in the Sandowav District Season 1897-98, “Opium-smoking is freely indulged in by a good many of the people, as in Akyab, and as a consequence the support of life is a struggle to them.” [8]

As a less sympathetic colonial report claimed of the general (and Buddhist) population of two Rama-waddy districts (Ramree and Kyaukpyu): “They are more addicted to the use of opium than to drunkenness. The percentage of opium-consumers is perhaps greater in Kyaukpyu than in any other district of Burma. There is no enterprise among them and most of them are not at all ambitious. They are indolent and apathetic, obstinate and rude in their manners, hot tempered, but cowardly. Generally speaking, they lead a life of rude and lazy content with no wish to better their condition, and many of them are paupers.” [9]

Furthermore, “Abuse of opium and love of showy dress are the two factors which have been at work towards the ruin of the people of Ramree and Cheduba islands,” [10]. The settlement operation report for Akyab district feared the migration of Buddhist Arakanese from Rama-waddy into Danra-waddy: “it is to be feared that many bad characters from the numerous Ramree villages in the district would be on the side of disorder,” [11]

Another settlement report concluded of an Arakanese district on the outer fringe of Rama-waddy: “being near to Ramree Township [Rama-waddy], [it] is often haunted by bad characters of that quarter — robbery, dacoity, and murder prevailing here, and a reckless disregard for human life being shown when plunder can be had.” [12 Smart suggested “[The Arakanese from Rama-waddy] are more industrious than the [Danra-waddy] Arakanese …. . Their village-sites are well selected, carefully laid out with usable roads … the people trust each one another and [Rama-waddy-Arakanese-populated] villages generally give one the impression of a well-established community.” [13]

Out of a perceived threat from the “Buddhists,” identified in colonial reports repeatedly “Mugs” (a term borrowed from Bengali Muslims), British colonial administrators developed prejudices in favor of Muslims as an efficient and (compared to the Rama-waddy ‘Mugs1) a docile cultivator class. The British colonial administrators thus turned a yearning eye to Danra-waddy’s Muslim population, specifically, the large Muslim cultivator class who had already proven themselves in British eyes (in the extensive cultivation evident in western Danra-waddy) as superior cultivators and the only hope for turning unopened fields into rich agricultural districts from which rice and hefty colonial revenues could be drawn [14]

As one colonial report suggested that, “[Muslim] Bengalis are a frugal race, who can pay without difficulty a tax that would press very heavily on the [Buddhist] Arakanese.”[15] Thus, colonial reports argued against repairing canals to open up ‘waste lands.’ Instead, colonial authorities felt that Bengalis should be enticed to settle the area through low taxes and short periods of tax exemption: “the land would be reclaimed by Bengalis without the necessity for spending money on a canal, which would at best be a doubtful speculation.” [16]

According to the Akyab settlement report ,”The Bengalis are a frugal, hard-working people, not addicted like the Arakanese to gambling, drinking, and opium-smoking, and their competition [as cultivators] is gradually ousting the Arakanese.” [17]

The Muslim descendants of Shah Shuja‘s followers, the Kaman-sas who had been transplanted to Rama-waddy in the late seventeenth century, had formed, throughout the eighteenth century, a royal service group of archers, accompanying the king (under Arakanese rule), or the mro-wun (under Burman rule) on his rounds through the country. Freed from these responsibilities, they did not become agriculturalists. Instead, they emerged by the mid-1830s as a class of “weavers and dyers” in their own quarter of the town of Ramree, in southeastern Rama-waddy.[18]

Beyond the eroding patron-client ties between the rural gentry and the villagers, there were few other relationships which offered an easy way to organize collective action. Perhaps the only other groups capable of cutting across village communities, and indeed, of penetrating rural Arakanese villages were rural religious clergy, who were certainly more numerous than the su-kris had been. In the mid-nineteenth century, for example, there were at least six hundred Buddhist monks and perhaps one hundred Muslim mullahs. Specifically, there were 214 Buddhist monks who served as teachers to 1,066 students, 45 secular Buddhist teachers with 337 students, and 119 Muslim teachers with 404 students. [19] But British favoritism in the case of Muslim cultivators and the protection offered to minority religious communities in colonial centers such as Akyab meant that Muslim collective action in the nineteenth century was peculiarly directed towards projects (agricultural works for example) which did not run amiss of colonial authorities.

References: –

1. A.C Benerjee, ‘The Eastern Frontier of British India’, Calcutta (1943) p.351
2. Report on the Census of British Burma (1872) p. 84
3. Report on the Census of British Burma taken in August 1872 p.24
4. The settlement report for Akyab district, pp.2,5
5. Smart, Burma Gazetteer: Akyab District 85.
6. The settlement report for Akyab district, pp.2,5
7. Smart, Burma Gazetteer: Akyab District 85.
8. Report on the Settlement Operations in the Sandowav District Season 1897-98 (Rangoon: Superintendent, Government Printing, 1899), 4.
9. Report on the Revision of Soil Classification and Land Revenue Rates in the Kyaukpyu District. Season 1898-99. 7.
10. Ibid, 16
11. Report on the Settlement Operations in the Akyab District Season 1887-88. 5.
12. Report on the Settlement Operations in the Sandowav District. Season 1897-98. 4.
13. Smart, Burma Gazetteer: Akvab District. 86.
14. Report on the Settlement Operations in the Akvab District Season 1887-88. 2.
15. lbid., 21.
16. Ibid., 2.
17. Report on the Settlement Operations in the Akvab District Season 1887-88. 2.
18. Foley, “Geological and Statistical Account of the Island of Rambree,” 202-203.
19. Ibid pp. 239, 240,242