Sunday, October 28, 2012

Troubles in Arakan: 1949 British Perspective!

Three river-valleys of North Arakan.
Peter Murray was a pre-war British administrator who spoke fluent Burmese. He was the British Ambassador to Cambodia during 1961-62. 
Peter Murray was also a territorial CAO (Civil Affairs Officer) with the British Army in Northern Arakan during the Second World War. 
He was the same Peter Murray mentioned by Robert Mole in his memoirs "The Temple Bells are Calling" about his time in the Arakan.
Following is his 1949 Foreign Office memo outlining the so-called racio-religious troubles in Arakan due to the Bengali Muslims’ relentless intrusion into Burma.

26th January, 1949.
(F 1323/1015/79)
Letter to RWD Fowler
Commonwealth Relations Office
Dear Bob,
1.   As some anxiety is being felt about the disorders in North  Arakan and as little seems to be known of the factors involved, I have thought it worthwhile to put on record what I know of the background. I must emphasise that this is mainly based on recollections from my own personal experience, including two years in the area during the war, and though I believe all the statements in it to be true, they ought not to be accepted too uncritically. I enclose five additional copies in case you think it worth sending them to our High Commissions. 
The Area
2.    North Arakan consists essentially of three river valleys, the Naaf, the Mayu, and the Kaladan, which run roughly in a north-east to south-west direction. The two latter converge at Akyab, the political, economic and geographical centre of the area. The alluvial floors of the river valleys are very fertile and produce large quantities of rice, vegetables and other crops. The hills between the valleys rise to about 2,000 feet, are extremely rocky, steep and broken, and are for the most part covered with thick scrub and bamboo jungle. There are no hard roads (apart from a short road from Buthidaung to Maungdaw) and the earth roads made during the war will, by now, have reverted to jungle.  Almost all the transport, even between neighbouring villages, is by water. The Pakistan-Arakan boundary runs up the estuary of the Naaf river and thence north-eastward into the hills.

The People
A)       The Arakanese:
 3.      The Arakanese are Buddhists, and are an offshoot of the Burmese race, speaking a strongly differentiated form of the Burmese language. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Arakan was a powerful and important kingdom, stretching to Chittagong in the north, where there was an Arakanese Viceroy, and preying on the shipping of the Mogul Empire in Bengal. The kingdom was subdued by the Burmese at the end of the 18th century, and came under British rule in 1825. There is a fairly strong admixture of Indian blood in the Arakanese, who are generally regarded as the Scots of Burma.  Before the war there was a small but powerful and influential Arakanese aristocracy who provided many of Burma’s ablest politicians and civil servants, and most of her few successful native business men.

Arakanese Buddhist of Maungdaw. 

B)        The Chittagongian Moslems:
4.      These are an off-shoot of the Bengali race, speaking a debased form of Bengali interlarded with Portuguese, Arabic and Arakanese words. They are much more hard working and prolific than the Arakanese and fanatically religious. They are also great seamen: Chittagongian “lascars” manned about 20% of the British merchant navy during the war. For the last several hundred years, they have been moving southwards, gradually displacing and over-running the Arakanese, until in 1941 there were only a few scattered groups of Arakanese villages left in the Chittagong district, and nearly one-third of the 700,000 inhabitants of the Akyab district were Moslems, mostly concentrated in the Northern part of the district. There was a great deal of inter-marriage between the races, usually between Chittagongian men who had come South in search of work and Arakanese women. The children of these marriages were brought up as Moslems and assimilated to the Chittagongian outlook. Every year at ploughing and harvest, about 20,000 Chittagongians from the north moves southward across the frontier and found temporary employment in the rice fields of Akyab.

Rioting Bengali Muslims in Maungdaw.

C)          The Hillmen:
5.    The barren hill jungles between the river valleys are sparsely inhabited by small groups of Hillmen akin to the Chins further east. They are extremely timid and seldom approach the villages of the valleys. They tend to associate with the Arakanese, to whom they are closer by race, rather than with the Moslems.
6.     The two communities lived intermingled under British rule for 116 years without much incident, though the latent hostility between them flared up into occasional riots and murders. At the beginning of 1942, the British administration collapsed, and the Japanese with the assistance of the  Arakanese occupied Akyab early in May.  They did not move north of Akyab until October 1942;  and in the meantime, the area of mixed population was the scene of repeated large-scale massacres in which thousands of people perished or died subsequently of starvation and exposure. Eventually the two communities separated into distinct areas, the Arakanese in the south supporting the Japanese and the Chittagongians in the north supporting the British. The area was a battleground for the next two years, and was thoroughly devastated by either side. Numbers of Moslems fled northward to their relatives or to refugee camps in Chittagong; but the fact is that at no time did the Japanese succeed in overrunning the entire area was in great measure due to the staunch loyalty to the Allies of the Moslems who remained.
 7.  In 1945 the British advanced and drove the Japanese from Arakan. Contact was made with elements of the “Burmese National Army” in Arakan, who as elsewhere in Burma, came over to our side and were given arms.
8.  As elsewhere in Burma, the young men who had been in the “Resistance” were unwilling to return to their humdrum life as cultivators or clerks; the old Arakanese nationalism and impatience of rule by Burmese officials flared up, and the whole Division remained in a disturbed condition up to the time f the transfer of power (4th January 1948) since when, by all accounts, the Government has controlled little outside the main towns.
9.   The Moslems in the north, finding themselves at the end of the war in an undisputed majority in the Maungdaw and Buthidaung Townships, at once turned their thoughts towards secession from Burma and accession to India (or Pakistan as that part of India later became). Indeed, if these thoughts were not already in their minds, they were probably put there by a fanatically Moslem I.C.S. officer who visited the area at the end of 1942, nominally to whip up support for the British-Indian war effort. Some of their leaders interviewed Mr. Jinnah in 1947, but received no encouragement of any irredentist Moslem movement in north Arakan.

Bangladesh with 160 millions is only 1/5 of Burma with 60 millions.
10.   It appears, however, that the Burmese, with little appreciation of the factors involved, made no attempt to reassure or placate the north Arakan Moslems. No doubt the congenital incompetence of minor Burmese officials made things worse. Eventually, in March or April 1948, the area appears to have got out of control altogether, and since then the Burmese garrisons have maintained themselves with difficulty in the midst of a hostile Moslem population. The leaders of the revolt called themselves “Mujahed” which, I believe, means a Moslem refugee from oppression, usually the oppression of a non-Moslem Government; their numbers have been put at 3,000 – 5,000 but they undoubtedly have the sympathy and probably active support nor only of the Moslem population of the area which I suppose must be 100,000 – 120,000 but also of the Moslems across the frontier in the Chittagong district, with whom they are connected by the closest ties of race and religion – the frontier is in fact quite artificial at this point.
11.   A great deal has been made in reports of a Communist menace. Some of the Arakanese rebels further south are known to be under so-called Communist influence, though it is doubtful whether their Communism is more than  a mere label. It seems to me unlikely that the “Mujahed” are Communists. They may have allied with Arakanese Communist rebels against the Burmese administration in the hope of establishing an independent state in Arakan after the over-throw of the Burmese Government’s authority by means of such an alliance; but alliance of this kind must have been extremely temporary and could not long withstand the deep racial and religious jealousies between them. 
The Future
12.   It seems unlikely that the Burmese Government will be able to restore order in Burma proper in the near future, let alone in Arakan. The people and the minor officials in Chittagong Division cannot be expected to watch unmoved the struggles of their brothers across the frontier against an alien and infidel administration, and will no doubt continue to support them. If the Pakistan (today Bangladesh) Government were driven by events to abandon their present correct attitude and to intervene they would I think find it very hard to stop short of Akyab, which is the only harbour in the area and the natural trade and communications centre; it controls the broad and fertile Kaladan rice plain, the source of most of the 300,000 tons of rice which used to be exported annually from North Arakan before the War. But this of course is mere speculation.
Yours sincerely,