Sunday, 9 December 2012

Letter from America: The Rohingya Question – Part 3

Source Asiantribune, 9 Dec
By Dr. Habib Siddiqui

The Burmese history is replete with accusations against the British government of following a

policy of divide and rule; deliberately separating the hilly people from the Burmans/Burmese.

According to historian Maung Aung, this policy had the full support of the Christian missions, who wanted to convert the hilly people to Christianity. The British government also kept the racial groups further apart by denying military training to the Burmans and Shans, and giving that privilege to Chins, Kachins and Karens.

The latter fought alongside the British and Indian forces – drawn mostly from the Gurkha (Nepalese) and Sikh population - in campaign against the guerillas. The Burmese also hated that in the Anglo-Burmese wars, the Indian troops had fought side by side with the British in their regiments.

Anti-Indian Riots in British Burma

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

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

A night-long riot on May 26, 1930 stirred up by ethnic Burmans in Rangoon's Indian quarters left hundreds of people of Indian origin dead as well as nearly 2000 injured. The problem started in the port of Rangoon where a British firm had laid off hundreds of Indian dock workers who had went on strike demanding higher pay. The British firm irresponsibly hired temporary Burmese workers to fill in those positions who were let go when the Indian coolies or dockworkers gave in and ended their strike. Next morning when the Burmese workers came and reported for work they were told by the British firm that their service was no longer needed. Some Burmese workers were angry and started attacking Indians who retaliated.

It grew rapidly into an anti-Indian (including anti-Muslim) riot. Even within the first half-hour at least two hundred Indians were massacred and flung into the river. Authorities ordered the police to fire upon any assembly of five or more who refused to lay down their arms, under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. Within two days, the riot spread all over Burma from Rangoon to surrounding towns, and especially to the Hanthawaddy district towns of Kayan, Thongwa and Kyauktan, where a concentration of Indian landowners and tenants had gained footholds among the predominantly Burmese lands.

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

Following the 1935 Government of India Act's reforms, the British granted Burma a larger autonomous status with the Government of Burma Act.

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

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

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

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

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

The Baxter Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consequently, the report says in Section 5, pages 3 and 4, "It is not known what proportion of Indians born outside Burma had settled down in Burma and regarded it as their permanent residence. The attempt made to distinguish between Indians permanently resident and Indians temporarily resident in Burma failed because of suspicion in the minds of many Indians regarding the motive behind the inquiry.

Some part of the "born out" Indian population in Burma will of course have been long resident in the country and have adopted it as their home. But how large or how small this part may be, there is no means of ascertaining. When a special industrial census was taken in 1921 of labourers employed in a number of the principal industries such as rubber, minerals, wood, metals, rice, oil-refining and the construction of means of transport, it was found that out of a total of 62,498 male Indian labourers born outside Burma and engaged in these industries, only 2,598 reported that they intended to reside permanently in the country.

Whether the same proportion would hold good for Indians born outside Burma employed in agriculture, trade, or industries other than those mentioned, it is impossible to say.

Broadly however it will be assumed in this report that Indians born in Burma are permanently settled and that Burma is the country of their adoption whereas Indians born outside Burma will be regarded as constituting a population the great bulk of which regards Burma as a place of temporary residence where under the compelling force of economic necessity many Indians spend a part, sometimes a considerable part, of their lives but with the intention, or at least the hope, of eventually returning and settling down in the country of their birth."

To be continued……

For part 1 of this series:

For part 2 of this series:

- Asian Tribune -

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