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Letter from America: The Rohingya Question – Part 3

By Dr. Habib Siddiqui
The Burmese history is
replete with accusations against the British government of following
policy of divide and
rule; deliberately separating the hilly people from the

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

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

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

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

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

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