By Dr. Habib Siddiqui
July 15 2013
When history is twisted, humanity loses. No country epitomizes this notion to the hilt better than Buddhist-majority Myanmar where history is twisted not only to deny human rights but also to justify genocidal campaigns against religious minorities. There is no historical record of Buddha ever visiting any part of Arakan and Burma, and yet the popular Mon and Myanmar oral tradition, including the chronicle Sasanavamsa, and the belief of the Arakanese Rakhines suggest that the Buddha visited their king and left behind an image of himself for them to worship. The Sasanavamsa mentions several visits of the Buddha to Myanmar and one other important event: the arrival of the hair relics in Ukkala (Yangon) soon after the Buddha’s enlightenment.
Modern historiography, of course, dismisses these stories as fabrications made out of national pride, as the Myanmar had not even arrived in the region at the time of the Buddha.
Myanmar is a country of many nations: many races and ethnicities, e.g., Shan, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Rohingya, Rakhine, Mon, Chin, Karen, Chinese, Indians, and many religions, e.g., Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. To insist that Myanmar is the country of the majority Bamar (Burman) – who practice Theravada Buddhism – at the exclusion of the minority religious communities would be a deliberate attempt that ignores and denies the history of the ‘other’ peoples to this landmass.
What we call Myanmar today was known as Burma for most of its modern history. It emerged through the politics of British imperialism. Before its colonization by the British, starting in 1784 CE, Burma went by other names at various periods. Much of its peripheral territories were annexed only after the time of King Anawrahta (1044-1077 CE) who was converted to Buddhism in 1057 CE by a Mon monk named Shin Arahan. He forcibly converted all his subjects in Pagan kingdom into Buddhism. He invaded and destroyed the Mon kingdom and enslaved its king Manuha who was forcibly made a temple slave (Phya Kyaun), an untouchable, at the Pagan pagodas. He made Pagan the center of Theravadian learning by inviting scholars from Mon lands, Sir Lanka, and especially India, where Buddhism was dying.
Since Anawrahta’s time the reach of the Burmese sovereign waxed and waned with the ability of each Burmese monarch. For example, the western Rakhine (Arakan) state, bordering today’s Bangladesh, was a sovereign state with a large Muslim population for hundreds of years (1018-1401, 1430-1784 CE). Under King Raza Gri alias Salim Shah Sultan (1593-1612 CE), Arakan was able to capture the Burmese capital of Pegu in 1599 CE. Burma annexed Arakan in 1784 violating the border demarcation agreement signed in 1454 CE between the Arakanese King Mun Khari alias Ali Khan (1434-1459 CE) and Ava King Narapati (1442-1468 CE).
As to the original inhabitants of Arakan, Dr. Emil Forchhammer, a Swiss Professor of Pali at Rangoon College, and Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey (1881), said: “The earliest dawn of the history of Arakan reveals the base of the hills, which divide the lowest courses of the Kaladan and Lemro rivers, inhabited by sojourners from India… Their subjects are divided into the four castes of the older Hindu communities…”
The Hindu kings that ruled the coastal territories of Chittagong in Bangladesh also ruled the crescent of Arakan. Presumably, the indigenous people of Arakan, much like their brothers and sisters living to the north-west of the Naaf River in (today’s) Chittagong, practiced some loose form of Hinduism. The second phase of Indianization of Arakan occurred between the 4th and the 6th century CE, by which time the colonists had established their kingdom, and named their capital Vaishali [also spelled as Wesali]. M.S. Collis who did extensive research work on Arakan’s history, including studying its coinage and old manuscripts, similarly concluded that “that Wesali was an easterly Hindu kingdom of Bengal” and that “both government and people were Indian as the Mongolian influx had not yet occurred.”
As to the origin of the ancestors of Rakhines, historian D.G.E. Hall said: “Burmese do not seem to have settled in Arakan until possibly as late as the tenth century A.D. Hence earlier dynasties are thought to have been Indian, ruling over a population similar to that of Bengal.”
From the above brief review, it is clear that the rulers that ruled Arakan, in centuries before the Sino-Tibetan invasion in the 10th and 11th centuries, were of Indian descent, as were the people (the so-called Kalas) who lived there. They had much in common with Banga, or today’s Bangladesh. As credible research work by unbiased historians and researchers have amply shown, the Rohingyas, derogatorily called the Kalas (by the racist Buddhist Maghs of Arakan), are the descendants of the indigenous people of Arakan – the true Bhumiputras (adibashis) – of the land. For instance, the distinguished historian (late) Professor Abdul Karim wrote, “In fact the forefathers of Rohingyas had entered into Arakan from time immemorial.” [For sources, see this author’s book – Muslim Identity and Demography in the Arakan state of Burma (Myanmar) – (available from Amazon.com)]
Burmese historians also concur that the original inhabitants of vast territories of today’s Burma were dark complexioned Indians, esp. from the east coast of India (namely, Bangladesh, Orissa and neighboring areas to the west). They formed trading colonies along the coast of the Gulf of Martaban all the way to Borneo in today’s Indonesia. It is also believed that some degree of migration from India to the region of Tagaung and Mogok in Upper Myanmar had taken place through Assam and later through Manipur, but the “hinterland” was of course much less attractive to traders than the coastal regions with their easy access by sea. It is not difficult to surmise that they practiced some form of Hinduism before Buddhism and other religions entered the region.
The entry of the Indian settlers to Burma predates those of the Mon, Pyu, Bamar and Shan peoples. They also formed the first kingdom at Tagaung in northern Burma. The Mons were greatly influenced by Indians and adopted both the Hindu ideas of the divine king and Hindu law code of Manu. Consequently, Brahmin astrologers were numerous in Mon territories. Even to this day while the Mons have adopted Buddhism, astrology remains very popular all across Buddhist Burma. Burmese historian Maung Htin Aung says that the Mons passed on their culture to the races near them, namely the Pyus, the Tibeto-Burmese and the Khmers – who were in many ways their pupils. Worship of Hindu god Vishnu was widely accepted all over lower Burma, and especially by the Mons. He was brought into the fold of Buddhism by making him a god of Buddhism. This ploy was similar to the Hindu ploy in India in which Buddha was made a reincarnation of lord Vishnu which helped to reclaim Buddhists to the fold of Hinduism.
The Chin and Kachin people were mostly animists before they embraced Christianity during the British colonial period.
And yet, today, the religious minorities living in Myanmar are depicted as foreigners who settled from outside to dislodge the Buddhist majority. Consider, for instance, Khin Maung Saw (Soe) – whose writings and speeches are linked with Buddhist violence against Muslims – has called the Rohingya Muslims ‘ungrateful’ camels that are trying to dislodge the ‘owner’ of the tent – the Rakhine Maghs of the Arakan state of Myanmar. Wirathu, the terrorist Buddhist monk, calls the Muslims ‘mad dogs’ and ‘wild elephants’ who needs to be tamed by starving them. “I don’t know how you tame a wild elephant in your country,” he told The Sunday Telegraph, when asked what exactly he means when he says Buddhist Burmese should “stand up for themselves”, “but here the first thing you do is take away all their food and water. Then when the elephant is starving and weak you give him a little bit of water and teach him one word. Then you give him a little bit of food and teach him some more. That’s how we tame the elephants here.”
Unfortunately, the abovementioned Buddhists are not the only ones entertaining such deep seated bigotry and racism in Myanmar. These two evils, as a matter of fact, act like the Krazy glue that holds together the racist Buddhist community, justifying bestial hostility against disparate groups that have nothing in common either in language or in religion. And no group is treated as inhumanly as the Rohingya people, who live in the northwestern Arakan state, bordering Bangladesh. The Burmese government has denied them their citizenship rights, and through its genocidal campaigns have forced millions of the Rohingya to live either as stateless people in its own soil or as unwanted refugees elsewhere.
The history of Islam amongst the Rohingyas of Arakan is very similar to the history of Islam in Chittagong and other parts of Bangladesh.
As to the Muslim settlements in Arakan, the renowned scholars of the early 20th century, Professor Enamul Haq and Abdul Karim Shahitya Visarad wrote in 1935: “The Arab traders established trade link with the East Indies in the eighth and ninth century AD. During this time Chittagong, the lone seaport of East India, became the resting place and colony of the Arabs. We know from the accounts of the ancient Arab travelers and geologists including Sulaiman (living in 851 AD), Abu Jaidul Hasan (contemporary of Sulaiman), Ibnu Khuradba (died 912 AD), Al-Masudi (died 956 AD), Ibnu Howkal (wrote his travelogue in 976 AD), Al-Idrisi (born last half of 11th century) that the Arab traders became active in the area between Arakan and the eastern bank of the Meghna River [in today’s Bangladesh]… Other historians also recognized the fact that Islam and its influence developed in Arakan in the 9th and 10th century AD.”
Dr. Moshe Yegar says, “Beginning with their arrival in the Bay of Bengal, the earliest Muslim merchant ships also called at the ports of Arakan and Burma proper… Muslim influence in Arakan was of great cultural and political importance. In effect, Arakan was the beachhead for Muslim penetration into other parts of Burma even if it never achieved the same degree of importance it did in Arakan. As a result of close land and sea contacts maintained between the two countries, Muslims played a key role in the history of the Kingdom of Arakan.”
Unfortunately, these historical findings are denied today by vast majority of Buddhists inside and outside Myanmar to sanctify the genocidal crimes against the Muslims there. Even those who know better are afraid to speak out against a monk like Wirathu who has essentially become the face of Buddhist terrorism in Myanmar.
It is sad to see how Buddhism has been hijacked by neo-Nazi racists and bigots within the community! Very few in this den of racism are ever willing to contemplate that Gautama Buddha, an Indian born in Bihar which is close to Bengal [Bangladesh], must have resembled a Rohingya better than either a Rakhine Magh or a Burman. But who is pondering when history is twisted!