The claim that Rohingyas are Bengalis is true insofar as the Rohingyas ultimately derive from Bengal, but in the end it’s a justification for genocide. If the Rohingyas are illegal immigrants from Bengal, why not say that African Americans are illegal immigrants from the Congo? Why not say that the Rakhines, the Buddhist neighbors of the Rohingya, should be deported back to central Burma? After all, it’s questionable who the very first inhabitants of Arakan (the western coastline of Burma now shared between Rohingyas and Rakhines) actually were, although Bengali and Mahayana influence seems quite strong in Arakan in the first millennium AD.
As historian Michael Charney says in a lecture (YouTube link)
I would like to begin by discussing an immigrant group in Burma, and please bear with me for a few moments before forming any judgments. Before the fourteenth century there is no evidence that they even existed, or for the language that they use, or for the particular religion that they hold today, or for their particular ethnic culture as we would know it. They appear in Arakan in close association with a foreign court; they are both immigrants and foreigners to the region we know as Arakan.
Arakan was ruled by the kingdom of Mrauk-U from 1430 to 1785. Mrauk-U at its height was one of the greatest kingdoms in Southeast Asia, its harbors full of “Arabs, Egyptians, Syrians, Turks, Ethiopians, Romans.” Most relevant for our purposes, though, is that Mrauk-U was a slaver kingdom.
Early Modern Arakan was an underpopulated area where one or two disasters could easily wipe out a large segment of the population. The natural solution for the Mrauk-U kings was to abduct people from more populated areas and forcibly resettle them in Arakan. To quote a French doctor:
They [the Arakanese] scoured the neighbouring seas in light galleys, called galleasses, entered the numerous arms and branches of the Ganges, ravaged the islands of Lower Bengal, and, often penetrating forty or fifty leagues up the country, surprised and carried away the entire population of villages on market days, and at times when the inhabitants were assembled for the celebration of a marriage, or some other festival. The marauders made slaves of their unhappy captives, and burnt whatever could not be removed. It is owing to these repeated depredations that we see so many fine islands at the mouth of the Ganges, formerly thickly peopled, now entirely deserted by human beings, and become the desolate lairs of tigers and other wild beasts.
The Arakanese slavers, however, did not break down community ties nearly as severely as Europeans did in the Atlantic slave trade. Upper-caste captives and artisans were resettled in the capital to serve the king, but the more typical captives were humble Bengali farmers, entire villages of whom were resettled in Arakanese territory. The Bengalis were often relocated into jungle areas to clear the forest and put the land into cultivation, thus increasing state revenue. Others were bought by Buddhist monasteries to farm glebe lands, or otherwise set to work already cultivated lands.
What was the religion of these Bengali slaves? The easy answer would be Islam, but it was more complicated than that. The religion of seventeenth-century Bengal was a Bengali folk Islam which still left room for Hindu and local gods (the modern division in Bangladesh between Muslims and Hindus would not have been meaningful back then). It was these traditions that the Bengalis initially brought to Arakan. But the local gods and spirits and saints of Bengal were precisely that – local – and of less relevance in Arakan. So the Bengali captives devised their own traditions, their own saints and holy places, which integrated popular Bengali Islam into an Arakanese context. Islam was made into a local religion. The Bengalis of Arakan no longer looked towards Bengal for religious guidance, but towards their new homeland. At some point, the Bengalis became Rohingyas (though the word itself would not be widely used until after Mrauk-U).
A good example of this is the Badr Maqams, shrines dedicated to the Muslim saint Pir Badr-i Alam. Badr Maqams appear to have dotted the Arakanese landscape wherever there were Muslims – we know of at least three, though only one has survived. Muslim pilgrims from all over Arakan would gather here to make sacrifices to the saint to ask for his boons and blessings. Stories were told about the great powers of the saint, and about how he had traveled across Arakan and sanctified it into a Muslim land. The Badr Maqams became regional cult centers, places where Bengali Muslims could religiously connect to their new homeland and leave their old homes in Bengal behind. In time, the Badr Maqams became major centers of worship for even Buddhists and Chinese.
It is possible that left to their own devices, the Bengalis would have assimilated into majority Theravada Buddhism. However, this was prevented by continuing ties to Bengal and the wider Islamic world. Rohingyas sometimes went to Bengal; sometimes Bengalis escaped Mughal rule to settle in underpopulated Arakan. There were always Muslim merchants in Arakan, who often preferred to trade in Rohingya villages because Rohingyas tended to live closer to the coast and were thus easier to access by sea. Shrines like the Badr Maqam attracted holy men from abroad. All this kept Islam alive in the region.
How many were these Bengalis? We don’t have hard statistics, but we can say that they made up a very large proportion of the population. Michael Charney estimates that the population of the Danyawaddy region (the center of the Mrauk-U kingdom; all the Rohingya-majority areas and the northern one of the two Rohingya-minority areas in this map) was at most 170,000 in the seventeenth century. The entire population of Arakan was likely around 300,000.
In 1630, we know there were around 11,000 Bengali families in rural settlements across Danyawaddy. The Arakanese continued to raid into Bengal and bring tens of thousands of Bengali captives into Arakan, so even accounting for the horrible conditions the Bengalis endured (some 40% of the captives died on the way, supposedly) and the flight of captives back to Bengal, the Rohingya population of Arakan must have grown substantially by 1700. All in all, it is not implausible that Muslims represented the majority group in Danyawaddy and nearly a third of Arakan’s population as a whole. (The Muslim population outside Danyawaddy was insignificant, since 94% of Rohingyas lived in Danyawaddy at the beginning of British rule.)
This is a significantly larger proportion of Muslims than at the onset of British rule, when Muslims made up a little over 20% of the Arakanese population. This isn’t too surprising though, since the British took over after four decades of Burmese persecution of Islam, Burmese relocation of tens of thousands of Arakanese to Central Burma, and the general flight of Danyawaddy’s population into British Bengal. It is, however, a significantly smaller proportion of the population than the Rohingya made up in Arakan before the ethnic cleansing began (if all the Rohingya went back to Arakan today, they would probably outnumber Buddhists).
So it is true that the Muslim population in the region was bolstered by further immigration from Bengal under British rule. This does not mean that the Rohingya as a whole are immigrants who simply took advantage of British rule to displace the native Buddhists. The modern Rohingya are mostly descended from seventeenth-century captives and migrants from Bengal, and in my view they have as much right to be termed indigenous as their Buddhist neighbors (many of whom are also recent immigrants from the rest of Burma).
- Where Jambudipa and Islamdom Converged: Religious Change and the Emergence of Buddhist Communalism in Early Modern Arakan (PhD thesis by Michael Charney and still the leading work on Early Modern Arakanese religion)
- “Slaves and Tyrants: Dutch Tribulations in Seventeenth-century Mrauk-U” by Sanjay Subrahmanyam