The Chittagonians in Colonial Arakan: Seasonal and Settlement Migrations


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The Chittagonians in Colonial Arakan: Seasonal and Settlement Migrations
Jacques P. Leider – Dr. Jacques P. Leider is a Lecturer in the French School of Asian Studies (EFEO). He is the Scientific Co-ordinator of the EU-funded research project ‘Competing Regional Inte-grations in Southeast Asia’ (CRISEA).  

Muslim Chittagonians formed the dominant group of seasonal labourers and new settlers in north and central Arakan (now Rakhine State in Myanmar) during British colonial rule in Burma (1826–1948). The consider-able growth of their settlements in the late nineteenth century was the de-fining factor which transformed Arakan’s small pre-colonial Muslim community into the biggest Muslim group in Burma, concentrated in a densely populated border zone. The present chapter looks at these significant demographic and social changes, and responds to Morten Bergsmo’s observation that the International Criminal Court Prosecution’s legal approach in its request for a designated pre-trial chamber to authorize an investigation into alleged crimes in Rakhine State of 4 July 2019 “turns the spotlight on the demographic background of the conflict in northern Rakhine”.

The term ‘Chittagonians’ was commonly used in colonial sources as a catch-all name for a variety of people from Lower Bengal’s Chittagong division, which bordered Arakan division (Burma). According to the geo-graphical context in Burma itself, it could refer to Chittagonian seamen or shipwrights along the Irrawaddy (the ‘lascars’), an array of Hindu and Buddhist traders, peddlers and cooks in Akyab and Rangoon, or mostly, as was the case of Arakan, Muslim agriculturists and seasonal labourers. As Chittagonians were the biggest group of Bengalis in colonial Burma, they were presented as a distinct category of the migrant and residential Indian population in early twentieth century records. One may bear in mind that the name ‘Chittagong’ itself applied to a city, a port, a district, and, as mentioned, a Bengal division. ‘Chittagonian’ functioned as an inclusive (‘being identified or identifying as Chittagonian’) or exclusive generic (‘Chittagonians as an Indian, non-indigenous race’) in the colonial no-menclature before it became a site of contestation denoting unchecked immigration and cultural othering in the socio-political context of late co-lonial Arakan.

Chittagonians and Rohingyas

Seven decades after British rule has ended, discussion of the number and role of Chittagonian settlers in Rakhine history remains politically sensitive. The reason is that the Muslim Rohingyas, most of the Muslims in Rakhine State, consider references to the colonial-period ‘Chittagonians’ as attempts to deny their own sense of identity and legitimacy. In 1948, Muslim leaders from the Jamiat ul-Ulama of Maungdaw (in north Rakhine), who were calling for an autonomous Muslim region within the Union of Burma, stated in a petition submitted to state authorities that they were not Chittagonians, claiming indigeneity and a historical link to pre-colonial Arakan and its Muslim minority. This refutation was re-iterated many times. Rakhine Buddhists, adamantly rejecting post-World War II Rohingya claims, pointed to the colonial roots of most Muslims in north Arakan.

However, seventy years after the end of the colonial period, the overall majority, if not all Muslims in north Rakhine, identify as Rohingyas demonstrating an ‘ethnifying’ process of Muslim communities living mostly, but not exclusively, in the townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung townships. The rise of the modern Rohingya movement as the manifestation of a regional Muslim nationalism since the 1950s was instrumental in this development. The pattern of mutual exclusion has not been overcome but reinforced as waves of communal violence and acrimonious confrontations on social media in the twenty-first century show. The nexus of ethnic recognition and citizenship became most prominent with the debate about the implications and, as argued by many, unjust nature and arbitrary implementation of the 1982 citizenship law. Until 1962, the north Arakan Muslim claims of ethnicity and indigeneity evolved in parallel in the domestic political arena with the struggle for an autonomous state.5 However, the process of becoming and identifying them-selves as Rohingya does not eradicate the colonial past of Chittagonian settlements which is no less a fact rooted in time and space. It is a chapter from which Rohingya writers have shied away, nearly leaving an historical blank, though sources suggest a diverse picture of a plurality of Muslims in Arakan both before and during the British colonial period. None-the less, the term ‘Chittagonian’ is deeply resented because it was weapon-ized throughout decades of ethno-political contestation.

The challenges for historical research are not limited to the colonial legacy of Rakhine State. Current research faces a bewildering complexity of issues which have grown from unresolved ethno-political issues in the aftermath of World War II. While the situation was complex in 1948, it became increasingly violent and complicated over the following years and decades. Examples of these complications abound. When Burma became an independent state in January 1948, neither the Arakanese (Rakhine) Buddhists nor Muslims in north Arakan were constitutionally recognized as an ethnic group (‘lu myo ’). Arakanese were recognized as an indigenous (‘taing yin tha ’) group but Sultan Ahmed, a leading political figure after the war, notes the controversies which arose at government level, both in late January 1947 and after Burma’s independence a year later, regarding the right of “Muslims of Akyab district North” to vote linked to the underpinning issue of the recognition of their indigeneity. Arakan became an ethnically denominated state only in 1974.


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