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Arakan: - One Who Preserves and Takes Care of Their Own Nationality.

Publication by Arakan Action Association (AAA.)







                 Arakan's autonomous history is a thing of the past. After its conquest by the Burmese in 1785 and the later occupation by the British (1825), the country underwent economic change and demographic revolution (mainly due to successive waves of immigration and emigration). Parts of its old cultural heritage were lost. Modern Arakan's history is regional history that takes its place in the political context of British colonialism and the post-colonial destiny of Burma/ Myanmar. So the main difference here between “autonomous” and “regional” is political rather than economic or cultural. Before 1785, Arakan, as a geopolitical unit, evolved around a centre or centres of its own, while after this date, the dominating centre on which the life of the country depended, lay outside the region itself (Calcutta until the 1860s, the Rangoon).

                 The emergence and survival of small states at the periphery of much greater and more powerful neighbours raises questions about the particular set of conditions which explain their success. Quite naturally our attention is first drawn to the geographic conditions. But important as they were in the case of Arakan, they alone do not provide satisfactory answers. In the eighteenth century, just as one or two hundred years earlier, Arakan lay on the Bay of Bengal within the reach of Indian traders, enjoying the natural protection of a steep mountain range to the east and fertile plains to support its population. But, unlike one hundred years earlier, trade around 1750 was a shadow of its former volume, the political conditions had deteriorated, and the Arakanese pirates, for all the misery and damage they caused, were rather more annoying than dangerous to Bengal.

                 We have to turn to the economic and political conditions to understand the dynamic of growth. The histoire evenementielle shows that Arakan's territorial expansion occurred when central power was weak or civil war prevailed in Burma and/ or Bengal. King Man Pa's invasion of southeast Bengal happened after the disappearance of the Ilyas Shahi dynasty (1539), during the brief reign of Sher Shah. King Man Phalaung's military exploits profited from an altogether favourable environment: large parts of Bengal , and particularly east Bengal, had not yet submitted to the Mughal rule, Tripura was in the grip of dynastic rivalries, and the reign of King Nandabayin saw royal authority in Burma in rapid decline. In 1663, after the death of the government for a full year and the Arakanese immediately saw an opportunity to strike at the Mughal fleet lying at Dhaka.

                 I have argued that Arakan's integration into the commercial network of the Bay of Bengal was a crucial element in its success (Leider 1998). Seventeenth-century Arakan does not fit into the usual categories of mainland Southeast Asian states because the wealth and the well-being of the state depended so heavily on its maritime connections in the Bay of Bengal. While the Arakanese themselves were only marginally involved in trade, Portuguese, Dutch, and, above all, Muslim traders from the Red Sea, Gujarat, Coromandel coast, or Aceh commercialized the natural and agricultural products of the kingdom : cotton cloth , rice, sugar and salt. Arakan was sadly famed as the main provider of slave in the Bay of Bengal. It also sold elephants captured in its jungles and rubies from Upper Burma. But voyages to Arakan were risky because of difficult climatic and maritime conditions, and because access to the Kaladan River leading to the capital required skiful and experienced pilots. So the kings had to keep the markets of their kingdom attractive. The Arakanese conquest had no negative impact on the regional production of rice, cotton cloth, and sugar which continued  to grow (Ven Galen 1999).

                 The country's size, power , prestige, and wealth in the first half of the seventeenth century were the product of its territorial expansion. But conquest did not only fit royal ideology and was not merely seen as a matter of self-interest. The Arakanese kings believed that they had a legitimate kings reigning at Vesali had been related to the Candras of Herikela (which included the Chittagong area) (Leider 1999).

                 The key to this expansion was Arakan's naval power. The kings were able to muster fleets of several hundreds vessels of diverse size. These fleets did not patrol the open sea. They moved along the coast, went swiftly up the rivers, landed troops to raid the countryside, and retreated at short notice. A fleet of a hundred boats was garrisoned at Chittagong and annually renewed. The most common craft was the Arakanese war canoe (tuik lhe) , a heavy sea-going boat, propelled by oar and said and used on the rivers as well as along the coast. Nowhere else in the Indian Ocean did Portuguese mercenaries contribute their maritime expertise to such an extent. From the end of the sixteenth century to the eve of the fall of Chittagong , a great number of resident Portuguese captains commanded royal ships and were richly rewarded for their service (Guerrerio 1930, 1:44). It was Arakan's fleets that gave them an edge over the Burmese kings at Puge, the sultans of Bengal, the bharah bhuyan , and the Mughals (at least during the first half of the seventeenth century). They provided the kings with a strategic advantage over their neighbours and secured the control over conquered territories, though conquest may have meant sometimes little more than a nominal allegiance. (Leider 1998, 1999; Tak Htwan Ni 1985).

                 Until the middle of the seventeenth century, Arakan was not touched by the demographic weakness prevalent elsewhere in Southeast Asia. There were no deportations of Arakanese and the population of Arakan's heartland was only rarely touched by war. Foreign observes like Wouter Schouten are unanimous that Mrauk-U and its surroundings were densely climate, absence of contagious disease, and low number of people killed during battles (Schouten 1727, 1:245). Nonetheless, the kings felt an urgent need to bolster their human resources by raiding lower Burma and southeast Bengal. Most people deported to Arakan by the Arakanese themselves were not sold into slavery but organized in royal service groups who lived on lands in the vicinity of Mrauk-U. They provided the sweepers, craftsmen, guards, and artists at the palace, the rowers for the fleet, or simply the farmers on the royal lands. Some were even entrusted with higher functions at court. The heavy presence up to the late eighteenth century of Bengali deportees, many of them Muslim, is suggested by Arakanese and later English sources alike. The Mons deported after the fall of Pegu formed a group which could still be identified until the end of the eighteenth century. Afghan soldiers fleeing the Mughal advance and Portuguese traders and adventures settled in Arakan and gladly accepted appointments in the royal troops. The hill chiefs of northern and southern Arakan provided troops who were ethnic Thet, Mrung, Chin, or other lesser known minority groups. The king's men were thus of great ethnic diversity and came from various cultural backgrounds.

                 As long as the kings could manage the inflow of wealth to allocate a share to each man, the balance of power played in their favour, and members of the court and troops remained loyal armada were the major tool of the kings' political and military success, but they basis of the kingdom was eroded. So and analysis of the dynamics of growth highlights the ambivalence of political and military successe.

                 Coutinuity is not a virtue by itself. It has to be matched by a sufficient degree of flexibility. On the one hand, when we compare the Mrauk-U period with the same period in Burma, the political stability stability is striking. The reins of power were held by several generations of strong and able leaders who enlarged the king's land and increased their resources and manpower. Succession struggles did not weaken the centre of political decisions. The dynastic break of 1638 was the only serious internal political crisis between 1531 and 1685 and it had little impact on the kingdom's general situation. Mrauk-U remained the kingdom's capital from 1430 down to 1785. On the other hand, the Arakanese kings failed to adjust to a rapidly changing political and economic environment in the second half of the seventeenth century. The Burmese monarchs tapped both the agricultural surplus and the flow of customs dues, but a decline in trade probably entailed a lesser risk for them than for their Arakanese colleague. While the Burmese kingship was invigorated by successive cycles of rise and decline, the traditional political order in Arakan was in shambles around 1690 and never fully recovered over the next hundred years. One of the difficulties in restoring the order clearly was the loss of the earlier maritime connections.

                 As elsewhere in mainland Southeast Asia, deportations of people had been an answer to a chronic lack not of troops but also of agriculturists and craftsmen. The 1644 deportation of large numbers of Chittagong's cotton weavers to Arakan heartland shows how such a traditional economic policy could backfire. Dutch sources report that Narapati wanted to settle an impressive thirty thousand people along the Kaladan. These weaves should have laid the basis for a flow of royal income. But insufficient provisions were made to sustain them and most of them starved to death. It is interesting to note that there had actually been a hot debate at court on the viability of the project (Van Galan 1999).

                 The kings reigned thanks to a network of loyal men. Where an overriding political or economic interest called for compromise, power was devolved. This was definitely the case in Chittagong. During the initial years of Arakan's control, the city and the surrounding country were still governed by local Muslim lords. After 1590, the Arakanese governors of Chittagong were close relatives of the king and enjoyed the rare privilege of minting their own coins. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, they were granted the impressive titles even after Sirisudhammaraja and his successors abandoned that fashion (Chowdhury 1997). The relationship between the kings of Arakan and the Luso-Asian communities of Chittagong's suburbs betrays a similarly pragmatic attitude to the advantages of a somewhat decentralized political order. The descendants of the Portuguese with their nebula of Christians of mixed origins enjoyed a remarkable autonomy as long as their loyalty to the king remained unquestioned and the royal treasury got its share of the lucrative slave trade.

                 We have a few seventeenth and eighteenth-century lists of members of the court hierarchy who ran the country (e.g. Havart 1693; Tak Htwan Ni 1996). They leave us with the impression that Arakan did not have the kind of well-structured inner circle of ministers and secretaries typical of Burma's contemporary court. Typically, most Arakanese titles we know are associated with military functions.

                 The pran-cui-kri (read: presogri) was probably the highest functionary at court, equivalent to a kind of prime minister and supreme judge. In 1581, for instance, he was in charge of negotiations with the Burmese invaders. The tha-puin-kri (read:dabaingri) was a general or commander in chief. The kui-ran-kri(read: karangri) commaded the palace guard and, according to Western and Indian sources, was frequently in charge of royal expeditions against Bengal. The terms cac-ke (read: sikay) and jun-tat (read: zonedat) refer to senior military officers whose numbers varied between four and nine. The cac-ke also exercised the function of judge, and took care of protocol and foreign visitors to the court. A re juntat was an admiral. The san-ke-kri was in charge of the royal elephants. Superior positions like the governorships of Chittagong and Sandoway were held by members of the royal family, particularly princes, brothers, or uncles of the king. Other functions were inherited or transferred from generation to generation in a few high-ranking families, as for example the “dynasty” of the minister Mahapanakyo who was the advisor of three kings during the second half of the sixteenth century. The accounts of Father Manrique and Schouten provide a few glimpses of the efficiency of the Arakanese government. Thanks to the rapid communications by water, fleets of considerable size could thus be tackled before they gained pace. The government could also exert a strict control on the movement of people. Manrique mentions that some Christians he visitede in the mountains of “Maum” were forbidden to leave their villages and remained under close surveillance. Schouten describes the severe controls on all outbound ships after the sudden disappearance of Shah Shuja in early 1661.

                 Arakan's territorial expansion and its integration into the trading networks of the Bay of Bengal shaped the dynamic of growth between the early  sixteenth and mid-seventeenth century. Growth generated a hitherto unknown wealth for an elite which could spend freely on luxury goods and works of merit. The vestiges of art and archaeology prove that Arakan's artists found inspiration both in India and Burma. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Bengal's architecture and the refinement of Islamic ceremonial at the courts of the Bengal sultans and Mughal governors had an undoubted impact on Arakan's art and elite culture. During the second quarter of the seventeenth century when Mrauk-U had become a cosmopolitan and attractive place for traders, artists, and mercenaries, the kings put a greater emphasis on their Buddhist identity. Sirisudhammaraja and his successors were known only by their Pali titles and no longer adopted Muslim titles. Monolingual Arakanese coins replaced the earlier bilingual (Arakanese / Bengali) or trilingual (Arakanese/Bengali/ Persian) coins and the title “Lord of the Golden Palace” became the standard appellation of all the kings. Moreover the architecture of Mrauk-U's increasingly bigger pagodas was inspired by Lower Burma models. Art reflects a change in Arakan's cultural identity.

                 This change echoes as well the pride of Arakan's kings who were no longer overawed by their powerful neighbours. But as Arakan's fleets had spread unrivalled terror in Eastern Bengal, pride could turn into arrogance and produce a complacency detrimental to the kingdom's and the monarchy's long-term interests. Inner political tensions built up as Southeast Asia's age of commerce came to an end and Mughal imperialism became even more threatening. The most remarkable aspect of king Candasudhammaraja's long reign of over thirty years was its political stability and the king's capacity to preserve a semblance of power and wealth after the fall of Chittagong in 1666 had cast gloom over Arakan's future.

                                  APPENDIX: KINGS OF ARAKAN AT MRAUK U, 1404-1710

 Man Co Mwan (aka Naramitlha) 1404-1433

Man Khari (aka Ali Khan)   1434-1459

Bha Co Phru 1459-1481

Dolya 1481-1491

Bha Co Nui 1491-1493

Ran Aung 1494

Calanka Su1494-1501

Man Raja 1501-1513

Gajapati 1513-1515

Man Co, the old one 1515?

Sajata 1515?-1521?

Man Khaung Raja 1521?-1531?

Man Pa 1531-1553

Man Tikkha 1553-1555

Man Co Lha 1556-1564

Man Cakrawate 1564-1571

Man Phalaung 1571-1593

Man Raja-kri(“the Great”) 1593-1612

Man Khamon 1612-1622

Sirisudhammaraja 1622-1638

Man Cane 1638

Narapati (aka Kusala, the former governor of Laung Krak) 1638-1645

Satuidhammaraja 1645-1652

Candasudhammaraja 1652-1684

Uggabala 1684-1685

Waradhammaraja 1685-1692/93

Manisudhammaraja 1692/94

Candasuriyadhammaraja 1694/96

Noratha, the child 1696

Maruppiya 1696-1697

Kalagandhat 1697-1698

Naradhipati 1698-1700

Candawimaladhammaraja 1700-1706

Candasuriyaraja 1706-1710



                 I would like to thank U Tin Htway (Heidelberg) for his remarks on a first draft of this chapter. U Tun Aung Chain (UHCR Yangoon) and Prof. Michael Smithies (Thailand) made useful comments at the conference in Hua Hin (May 1999). I deeply appreciate Chris Baker's extensive comments which made it clear to me that the chapter in the from presented at the conference would be of limited interest to people who had never heard of Arakan. It also contained an amount of information that had little connection to understanding the Arakanese kingdom in its Bay of Bengal context.

                 1.  For practical reasons, the name “Arakan” is used in this chapter. The Arakanese dialect maintains a number of features archaic in modern Burmese. The most obvious difference is the Burmese pronunciation of “r”. For the transcription of geographical terms, preference is given to the conventional English transcription which retains the “r” in names like Mrauk-U (instead of Yanbye). Arakanese kings are occasionally known under different titles. In this chapter only one title has been used to refer to each king. Arakanese and Burmese authors have used various transcriptions of the king's names and titles which sometimes makes it difficult to correctly identify them. For reasons of simplification, titles have been transliterated, though without using any diacritics to mark the tones. A list of kings appears in an appendix to the chapter.

                 2. The terms Magh, Mag, Mug are identical. An investigation on the origins of the expression was done by Lucein Bernot (1967)

                 3. The most important is the New Chronicle Arakan, written by the Arakanese monk Candamalakara and published in Mandalay in 1931-32. His work will hereafter be referred to as CL.

                 4. Manrique's account was abundantly used by later writers like Tosi(1669), Ovington (1696), and Salmon (1735). C.Federici's account (Federici 1581; Pioto 1962) contains useful information on Chittagong.

                 5. Arakan workshop at the ICAS conference at Nordwijk, Netherlands, 25-28 June 1998; KNAW conference on Coastal Burma in the Age of Commerce, Amsterdam, October 1999.

                 6. Phayre made the first noteworthy contributions to the study of Arakan's history and numismatics: see Phayre (1841, 1844, 1846, 1882).

                 7. We find a different perspective in works dealing with the history of Bengali literature at the court of Arakan as for example, Sukumar Sen , History of Bengali Literature, Delhi,1960; Suniti Kumar Chatterji, The origin and Development of the Bengali Language, Calcutta 1926; M.E. Haq, Muslim Bengali Literature, Karachi 1957, and recently, S.Bhattacharya (1999).

                 8. British Library OR 3465 A, f.128 (of the Burmese pagination). It is noteworthy that CL (1931, 2:7) did not include the sentence referred to by Phayre.

                 9. The recently published guidebooks of Mrauk-U (Tun Shwe Khaing 1995, 1996; Shwe Zan 1994) contain some useful information. Ashin Okkantha's supposedly academic research on Arakan's Buddhism (Okkantha 1990) lacks depth and is of limited interest to Buddhist scholars. A group  of Arakanese based in Yangon is editing texts, research papers , and an literature (PEAL, Publications of Eminent Arakanese Literature).

                 After the Second World War, the Muslims of northern Arakan organized themselves politically and militarily in separatist movements under the name of Rohingyas. After several waves of persecution in the 1970s and early 1990s which most likely hit both local Muslims and illegal immigrants, many so called Rohingyas cultivated their own brand of “Arakan” nationalism abroad. Unfortunately their interpretation of the Mrauk-U period and their insistence on a presumed Muslim identity of the country and its kings, distorts the available historical evidence.

                 10. Tome Pires (1944, 277-9) mentions the presence of Arakanese traders in Melaka at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

                 11. The minister Wimala is mentioned as the original author (1536) of parts of the Great Chonicle of Arakan summarized by Tha Thwan Aung (1927).

                 12. Charney (1993, 44-5) links the 1534 attack against Arakan to a conflict between the sultan of Bengal, Mahmud Shah, and Goa. In 1533, the sultan threw Martim Afonso de Mello and fifly-three other Portuguese into prison ,and a Portuguese fleet cannonaded Chittagong. Charney does not explain why there should be a connection between these events and he does not seem to admit the existence of a resident Portuguese community in the area.

                 13. The Burmese chronicler U Kala and an anonymous Portuguese source from around 1607 contend that the Burmese were close to attacking Mrauk-U but retreated when they learned of the death of king Bayinnaung. According to the Arakanese sources , the Burmese had not proceeded further than Laung Krak, the former capital south of Mrauk-U.

                 14. Harvey (19667.141) unfairly passed over Arakan's expansion to the northeast under Man Phalaung who is not even mentioned in his account, while Phayre (1883, 163) confines himself to a single sentence which merely acknowledges the conquests: “Meng Phalaung held all Chittagong, part of Noakhali, and of Tippera”. Georg Christoph Fernberger's account of the siege of an unnamed fortress during his visit at Chittagong in 1589 illustrates the difficulties that the Arakanese had in maintaining their hold over the whole area (Fernbergger 1999).

                 15. It is at time that the Portuguese are mentioned for the first time in the Rajamala, the chronicle of Tripura (Long 1850).

                 16. CL (1931, 2:92-93) literally says that the Mughal and Afghan lords sent annual presents and further mentions that the kings of Sri Lanka and Portugal and the Muslim king paid their respect and sent trading ships.

                 17. Information on Narapati's reign found in the VOC archives was kindly provided by Stephan van Galen, oral communication, February  1999.

                 18. CL 1932, 2:71. The term is sometimes used in Burma for a village chief.

                 19. Oral communication by Stephan van Galen (August  1999).

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