Monday, 24 April 2017

By Jacques P. Leider'
Head of the Centre of the Eoole fraganisen d' Extreme-Orient in Yangon,Myanmar

Abstract

It is a common place to state that Arakan's history and culture cannot be studied without referring to the history of both Bengal (India/Bangladesh) and Burma (Myanmar), its South Asian and Southeast Asian background. But this is easier to say than to do and Arakanese studies have not only remained a fractured and little studied but also a divided field of studies. Superficially, these divisions run along ethnic-religious lines : over the last century, an exclusively Buddhist-centred reconstruction of the past has rivalled with accounts focusing on the Islamic identity of the country' s Muslim minority.

For historians things are a bit more complex but these utterly simplistic divisions unhappily format the discourse on contemporary issues such as the Rohingya movement, the difficult cohabitation of communities in Arakan itself and the relations between the succeding Bunnese governmentsand the people living in Arakan in the post-colonial era. It is well known that anything said on Arakan's history and culture is or fast becomes a hotly contested issue with an immediate political relevance.

My paper will be an attempt to map the field of Arakanese studies from an academic point of view. I will also argue that it is time to move beyond out-dated accounts and particularly the”engaged”, culturally exclusive writing of history towards a more mature, academic-minded approach. The aims of such an approach are clear: construct a common ground among those who share an interest in Arakan's past and culture, setting apart political agendas from the level field of academic discussion, collecting and editing sources, sharing information, defining an agenda of cultural and historical research issues.

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After twenty years of academic work on Arakan's history, it is a pleasure to address an audience that embraces more than a curiosity for the region. First of all we should be grateful to the organisers of this event and thank them for giving the floor to a rmmber of scholars whose individual efforts have made sure that Arakan has not been completely forgotten. True, due to its isolation after the Secbnd World War, Arakan had remained until recently an area of marginal interest. Free access to the historical capital of Mrauk U was officially given in 1994. A growing number of publications over the last years and the opening up of the region to tourists and travellers have fortunately turned Arakan or Rakhaing into a less forgotten spot than it used to be.

From the point of view of academic research, we still do stand only at the beginning. What studies there are, appear as pioneering studies essentially laying the ground-work for future research. While each scholar has in his mind a number of important questions that pertain to his domain of specialty, taking stock, providing some general reflections on the field and outlining some of the challenges of Arakanese research at a forum like this one may prove to be useful.

When travelling you need a map, when building a house you need a master-plan, when doing research, you need a methodology and a clear idea of what you want to investigate. There is no general consensus now on what priorities there are in Arakanese studies. There has been no discussion on any kind of research agenda as there has been no established network yet. Indeed, Arakanese cultural studies have never been defined as an autonomous field of research. Having been involved in research on Arakan's history for a rather long time, I feel that this lack of focus hampers our approach of Arakan as a society on the fiontier between South Asia and Southeast Asia with its particularities and an identity of its own. Bat as long as we keep on looking at Arakan merely as a marginal land, we will interpret its history - as it has mostly been done – only as an extension of Burmese or Bengal history.

 

I will try in this paper to treat Arakanese studies as a field of cultural and historical research in its own right. Nobody will hold the naive view that you can narrowly define a field of research in purely geographic terms, using the term "Arakan" in its contemporary administrative borders only or referring to a single ethnic group. Itwould also be naive, say even useless, to define Arakanese studies merely as a kind of local or regional studies. The interest of focusing on Arakan's distant past is to discbver and understand the region's connectedness with its neighbours, not to isolate historical and cultural phenomena per se.

I will argue that if Arakanese studies have to teach us anything, it is how real fontiers are, but also how fIuid they are.

My second aim in this paper is to suggest the possibility of Arakanese studies as a field where people with diverse backgrounds and from various corners of academic scholarship could actively contribute towards the increase of our knowledge on an area that despite its modest role in history, gives proof of a cultural complexity that is suspected rather than well known. I say this because I am strongly aware of the fact that scholars who are very familiar with Bengal have until now not really 'tried to get an intimate knowledge of Arakan and vice-versa.

This paper is also meant as a call for creating an academic network on Arakanese studies. We need interdisciplinary approaches. Why we need them and how much we need these I would like to highlight in the first section of my paper.

 

1. Arakanese historical and cultural studies: A divided field of academic ilttevest astd research

I think that we would all agree on characterizing Arakanese historical and cultural studies as an amazingly divided field. It has been - and it is - geographically divided, culturally divided, politically divided and academically divided. Moreover it has not only been a divided field for academic research, but also a field of divided research. The reasons for some of this are not difficult to enumerate.

For many of us who discovered an interest in Arakan, their starting point was in Burmese studies, often history, art and archaeology. They discovered an area that had been left aside by the main stream of Burma historians who were absorbed by their interest for early Pagan or the rise and decline of Mon and Burmese kingdoms. Given the numerous connections and relations between Arakan and Burma proper, we have naturally perceived Arakan as a part, a sub-field, a variant of Burmese culture and civilization. One should note that this was never the way that people in Arakan have read their own past. For scholars, Arakan's connection with India was to be viewed through the fiamework of "Indianization", a process of cultural interaction that saw Hindu concepts, Buddhist practice and Indian art adapted, reformulated and transformed in Southeast Asia's cultural contacts.

But since the colonial period already, a tiny tlumber of Muslim writers had emphasised the strong cultural connection of Arakan with Bengal during the early modern period. It is true that they emphasised this connection sometimes to the point of portraying the whole of Arakan as an Islamicized polity, treating the advent of Islam before Buddhism. This approach stretched the evidence beyond recognition, but it brought a useful corrective to the perspective of the Araikanese chronicles on which the British colonial historians such as Phayre and Harvey had built their own narrow-minded paraphrase of indigenous historiography. Today we fully acknowledge that since the fifteenth century, Arakan copied the coins used in Bengal, in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, Persian was used as a medium of diplomatic exchange in Arakan and poets writing in sophisticated Bengali lived at the court of Arakan in the middle of the seventeenth century. In a well-known paper published for the first time in the Journal of the Burma Research Society in 1925, Maurice Collis, the British colonial judge and prolific writer, left a strongly value-added interpretation of Arakan's history when he stated that as long as Arakan was looking west towards India and came under Indian influence, it was developing, progressive and modern. Once it came under Eastern Burmese influence, it was bound to decline. I will not start to further examine this colonialist iriterpretation that I disapprove. Collis made nonetheless an important point: Arakan had not been in former times an isolated, marginal spot. It had always been included in the transitional space of intra-Asian East-West as well as North-South cultural exchanges.

More recently, the most important contribution to our knowledge of Arakan has come from scholars working on the Mughal Empire and on the Portuguese and Dutch presence in the Bay of Bengal and belonging to a field conveniently called Indo- Portuguese studies or Bay of Bengal studies. This was the case for people like Michael W. Cbarney, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Stephan van Galen, Ana Marques Guedes1 who have all made important contributions during the last fifteen years. Their studies have thrown much light on the economic life of the Mrauk U kingdom, the importance of the slave and rice trade, and the importance of Muslim and Portuguese mercenaries in Arakan. They have shown in particular that when we talk about the presence of Muslims in Arakan and the existence of an early Muslim community, we should not only recall a few poets and ministers at the court of Rakhine, but as well the massive deportations and settlements of Bengalis in Arakan before 1785. Muslim mercenaries, poets, traders and officials were few in number when compared to the thousands of slaves established along the Kaladan and Lemro rivers.

On the other hand, it is a fact that Arakan cannot be studied and cannot be understood without reference to the history of the Pyu, Mon and Burmsse kingdoms. Whatever genetic studies still will have to tell us, for the time being, we think of the Arakanese themselves as Tibeto-Burmans closely linked culturally and ethnically to the Burmese. Marma and Myanmar, to give but one illustration, are the same words.

In a word, this means that Arakan, though it may appear as a tiny strip of coastal plains shut off by mountain ranges to the east and by the seas of the Bay of Bengal to the west, for the purpose of research, has to be viewed in a much broader geographical framework than its own limited space. A good ejrample to illustrate this complexity are the writing systems that you find in Arakan: brahmiaerived gupta and Devanagari scripts in the early period, Burmese-Arakanese script in the later period, with Bengali and Persian script being occasionally found in inscriptions and on coins.

Studying Arakan needs a broad geographical approach. But the obvious need for being aware of both Bengal and Burmese history to study Arakan has not and still does not match with the generally professed academic categories of South Asia and Southeast Asia. As a part of Burma, Arakan is considered a part of Southeast Asia. Bengal is a part of India and as such a part of South Asia. True, few people could see themselves as having an expertise for both cultural zones. But thinking of the best way to look at Arakan, this division is very unfortunate if one holds that these categories have an intrinsic and final meaning. Actually such divisions are relatively recent, but they aredeeply entrenched in our academic mind-sets in the post-colonial period thanks to a particular geopolitical representation of the world.

By and large, during two thousand years of history, Arakan has always been open to a flow of exchange and communication with Bengal. This flow of exchange has been strongest during the times that city-states and polities were flourishing on the Arakanese soil, the Vesali period (5th to 7th c.), the early and middle Mrauk U period (15th  to 17th c.). During the British colonial period, there was no political border at all between Arakan and Bengal and Arakan and Burma and this situation enabled a migration that brought tens of thousands of Burmese into Arakan, and an even much greater number of Chittagonians to Northern Arakan.

It is because of this demographic revolution in Arakan that I consider the British colonial period as a major break in Arakan's history. Many Arakanese consider the Burmese conquest of 1785 as the crucial break in their history, sometimes as the end of their own home-grown culture, and the focus of their nostalgia is on this date. No doubt, it is an important date in the historical narrative and in the collective memory. But too much fixation on the date when the kingdom came to an end has distracted attention from the impact of the difficult and disturbing period of British colonization, a period that the Arakanese remember less harshly.

Arakan was under British control for 120 years and Upper Burma was so for only a bit more than 60 years. During these 120 years of colonization, there was barely any kind of economic development in Arakan beyond rice cultivation. The expansive development of rice production was directly linked to the settlement of Chittagonian agricultural labour in Arakan. This demographic revolution created a situation where since the early twentieth century, one third of the population in Arakan were Muslims of Bengal origin. How can we assess its impact? The history of the MusIim population in Arakan during the imperial age, from 3870 to 1930, is statistically documented, but as far as I have access to sources, its social and economic history goes unstudied.

One important consequence of this demographic revolution was that with few exceptions, at the end of the 19th century, the old community of properly Arakanese Muslims going back to the independent kingdom was drowned among the newly arriving part-time workers and settlers.

 

The unrestricted growth of the Muslim community in Arakan (one may recall that from the 1920s on, immigration of labour from India to Burma was regulated in Lower Burma, but not in Arakan) was already seen as problematic by contemporary observers since the 1920s. It lay at the origins of communal tensions that evolved into the tragic history of hostility and confiontation, cover-up, violence and state failure in the post-colonial period.

The point made here is that this demographic change is the main legacy of British colonialism in Arakan and it is obviously at the origin of social division and communal strive in Arakan today. It is also partly responsible for the way that discussions on Arakan's history have been hijacked by debates on the legitimacy of Muslim settlers in Arakan. Since the 1950s, Muslims and Buddhists in Arakan alike have been struggling to adapt pieces and bits ·of history into politically and ideologically convenient reconstructions of Arakan's past. So many publications start by invoking objectivity just to deliver selective readings of a history that has never been thoroughly explored. There is no need to specially emphasise the lack of objectivity, the core issue is a lack of research. I am afraid to say that more research was not always perceived as desirable as more knowledge makes people more modest on their historical claims and pretensions. Buddhists and Muslims alike have struggled to claim a kind of right of the first-born or first arrived in Arakan. So few things are actually lanown of Arakan's prehistory, protohistory, population history and early political history and claims made in the nationalist historiography cannot be related to any commonly established historical research.

Oddly enough, the settlement history of Arakan became a battlefield of arguments while the considerable economic and social change in Arakan in the 19th and 20th centuries has nowhere been treated as a subject of scholarly investigation.

In a paper I was asked to write eight years ago, I had a close look at what had been earlier written on Arakanese history and I detailed in some way how certain representations of Arakan had been constructed. Seen from Bengal, Arakan appears as a robber state, a nest of barbarians, a nuisance on the flesh of the Mughui Empire. This mostly negative bias was due to two reasons: first, the historic experience of the Arakanese slave-raids against the coasts of southeast Bengal in the 17th and 18th centuries and second, the imperial language of Persian chronicle sources where the political and military endeavours of a minor kingdom are not interpreted as signs of territorial expansion, but as signs of insubordination to the Emperor.

Seen from Burma, Arakan appears as a tiny but stubbornly self-conscious Buddhist kingdom, home of the Mahamuni statue. For sure, the Arakanese kings did not see themselves as uncivilised barbarians; they did not consider themselves as culturally inferior.

The Burmese and Mon kings may have looked at Arakan as a place that should come under their sway, but the country mostly succeeded at safeguarding its independence. After the conquest, there was a sincere interest at the court of Amarapura for Arakan and its court tradition. The Burmese kings saw themselves as inheriting the territorial claims on Bengal that the Arakanese kings had had in their better days. The lost, but warmly remembered greatness of the Arakanese monarchy was revived by Arakanese enthusiasts such as San Shwe Bu and British colonial writers such as Maurice Collis. But in the way that they do not pay any attention to the secular relations of Arakan with Bengal, they do provide us with another one-sided look at Arakanese history.

To conclude this point: No serious researcher can deal with the history of Arakan inside the contemporary political borders alone. Geographically and culturally, he has to look beyond the "State of Rakhaing" and involve himself with the past of Bengal, India, Burma and the Bay of Bengal waters. But politically defined borders and academically drawn borders of geopolitical and cultural zones have been obstacles to such a generous approach. To my knowledge, at no University history department in Bangladesh, India or Burma, such a transnational or intercultural approach is pursued with regard to the eastern Bay of Bengal.

The colonial history of Arakan has created a confrontational situation of two communities claiming each a dominant share in Arakan's past. In the course of identity building and cultural self-defense, academic and public discussions on exploring the sources of the past have been handicapped and the complexities of historical developments have been sacrificed for the sake of - what I see as - many one-sided, self-centred and confrontational statements.

2. A frontier culture

Having made these statements on the geographical, political, communal and academic divisions that block a broader and more generons approach to Arakan's culture and history, I would like to outline what I see as a better conceptual approach. Discussions on categories, terms and meanings may occasionally seem vain and superfluous. But one cannot simply move beyond if we want build up a network on Arakanese studies where scholars need to share an understanding of key terms, will try to improve our categories and chronologies because they ultimately want to strengthen our understanding of Arakan's past.

What terms, what concepts are appropriate to frame the subject of Arakanese studies? How can we characterize our object of study in a flexible and adaptable way without loosing the focus of a specific cultural expression and a historically original process?

1. Let me first say that I have kept on calling "Arakan" Arakan or Rakhine. I do not see what we have to win in cultural studies by using other less conventional geographic labels. But I always stress that this term does not and cannot have in terms of geographic or cultural extent the same meaning in the tenth, seventeenth and twentieth century. In history and in anthropology, we are talking about human communities and political entities. We are talking about the spaces wlrere societies evolve. These spaces have always been varying, which means that their borders have been moving. In a way, making this point is to state a topos of historians as there are plenty of examples where accepted geographical names are applied to territories of varying extension in history (e.g. France, Germany, the Low Countries to name but a few in Europe).

To state even more of the obvious: Historians will talk about the valleys more often than the mountains, so do archaeologists, as rice-growing cultures developed urban sites in valleys and remains of these sites may still be seen or may be studied by doing excavations. Our interest for human settlements in the Kaladan valley and our understanding of culture one thousand or two thousand years ago has rarely something in common with space defined by political borders of this day.

Michael W. Charney seems to have abandoned the term "Arakan" altogether, and has persistently been using the term "Western Burma" when he refers to Arakan. Earlier, he had coined the term "Banga-Arakan continuum". Both terms are plausible attempts to define a larger geographic space than "Arakan", but as they are not terms whose specific meaning is understood by convention, they are begging for definitions that are linked to particular contexts. But the strongest argument against the use of "Western Burma" meaning Arakan (plus something else) is that in Burma itself, the term "anauk-paing" refers to the land on the western side of the Irrawaddy (at least up to Pakokku). Unless definitions are generally agreed upon, newly coined terms are only more or less useful labels.

Seen from Mughal India, Arakan was merely a barbarian extension of eastern Bengal, seen from Burma it was a disobedient marginal principality on the western fringe of the kingdom. Let us not put into question Arakan's identity by denying it its own name and let's keep on calling it "Arakan". Marginality is one aspect of Arakan's history that we cannot deny, - in this sense Richard Eaten had a point calling it a "niche kingdom", but I do not think that it is useful to define the field of Arakanese studies by focusing on this position of eccentric marginality.

2. In Southeast Asian history, kingdoms have been categorized as land- or sea- based, depending on the bulk of their resources and their political and commercial networks. The distinction has not been easy to the point that you can put all continental Southeast Asian polities into the category of land-based state formations. Chris Baker recently asked the question of Ayutthaya being of sea rather than land. For Arakan, the same question holds true and Sanjay Subrahmanyam who wanted to assign Arakan a place in the Bay of Bengal has been struggling with an answer regarding Arakan's hybridity. Arakan's military superiority in the seventeenth century, its emergence in the fifteenth and sixteenth and its survival in the 18th can only be explained by its domination on the waterways and along the coast. But Arakan was never a maritime power. These are not the categories that we are looking for to catch the essence of Arakanese cultural studies. Similar problems that I will not address here, appear with regard to chronological divisions and periodization.

My own suggestion to give a sufficiently flexible framework to Arakanese studies is to define Arakan's culture as a frontier culture. Seeing Arakan primarily as a fiontier culture has theoretical and practical advantages. It means that we escape a narrow definition of a predominantly Buddhist state while keeping the focus on Arakan's connectedness to its neighbouring regions.

 

The term "frontier" is a key term for historians and has been the object of extensive reflection2. When we were working on the edition of the papers of the Coastal Burma conference in Amsterdam 1998, we opted for a title of the book that was radically different from the title of the conference by choosing "maritime frontier". As Burma's history had always been exclusively told from the view-point of the capitals of its land- based kingdoms, one aim of that conference was to look at Burma from outside, from the sea. It was not to look at what was going on along the coasts, but to look at frontiers and to explore how cultural, commercial and political interaction gave a profile to the maritime frontier. The conference did unfortunately not deliver on the expectation of arriving at a common vision of the whole coastline of Burma running fiom the Naf River down to Kawthaung covering Arakan, Lower Burma and.Tenasserim. But as half of the papers were devoted to Arakan, it was very inspiring to see how religion, culture, politics and economy of Arakan could be embedded in various geographic contexts that emphasized the notion of the "frontier". If there was no common vision appearing, it was due to the reason that Arakan and Tenasserim really represent two different social and political realities.

The kind of~frontiers that are central to our investigations of Arakanese history and culture are first of all less than rigid ethnic-linguistic frontiers that allow us to distinguish a predominantly Tibeto-Burman zone and an Indo-Aryan zone. South-eastern Bengal and Manipur are two examples to show how intertwined these distinctive zones often are.The study of the ethnic-linguistic fiontier is not only relevant in the context of purely linguistic and anthropological studies. If we recall G.H. Luce's investigations into the early population of Burma, we may appreciate its importance for the early history of Burma as well.

Religious and cultural frontiers divide as much as they connect adepts of textually based religions such as Buddhism and Islam and of native non-literate religious practices. These frontiers have formatted much of our approach to the area, as I have explained earlier, focusing our attention on the question of the historical character of a Muslitn community in the Buddhist kingdom of Arakan. It should be clear that the term "frontier" as I understand it here, is not a refortnulation of the illusory concept of a perennial Muslim-Buddhist divide. It would also be abusive to understand the term of "cultural frontier" as belonging to a terminology of exclusiveness that applies superiority-inferiority standards.

The cultural frontier I am referring to is about complexity not about exclusiveness.The notion of a cultural fiontier implies diversity and exchange. Where there is cultural diversity, there is also an awareness of differences and we can generally hypothesize a situation where people develop an acute sense of their identity because they are positively challenged to maintain their cultural profile. On the other hand, groups that are in a marginal position need to adapt to ensure their continuing existence.

Muslim trading communities have flourished in Buddhist monarchies all over continental Southeast Asia and in Buddhist China. Muslim communities have adapted in various political and cultural contexts and they have positively cultivated their identities. The challenge to assess the nature of the religious-cultural frontier in Arakan lies in a comparative approach that takes into account the large array of cross-cultural exchange in other parts of Asia where Muslim communities took root in a predominantly Buddhist environment.

Acknowledging the cultural-religious frontier as a defining characteristic of Arakan's past and present, I also see it as a convenient frame-work for roads of investigations that have hitherto not been taken. To name but two of them, I would refer to the Hiridu-Buddhist frontier that implies research in art history and religion on the extent at which either Mahayana Buddhism or Hinduism were prominent or to what point Hindu elements were integrated in the religious practice. Another field of enquiry is the integration of daily religious practices and of non-Buddhist behefs into a Buddhist framework.

Define

Turning to a core domain of historical investigation, politics and the exercise of power, we face the intricate question of political frontiers. Delineating political frontiers looks more like a factual, even technical matter if we compare it with the description of ethnic and cultural fiontiers. In the case of Arakan, the situation is far fiom clear and rather difficult to assess. Historians have glossed over the issue, occasionally statements found in the sources have been taken at their face-value or they have been fully rejected.

In the broader historical and geopolitical context, northern Arakan marks in a way the farthest extent of Bengal, and where the Arakanese were challenged by the Mughals,i.e. in the Chittagong area, the Chittagong province indicates the limits of the most eastern extension of the Mughal empire. Bengal's south-east on the other hand was in a sense the farthest western extent of Arakanese power, and at least, in its claims of sovereignty in the early 19th century, the farthest extension of Burmese political power towards the west. But where can we exactly locate the political frontiers?

Take the case of King Minba's attacks against south-eastern Bengal around 1540 and the mystifying description that the Arakanese sources give. How far did his troops actually go? How far did his ships sail and his boatmen row? What battles did they fight?

The chronicle account suggests an invasion encompassing a vast area that merely excludes parts of North and Western Bengal. It looks highly improbable. "Dhaka" was important in the 17th c. and Murshedabad in the 18th c. None of them was important in the 16th c. The account also tells us about Minba's elephant. But did Arakanese troops ever use elephants to invade Bengal? Unfortunately Chittagong is barely alluded to in the account, but it has been claimed as an Arakanese conquest of these times and it is even likely that the Arakanese could at that time get a hold over the port city for some years. How can we deal with this gap between ambitiously stated territorial claims and effectively controlled land and people? There seems to be a fair share of anachronisms in our sources. So among various reasons, the question of political frontiers is important because it reflects on the way that we come to think of Arakanese historiographic sources in general.

Defining borders politically involves geography, political power and varying concepts of what a border is. Suffice to think of the problems of border definition among British and Burmese during the years when the Burmese soldiers pursued the Aralanese rebels over the Naf River. There is not much evidence either about the southern borders of Arakan over the centuries.

To clarify the issue, we have to differentiate between areas where the kings had an effective territorial control on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the range of lands where political influence and hegemonic claims could be enforced. In a way, this means that one has to study Arakan's territorial expansion in some detail and assess what areas were core lands and where the Arakanese navy could enforce the claims of its kings.

 

We can discuss for example about the control that the Arakanese had over places south of Chittagong before they had an effective control over the port of Chittagong in the fifteenth century. Effective control means that you appoint a governor, you levy taxes and you may have a garrison onthe spot. Little is still known on the garrisons besides the one in Chittagong. Arakan's territorial expansion in the late 16th century came at the price of a large buffer zone that was waste-land: the region north of Chittagong up to the Feni River in the Noakhali province, that land was depopulated. Towards the west, the Arakan Yoma created a natural frontier between the Upper and Lower Burma kingdoms. Did the Arakanese merely control the ports, did they build fortresses to have a control over the hinterland? What we can derive from our sources would suggest that the Arakanese expansion resembles the Portuguese presence in the north-eastern Bay of Bengal: integration and control of a commercial network with a minimum of territorialism. Such a type of expansion is better represented with arrows than with coloured patches on a map.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the power of the Arakanese kings reached well beyond their core zone of royal lands. The Arakanese fleets could reach Southeast Bengal and raid the countryside. The psychological impact of these raids was considerable and became part of the Arakanese military strategy. One can thus define a zone of political influence because of the latent impact that Arakanese coastal power could have. When the power of the kings was shrinking, the people in Lower Burma or Bengal could sleep more quietly as they were exposed to Arakanese attacks. The Surviving Arakanese communities in Bengal notably in Tripura and Patuakhali are remnants of this wider expansion of Arakanese in the area.

From the point of view of the Mughals, the sheer existence and survival of Arakan as an independent Buddhist kingdom on the margins of the Empire pointed to the limits of its power. From the point of view of the Burmese and Mon kings, the resurgence of an independent Arakanese kingdom also pointed to the limits of their military capacity and of their ability to exert influence on this resilient polity at their western margins.

Ethnic-linguistic frontiers or cultural fiontiers should not be seen as barriers or obstacIes. Even the difficulty to clearly identify some of Arakan's political frontiers during history points both to changing political realities and to a concept that was less determined than in the Western tradition. Frontiers are thresholds where researchers can pursue the fascinating study of the flow of ideas, influences, impacts and innovations that run in parallel with the flow of trade goods. Thinking of Arakan's culture mainly as a frontier culture means to keep a look on both sides of the frontier. The awareness of these frontiers and the discussion of their permeability help us to create meaningful contexts in which we can set our questions and analyse the body of our sources.

The "cultural frontier" as a concept is metbodologically useful. But it is not only a key starting-point for our investigations. It is first of all a descriptive term for a social reality of diverging cultural communities. It has also an explanatory value as it largely explains the sharp awareness that people do have of their own contrasting identities. Less than two hundred years ago, Isan (North-eastern Slam) was subjected to the rule of the Central Thai kings, Arakan was a bit earlier conquered by the Burmese. Both Lao and Arakanese are culturally akin to their conquerors. But why do the Arakanese remember so well and still resent so deeply the Burmese conquest and the Lao of Isan now see themselves essentially as Thai? I wondered many times about this process of integration and I would suggest that the Arakanese have had for centuries a keener sense of their difference and their own identity that was ultimately formatted by the particular frontier context in which they lived.

The flow of ideas can produce different types of reactions: acceptance, rgection or the integration of compromises. Both Islam and Buddhism are missionary religions. A population submitting to a Buddhist king, for example, could either accept Buddhism, or it could reject effiorts at conversion, or it could adopt certain features of Buddhist practice and creeds by integrating them into an existing systetn of belief and practice. What can int this regards be said on Arakan during the early modem period about which I feel myself competent to talk.

As my time is limited, it would be a vain attempt to wind my way with arguments and descriptions through 350 years of Arakan's history to illustrate in detail why defining Arakanese studies as the study of a frontier culture makes good sense. I want to focus on a single key moment in Arakan's early Mrauk U history, the time of its foundation and the figure of Min Saw Mwan, the alleged founder of Mrauk U.

First of all we have to deplore the simple, say even simplistic and uncritical way that the story of Min Saw Mwan has been told and retold until nowadays. In the early fifteenth century, it is said, troops of the Burmese kings invaded Arakan and the Arakanese king ran away to Bengal. The Burmese, it seems, would have been kicked out by the Mons some time later, but nothing, strictly nothing is known on what happened exactly in Arakan during the next years until the moment when the exiled king is said to have come back. He came back, runs the story, with the help of the sultan of Bengal.

The story in its most elaborate form is found in Nga Me's still unpublished chronicle written at the request of Arthur P· Phayre, the governor of Arakan in the early 1840s. Though there are no precise names, no reliable dates and no independent Bengali sources on this story, though there is no historical proof that can be made to any claim made in this story, it has been accepted as a matter of fact that the Arakanese king went indeed to Bengal to obtain military help. No Buddhist and no Muslim author no more than any British colonial historian has had any doubt about some factual truth contained in the story.

Why? First of all, the story was told in a summary way by Arthur Phayre himself first in an article published in 1842 and then again in his History of Buma. Most people believe it because it has always been told like that and because it was written by an author people have trusted. Second, as the Story was based on a native tradition, it had the credentials of an original source. Third, the story has been successful, because a gives a very simple explanation for a truly complex process. Fourth, until now, there has been no critical examination of the facts described in that story because there has been no systematic and critical analysis of Arakanese historical sources and how the chronicles emerged

I am very critical of this story for many reasons. First of all, there are few things that we can really rely on. We only have Arakanese accounts. There are no Burmese, no Mon and no Bengali sources. There are no inscriptions and there are no independent alternative accounts. The king who mounted on the throne in 1401, 1404 or 1410 is called Naramithlha, but when he comes back to Arakan, he is said to be Min Saw Mwan, though there is no explanation for this change of name. How long was he away from Arakan, four, ten or twenty years? Why did he go to Bengal? What did he do in Bengal if he went there? Why would a sultan of Bengal have helped him?

For decades, most authors have paid little or no attention to the identity of the sultan of Bengal at the time though scholarship on Bengal's fifteenth century offered revised accounts and offered considerable progress in historical research. It is clear that the sultan at that precise time was Jalaluddin and it would be extremely difficult to understand what could have been the involvement of this Hindu convert and zealous Muslim with a strictly minor Arakanese lord on the very hinges of the sultanate. Just to discuss the issue, some key questions on the status of Chittagong at that time would also need to be clarified first.

Phayre himself gave some credibility to his source, the chronicle of Nga Me, because he dropped in his English rendering two fabulous accounts on Min Saw Mwan during his stay in Bengal. Nga Me tells us that the Arakanese king taught the Bengalis how to catch elephants and he is also credited with some fanciful tricks that helped the Bengal sultan to conquer Delhi. This is a nice example of the methodology of colonial writers when they deal with Asian sources. They strip from the sources what they consider as fantastic and arrange what they deem to be credible facts in a newly conceived linear account. In a way, one can say that Phayre suppressed core evidence that would obviously make us suspicious of the source itself.

For a historian of the twenty-first century, the essential question need not be if this story is right or wrong. The story is simply there and we have to deal with it as it is. But if we cannot safely answer the question if that king went to Bengal or not, if he received any military support or not, because there is no source, we can still ask other questions. One such question would be what the function of this story is in the historiographic tradition. Why do the chroniclers tell us this story? Clearly, the story underscores the fact that Bengal was a powerful state in the 15th century, a place somebody may have turned to for military support. What does the author (or what did they) want to explain to their readers regarding Arakan?

At least one answer comes out relatively clear. When the Arakanese chronicle account talks about King Minba's invasions of Southeast Bengal a hundred years later, around 1540, it tells us that Minba's wars were legitimate, because before Min Saw Mwan's return to Arakan, he had left a Iarge part of Bengal to the sultan as a token of gratitude for the military support. Legitimacy has always been an important aspect in warfare. A righteous ruler does not want to be portrayed as a blood-thirsty barbarian. The story involving Min Saw Mwan makes thus a lot of sense if we see it in the context of legitimizing Minba's later warfare in southeast Bengal.

What has this problematic analysis of Min Saw Mwan's career to do with the concept of the "frontier culture"? This example involves the issue of political and ethnic frontiers, of political realities on the ground, of material contacts between these areas in the fifteenth century. What is primarily an issue of Burman and Mon expansion into Arakan can only be understood against the background of Bengal's place in the region. This is what the story as the chroniclers tell it suggests. This is also the point where the concept of a cultural frontier appears as an important reminder to look for contextual meaning rather than focus on hard-core facts alone. We have no accounts on regular embassies between the courts of Bengal and Arakan, there is no track record of political relations between these two neighbours, there is but this single mention of a significant favour that the sultan would have given his exiled colleague. Why was it important to report, and I would rather say, why was it important to invent this story of a request to the Bengal sultan?

We have to bear in mind that the historical poems, the literary and religious works, the chronicles were not written for us today, they were neither written for the mass of the people of these days, but they were written for an educated elite by members of that same elite. Kings who had to build up their legitimacy and strengthen their claim on power had to cater for the needs of many publics though. You do not speak the same language to culturally different communities.

One example are the multilingual coins, a classic example of the cultural frontier that crosses the region. Arakanese kings copied at first the coins of Bengal because the nicest and best made coins of the region were the coins of the Bengal sultans. But the coins of Arakan gained their own profile. Coins were supposed to talk to more people than to a mere elite and the fact that the warrior kings of the late 16th and early 17th  century minted trilingual coins shows us that they wanted to communicate their claim on power to their subjects, be they Muslim or Buddhist, be they literate in Bengali, Persian or Rakhaing. Generally I tend to hypothesize that the discourse of kings is necessarily an inclusive discourse.

With these few illustrations, I would like to bring this section to an end.I stated earlier that Arakanese studies have suffered from division and from a certain narrow-mindedness of purpose. I have argued now that we need a conceptual approach that helps us to broaden our scope and that constantly reminds us that the past we are talking about has been a shared past.

3. Major challenges and issues of Auakanese Studies

In the last section of my paper, I would like to give a brief presentation of what I see as some major challenges and issues of Arakanese studies. What these are altogether cannot be decided or defined by a single scholar and this is necessarily a personal point of view. I would like to limit myself to matters of history and religion and subjects that I see as closely related to them, as this is I what some of my current work at the EFEO centre in Yangon is concerned with.

Sources - Archaeology and Edited texts When people in Burma have repeatedly asked me if I would be ready to write a short history of Arakan, in my reply I have consistently referred to our lack of knowledge on early Arakanese history. I would say any question regarding early human settlements, early polities, early Indic traits of civilisation, early Baddhism, early Islam etc. are big questions, as we are craving for a lot more facts. First of all, we need more archaeological research so as to know more about Arakan's early history. Archaeology is, I believe, the single most important and the most promising field of research in Arakan (as it is Bruma generally by the way).It is comforting to see that promising work is now on its way with some motivated and better trained people and to see that Bob Hudson takes an active interest in mapping some of the old sites.

For many of us, archaeology in Arakan means above all excavations in Vesali and Dhannawati. But there are more urban sites to be investigated to obtain the data that will allow us to critically assess (or to discard) the meagre chronicle accounts of succeeding dynasties and so called capitals. While the contours of the first millenniutn do not entirely lie in the dark, Arakan still lacks a prefiistory though nobody will hypothesize that Arakan did not have prehistoric human settlements. Simply no systematic investigations have been done until now. I would like to mention in this context Professor Dilip K. Chakrabarti's suggestion in his Ancient Bangladesh regarding a connection between the “Lalmai-Tripua Prehistoric Fossilwood Industry" and the fossilwood industry in Burma. This hypothesis points to connections that transgress the divide between South Asian and SEA archaeology.

Next to the critical importance of archaeology comes the availability of first-hand textual sources. In fact, we are still in a phase of merely getting our materials prepared for serious research. "Preparing" means copying texts from palm-leaf manuscripts, editing them for our own use, computerizing them, investigating meanings, above all trying to unravel the genealogy of textual traditions, and hopefully translating some of them.

Until quite recently, a lot of my own research work relied on the printed versions of Arakanese historiography such as Candamalalankara's chronicle and various editions of the Dhannavati Ayedawpan. This is simply not good enough. I am glad to notice that among leading Myanmar historians, there is now a growing awareness that historiographic texts that have been edited in the colonial period have been willfully “corrected" by their editors and do not respond to the criteria of scientific edition regarding the original spellings of the manuscripts. For Arakanese studies, we need to produce methodical text editions that provide the indispensable material conditions to study the genetics of text traditions and form the basis of critical historical studies.

At the EFEO centre, since 2002, we have started to systematically list Arakanese manuscripts traced in public and private collections and computerize them. Our focus has been on historiography and on Buddhist texts. But Arakanese literature also comprises texts on medicine, law and poetry that have hitherto not been duly catalogued and investigated. The overall contribution of this Arakanese literature to Burmese literature is one issue that I would like to stress. Hopefully similar work could be undertaken among those outside Arakan who identify themselves with an Arakanese homeland regarding the archival record, the cultural monuments and the living tradition of cultural practice. As many texts exist only in single or few copies, this work of conservation and computerization of information is really an important task.

Another desideratum of Arakanese historical studies have been for a long time the inscriptions. Close to none of them are available in a published form. At a conference earlier this year, an Arakanese scholar was asked how many such inscriptions existed. He replied "about a hundred". His estimation is far from the mark, as we have listed now more than two hundred. Systematically collecting these inscriptions, transcribing them and getting them edited in a way that makes them accessible to the scholarly world is one of our projects. I am even hopell that I can publish them in Myanmar. Pali, Sanskrit and Arakanese mscriptions form the biggest lot of inscriptions, but I would like to mention that French scholars are making a catalogue of all Arabic and Persian inscriptions in Southeast Asia and would welcome information on such inscriptions in our area. Such work of recording, collecting and editing can be started by a few, but it cannot be successfully fulfilled by just a few. It is a long term invesrment requesting the support of many people.

My own research on early modern Arakan has taught me that a better knowledge of Arakan during the period of the Burmese administration and the early British cdlonial period could help me in my critical understanding of Arakanese histoty and historiography. But our study of colonial Arakan and of subjects during that period is problematic. Due to storms, insects and neglect, many British colonial archives in Arakan have disappeared a long time ago. Until now, we have no thorough study of Arakan's colonial history written as a distinct story from British colonial history in Burma. For 19th century Arakan, we know things by bits and pieces only unless you are satisfied by the dearth of information found in the gazetteers. I do not think though that there is nothing at all found in the archives and libraries to deal with the issue of the British period in Arakan.

To give Arakanese studies a fuller range of means to develop, we also need more research in the field of linguistics, of anthropology, of physical and human geography, of human ecology and of material culture in general. Some of this could best be done by people of the country. I see some encouraging beginnings in the relatively numerous MA theses submitted by Arakanese students to the University of Yangon in the 1990s and hopefully we will see more of this on the level of PhD theses in the future.

As I have gone to some length to state that a better access to sources is a major issue, I should mention as well that other textual sources that we need to digest do exist in Burmese, in Persian, in Bengali, in Dutch, in Portuguese, in English and maybe in languages of quarters unknown to me. To surf the cultural frontier, we have to give ourselves the means to cross the linguistic barriers.

History of religion in Arakan - We know what Buddhism and Islam are and that there is an overwhelming number of Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan, but we know few things about the history of these religions. Due to a lack of anthropological field work on the Daing-nak, Khami, Sak and Mro, we lack also information on their religious beliefs and practices3. From a scholarly point of view, we cannot be satisfied with the strongly idealized, simplified and embellished accounts of the pious followers of the book religions. Academic scholars are not supposed to accept the acknowledged record of the believers, but to critically review andhave conversations on the evidence they extract from sources.

As I would be much less competent on Islam than on Buddhism, I will talk more about the latter one. I stress the importance of actively studying the history of Buddhist monasticism in Burma, Arakan and the neighbouring areas of East Bengal and Northeast India. The perennial character of Buddhist monastic insftations has too often been taken for granted as the Theravada establishment claims a faultless line coming down from the Buddha himself. Major issues are, to name but a few, how Mahayana Buddhism progressively disappeared in East Bengal after the 13th century and how Matlayana and Theravada Buddhism fared in early Arakan since the 5th century AD. When did the Theravada that we know as the institutional reiigion of a majority of Arakanese during the Mrauk U period triumph over alternative forms of Buddhism? How can we assess the claim that since a very early period, there would have been regular contacts with Sri Lanka initiated by Arakanese kings? What about monastic education? What about the practical canon and the transmission of texts? The impact of King Bodawphaya's religious reform missions on the sangha is a major issue of Konbaung period religious history and it has some relevance for Arakan as we would likk to understand the interaction between the Arakanese and the Burmese sangha on the one hand, and on the other hand, the impact on Arakan of the wider movement of monastic reform that spread in the Theravada Buddhist world from Sri Lanka to Siam since the 18th century.

In the context of the cultural frontier, the sub-field of Arakanese Buddhist studies looks also particularly interesting because we need to consider issues of religious syncretism, religious practice, communal co-existence and change involved by Arakan's exposure to political and religious influences from the Burma kingdoms or the Bengal Muslim world. The notion of the "frontier" is a key element in my approach towards Arakanese Buddhism, because I am interested both in its particular, original traits and in what it shares with the history of institutional and practical Buddhism in Southeast Asia in general.

Documenting change in Buddhist history is one major challenge and it is exceptionally difficult. It is difficult for reasons that relate to our iconographic and textual sources, but it is also particaiarly difficult because for a long time institutional continuity as a defining mark of Theravada has been taken for granted by both practitioners and scholars.

Historical scholarship does not make substantial progress when change is categorized simply in terms that stress a foreign impact. Terms such as Tslamicization, Bengalization or Burmanization are strongly suggestive of cultural hegemonies, but they are also highly ambiguous. The extension of the political or social space does not suppress ethnic or cultural boundaries, but rather reinforces both majority and marginal identities. There is sufficient evidence for this in Arakan. While the social and cultural frontier is questioned and challenged, it is also positively confirmed. A particular process of assimilation is not predictable. I think that the tens of thousands of Burmese who migrated to Arakan during the colonial period tend of the 19" century) did not burmanize Arakan, but were rather well integrated into the Arakanese Buddhist society. It is not outrageous to assume that there was a fairly high degree of integration of culturally divergent non-Arakanese in the pre-colonial period of Arakan's independence. One may quote the case of the Kaman of Ramree in this context. Islamicization, Bengalization or Burmanization are broad categories that have no heuristic value unless it is made clear to what degree they are applicable.

A last very brief point brings me back to our textual sources: the need for self-criticism. We shouId embrace current efforts in Burmese and Indian history to deconstruct and demythologize existing writing on Arakan's history. It is very important to re-read and re-examine sources, colonial and post-colonial historio~graphy and ingrained standard interpretations and put a set of questions that undergraduate students are required to exercise, but that seasoned historians occasionally fail to address. Superficially we may think that it is paradoxical that Alaol does not tell us much about the Buddhists in the prolegomena to his poetry and that in the Arakanese yazawin and shyauk-thon, there is close to nothing to be found on the Portuguese and Indian mercenaries in the Arakanese navy. The reason is that the poet and the chroniclers did not write for the same audience. They also had to write what their audience wanted to hear. To recover something of this unknown land of the past, historians have occasionally been tempted to replace scarcity of information by eulogising paraphrases and to cover uncertainty by a veil of extrapolations. Not all that has been written during the colonial and post-colonial period is wrong. But nothing should be excepted from fair criticism.

Conclusion

To conclude my presentation, I would like to come back for a second to the title of my paper: Arakanese Studies: challenges and contested issues / mapping a fJield of historical and cultural research. I may have said less than what the title announces. But I may have said enough to address the core issues and challenges that lie before us. We should aim to establish Arakanese studies as an autonomous field of research in the large context of Bay of Bengal studies. "Contested issues", there are many, but controversy is a normal thing in academic- scholarship. "Mapping the field" is a call for action, it is the task of all those who are involved in the field and have to position their work with regard to the work of others. I would hope that this call for action will result in piactical steps towards the creation of a network of Arakanese studies.

Notes

1. References can be found in the reference section at the end of this paper.
2. Research on the "American frontier" was followed, by pioneering research on the China frontiers, the Hindu cultural frontier etc. For a discussion that pays attention to Burma, see for example Jos Gommans paper in Gommans/ Leider 2002.
3. For eanolopical research on the Cak and Marma, see Lucien Bemot's publications and for research on the Mro, see G. Liifner (bibliographical data not available at the moment of finishing this paper).

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 This paper was submitted at "Arakan History Conference", Bangkok 23.11 - 25.11.2005, organised by the Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand.

(Draft only. Please don't quote)