Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

Recent Reports 
 Support HRW 
About HRW
Site Map
Human Rights Watch - Home Page


Northern Arakan, consisting of contemporary Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, has since the late eighteenth century been a region of intermittent unrest and refugee flows. Thousands of Rohingya fled to what is now Bangladesh in four main periods: the late 1700s and early 1800s, the 1940s, 1978 and, most recently, in 1991and 1992. Refugee flows have been prompted by ethnic and religious conflict which were in turn triggered by broader political struggles. This section provides a description of each of the first three flights and concludes with specific attention to the 1991-92 exodus, asylum and return. A historic overview of the region not only serves to reveal the long history of refugee flows in the area, but also traces the attachment of the Rohingya to northern Arakan and thus their firmly established link to what is modern Burma.

The Rohingya were once counted as a part of the Mrauk-U (Mrohaung) kingdom in Arakan which stood independent of both the Burman kingdoms in the Irrawaddy delta and central Burma as well as Bengal and the Moguls to the west. Muslim traders came to the area in the eighth century when the local dynasty was seated at Wesali, not far from contemporary Mrauk-U and some of the traders settled along the shores. More Muslim sailors made their way to the Arakan region during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Migrants also gradually filtered into Arakan from neighboring Muslim Bengal. In the 1400s, when Mrauk-U was invaded by forces of the Burman kingdom at Ava, King Narmeikhla sought help from Bengal and expelled the invaders with the help of a Muslim army. The link between Bengal and Mrauk-U from this point solidified, to the extent that the Mrauk-U king began to use Muslim court titles along with traditional ones. Buddhist kings ruled Mrauk-U but Muslim officials often played a significant role in the court. Indeed, the inclusion of a variety of ethnic minority and religious officers in courts was a common practice throughout the mainland Southeast Asian sub-region.

In 1784, the Burman King Bodawpaya conquered and incorporated the Arakan region into his kingdom of Ava in central Burma. As a consequence of the invasion, refugees began to pour into what is today the Cox's Bazar area of southern Chittagong. Cox's Bazar takes its name from the British lieutenant who was sent to the area to organize and provide relief for the refugees.1 One of the groups of dissatisfied Rohingya that fled to British controlled Chittagong in East Bengal proceeded to conduct raids against the Burman king. In one incident, the king's men pursued the Rohingya insurgents into British territory.2 The incursion led to tension between the British colonial government and King Bodawpaya over the king's demands for extradition of the insurgents. In 1811, the leader of the insurgents, Chin Bya, organized his forces and managed to capture much of Arakan.3 A request by Chin Bya for British protection, however, was rejected and the Burmese army pushed Chin Bya back into Bengal. Many of the Rohingya that fled during this period never returned to Burma, but instead settled in the area of Cox's Bazar and became integrated with the local community.

The British colonized Burma in a series of three wars beginning in 1824. During their rule, the Arakan problem declined as the British allowed for a relative degree of local autonomy. From 1824 to 1942, there were few recorded incidences of uprisings. This period witnessed significant migration of laborers to Burma from neighboring South Asia. The British administered Burma as a province of India, thus migration to Burma was considered an internal movement. The Burmese government still considers, however, that the migration which took place during this period was illegal, and it is on this basis that they refuse citizenship to the majority of the Rohingya. The reality is that the Rohingya have had a well established presence in the country since the twelfth century.

World War II, Independence, and Rohingya Flight

In 1942, Japanese forces invaded Burma and during the British retreat communal violence erupted. Attacks were made against those groups that had benefited from British colonial rule. Burman nationalists attacked Karen and Indian communities, while in Arakan Rakhine and Rohingya villagers attacked one another causing a displacement of Buddhist villagers to the south and Muslims to the north.4 Some 22,000 Rohingya are believed to have crossed the border into Bengal.5 The region remained under Japanese control until a British offensive drove out the Japanese in 1945. Prior to the Japanese invasion, the British, seeking to bolster support for their forces, had promised the Muslims of northern Arakan a Muslim National Area,6 and some of the displaced returned with the British. But Britain never delivered on its promise to create a Muslim National Area.

After Burma became independent in January 1948, tensions between the government and the Rohingya grew. Immediately following independence, a group of Arakanese Muslims went on the political offensive, pushing for the integration of Maungdaw and Buthidaung into what was then known as East Pakistan.7 The proposal was rejected by the Constituent Assembly in Rangoon. The government contributed to the escalation of tension by treating the Rohingya as illegal immigrants.

The immigration authorities imposed limitations of movement upon Muslims from the regions of Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung to Akyab [Sittwe]. The Muslims were not resettled in the villages from which they had been driven out in 1942 (with the exception of villages they left in the Maungdaw and Buthidaung regions). Some 13,000 Rohinga still living in refugee camps in India and Pakistan whence they had fled during the war, were unable to return; as for those who did manage to return, they were considered illegal Pakistani immigrants. The properties and land of all these refugees have been confiscated.8

Because they were denied the right to citizenship, Rohingya were prohibited from military service and Buddhist Rakhine villagers replaced Rohingya civil servants.9

Beginning in 1950, segments of the Rohingya community resorted to armed action, led by armed groups called Mujahids. In a series of attacks, Mujahid fighters pushed out both non-Muslims and Muslim villagers unsympathetic to their cause from Maungdaw, Buthidaung and part of Rathedaung.10 Aware of the conflict just across the border, the Pakistani government in 1950 sent a warning to its Burmese counterparts about the treatment of Muslims in Arakan. However, Burma's Prime Minister, U Nu, quickly dispatched a Muslim ambassador, U Pe Kin, to negotiate an understanding according to which Pakistan would no longer provide weapons to the Mujahids.11 In 1954, authorities in Pakistan finally arrested Cassim, the leader of the Mujahids, and placed him in a Chittagong jail. In November 1954, the Burmese army stepped up counterinsurgency operations in Arakan and succeeded in quieting the rebellion.

Operation Nagamin and the 1970s Exodus

Shortly after General Ne Win and his Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) seized power in 1962, the government began to dissolve Rohingya social and political organizations.12 In 1977, Burmese immigration and military authorities conducted what they called Operation Nagamin (Dragon King), a national effort to register citizens and screen out foreigners prior to a national census.13 By May 1978, more than 200,000 Rohingya had fled to Bangladesh: this, the Burmese authorities claimed, signified the Rohingya's illegal status in Burma. Refugees reported that the Burmese army had forcibly evicted them and alleged widespread army brutality, rape and murder.14 The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Bangladeshi government supplied emergency relief but were quickly overwhelmed. The Bangladeshi government requested assistance from the United Nations and soon thirteen camps for the refugees were established along the border.

Almost immediately upon the refugees' arrival, the Bangladeshi government engaged its Burmese counterpart in a discussion on their repatriation. Bangladeshi authorities complained of the economic and social burden the presence of the Rohingya placed on the local community and insisted that there would be no local integration.15 The United Nations also urged the Burmese leadership to allow the Rohingya's repatriation. U.N. officials hinted that a flow of aid, which the Ne Win government in Burma was pursuing through a more open foreign policy, would be more readily accessible should the ruling Burmese Socialist Programme Party agree to the returns.16 The Burmese government relented and the Rohingya began to go home. At first, in the early months of the program, few refugees opted for repatriation, but the number increased when the Bangladeshi government allowed camp conditions to decline and restricted food rations.17

Flight in the 1990s

The most recent mass outflow from Arakan to Bangladesh took place in 1991 and 1992, when more than 250,000 Rohingya refugees fled forced labor, rape and religious persecution at the hands of the Burmese army. With the assistance of UNHCR and non-governmental relief agencies, the Bangladeshi government sheltered the refugees in nineteen camps in the vicinity of Cox's Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh.

Faced with this new influx of refugees, the Bangladesh government announced that it would not countenance any local integration and that the Rohingya would have to return home. Bangladesh was not then, and is still not, a signatory to either the 1951 U.N. Convention on the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol. As in the 1970s, the Bangladeshi government intended to send all the refugees home quickly and sought to achieve this through negotiation with the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in Rangoon.

The Rohingya repatriation, which the Bangladeshi and Burmese governments began in September 1992, was troubled from the outset, as Human Rights Watch and other organizations have previously reported.18 Following reports of forced repatriation, UNHCR began to monitor a proportion of the returns in October 1992 but withdrew its support in December 1992 when it became clear that coercion was continuing. UNHCR then agreed a formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Bangladeshi government and in May 1993 began to interview refugees individually in order to ensure that the Bangladeshi authorities were respecting the principle of voluntariness. When a UNHCR survey revealed that less than 30% of the Rohingya wished to repatriate, however, the Bangladeshi government responded by insisting that all of the Rohingya should return by the end of 1994 and allowing the MOU with UNHCR to expire in July 1994.19 The same year, UNHCR gained access to the return sites located in the Buthidaung, Rathedaung, and Maungdaw townships of Arakan State; this, it insisted, would facilitate the safe return of the Rohingya because UNHCR could now monitor what became of them. UNHCR then abandoned its system of individual interviews with refugees in August 1994 in favor of a program of mass repatriation in which thousands of Rohingya returned to Burma each week. Initially, however, UNHCR representatives were not permitted to travel within Arakan state without prior clearance from the Burmese government, and the latter also failed to provide a firm commitment that it would recognize the rights of the Rohingya to Burmese citizenship. At the time, Human Rights Watch questioned the accuracy of the information about conditions in Arakan which UNHCR provided to the refugees and noted the concerns expressed by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved with the repatriation that it was being conducted in "less than optimum conditions."20 Even so, between 1993 and 1997, some 230,000 refugees returned to Arakan.

Continued Obstacles to Repatriation

In July 1997, a series of events surrounding the repatriation led to disturbances in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. A few months earlier, the Burmese government had informed both Bangladesh and UNHCR that it would accept no more returning refugees after August 15, 1997. The Bangladeshi authorities then sought to return as many refugees as possible before the deadline, in the course of which they forcibly expelled over three hundred Rohingya across the Naf River into Burma.21 This provoked a violent reaction on the part of other refugees, who seized control of the two remaining camps at Nayapara and Kutupalong. For over a year, only a select few UNHCR and NGO officials were permitted to enter the camps and the leaders of the protest would not allow refugees to leave the camps, and, in some cases, forced refugees to forego rations. A UNHCR vehicle was also stolen.

In March and October 1998, Bangladeshi authorities and local villagers moved into the camps and restored order. Some refugees were beaten by police and many of those responsible for the disturbances were arrested. From July 1997, when the disturbances broke out, until the Bangladeshi authorities restored order in 1998, all repatriation ceased.

Following the police action and negotiations between UNHCR and the Bangladeshi and Burmese governments, the Burmese authorities announced that as of November 15, 1998 they would once again permit the repatriation of Rohingya refugee families but only if they, the Burmese authorities, could re-verify residence, limit the number of returnees to fifty per week, and receive only complete families. Later they added the stipulation that they be allowed to confirm each refugee's willingness to return. As a result of these conditions, which have proven onerous in practice, even those Rohingya who wish to return to Arakan have not been able to do so.

As this report was being prepared in late 1999 and early 2000, there were still problems in the camps and conditions inside Burma for Rohingya remained dismal. In Bangladesh, UNHCR has made progress in reducing violence in the camps and in pressing the Bangladeshi government to respect the principle of non-refoulement, but there are still reports of violence by camp officials against refugees. UNHCR itself has been accused by NGOs and refugees of employing coercive tactics in its pursuit of refugee registration. In Arakan state, the Burmese government has continued to demand forced labor from Rohingya villagers, arbitrarily confiscate their property, and restrict their movement. Moreover, members of the Rohingya minority are still being denied full rights of citizenship. Unsurprisingly, therefore, there are continued outflows of Rohingya and Bangladeshi officials and NGOs estimate that there are now more than 100,000 undocumented Rohingya in Bangladesh.

Faced with a multi-million dollar deficit for the Rohingya operation and reduced funding from international donors for a program that donors perceive as failing to progress, 22 UNHCR informed the Bangladeshi government in June 1999 that it would be forced to terminate its assistance program for the Rohingya by year's end. Because of delays in the transfer of assistance programs to other UN development agencies and ongoing protection concerns, UNHCR then decided to maintain its presence until the end of 2000. Reductions in the number of UNHCR personnel in Bangladesh and Burma are now being discussed.

1 G.E. Harvey, History of Burma: From the Earliest Times to 10 March 1824 The Beginning of the English Conquest, (London: Frank Cass and Co. Ltd), 1967, p. 282.

2 Frank Trager, Burma: From Kingdom to Republic (London: Pall Mall Press), 1966, p. 26.

3 Maung Htin Aung, A History of Burma, (New York and London: Columbia University Press), 1967, p. 206.

4 Joseph Silverstein, Burmese Politics: The Dilemma of National Unity, (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press), 1980, pp. 50-51; Moshe Yegar, The Muslims of Burma: The Study of a Minority Group, (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrossowitz), 1972, p. 95.

5 Yegar, p. 95.

6 Ibid., p. 96.

7 Hugh Tinker, The Union of Burma: A Study of the First Year of Independence, (London, New York, and Toronto: Oxford University Press) 1957, p. 357.

8 Ibid.

9 Yegar, p. 98.

10 Tinker, p. 56.

11 U Nu, U Nu: Saturday's Son, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press) 1975, p. 272.

12 In 1964, in response to the new round of abuses the insurgency that had been quieted in the 1950s gained strength with the formation of the Rohingya Independence Force (RIF). In 1973, the RIF became the Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF). The early 1980s saw the emergence of another group, the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO). In 1986 the RPF and a faction of the RSO led by Nurul Islam agreed to join forces as the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF). In December 1998, ARIF and two other factions of the RSO merged into the Arakan Rohingya National Organization (ARNO). For a history of the evolution of Rohingya political organizations see AFK Jilani, The Rohingyas of Arakan: Their Quest for Justice, (Dhaka), 1999.

13 K. Maudood Elahi, "The Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh: Historical Perspectives and Consequences," In John Rogge (ed.), Refugees: A Third World Dilemma, (New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield), 1987, p. 231.

14 Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, (London and New Jersey: Zed Books), 1991, p. 241.

15 Tony Reid, "Repatriation of Arakanese Muslims from Bangladesh to Burma, 1978-79: `Arranged Reversal of the Flow of an Ethnic Minority," Paper presented to the 4th International Research and Advisory Panel Conference, University of Oxford, January 1994, pp. 13-14.

16 Ibid., pp. 14-15.

17 Ibid., p. 19.

18 For a discussion of the repatriation from 1992 to 1995 see Human Rights Watch, "Bangladesh: Abuse of Burmese Refugees from Arakan," Vol. 5, No. 17, October 9, 1993; Curt Lambrecht, "The Return of the Rohingya Refugees to Burma: Voluntary Repatriation or Refoulement?," (Washington, DC: US Committee for Refugees), March 1995. Amnesty International, "Rohingyas - The Search for Safety," (London), September 1997.

19 Lambrecht, p. 8.

20 See Human Rights Watch, "The Rohingya Muslims: Ending a Cycle of Exodus?," Vol.8, No. 9, September 1996, pp. 16-21.

21 Amnesty International, "Rohingyas - The Search for Safety," (London), September 1997, p. 4.

22 Human Rights Watch discussion with UNHCR Country Office, Dhaka, August 13, 1999. Large-scale crises in Kosovo, the African Great Lakes, and East Timor have also placed strains on the financial and human resources of the agency.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page