“Conflict, discrimination and humanitarian challenges

in Northern Arakan State


By Chris Lewa, Forum Asia, Bangkok


Delivered at the EU – Burma Day 2003 Conference


Brussels, 8 October 2003




In contrast to the Thai-Burma border, very little international attention has been given to conditions on the Bangladesh-Burma border. Consequently, Arakan State has remained a largely ignored region of Burma. Awareness is generally limited to the cycle of exodus and repatriation of Rohingya refugees.


But Arakan is no less than a microcosm of Burma with its ethnic conflicts and religious antagonisms, and is by far the most tense and explosive region of the country.  The refugee outflow to Bangladesh does not result from counter-insurgency strategies to undermine ethnic armed resistance, as it is the case for the Shan, Karen and Karenni along the Thai-Burma border, but is the outcome of policies of exclusion against the Rohingya community.




Arakan State is a long strip of land stretching along the Bay of Bengal to the West and flanked by a high mountain range to the East, which cuts it off from the rest of Burma.  Its narrow northern side borders Bangladesh.  Through its geopolitical position, Arakan finds itself at the crossroads of two continental entities, South Asia and South-East Asia -- between Buddhist Asia and Muslim-Hindu Asia and between the Mongoloid and the Indo-Aryan races. 


Two major communities inhabit Arakan State.  No reliable demographic data are available but it is estimated that about two-thirds of the population are Rakhine Buddhist, close to the Burman in terms of religion and language, while one-third is Muslim.  This group, known as Rohingya, is ethnically and religiously related to the Chittagonian people of southern Bangladesh and is mostly concentrated in the northern part of the State adjacent to Bangladesh.  Other small ethnic groups also live predominantly in the hill areas.


According to UNHCR, Northern Arakan State, which includes the 3 townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung, has a total population of 850,000.  The Rohingya represent 94% of the population of Maungdaw and 88% of Buthidaung, less in Rathedaung.   More than 30% of the Muslim population of Maungdaw and Buthidaung fled to Bangladesh during the last refugee exodus of 1991/92.




Arakan was an independent kingdom until 1784, encompassing at times the southern part of today’s Bangladesh, and was famous as a land of economic opportunities, on the maritime shipping routes between the Persian Gulf and Asia.   Buddhist kings ruled, but Muslims played an influential role in the court, defence and administration of the kingdom.   In 1784, Arakan was invaded by the Burmans and in 1824, following the first Anglo-Burma war, it was incorporated into British India.


During the British colonial period, a large number of people of Indian origin settled throughout Burma as administrators, merchants and moneylenders.  Arakan also witnessed a massive immigration, mostly of seasonal agricultural workers from the Chittagong area.  Resentment against this Indian immigration fuelled the emergence of Burmese nationalism but no distinction was made between Indians in general and the indigenous Muslims of Arakan.[1]


Muslims and Buddhists co-existed in the Arakan region for many centuries, and until WWII, the two communities did not show any sign of strong animosity towards each other.  However, in 1942, the Japanese conquest and the withdrawal of the British created a political vacuum which gave room for accumulated tensions sparked by the Indian immigration to explode and the first major communal riots broke out in Arakan.


After Independence, some Rohingya leaders formed a Mujahid movement and demanded autonomy. The Rohingyas’ claim to be an ethnic group of Burma was nevertheless recognised during the parliamentary era of U Nu in the 1950s, a move considered politically motivated.  But it has been denied consistently following the military take-over in 1962[2].


Ruthless campaigns and discriminatory policies against them prompted two massive exoduses of more than 250,000 Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh in 1978 and 1991/92.  Each refugee crisis was followed by mass repatriation, whose voluntariness was seriously questioned.  Today, about 19,000 Rohingya refugees remain in two camps in Bangladesh and, in 2003, renewed attempts to repatriate them led to coercion, intimidation and forced repatriation.  In addition to the refugees in the camps, hundreds of thousands of other Rohingyas also fled to Bangladesh, as well as to Malaysia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, where they live as irregular migrants.




The military regime’s monolithic concept of nation building promotes assimilation, rather than integration of all ethnic minorities, within a primarily Burman Buddhist nation.  In Arakan, the junta has implemented policies of exclusion against the Muslim population, while attempting to forcibly assimilate the Rakhine Buddhists through “Burmanisation”.  This divide-and-rule tactic is very effective as, by denying all rights to the Rohingya population, depriving them of citizenship and labelling them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, the military can demonise them as the enemy from outside, and present themselves as protectors of the Buddhist community, which further exacerbates communal tensions.


The conflict in Arakan State is primarily about ethnicity and numbers.  The starting point of today’s problems can be dated to the beginning of British rule.  The Burmese government has identified 135 “national races” as indigenous to the nation.  The Rohingya do not feature among them, even though the Kaman, also an Islamic group, have been recognised as one of the 36 “national races” of Arakan State.  Disregarding historical facts, the Rohingya are treated as foreign residents who had only settled in Burma during the British colonial period[3].


Recognition as an ethnic nationality of Burma would entitle the Rohingya to citizenship, but also to political participation and, by extension, to territorial claims.  Viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, their loyalty is questioned and they are deemed a threat to the territorial integrity of the Union.


In addition, emphasis is also given to the Islamic faith professed by this population.   The consensus of Burmese opinion is that the Muslims can enjoy religious freedom but they will be relentlessly barred from obtaining political representation on the basis of their religion.




Policies of exclusion and discrimination imposed on the Rohingyas by successive Burmese military regimes have prevented them from developing socially and economically, and are deliberately designed to encourage departure to Bangladesh.  These policies, which amount to ethnic cleansing, are creating push-factors for forced migration and therefore constitute the root causes of the ongoing refugee exodus.  They can be summarised as follows:


1)      Denial of citizenship:


The Rohingyas have been rendered stateless through Burma’s Citizenship Law of 1982, which states that citizens are those belonging to one of 135 “national races”, among which the Rohingyas do not figure, or those whose ancestors settled in the country before 1823, the start of the British colonisation of Arakan.  This Law was promulgated shortly after the repatriation of 1978, and was clearly aimed at excluding them from citizenship rights.  Their present legal status amounts, in international law, to de facto statelessness.


2)      Restrictions on freedom of movement:


The Rohingya are subject to strict restrictions of movement.  They are virtually confined to their village tracts.  They need to apply for a travel pass, which they have to pay for, even to visit a neighbouring village.  Since February 2001, Sittwe has remained off-limits for the Rohingyas of Northern Arakan. Their lack of mobility has devastating consequences, limiting their access to markets, employment opportunities, health facilities and higher education.  The issue of travel passes is also used as a system to prevent those who have overstayed their validity from returning to their village as their names are subsequently deleted from their family list.


3)      Obstacles to family development


A series of measures has been imposed to control birth and to limit expansion of the Rohingya population.  Unlike other peoples of Burma, the Rohingya must apply for permission to get married, which is only granted in exchange for high bribes and can take up to several years to obtain.  Polygamy has been prohibited, and widows must wait at least 3 years to remarry.  To register their children’s birth, parents are charged fees that have significantly increased over the last year.  In several areas, women’s dignity is greatly offended, as they have to declare their pregnancy to the NaSaKa[4] and sometimes show their belly.  Moreover, building a new house, extending existing dwellings and even maintenance and repair also require authorisation, resulting in overcrowded and precarious living conditions.


4)      Construction of  “model villages”


The establishment of “model villages” to resettle Buddhists (Rakhine and Burman) onto Muslim land has been going on since the 1950s.  Such demographic engineering is designed to alter the ethnic composition of the region.   There are already 26 such model villages of about 100 houses each in Northern Arakan.  Rohingyas are compelled to build houses for the new settlers.  In addition to land confiscation and forced labour, these programmes contribute to the exacerbation of inter-communal tension.


In addition to these policies of exclusion specifically targeting the Rohingya, economic policies are being pursued to maintain underdevelopment.  These are also practised in other ethnic areas, but considering that 60% of the Rohingya population are landless and depend on a hand-to-mouth existence, the related loss of income greatly contributes to food insecurity.  It appears as a deliberate attempt to induce starvation and trigger departures.   The main elements are:


5)      Forced labour


As documented by the ILO in early 2003[5], forced labour is far from being eradicated in Northern Arakan State. Compulsory labour continues to be exacted by the army and the NaSaKa for construction and maintenance of their camps, portering, sentry duty, the establishment of villages for new settlers, for military-owned shrimp farms and plantations, for brick-baking, for collection of wood and bamboo, etc.  In Northern Arakan State, non-Muslims are usually exempt from this duty.  The poor cannot pay bribes to avoid it and are thus compelled to perform not only their own stint of work, but also that of those who had paid off the authorities. 


6)      Arbitrary taxation


Arbitrary taxation and other forms of extortion are common practices.   These informal taxes range from cattle registration fees to a multitude of ad-hoc donations to be made to the authorities in kind or in cash[6].   An increase in monetary contributions appears to compensate for a slight decrease in forced labour.  The tactic of arresting people for minor offences and demanding high bribes in return for their release is also widespread.


7)      Control of the economy through a monopoly system


Business monopolies are granted in exchange for licences obtained against high bribes.  All economic sectors are controlled through a monopoly system based on licences, which totally forbids any free-enterprise initiative.  Anyone engaging in an economic activity must either sell his product to the licence holder below market price or pay him a tax.   As soon as a new income-generating endeavour appears, a new monopoly is installed.  The authorities grant or revoke licences annually and always guarantee the monopoly to the highest bid.


8)      Paddy procurement


The paddy tax is based on a pre-set quota of baskets per acre rather than on yield and is sold directly to the government at a price well below the market rate.  It can represent up to 50% of small farmers’ paddy production.  In April 2003, the SPDC announced the scrapping of its paddy procurement policy.  Starting from the next harvest in late 2003, farmers would be allowed to sell their products through local rice trading committees.  Many observers are sceptical about this reform and believe that a new monopoly system will soon be put in place.


The distressing realities in which the Rohingyas live in Arakan are the outcome of the policies listed above, and demonstrate that there is no willingness on the part of the Burmese government to integrate this population.  As long as these policies remain in place, attempts to develop these communities are bound to fail, and the cycle of exodus will not be stemmed.




In 1994, after considerable international pressure to repatriate the 250,000 Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh during the exodus of 1991/92, UNHCR gained access to Northern Arakan State.  With its NGO partners, it set out to rehabilitate and reintegrate the returnees and assist in anchoring the local population to prevent future outflows of refugees.  Despite the presence of UNHCR and international agencies, conditions have hardly improved.  As one NGO representative in Rangoon recently stated: “The presence of UNHCR and some international NGOs has only provided limited relief, but not a structural change.”


UNHCR’s intervention to address the Rohingyas’ status of statelessness prompted the government to issue them with a temporary registration card (white card), which clearly states that it does not constitute evidence of citizenship.   To date, only a third of the Muslim population has been issued with this card, which does not grant any legal status, merely residency already acknowledged through the system of family lists.  This initiative does not change the nature of the citizenship problems.


UNHCR and WFP have managed to significantly reduce the amount of compulsory labour by taking over responsibility for building local road infrastructure, but the practice is still widespread when it comes to activities for the direct benefit of the military.  


Moreover, UNHCR’s protection mandate has been seriously hindered by restrictions of movement, making access to UNHCR problematic for the Rohingyas. 


Efforts have been directed at improving educational and health services by rehabilitating government-run schools and health centres, and providing training to teachers and health workers.  However, obstacles were encountered, as Rohingyas cannot apply for any government posts.  The majority of staff are thus Rakhine, who are generally not attracted to serve in isolated, rural areas dominated by Rohingyas.  Some of the newly built facilities therefore remain unused[7].


NGOs have been attempting to tackle the food security situation of the poorer strata of this population by implementing income-generation projects and other development activities.  However, food security continues to deteriorate steadily.  Over the last year, increased pressures through arbitrary taxation, tighter control of the local economy as the licence system extends to new commodities and activities, as well as restricted access to forest resources, have led to a crisis, which can only be stopped if direct food assistance is immediately delivered to the most vulnerable segment of the population, estimated at one third of the total population of Northern Arakan State.


Despite these shortcomings, the presence of international NGOs and UN agencies has been crucial in providing some degree of protection to the Rohingya, and somewhat alleviates their conditions.  UNHCR’s presence is vital since it is the only international agency with a protection mandate.  Without the programmes of UN agencies and international NGOs, it is likely that a new exodus of refugees could no longer be contained.




The Bangladesh government has always been adamant that all Rohingya refugees must return to Burma.  Following improved relations and enhanced economic ties with its eastern neighbour, Bangladesh has recently persuaded the SPDC to lift all restrictions for the remaining 20,000 refugees to return to Burma.  Starting in October 2002, the repatriation exercise was reactivated.  Concurrently, UNHCR announced its plan to promote self-sufficiency pending return, including the phasing-out of its “care and maintenance” responsibilities in the camps.  In May 2003, the number of refugees being repatriated rose dramatically, and so did the number of complaints denouncing coercion, intimidation and forced repatriation.   Mental and physical pressures were used to induce repatriation. These included threats of jail, arbitrary arrest, beatings, deprivation of food, destruction of housing and transfer to other sections of the camp.  At that time, UNHCR did not appear to provide any effective protection against involuntary repatriation


In July 2003, high-level officials from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva were dispatched to Bangladesh to investigate these allegations, which resulted in the appointment of additional international protection staff.  Strengthened UNHCR intervention has led to significant improvements.  Camp officials are now avoiding the use of physical violence against refugees, and incidents of forced repatriation have decreased considerably.  However, refugees continue to be harassed, as psychological pressure and fear are still used to encourage repatriation, and have now persuaded many reluctant refugees to return to Burma without opposing repatriation. As a result of the poorly managed streamlining process, MSF and Concern[8] have had to leave the camps.  Refugees have now stated that: “The situation in Bangladesh is now worse than in Burma.  Perhaps it is better to go back rather than staying here!”


Repatriating refugees when the conditions at home have not improved and when a return in safety and dignity cannot be achieved raise many questions.  The probability that they may soon come back to Bangladesh is very high.  We have evidence that both repatriated refugees as well as new arrivals have continued to enter Bangladesh illegally.  The ongoing repatriation turns visible refugees into invisible refugees, now labelled as economic migrants.




The root causes of the humanitarian crisis in Northern Arakan State and the driving force behind refugee exoduses to Bangladesh lie in the SPDC policies of exclusion and discrimination against the Rohingya.  The combination of abuses -- from the denial of legal status to restriction of movement and economic constraints -- creates food insecurity and makes life in Arakan unbearable.  The military regime uses food as a weapon, and its strategy has proven effective in compelling Rohingya to leave Arakan.  The poor are the main target, while the more wealthy enrich the authorities through bribes and taxes, and act as agents to oppress the poor in exchange for personal benefits.


The solution to the Rohingyas’ problems requires that new policies be put in place to eradicate their statelessness and respect their fundamental human rights.  Political will is required to end these policies of exclusion and discrimination and to improve the lot of the Rohingya people for, as long as they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, there is little hope of a significant betterment of their status and living conditions.


While it is unlikely that one could expect any positive move from the military junta, there is also no guarantee that discriminatory policies would be removed with the emergence of a democratic government.  The Rakhine Buddhist population, public opinion in Burma as a whole, as well as in the pro-democratic movement, are not disposed toward recognising the Muslim population of Arakan as a people of Burma.  Rohingya organisations have been consistently blocked from joining umbrella groups;  opposition leaders, both inside and outside Burma, consider that the communal situation in Arakan can only improve with a transition to democracy, but they suggest that under a federal system of governance, ethnic States would enjoy self-determination and, therefore, the fate of the Rohingya would be decided by the people of Arakan State.  This implies that Rakhine Buddhists alone would be expected to determine the future of the Rohingya community.


The intransigence of all protagonists makes it extremely difficult to find a solution, and in the meantime, providing assistance and protection to the Rohingya population is both a moral and a legal obligation of the international community.



[1] Martin Smith, The Muslim “Rohingyas” of Burma, Paper delivered at the Conference of Burma Centrum Nederland, 11     December 1995 (draft)

[2] Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, Zed Books 1991.

[3] In response to UNHCR, Secretary-1 wrote in 1998, "this issue is essentially one of migration, of people seeking greener pastures ... these people are not originally from Myanmar ... they are racially, ethnically, culturally different from the other national races in our country. Their language as well as religion is also different”.

[4] The NaSaKa is the Border Administration Force and comprises five different government agencies: the police, military intelligence (MI), Lone Htein (riot police), customs, and immigration.

[5] In relation to ILO Liaison Officer’s visit to Northern Arakan State in January 2003, the ILO Governing Body report GB.286/6 of March 2003 stated in paragraph 7: While it is her impression that there is probably less use of forced labour in central parts of Myanmar, the situation in areas near to the Thai border where there is continuing insecurity and a heavy presence of the army, as well as in northern Rakhine State, is particularly serious and appears to have changed little.”

[6] UNHCR, Myanmar – “Reintegration programme at a crossroads, Note on Issues of Concern to UNHCR”, 1997.

[7] Lisbeth Garly Andersen, “Analysis of the livelihood situation of the Muslim population in Northern Rakhine State”, Consultant UNHCR, 31 July 1997.

[8] Concern only handed over their medical and nutritional programmes.  They are still providing education, sanitation and social counselling in the camps.