ARAKAN ROHINGYA: The plight of the homeless and stateless

“We are waiting for death that will relieve us of our suffering”, says a 75-year-old Arakanese who has been in the refugee camps in Bangladesh for many years.

The IHH (Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief) ARAKAN report elaborates the violence that broke out in Arakan in June 2012, the background of the violent incidents and rights violations against Arakanese Muslims. This is a brief study of the IHH report.

Incidents deemed humiliating to human dignity have been going on in Arakan since many years. Recent clashes have left more than 1,000 Muslims dead and over 90,000 Muslims homeless. Most of the Arakanese fleeing violence, are seeking refuge in camps in neighbouring Bangladesh.

However, faced with unimaginably inhumane conditions at these camps Arakanese Muslims are losing hopes for a better future. To make the matters more tragic, Bangladesh has not only been denying refugees who have been gaining entry into the country since June, but also returning those who had arrived in the past.


Arakan has an area of 50,000 square kilometres lying north to south on the Bangladesh-Burma border. It has a deep-rooted historical heritage. Islam arrived in Arakan in the 8th century with Arab merchants, who had a significant place in maritime commerce and had also established strong commercial relations with South Asia, Southeast Asia and Far East. In the 15th century, an Islamic kingdom was founded in Arakan when the king Narameikhla adopted Islam, and Islam started to spread rapidly in the neighbouring areas.

Arakan was not a part of Burma until the Burmese occupation took place in 1784. Two of the Arakanese native groups: Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine faced repression and persecution under the Burmese rule. Thousands of Arakanese fled their homeland to escape the Burmese persecution and sought shelter in India. The British ended the Burmese rule in 1826 and held the region under the colonial rule for over 120 years.

Arakanese natives: Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines, lived side by side in peace until the 19th century. However, Thakin Party, which aimed to end the British occupation of Burma that began in 1826, provoked Buddhist Rakhines against Muslim Rohingyas. When Burma was separated from

India in 1937 with colonial rule remaining in place, Thakins seized power inside Burma. Seeds of hatred were sown among ethnic groups with the propaganda that Muslims posed a serious threat to Buddhism and would gain ground and wipe out Buddhists if not stopped, and therefore Rakhines preferred to live under the Burmese rule instead of a peaceful, independent life with Muslims.


The first major attacks against Indian and Bangladeshi Muslims began after the British withdrew from the region. Arakanese Buddhist Rakhines began mass killings of Muslim Rohingyas after Indian and Bangladeshi Muslims left the country. On 28 March 1942, Rakhines attacked Muslims in Chanbili village of Minbya Township, and butchered women, men and children with swords and spears. The attacking Rakhines raped women before brutally killing them and ransacked the area after the massacre. Gold, silver and other valuable possessions of Muslim Rohingyas were confiscated by Thakin leaders and their animals, crops and property were given to looters.

During the 40-day long attacks that erupted in the town of Minbya and spread to the entire Arakan province at least 150,000 Arakanese Muslims were killed, villages were looted and demolished. The mass killings forced many Arakanese Muslims to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, particularly in Bangladesh. The events of 1942 made cohabitation in the future practically impossible for the Rohingya and the Rakhine, two brotherly nations with a common history.


After Independence, encouraged by anti-Muslim policies of the state, Buddhists stepped up their attacks on the Muslim community without facing any preventive measures from the government. Moreover, the government restricted movement of Muslim Rohingya fleeing violence from Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung to Akyab (officially Sittwe), thus leaving thousands of Muslims at the mercy of aggressive Buddhists.

Even before recovering from the 1942 massacre Muslims found themselves as the target of yet another attack by the Burmese in 1947. In that period certain Muslim groups launched armed resistance against the Burmese state but failed. In 1954 when Muslim groups got more organized and powerful, the Burmese army launched a bloody attack called the Operation Monsoon and eliminated Muslim forces. The same year thousands of Muslims were either killed or deported from the country on grounds that they had aided mujahids. During a visit in 1959 to the Muslim-populated Buthidaung and Maungdaw cities, Burmese Prime Minister promised equal citizenship to Muslims, and consequently Muslim mujahids gave up arms and surrendered to the state.


Repression of Muslims in Burma continued unabated until the 1962 coup. In 1962 the military took over and nationalized all private enterprises and banks. As a result, Muslims, who controlled major enterprises in Arakan up until that year, lost their economic power. Coup leader General Ne Win issued a number of notices to Arakan authorities to restrict movement of local Muslims. State-controlled media began propaganda broadcasts claiming Rohingya Muslims were not native of Arakan and urged Arakanese Buddhists to act against the Muslim population. Such broadcasts, whose only aim was to pit Buddhist Rakhines against Muslim Rohingyas, escalated tension in the region. Tighter economic restrictions were imposed on Muslims. The Buddhist Rakhines took over inter-town trading that was once controlled by Muslims.

In this period, the military junta became increasingly more disrespectful to the rights of Muslims. It became routine for Muslim opinion leaders to be detained at night by the military and released after being tortured. Injustices against the Muslim community were encouraged by authorities. They also launched a merciless offensive called “Immigrant Investigation Operation.” Physical torture, molestation of women, extortion, and similar mistreatment acts became a matter of ordinary life. Many innocent people were labelled as illegal immigrants and arrested.


With “King Dragon Operation” in March 1978, the Burmese government aimed to intimidate the Muslims and force them to leave Arakan. The operation was launched in the largest Muslim village in the town of Akyab and had a ripple effect throughout the region. In the course of several months, over 300,000 Arakanese refugees migrated to Bangladesh and were placed in makeshift camps by the authorities.


The Myanmar state, which aims to wipe out the Islamic heritage in the country and completely reshape the region, has been building Buddhist temples in almost every corner of northern Arakan. From 1990 onward, hundreds of thousands of Arakanese have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh as refugees to escape pressure and persecution. Muslims villages were evacuated on ground that they would be rebuilt as model settlements, but Buddhist Rakhines were placed in the evacuated villages. As part of the policy to make Arakan Buddhist, the name of Arakan state was changed to Rakhine and the name of the state capital was changed from Akyab to Sittwe.


·  MASSACRES - In the 1938 massacre, thousands of Arakanese Muslims were killed and more than 500,000 were forced to leave their homeland. In 1942 Muslims were target of another massacre that claimed 150,000 Muslim lives. The death toll of attacks on Muslims in 1947, the Monsoon Operation of 1954 and the King Dragon Operation of 1978 is in ten thousands.

·  UNLAWFUL DETENTION, TORTURE AND MALTREATMENT - In the years following the 1962 coup, the Rohingyas were subjected to unlawful detention, torture and maltreatment. Communal prayers and Qurban ritual were banned. It is known that during the 1978 King Dragon Operation large numbers of Muslim women, men and elderly people were subjected to torture, imprisoned or executed.

·  RELIGIOUS AND ETHNIC DISCRIMINATION, REVOCATION OF CITIZENSHIP - The situation of Arakanese Muslims deteriorated in the aftermath of the 1962 coup. Most of the commercial enterprises owned by Rohingyas until that time were nationalized and thereby economic power of Muslims was reduced. State-controlled media started to portray Rohingyas as foreigners and Muslims in government positions were replaced with Buddhists. The question of Arakanese Muslims is not the only problem the Burmese state has. The military regime has subjected ethnic minorities of Burma, where 64 native peoples and more than 200 languages and dialects are spoken, to systematic pressure and discrimination. Arakanese Muslims are worst affected by discriminative and restrictive policies. The 1982 Citizenship Law left Rohingya out of the list of ethnic groups, labelling them as foreigners in their own native land. Today Rohingyas are still not recognized as citizen of Burma.

· BUILDING NEW SETTLEMENTS AND DISPLACEMENT OF MUSLIMS - The most serious rights violations Arakanese Muslims have experienced at the hands of the Burmese military regime is the confiscation of Muslim property after they have been forced out of their homes and settling Buddhists in Muslim homes under the cover of model villages. Muslims are forced to work in the construction of these model villages. The villages are constructed from materials confiscated from Muslims and new homes are built in a way to resemble historical Buddhist homes. Buddhists living in Arakan, in central Burma and even in Bangladesh are encouraged to move into northern Arakan, where Muslims live, in an effort to reduce the overall percentage of Muslim population in the region.

·  TRAVEL BAN - Arakanese Muslims have no freedom of travel in their own land. Muslims residing in cities and towns outside Akyab are banned from entering the Arakanese capital Akyab on any grounds including emergency medical treatment. They are also not allowed to travel to the Burmese capital Rangoon under any circumstances. Muslims cannot even visit villages and towns neighbouring their own. Muslims with no travel cards and sometimes even those with authorized cards are forced to get off buses and trains. In one instance in February 2001, eight Muslims travelling to Rangoon were detained by police for travelling outside Arakan even though they had travel permits, and were sentenced to seven years in prison.

·  MARRIAGE BAN - Muslims face serious restrictions when they want to get married. Muslims have to meet a dozen of procedural requirements to receive a permit for marriage, which makes extremely difficult for Muslims to marry. Authorities demand couples to pay high taxes to get marriage permits. Both the man and the woman willing to get married have to pay a tax between 50 and 300,000 kyat.

·  PRESSURE ON CHRISTIANS AND BUDDHISTS - Burma Christians, particularly those living in rural areas, are finding their religious rituals being restricted. Burmese Christians are members of tribes that oppose military junta, which explains restrictions they encounter. Another point that proves religious persecution is that the government occasionally pressure Buddhist monks even though Buddhism is the majority religion and is officially propagated. The reason for suppression of Buddhist monks is that they oppose oppressive military junta.

·  REFUGEE PROBLEM - Today hundreds of thousands of Arakanese Muslims are living as refugees outside Burma due to pressure of the military regime. There are 200,000 Arakanese Muslims in Pakistan, some recognized as refugees some not, 500,000 in Saudi Arabia and 10,000 in Malaysia. The country with the highest number of Arakanese refugees is Bangladesh; between the years 1991 and 1992, about 300,000 Arakanese Muslims migrated to Bangladesh, which is a small, overcrowded and impoverished country. Bangladeshi authorities stepped up pressure in May 2003 on refugees in two camps in the country to force them to return home and it had forcefully deported 230,000 refugees to Burma by 2005.


The last incidents broke out on 3 June when 10 Muslims travelling from the capital Akyab to Maungdaw were killed by Buddhist fanatics. Hundreds of Muslims gathered at the central mosque in Maungdaw to protest the attack but hard-line Buddhists and the Burmese police, who viewed the protest as a threat to their existence, attacked the local Muslims and killed and wounded many. The Burmese police branded the protest as an uprising against the state and ordered the punishment of the Muslims involved in the incidents. Together with Buddhist fanatics the police began raiding Muslim villages and towns.

More than 300 Muslim villages, mosques and madrasa’s were set on fire on the grounds that they were sheltering criminals. Mosques were besieged by Buddhist fanatics. According to independent human rights organizations, around 1,000 people have been killed and thousands of Muslims have been forced out of their homes and villages and into forests since violence erupted in June.

Aided by Nasaka (Burmese border security force), Hlun-tin (riot police) and the police, Rakhine Buddhists have been trying to displace the Rohingya. While curfew was in place, security forces and Rakhine groups went from village to village and set fire to Rohingya houses and fired on those escaping burning houses. Independent sources report that many Rohingyas were burned to death in the houses and the bodies were taken away in trucks, adding it is not possible to verify exactly how many had been massacred.

About 4m Arakanese are facing the risk of deportation and violence through acts such as raiding and burning of their houses. A serious humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the region.


·  Kutupalong Refugee Camp: The camp housing 12,000 refugees is officially recognized by the UN.

·  Nayapara Refugee Camp: The camp where 10,000 refugees has the official UN recognition.

·  Leda Refugee Camp: The camp is housing 13,000 refugees and is officially recognized by the UN.

·  Kutupalong unofficial Refugee Camp: The 95,000 refugees staying in this camp are not treated as refugees by the UN and the Bangladeshi government.

The camp residents are constantly experiencing food shortages. The Bangladeshi authorities do not allow entry to the camp which is plagued with frequent deaths from hunger. It is known that more than 100,000 unregistered Arakanese refugees are struggling to survive in woods and villages across Bangladesh.

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A very good article.

Posted on 8/14/12 12:17 PM.

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