Network Myanmar

The Exodus of Arakan Muslims to Bangladesh in 1978 and 1991-92


The archives of the Office  of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) up to 1993 have been released into the public domain and may be inspected at their Office in Geneva. The rules and regulations about access to these  archives are available online at this link. Documents relating to the exodus and repatriation of Rakhine Muslim refugees in Bangladesh in 1978-1979 and 1991-1993 are of particular interest.


For a general perspective on mass exoduses from Arakan to Bengal since 1945, "Mass Departures in the Rakhine Borderlands" by Jacques Leider published in June 2020 by the Torkel Opsahl Academic EPublisher is recommended reading.



Prologue: 

The British Military Administration of North Arakan 1942-43: Peter Murray - October 1980


Repatriation of Muslim Refugees from Bangladesh 1978-79

1. Extract from Chapter IV of 'Arakan' by Klaus Fleischmann, Hamburg 1981

2. British Embassy report on the reception arrangements - 23 February 1979

3. British High Commissioner Stephen Miles: Dacca Report - 10 April 1979

4. British Ambassador's despatch on the completion of the repatriation - 3 July 1979

5. Richard Wigg: The Times 31 October 1978 - Barren Ricefields after Muslim Flight

6. Richard Wigg: The Times 27 October 1978 - Repatriation camps stay empty 

7. Associated Press (AP) report from Teknaf Road - 5 June 1978

8. United Press International (UPI) report from Dacca - 29 June 1978

9. United Press International (UPI) report from Cox's Bazaar - 10 October 1978

10. Text of 'Secret' Burma-Bangladesh Repatriation Agreement 9 July 1979

11. Extract from Chapter IV of 'Arakan' by Klaus Fleischmann, Hamburg 1981

12. The Muslim population in Arakan - Peter Nicolaus, Senior Repatriation Officer, 1995

13. The 1978-79 Bangladesh Refugee Relief Operation - Alan Lindquist UNHCR 1979

14. The Repatriation of Refugees after the exoduses of 1978 and 1991: CR Abrar 1995

15. Unpacking the presumed statelessness of Rohingyas - Nyi Nyi Kyaw 2017


Klaus Fleischmann [Arakan: Konfliktregion zwischen Birma und Bangladesh: Institut für Asienkunde Hamburg 1981] drew extensively on Burmese, Bangladeshi and Pakistani press reports in his examination of relations between Burma and its neighbour East Pakistan/Bangladesh.


His book, although written in German, contains extensive quotations in English from:

Burma - The Guardian Daily

Bangladesh – The Bangladesh Observer

Pakistan - Dawn

Copies of all three newspapers are available for 1978-79 (and other years) at the British Library in London. The hyperlinks above are references to the British Library catalogue.


 

Arakan Muslims and “Chittagonian/Arakan Displaced Persons” in 1978


Declassified materials in the Wikileaks "Carter Cables 2: Plus D" Series - 1978

 

Highlights:

1. Bangladesh démarche on Arakanese Muslim question - 27 April 1978: US Emb Dacca

2. Bangladesh reporting on Arakanese Muslim question - 27 April 1978: US Emb Dacca

3. Press reports on flight of Arakan Muslims - 4 May 1978: State Department

4. Muslim refugees from Burma - 8 May 1978: State Department

5. Arakan Muslim refugees - 9 May 1978: US Emb Dacca

6. Press Tour of Arakan State - 1 June 1978: US Emb Rangoon

7. Conversation with Foreign Minister - 1 June 1978: US Emb Dacca

8. Burmese-Bengali talks on Chittagonian refugees – 13 June 1978: US Emb Rangoon

9. Chittagonian refugees from Arakan State – 14 June 1978: US Emb Rangoon

10. Chittagonian/Arakan displaced persons – 29 June 1978: US Emb Rangoon

11. Arakanese Refugees - 29 August 1978: US Emb Dacca

12Agreements on Refugees - 16 October 1978: US Emb Dacca


 

Cablegate Wikileaks on Arakan already made public without official clearance

1. ARNO contacts with insurgent groups - 10 October 2002: US Emb Rangoon

2. Muslim repression near Burma's border - 27 February 2003: US Emb Rangoon

3. Rohingya refugees and rebels - 29 September 2005: US Emb Rangoon


 

Selected extracts from the 1978 declassified cables

“Both DG NSI and Kazi Jalauddin Ahmad…..gave some clarification on the identity cards. They said that during the UN [U Nu] period some Arakanese Muslims were issued National Registration Cards (NRCs) and some others Foreigners Registration Cards (FRCs). U Nu, they said, granted some measure of autonomy to the Muslims and generally left them alone. Under Ne Win the Muslims were placed more directly under the Arakan State Government…..as part of a national integration program. Next, according to them, NRC holders found that they were unable to obtain renewals of the cards and became, in effect, stateless.” [US Embassy Dacca - 27 April 1978] 

 

 “On May 3 and 4, an Embassy Officer visited the Arakan State capital Akyab. While there he met with Maj. Kyaw Maung, Chairman of the State People’s Council, who reported that there were some 400,000 Bengali Muslims in the State, of which he estimated more than 50,000 were there illegally.” [US Embassy Rangoon - 8 May 1978] 


“UNDP Director Zagorin (please protect) told the Ambassador that the refugees were in a state of severe shock and appeared to have left Burma as a result of ‘mass hysteria’ which caused virtually whole villages to flee.” [US Embassy Dacca - 9 May 1978]


“Reiterating the standard Government line that the mass exodus of Muslims was voluntary, that no force was used (‘not a shot was fired’), that every effort was made to dissuade people from leaving but they were incited to flee by bandits and religious leaders, GUB officials renewed the offer to take back all those who can prove they are legally entitled to live in Burma.” [US Embassy Rangoon – 1 June 1978]

 

"The migration had apparently been stimulated by the examination of certificates and the fear of Muslims that they would be arrested if they were found without proper credentials. I said that while we had heard of one account of violence when the inspection of documents had been resisted, we did not have reports which confirmed extensive beating, raping and abductions." [US Embassy Dacca – 1 June 1978)


“Local journalists who made the trip told us that reporters were given surprising freedom of movement considering the junket was under Government auspices. They said interviews with Muslims failed to support allegations of forceful ejection of Bengalis, but rather tended to confirm that those who fled did so out of fear, not as a result of mistreatment.” [UN Embassy Rangoon – 1 June 1978]

 

“At dinner on June 13, the Ambassador discussed Burmese-Bangladeshi issues with the British, Australian, West German and Malaysian Ambassadors. To a man the other diplomats agreed that on the basis of their information the Bangladesh charges appeared to be considerably exaggerated and inconsistent. They also noted that journalists other than the one EmbOffs met with (Rangoon 2132) saw normally functioning Muslim villages in the Arakan which were not being harassed by GUB authorities…..We remain sceptical that the GUB has embarked on a systematic campaign to drive Muslims of Chittagonian ancestry from te Arakan, or that the refugee-alleged atrocities have occurred.” [US Embassy Rangoon – 14 June 1948]


"Zahiruddin [new Bangladeshi Ambassador to Burma] said he talked not only with BDG personnel but with a member of the affected person themselves. He opined that the number of persons injured by hostile action within Burma had been exaggerated. He estimated that the total was between 200 and 300 and that some of these may not have been injured as a result of action by GUB personnel (at least one person claimed to have been hit by Burmese machine gun fire). He was told that Maghs and  thugs had looted and burned villages and robbed groups of fleeing persons as they made their way to the border." [US Embassy Rangoon – 29 June 1978]


“Both Zagorin [UNDP Representative]  and Husain [Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary] agreed that the strongest advocate for carrying out the Agreement was Ne Win himself, although enthusiasm waned down the bureaucratic ladder in Burma. While neither source knew for sure Ne Win’s motivation, they both guessed it was his worry about a cross-border insurgency, perhaps supported by the Libyans…..Husain in his discussions with Ne Win and other Burmese officials had spoken of the dangers of such an insurgency. He told the [US] Ambassador that Bangladesh was not entirely blameless regarding the Arakanese separatist movement since in the past Burmese Muslim separatists had come across the border and obtained support from Bangladeshis in Chittagong.” [US Embassy Dacca – 27 August 1978]


        In his Despatch of 3 July 1979 reporting on the conclusion of the 1978-79 repatriation, British Ambassador Charles Booth commented in almost identical terms. Ambassador Booth wrote:

“The most interesting question is why Ne Win, always suspicious of foreigners, decided that the refugees should be allowed to return. The bad press Burma got at the worst of the exodus may have had a part in this though I suspect only marginally. (Foreign criticism did not deter the Burmese from expelling the Indian community in large numbers in 1963 and 1964 or from harassing the Chinese community in 1967.) He must have been impressed by the way the Bangladesh Government restrained troublemakers in the Islamic world (especially Libya) from creating trouble for him. He likes and respects President Ziaur Rahman. Above all, he must have wanted to avoid the possibility of a running sore on yet another of his frontiers, his armed strength already being extended in containing insurgency in the North and East. Whatever the motive the Hintha Project shows the man as imaginative and magnanimous, adjectives seldom if ever applied to him during the decades of his rule. It also shows at a time when refugees are the major concern of South-East Asia and beyond that two neighbour states can cooperate in a manner which is an example to the rest of the region.”


“GUB agreed to process as soon as practicable al 133,800 refugees whom BDG regards as National Registration Card (NRC) holders. GUB maintains that only some 77,000 are NRC holders. Hence from GUB point of view, GUB has agreed to drop insistence that only NRCs be considered at this point and is willing to process refugees in other categories.” [US Embassy Dacca – 16 October 1978] 


Derek Tonkin writes: These 1978 officially released reports are consistent with UK diplomatic reports already released to UK National Archives. It is worthy of note that at the time (1978) the US authorities referred to the Muslim population of Arakan as “Arakan Muslims” or “Chittagonians”. The word “Rohingya” is to be found only in the names of Bangladesh-based organisations. By 1991 however the word “Rohingya” was being used in US cables from Rangoon. 

 

The attached article from AsiaWeek, a subsidiary of Time Inc., dated 14 July 1978 highlights the problem which has arisen because "the proportion of 'Chittagong Muslims' has been steadily rising; these are people who moved into Burma from the Chittagong area of Bangladesh. They have settled down as farmers and fishermen, but many are active in the smuggling trade. They apparently have access to relief goods supplied to Bangladesh, such as clothing and medicine. They also bring bicycle accessories, Horlicks, Ovaltine, biscuits and talcum powder through the well-trodden jungle paths into Maungdaw. In the village of Phone Nye Leik, all the people I saw were Chittagong Muslims. Burma looks upon these people as illegal immigrants...."  



A Hard Look into the Genesis of Myanmar's Genocide 

Maung Zarni: Anadolu Agency - 12 February 2020

The writer is a known activist for the Rohingya cause. Contemporary accounts on this webpage of the flight of some 200,000 Arakan Muslims in 1978 present a different picture of what in fact happened. The small number of Illegals detained in Maungdaw and Buthidaung reflects the hasty flight of most illegal migrants, so that the "small" residue of illegals identified is in fact surprisingly high.


Zarni writes:

“In his Burmese language book ‘The Problem at Myanmar’s Western Gate’ (2016), Khin Nyunt, a former general, chief of Myanmar’s military intelligence services and prime minister, recorded the number of Muslim residents who could not prove their nationality or legal residency - or “(immigration) law breakers” in his words - as 643 (out of the total residents of 108,431) in Buthidaung town and 458 (out of the total residents of 125,893) in Maungdaw town. 

“The minuscule numbers of those found without any proper Myanmar national identification papers indicated the drastic achievement in Myanmar’s attempts to control its porous borders with Bangladesh, one of the world’s largest predominantly Muslim populations.” 

What is in fact surprising is that as many as 643 illegals stayed behind in Buthidaung and 458 in Maungdaw, instead of fleeing to Bangladesh, waiting to be detained. In that sense the numbers were not “miniscule” but significantly large, as logic implies that the majority of illegals would undoubtedly have fled.


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Exodus of Muslim Refugees to Bangladesh 1991-1992

 

1.  Clashes on Burma/Bangladesh border: British Embassy Rangoon 27 December 1991

2.  RSO and Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front: MODUK 10 January 1992

3.  Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh: British High Commission Dhaka 6 February 1992

4. Visit to Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar: BHC Dhaka 21 March 1992

5. Human Rights Violations against Muslims in Arakan - Amnesty International May 1992 

6. Muslims from Rakhine State - Exit and Return - Tessa Piper RefWorld December 1993

7. Blatter UNHCR briefs diplomats: British Embassy Rangoon 17 September 1993

8. Repatriation of  Refugees following the exoduses of 1978 and 1991: CR Abrar 1995

9. Unpacking the presumed statelessness of Rohingyas - Nyi Nyi Kyaw 2017


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Further Reading


List of cables from US Embassy Dacca in 1978 and 1979 +


List of cables from US Embassy Rangoon in 1978 and 1979 +





 









































































































































































































































































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