Illegal migration from Bengal into Arakan after 1948
The purpose of
this page is to collate evidence of illegal migration into Myanmar after World
War II, but not to argue in favour of a particular incidence of movement, which
would be highly problematic. The evidence might suggest that during the three
decades from independence in 1948 to the exodus in 1978 as a result of
Operation Nagamin, there was a significant influx of illegal migrants into
Arakan, but that since then the outflow has also been considerable, including a
massive exodus in 2017.
Whatever the elusive facts, illegal migration into Arakan has been seen by Myanmar as a serious problem, even though in confidence Myanmar Ministers have acknowledged that in the years after independence it is unlikely to have reached more than 20% of the total Muslim population of Arakan. Illegal migration was however an issue invariably on the agenda of Myanmar's discussions with East Pakistan and after 1971 Bangladesh, though both countries seems to have tackled the issue sensitively and without rancour.
Popular perceptions of a much greater level of migration however became rooted in the minds of many non-Muslims in Arakan and this has only served to increase animosity and tension between Muslim and Buddhist communities.
Since the massive exodus of 1991/92, illegal migration has not been a matter of any consequence, but the Myanmar authorities are now faced with the issue of what they should do with persons alleged to have entered Arakan illegally in the past. With the flight of so many Rohingya to Bangladesh, illegal migration is no longer a matter of immediate concern.
The documents at reference on this page are relevant to any study of this issue.
The Governor of Burma writes to the Governor of Bengal - 8 February 1947
UK National Archives File FO 643/61/1 of 1947 - 22GSO47
Extract: "My Government is very concerned over the illegal immigration into Burma from the Chittagong area. Recently one of the Members of my Executive Council visited the Arakan and he reports that some 63,000 illegal entries have made their way into the towns of Buthidaung and Maungdaw. I do not know how true this is but undoubtedly there is a great deal of criticism regarding this immigration from the indigenous people of Arakan. I expect my Government will be taking the matter up officially with the Government of India but I thought that you would like to know in the first instance."
Note by Derek Tonkin:This personal letter was written only three days before the Panglong
Conference, to which none of the ethnicities in Arakan Division was invited.
Four months later the British administration passed the Burma
Immigration (Emergency Provisions) Act to counter the growing level of illegal immigration from China and East Pakistan. Even in February 1947 however unauthorised
migration into Burma was illegal. The number of 63,000 would account for about
one-third of the total number of Muslims living in Northern Arakan (Akyab District)
at that time. Reporting from Akyab on 18 May 1949, or just over two years later, Special Correspondent for The Scotsman Michael Davidson put the number of Pakistani citizens in the district at some 80,000. In his "The Union of Burma" published in 1957, Professor Hugh Tinker noted in a footnote on page 357 that: "In Buthidaung town about 60% of the population are classified according to the current census as Pakistanis; in Mauingdaw town about 45% are Pakistanis (see Census, Release No. 3, 1953)".
Problems in South East Asia – Virginia Thompson and Richard Adloff
Stanford University Press 1955
Extract: Page 154 - “In the meantime northern Arakan
had become the scene of even more serious trouble. The postwar illegal
migration of Chittagonians into the area was on a vast scale, and in the
Maungdaw and Buthidaung areas they replaced the Arakanese, who had to withdraw
because of wartime bombing. The newcomers were called Mujahids (crusaders), in
contrast to the Rwangya or settled Chittagonian population, and though there
were economic differences between them, both groups were Muslims and together
came to outnumber the Arakan Buddhists. The Muslims of northern Arakan not only
were smuggling huge quantities of rice into Pakistan but were beginning to
press for annexation of the area to that country.
“As early as May 1946 the Mujahids voiced their
desire for separation from the Buddhist Arakanese and Burmans, and appealed to
Jinnah for help. Two months later the North Arakan Muslim League was formed in
Akyab district, under the presidency of Moulvi Lookman Sahib, and it members
immediately passed a resolution formally asking for union with their fellow Muslims
across the border. The Rwangya element was reportedly not in favour of this
move; the Arakanese branch of the AFPFL actively opposed it; and Jinnah himself
later assured Aung San that he had discouraged Mujahid aspirations.”
Note by Derek Tonkin: “Rwangya”
was the name by which long-settled Muslims in Arakan, whose ancestors migrated
into Arakan before the British arrival in 1826, said they
wished to be known. It was one of several names based on the Bengali word
for Arakan – “Rohang” - and which Arakan Muslims were starting to consider in
various communities as an alternative to “Chittagonian”.
British Ambassador Whitteridge reports
on the visit of the Pakistani Foreign Minister
Foreign Office Archives: Despatch - 28 January 1964
Extract: Paragraph 7 - "The Moslems in that portion of Arakan
which adjoins the border with East Pakistan number about 400,000 and have lived
there for generations and have acquired Burmese nationality. But they are
patently of Pakistani origin and occasionally some Pakistanis cross into Arakan
illegally and mingle with the local population. As part of a drive to detect
these illegal immigrants the local Burmese authorities have for some time
employed extremely oppressive measures. The Pakistan Government are anxious
that these Arakanese Moslems should not be goaded into leaving Burma and taking
refuge in East Pakistan which cannot support them. Mr. Bhutto therefore urged
the Burmese to modify their attitude towards these people and offered the
maximum cooperation in dealing with any genuine illegal immigrants."
Note by Derek Tonkin: At the time I was Burma Desk Officer in the Foreign Office and processed the Despatch on arrival, as the archived file shows.
Federal German Ambassador Scholl in Karachi reports on the visit of General Ne
Auswärtiges Amt Archives - 22 February 1965
Extract: "Also discussed was the problem of the roughly 250,000
Moslems resident in the Province of Arakan whose nationality is unclarified
because the Burmese regime regards them as illegal immigrants from East
Pakistan. A majority of these Pakistani immigrants who are unable to prove that
they have been resident in Burma for at least three generations are being and
will be deported by the Burmese authorities to East Pakistan, but both sides
are concerned not to play up these events, and only very occasionally do Pakistani
press reports on this subject appear. The delimitation of the open border
between both countries could shortly be resolved through an agreement". [Translation by Derek Tonkin]
Federal German Ambassador to Pakistan Günther Scholl reporting in his letter
dated 22 February 1965 to the Auswärtiges Amt on the visit to Pakistan by
General Ne Win, Chairman of the Revolutionary Council: 12 – 19 February 1965
Note by Derek Tonkin: I initially thought that the Ambassador was saying that the
status of the entire Muslim population in Arakan was in dispute (“ungeklärt”)
and only those who can show residence over at least three generations would be
allowed to stay. The principle of three generations is a corner-stone of both the
1948 Citizenship Act and of the 1982 Citizenship Law and is frequently referred to
by senior officials and ministers, though this principle is not the main-corner stone (or "gold standard" - Nick Cheesman) which is membership of a national race.
However, another interpretation of the Ambassador's remarks is that the Burmese regime believed that among the Muslim population of Arakan there were some 250,000 residents whose status had yet to be clarified. On balance, I now think this interpretation more likely as the Ambassador must surely have been aware (like British Ambassador Whitteridge in Rangoon - see above) that the total Muslim population in Arakan was of the order of 400,000-500,000. The key may lie in the use of the definite article "the" designed perhaps to identify a particular group of Muslims, namely, those needing to clarify their status.
It should be noted however that Ambassador Scholl was the Federal German Ambassador to Pakistan, not to Burma, and his knowledge of Burmese affairs would have been less than that of his West German colleague in Rangoon.
of a Call on the Bangladeshi Ambassador in Rangoon in December 1975
Foreign and Commonwealth Office Archives – 23 December 1975
Extract: Paragraph 5 – He [Bangladeshi Ambassador Kaiser] admitted that
there were upward of ½ million Bangalese trespassers in Arakan whom the Burmese
had some right to eject. He had implored the Burmese authorities not to press
this issue during Bangladesh’s present troubles [coups of August and November
1975] and had been pleased that the Burmese had not taken advantage of his
country’s misfortunes in this respect. He denied that there had been any fresh
exodus into Burma.”
Note by Derek Tonkin: It seems doubtful that the Bangladeshi
Ambassador actually spoke of “upward of ½ million trespassers” as that number
would represent the total number of Arakan Muslims (less the Kaman) then
resident in Arakan. The 1983 Census lists only 497,208 “Bangladeshis”, that is,
Arakan Muslims, as living in Arakan. However, even supposing that what
Ambassador Kaiser actually said was more on the lines that "among the
upward of ½ million Arakan Muslims there were some/many trespassers
whom the Burmese had every right to eject", it is clear that illegal
migration was indeed a serious problem.
Report by Alan C. Lindquist (Head of UNHCR Sub-office
Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, 1978) June, 1979
Kaladan Press - 13 October 2006
Extract: The roots of this mass exodus can evidently be
traced to increased immigration from Bangladesh in recent years into this
isolated area somewhat tenuously controlled by the central government of the
Union of Burma, and to the apparent growth of a movement for the autonomy or
independence of the Arakan among both the Buddhists and the Muslims of the
area. While some of the Buddhist community wanted independence for the Arakan
state, they were also afraid of absorption into Bangladesh.
Ambassador Booth reports on the Repatriation of Burmese Refugees
dated 3 July 1979 from Rangoon to the FCO
Extract: “After Burma’s independence in
1948 Muslim rebels attempted to set up an autonomous state in the Arakan, but
the rebellion was stamped out in the early 1950s and the Rangoon Government regained
control. As a result about 30,000 Muslims fled to what was then East Pakistan.
Leading up to the formation of Bangladesh in 1971-72 some 100,000 Bengali
Muslims moved illegally into Burma. By 1973 when the last census was taken,
Muslims formed 30% of the total Arakan State population of 1.7 millions. This
illegal flow has stepped up in the last few years. Muslims now predominate in
the border areas of two townships (Muangdaw and Buthidaung), each of which is
equivalent in size to an English count. They comprise 90% of the 400,000 population,
compared with only 35% [?] ten years ago. The few remaining Buddhist Arakanese are
officials or traders with the Muslims doing the ‘coolie’ work or engaged in agriculture
and fishing. The rest of the Buddhists have been force to move south by
pressure of numbers.”
Note by Derek Tonkin. The phrase “only 35%
ten years ago” must be a typing error as Maungdaw and Buthidaung have had
majority Muslim populations ever since independence in 1948. During the 1971-72
“war of liberation” large numbers of refugees were known to have moved into
Arakan (as did some 10 million into India), but were later mostly repatriated.
It is not known how many others took the opportunity of the border chaos at the
time to seek to migrate permanently.
Letter from British Ambassador in Rangoon Charles Booth to the FCO in May 1982
Foreign and Commonwealth Office Archives - 12 May 1982
Extract: Paragraph 8 - The new [citizenship] bill reflects little credit on the legislators and ultimately on the regime as a whole and I see it as another move in Burma's policy of keeping itself "pure" of foreign involvement. It immediate concern, I assume, is with illegal Bengali migration into Arakan.
“The Muslims of Burma” Moshe Yegar
Chapter 7 of “The Crescent in the East: Islam in Asia Major” Curzon Press
Extract: Page 104 - The average ratio for the five censuses from 1891 to 1931 was 347
Muslims per 10,000, and while we have no statistical data for the position
today  we may assume that the proportion still stands at about four
percent, as in 1931; for while a great many Indians, including Muslims as well
as Hindus, fled the country in the wake of the Japanese invasion during World
War II, many of them came back upon the return of the British, and in addition
there has been a substantial Chittagong migration from India to North Arakan, as well as expulsion of Indians, many
of them Muslims, from Burma, since Ne Win’s seizure of power .
Note by Derek Tonkin: While the percentage of Muslims in Myanmar as a whole remained at 4.34% at the 2014 Census, the situation in Arakan included "a significant Chittagong migration" compensated by an exodus of Muslims from other parts of Myanmar during the late 1960s.
Five related articles on illegal immigration
Extract from Asian Survey February 1979 - William Scully and Frank Trager
Extract from Chapter IV of 'Arakan' by Klaus Fleischmann, Hamburg 1981
The Muslim population in Arakan - Peter Nicolaus, Senior Repatriation
Unpacking the presumed statelessness of Rohingyas - Nyi Nyi Kyaw 2017
immigration” in Arakan: myths and numbers – Carlos Sardina Galache 2018
Note by Derek Tonkin: Klaus Fleischmann's book “Arakan - Konfliktregion zwischen Birma und Bangladesh” (in German) has the most comprehensive account of “Operation Nagamin” in 1977 and 1978
which resulted in the flight of some 200,000 Arakan Muslims to Bangladesh.
Nyi Nyi Kyaw and Carlos Galache misinterpret the significance of the apparently small
number of illegal migrants actually detained in Arakan (1,849 out of a total of 2,296). Nyi Nyi Kyaw wrote: “…. it is important that Na-Ga-Min did not find thousands or tens of
thousands of illegal Bengalis in Rakhine State as the BSPP government claimed
prior to, during, and even after the operation.” Common sense tells us that the authorities found so few because they had already fled; they were not likely to wait around until they were arrested,
In Sittwe City, where sample checks were made in peaceful conditions, a total of 1,025 were convicted out of 36,824 examined, or 2.8% - still a relatively high percentage assuming that most illegals would have disappeared out of town for the day. Both Fleischmann
and Nicolaus show that when the inspection teams moved north, physical resistance in Buthidaung made it necessary to call in the Army to deal with serious civil unrest, as a result of
which many tens of thousands of Arakan Muslims abandoned their homes and fled to Bangladesh. Nicolaus also refers to insurgency by the Rohingya Patriotic Front at the time. Some refugees would undoubtedly have fled because they were illegal migrants. Nyi Nyi Kyaw and Carlos Galache do not apparently believe so. It is however perfectly understandable that the authorities found few illegal
residents in Buthidaung Township (643), and a few weeks later in Maungdaw Township (458). What is surprising is that they still found so many after the reported flight by 5 May 1978 of 35,596 persons from Buthidaung Township and 85,705 by 5 June 1978 from Maungdaw Township while the checks were taking place.
It should be noted that Paragraph 475 of the Final Report of the International Independent Fact-Finding Mission dated 17 September 2018 recorded that: "The Government claimed that the number of Rohingya escaping from scrutiny [in 1978] was an admission of their illegal status. However, analysis suggests that the number of alleged illegal immigrants identified was very low", giving Nyi Nyi Kyaw's article in Footnote No. 1050 as their source. (The Government did not, of course, use the term "Rohingya".)
Analysis in fact suggests, as I have already shown, exactly the opposite. The majority of those who fled to Bangladesh came from seriously disturbed areas of Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships, not from central Arakan. Yet is was in Sittwe City, where the census had been peaceful, that the percentage of illegals detained was highest - 2.8% (1,025) out of a total of 36,824 questioned. Even before the inspection teams arrived in Buthidaung, "mass hysteria" (Fleischmann, UNDP Director Zagorin) had already gripped the local Muslim population.
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.
Seit Twe Maung 1960
The extent to which Chittagonian migrants into Arakan have usurped
the identity of the indigenous Arakan Muslims was also the subject
of a hard hitting
article by Seit Twe Maung, quite possibly a pseudonym, entitled “Rohengya affairs"
in the publication “Rakhine Tanzaung Magazine” Vol. 2 No. 9 1960-61. While
expressing his sympathy for “those Arakan Muslims who have stayed among us for
generations. We will continue to regard them as our kinsmen and our brethren”,
he criticises Muslim writer Ba Tha for a recent
publication about the history of “Roewengyas” and concludes: “It is
quite clear why Ba Tha and his comrades are trying to create these Chittagonian
settlers as an indigenous separate race.” Ba Tha’s article asserted that the
descendants of early Arab settlers were called Rowenhynas who later became Roewanyas.
Seit Twe Maung clearly doesn’t believe a word of all this and tells us why in
That Thu 1963
The August 1963 edition of “The Guardian Monthly” carried an informative article on “Akyab [Sittwe], the
Capital of Arakan” by the columnist Tha Htu, who lambasts “the ungracious
politicians of Akyab who indiscriminately go in for black-market, smuggling and
harbouring or bringing illegal immigrants from East Pakistan to get into
electoral rolls for their sake of their party [the AFPFL dissolved the previous
year]. He refers also to “those slave labourers” known as “Royankya or
Arakanese Muslims” and observes: “The immigrants of the Chittagonian race find
their way into the society of the local Royankya and gradually they become
absorbed with them. Eventually they also claim to be Royangya [sic],
descendants of the Muslim slaves in Arakan. Consequently, the Arakanese are
slowly but surely being ousted by the peaceful penetration of the Chittagonians
in every walk of life.” [Akyab District eventually became Sittwe, Mrauk-U and
(with comments by Derek Tonkin)
of a Muslim Enclave in Arakan - Dr Aye Chan, SOAS May 2005
Dr Aye Chan is a well known Rakhine nationalist. The inclusion of his article does not imply endorsement of his views. The article however merited sponsorship by the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
The Other Side of the Rohingya: Asia Week - 14 July 1978
The Rangoon Correspondent of Asia Week ponders on the rising number of Chittagong Muslims whom he met on his secret visit to Arakan soon after the flight of most refugees to Bangladesh.
US Telegram: SLORC State Chairman estimates 50,000 illegals - 8 May 1978
SLORC Chairman for Rakhine State expresses his views about the exodus of Arakan Muslims then in progress. Major Kyaw Maung was a noted hard-liner. The Bangladesh Consul in Akyab is however reported as saying that illegal migration had been "minimal in recent years".
UK Ambassador Willan writes to London on Burma/Bangladesh - 14 January 1972
An informative account of a discussion with the Burmese Foreign Minister Colonel Hla Han on Burma's recognition of Bangladesh and on the influx of military and civilian personnel. The number of refugees "had now been reduced to about 2,000". It is however suggested that many other migrants used this opportunity of chaos at the border to slip unnoticed into Arakan and avoid registration as "refugees".
Statement by Myanmar MFA on the Situation in Rakhine State - 21 February 1992
In this statement, we read: "Since the First Anglo-Myanmar War in 1824, people of Muslim faith from the adjacent country illegally entered Myanmar Naing-Ngan, particularly Rakhine State. Being illegal immigrants, they do not hold any immigration papers like the other nationals of the country." This is effectively contradicted by the statement of President U Thein Sein on 11 July 2012 at a meeting with UNHCR Antonio Guterres that "Bengalis came to Myanmar because the British colonialists invited them in prior to 1948, when Myanmar gained independence from Britain, to work in the agricultural sector. Some Bengalis settled here because it was convenient for them to do so, and according to Myanmar law, the third generation of those who arrived before 1948 can be granted Myanmar citizenship." These comments by the President clearly imply that migration into Arakan under British rule was not illegal and have greater authority than the MFA statement.
Document detailing Rakhine concerns about illegal immigration - 15 October 2013
One of a collection of documents said to be "leaked" and obtained by Al Jazeera setting out the concerns and recommendations for government action by Rakhine politicians and activists. The documents are translations and there is no reason to doubt their authenticity. The issue of illegal migration is paramount in the minds of contributors.
Land in Conflict on Myanmar’s Western Frontier – Martin Smith TNI December 2019
Extract Page 50: “It needs to be stressed that
there is no evidence to support that migration on any significant scale happened.
In fact, the greatest movement occurred in the other direction. But this
accusation remains an integral part of the anti-Rohingya narrative in Rakhine
It is difficult to provide conclusive evidence either that there was, or that there
was not significant illegal migration into Arakan at any time after 1945. Martin Smith
has written a brilliant essay on the problems of Rakhine State on the basis of an
historical narrative and his views on the matter of illegal immigration merit
respect. It should also be noted that in Endnote 20 on Page 146, he records that officials estimate illegal immigration at “up to 20 per cent
of the Muslim population”. In his latest book "The Hidden History of Burma", Thant Myint-U also observes on Page 182, when examining President Thein Sein's comments to UNHCR Gutteres in July 2012 on illegal post-war migration into Rakhine State: "In private, Burmese ministers admitted that, at most, 20 per cent were 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 (see separate page "Exodus" on this website) 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, as I have argued above, the hasty flight of most illegal migrants, so that the "small" residue is in fact surprisingly high.