Network Myanmar

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 (see comments by Martin Smith and Thant Myint-U later on this page) 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. 

As the extracts from official papers below show, illegal immigration, notably from Bengal, was a constant theme of reporting from the British Embassy during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and even prior to independence in 1948.

In his recently published book “The Burmese Labyrinth - A History of the Rohingya Tragedy” Carlos Sardiña Galache notes on Page 194:

“Official censuses carried out by the British in 1931 - the last whose complete results are preserved - and by the Burmese government itself in 1983 do not show the inordinately higher democratic growth of the Muslim population compared with other groups in Arakan, or Burma as a whole, that would be reasonably be expected if massive waves of ‘illegal immigrants’ had crossed from Bangladesh during the period. In 1931, there were 255,361 Muslims in Arakan: 25.9% of a total population of 987,117. By 1983, there were 582,984 Muslims: 28.5% of a total population of 2,045,559.

[Note by Derek Tonkin: The figures given in the 1931 Census (Part II Tables) for Religion on pages 238 and 239  show 255,469 Muslims out of a total population in Arakan of 1,008,535, or 25.33%. The author has explained that, for sake of fair comparison with post-Independence Census statistics, he deducted 108 Muslims in the Arakan Hill Tracts which became part of Chin Special Division (later Chin State) on Independence in 1948.]

Elsewhere I have argued that comparing the democratic growth of Arakan Muslims with that of other communities in Arakan, and taking into account several other factors - such as perfectly legal migration between 1931 and the beginning of World War II, and likely higher birth rates among Muslims - shows that no more than 5% of all Muslims living in Arakan could have been migrants who arrived after independence.”

The argument that the percentage of Muslims to total population increased only marginally between the 1931 and 1983 Censuses in Arakan and  that this shows that there was little new, illegal immigration 1948 - 1983 is superficially beguiling. Indeed, Mr Galache concludes on page 210 of his book that: "In truth, only a vanishing small percentage of them [Rohingyas]  may have migrated to Arakan after independence."  In my view this dismissive analysis fails to take into account several relevant factors:


- the 1931 Census was taken on 24 February when some seasonal rice-harvest workers were still in Burma.

- this seasonal inflation was not a factor at the 1983 Census since such seasonal work was  then unlawful.

- the emigration of Arakan Muslims to Saudi Arabia the UAE and elsewhere from 1948 onwards.

- the possible reluctance of some illegals to present themselves for enumeration at the 1983 census.

- allegations that the 1983 Census may have deliberately concealed the true number of Muslims.

Another important factor which undermines Mr Galache's arithmetic is the record in the 2014 Census (Volume 2-C Religion) of a total population of 3,188,807 in Rakhine State (consisting of 2,098,807 enumerated and an estimate of 1,090,000 non-enumerated), of whom 1,118,731 (consisting of 28,732 enumerated and the 1,090,000 non-enumerated) were Muslims. Though a very small minority (a fraction of 1%) of the non-enumerated Rohingya population may not have been Muslim, the overwhelming majority undoubtedly were. We are therefore looking at a percentage of Muslims to total population in Rakhine State in 2014 of around 35%. This compares with around 28% in 1983. This might be explained by significant immigration after 1983, which is highly unlikely, or more probably by errors in the 1983 Census and other factors mentioned above. The 2014 statistics, even taking account of the necessary estimate for non-enumerated population, are patently more reliable than the 1983 statistics, not least because of the support and advice given by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) throughout the 2014 Census operation.


My conclusion is that, while the ratio of Muslims to total population in Arakan between 1931 and 1983 (even accepting the 1983 statistics at their face value) may not superficially have changed all that much, the composition of the Muslim community in Arakan changed significantly, especially as the more adventurous and entrepreneurial left Arakan to make their way to the Middle East and elsewhere, to be replaced by new and illegal arrivals from Bengal. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia was especially generous in 1973 in allowing a considerable number of Arakan Muslims to work in the Kingdom on the basis of restricted passports knowingly issued as a humanitarian gesture and with Saudi consent by the Bangladesh and Pakistan authorities. There is now an estimated Rohingya diaspora of some 1.5 million, including several hundreds of thousands in Saudi Arabia and the UAE born outside Myanmar. The diaspora has developed however from refugees, exiles and emigrants travelling from Arakan, often by way of East Pakistan/Bangladesh. 

What this surely means is that the incidence of illegal migration to Arakan from 1948 to 2014 is considerably greater than the "vanishing small percentage" of Mr Galache. I am reluctant to speculate how much greater, probably no more than 20% overall, but illegal immigration unquestionably represented for the Myanmar authorities, from independence in 1948 onwards, a serious problem affecting internal citizenship and external relations.

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)".  I should add that the Executive Council Member seems to have been Aung Zan Wai, a Rakhine and Council Member for Social Affairs, who at a press conference around the same time mentioned only 6,300 (not 63,000) "unauthorized" border crossings. The Governor may well have added another "0" in error.

Minority 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”.

Report by Federal (West) German Intelligence (BND) about illegal immigration [transcript in German]

BND Archives - 18 September 1957

An undisclosed source reports that during the last four years [1954-1957] some 200,000 Pakistani nationals have migrated illegally into Burma, 95% into Arakan. This has resuted in serious unrest. Some 2,600 mostly from Chittagong have been detained and are held in Akyab pending deportation.

British Embassy Rangoon reports on new steps to control illegal immigration

Foreign Office Archives - Letter dated 21 January 1958

"1......Since the problems of illegal immigration and absorbing the vast foreign population are essential to the survival of Burma, you may care to hear a little about what is being done.....

“3. It is hard to say how many foreigners there are in Burma at present…..The census department have out-of-date records showing 705,549 foreigners mainly Indians, Pakistanis and Chinese. The Foreigners’ Registration Department have only fragmentary records. An estimate which has been made and fairly widely accepted in the press is that there are no less than two million aliens. The policy of the Government is to register them as soon as possible and to prevent any further swelling of the number of illegal entrants. The first of these two tasks is that of the Foreigners’ Registration Department, but it is made very difficult by the fact that the bulk of them – particularly the Indians – are illiterate labourers…..

"6. A lesser difficulty is that existing Burmese regulations tend to provoke illegal immigration in the most difficult area, the border with Pakistan. The population on both sides of the border is Chittagonian Muslim, and it has always been the practice for those north of the border in Pakistan to move south during the paddy cultivation season and to return home when their work was finished. There is also a steady movement of permanent immigrants southward towards the rich and relatively thinly-populated rice lands of North Arakan. It is almost impossible for the frontier authorities to keep any check, since there are endless jungle paths which the immigrants can use. And now, apart from the impossibility of expecting people of this sort to obtain passports and visas, they are not allowed to take home the fruits of their labours. Therefore they prefer to come into the county secretly and leave in the same way and will continue to do so until they are allowed to come and go freely without formalities and to take their wages home with them.”

Note by Derek Tonkin. The letter is initialled "F.A.W." which are the initials of Fred Warner, subsequently Sir Fred Warner, British Ambassador to Japan. His letter indicates the inadequate and unreliable nature of census and other official statistics, from  which it may be assumed that many, if not most illegal immigrants did not present themselves for enumeration at the 1953-54 Census.

Mass Departures in the Myanmar - Bangladesh Borderlands - Jacques Leider

TOAEP Policy Brief 111 of 2020

Extract: relating to the expulsion of illegals in 1959

"A mass exodus of allegedly 13,500 Muslims (17,600 according to Pakistani media) took place between March and August 1959. Information drawing on Pakistani authorities stated that first, 'deportees' were 'simply dumped by the Army or Police on the Pakistani bank of the River Naff', or on islands mid-stream; later, 'life was made so unpleasant' for the Muslims that they had 'no option but to take refuge'. An 'Arakanese Muslim Refugee Organisation' was founded in East Pakistan and made 'allegations of atrocities of all kinds'. In early September 1959, Burma gave the nod to the return of long-time residents while refusing 'genuine' illegals, an agreement confirmed by General Ne Win visiting Karachi in October."

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.

[A report in late January 1964 on Mr Bhutto's visit by the Indian Embassy in Rangoon to Delhi observed: "The Pakistani Foreign Minister found himself rather hamstrung in pressing the case of Pakistani nationals in Burma, by the embarrassing facts of the illegal entry into Burma of a large number of Pakistani emigrants." Source: Indian National Archives.] 


Federal German Ambassador Scholl in Karachi reports on the visit of General Ne Win

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. 


Record 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.

British Ambassador Booth reports on the Repatriation of Burmese Refugees

Despatch 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 1989

Extract: Page 104The 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 [1989] 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 [1962].

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 Officer, 1995

Unpacking the presumed statelessness of Rohingyas - Nyi Nyi Kyaw 2017

“Illegal 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. 

Both 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 began and where relatively normal conditions prevailed, a total of 1,025 persons were convicted out of  36,824 examined, or 2.8% of the total - 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 growing and 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 activity by the Rohingya Patriotic Front at the time. 

Some refugees would undoubtedly have fled because they were illegal migrants. Apparently, Nyi Nyi Kyaw and Carlos Galache do not believe so. It is however in my view 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 relatively 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. 

As confirmation of the high incidence of illegals, in "The Legal Status of Indians in Contemporary Burma" (ISEAS 2006), Robert Taylor records that: "Between 20 March and 26 April 1948 in Buthidaung Township, Rakhine State, 19,457 people were said to have absconded on a demand to see their citizenship or foreigner's registration certificates while legal  action was being taken against 594 people, presumably as illegal immigrants". 


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 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 considerable detail. 



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 Maungdaw Districts.]




(with comments by Derek Tonkin)

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 temporary influx into Burma of military and civilian personnel. The number of refugees "had now been reduced to about 2,000".  [It should not however be excluded, indeed it is likely that that other migrants used this opportunity of chaos at the border to slip unnoticed into Arakan and avoided registration as refugees.]

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".

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.

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." Comments made in July 2012 by President Thein Sein clearly imply that migration into Arakan under British rule was not illegal and have greater authority than the MFA statement.

Statement made on 12 December 1992 by the Permanent Mission of Myanmar in Geneva

In this document, we read on Page 76: "Now, I should like to refer to the matter of people who crossed over to Bangladesh. Since the first Anglo-Myanmar war in 1824, Muslims of Bengali stock had entered Rakhine (Arakan) State illegally from across the border. After annexation of Myanmar, the British administration adopted a policy of liberalizing immigration regulations in order to import labour from India to work on the agricultural lands largely devoted to growing paddy. During the course of the years, the number of such immigrants increased culminating in illegal settlement creating problems for the local populace."

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.

The Development 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.

A 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 State today.”


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.

Mass Departures in the Myanmar - Bangladesh Borderlands - Jacques Leider TOAEP 2020

This brief looks at the departures of 1942, 1948-49, 1959, 1976-78 and 1991-92, happening in different political contexts from World War II to the end of Myanmar’s military regime in 2011. Yet each crisis was triggered and unfolded within the same area at nearly identical locations in Cox’ Bazaar district (Chittagong Division) and Maungdaw sub-district (in the former Akyab district). Mass departures were cyclic with recurrent acts of atrocity and destruction of livelihood perpetrated against Muslim civilians. But they were also singular events to be explored within their own contexts of overlapping complexity of territorial and identity politics.