Illegal migration from Bengal into Arakan after 1948 - Thar Le Zwa သာလီစြ - Arakan Monitor

Thar Le Zwa သာလီစြ - Arakan Monitor

Thar Le Zwa: Arakan Monitor


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Monday, December 16, 2019

Illegal migration from Bengal into Arakan after 1948

The Governor of Burma writes to the Governor of Bengal - 8 February 1947
Sir Hubert Rance Personal Papers - British Library Mss Eur F169

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.

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”.

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.

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".

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: The Ambassador appears to be 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 the 1948 Citizenship Act and the 1982 Citizenship Law and is frequently referred to by senior officials and ministers.

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 reject. 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.

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.

Five related articles on illegal immigration 

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 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 (594), and later in Maungdaw (230). What is perhaps surprising is that they still found so many.

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. 

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 was later split into Sittwe and Maungdaw Districts.]

(with comments by Derek Tonkin)

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 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.

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".

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.)

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.

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