Last Updated: Friday, 11 July 2014, 13:14 GMT

Myanmar: Muslims from Rakhine State: Exit and Return

Publisher WRITENET
Author Tessa Piper
Publication Date 1 December 1993
Cite as WRITENET, Myanmar: Muslims from Rakhine State: Exit and Return, 1 December 1993, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a6bec.html [accessed 13 July 2014]
Comments Note: In this issue paper the in-text reference system is used, which is different from the usual WRITENET standard of footnotes.
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

1. INTRODUCTION

During 1991 Muslims from Rakhine (formerly Arakan) state in Myanmar began pouring into Bangladesh in their thousands. By July 1992 the figure had reached over 270,000 (U.S. Department of State Country Reports for 1992, 523). Refugees described being subjected to a wide range of human rights violations by the Myanmar security forces deliberately aimed, many of them claimed, at driving them out of the country. This paper describes the conditions in Rakhine state during 1991 and 1992 that led to the massive exodus of refugees. It also outlines the repatriation process to date, a process that is likely to speed up dramatically in light of the agreement reached in November 1993 between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Myanmar authorities. This agreement, which will allow the UNHCR access to Rakhine state in order to monitor the repatriation and reintegration of returning Muslim refugees, marks a potentially major breakthrough in the repatriation process. Unless evidence emerges in the coming weeks and months of continuing repression in Rakhine state resulting in major human rights abuses, it is likely that the repatriation process will get underway in earnest in 1994.

Reliable information about the human rights situation in Myanmar as a whole, and Rakhine state in particular, is very limited. The country's ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) has repeatedly denied access to the country to non-governmental human rights organizations, and permission for journalists to visit is granted only rarely. The information that has been obtained about conditions in Rakhine state has consequently come primarily from Muslim refugees in Bangladesh, whose claims it has been impossible to independently verify. Nonetheless the consistency of the testimony gathered has led journalists, non-governmental organizations and the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar to conclude that during 1991 and 1992 Muslims in Rakhine state were subjected to a gross and persistent pattern of human rights violations by the Myanmar authorities.

2. MUSLIMS OF RAKHINE STATE

Present day population statistics for Myanmar are contentious. No reliable figures have been collected or released since independence and those that are published are likely to play down ethnic minority numbers. In 1991 the population of Myanmar was estimated to be just over forty two million (Asia Yearbook 1992, 6). Unofficial estimates of the Muslim population of Rakhine state - located along Myanmar's Western coastline on the Bay of Bengal - are put at one to two million (Smith 1991, 30). Most live in the north of the state, the northern tip of which adjoins Bangladesh. The majority population of the state as a whole are the Buddhist Rakhine ethnic group whose population in 1991 was estimated to be approximately 2.5 million (Ibid.). Although Buddhism is the dominant religion in Rakhine, the state has the highest concentration of Muslim inhabitants in Myanmar (Minority Rights Group International 1990, 345).

The Muslims from Rakhine state are descendants of Moorish, Arab and Persian traders who arrived between the 9th and 15th centuries, married local women, and settled in the region. Up until World War II there appears to have been little or no friction between them and the Buddhist Rakhine. However, the expulsion of the British by the Japanese is reported to have created serious inter-communal tensions as the Buddhist Rakhine, as well as Burman nationalists, sided with the Japanese while minorities such as the Muslims of Rakhine state remained loyal to the British (Far Eastern Economic Review, 28 January 1993, 24).

There are two main rebel groups operating in Rakhine state, the moderate Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF), and the stronger, more Islamic- orientated Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO). It is difficult to estimate the actual strength of the two groups, but in 1991 observers estimated that the ARIF had about 200 fighters armed mainly with elderly submachine guns and a few automatic rifles. The RSO, financially and militarily the stronger of the two groups, was in 1991 believed to have thousands of followers and up to 600 armed men with a mix of old and modern weapons. Neither group is organized into regular fighting units operating inside Rakhine state. Rather, their members live in camps along the border with Bangladesh. The latest skirmish between either rebel group and the Myanmar armed forces reportedly took place in February 1989. The Far Eastern Economic Review concluded in 1991 that there was little evidence to indicate that the population of Rakhine poses a serious military threat to the Burmese army (Far Eastern Economic Review, 29 August 1991, 28).

There has, however, been evidence of non-violent opposition to the ruling SLORC in recent years. Like the rest of Myanmar, the population of Rakhine state voted heavily against the government-backed National Union Party in the National Assembly elections of May 1990 and in favour of the opposition. Their votes were divided among the National League for Democracy, the Arakan League for Democracy and the National Democratic Party for Human Rights (Asia Watch, 7 May 1992, 5).

3. EXODUS OF MUSLIMS FROM RAKHINE STATE

3.1 The 1978 Exodus

The 1991-92 refugee exodus from Rakhine state echoes a similar flight of Muslims from the state more than ten years earlier.

In 1978 the then ruling Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) initiated a campaign code-named Naga Min (Dragon King) which drove over 200,000 Muslims from Rakhine state (then called Arakan state) across the border into Bangladesh (The Far East and Australasia Yearbook 1993, 577). The authorities claimed they were carrying out a "routine check on illegal immigrants" and that "a few Bengalis who had no citizenship papers left the country." The refugees' version of events was very different. They claim that they had been forced to leave the country as a result of killings, rape, pillage and arson committed by the armed forces. Many of those who fled showed citizenship papers to visiting journalists to prove they were not illegal immigrants, as the government claimed, but bona fide citizens of Myanmar (then called Burma) (Far Eastern Economic Review, 29 August 1991, 26).

Some observers suggest that the 1978 campaign was launched against the Muslims of Rakhine state in order to distract the majority Buddhist Burman population from the country's political and economic difficulties. Anti-Indian sentiments have always been strong in Myanmar, and many Burmans insist that the Muslims of Rakhine state are Bengalis.

That refugee crisis was eventually settled after rising concern in Muslim countries led to intervention by the UN, but some of those who returned to Myanmar reportedly found that their houses and land had been taken over by Buddhist settlers (Far Eastern Economic Review, 29 August 1991, 26).

Over 95% of the more than 270,000 refugees from Myanmar who have fled into Bangladesh since 1991 are Muslims from Rakhine state. The vast majority of the refugee population in Bangladesh comes from four Myanmar sub-districts, Buthidaung, Maungdaw, Rathedaung and Akyab, all in the north of Rakhine state (United Nations, 17 February 1993, E/CN.4/1993/37, 26). Of these four sub-districts, most of the refugees have fled from Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships (Asia Watch, 7 May 1992, 2).

Muslim refugees from Rakhine state began pouring into Bangladesh in their thousands during 1991. In August private relief workers working along the border estimated that the figure had reached approximately 16,000 (Far Eastern Economic Review, 29 August 1991, 26). By late 1991 the refugees were entering Bangladesh at a rate of several thousand a day and by mid-March 1992 the Bangladesh Government had registered over 200,000 refugees (Asia Watch, 7 May 1992, 1). By July 1992, little more than a year after the exodus had begun, more than 260,000 Muslim refugees had fled Rakhine state to seek refuge in Bangladesh (Amnesty International October 1992, 20).

As of August 1992 there was a significant decrease in the number of new refugees arriving in Bangladesh, and the flow of refugees slowed to about 10 per day, down from some 2,000 a day in April 1992 (Asia Watch, 6 September 1992, 7). Asia Watch suggests that this should not necessarily be regarded as implying an improvement in the human rights situation in Myanmar. Instead, the organization argues, the reason for the sudden reduction in refugee arrivals could be explained by the reported build up of Myanmar troops along the border in July of that year, apparently deployed in order to stop the exodus of refugees into Bangladesh (Ibid., 11, citing Agence France Press, 21 July 1992).

Unconfirmed reports of a continuing significant military presence in northern Rakhine state were backed up in November 1993 by a German tourist. He claimed to have inadvertantly crossed the border from Bangladesh into Myanmar, and alleged that the border area was heavily guarded by troops (Associated Press, 23 November 1993).

4. THE 1991-1992 CRISIS IN CONTEXT

Muslims from Rakhine state arriving in Bangladesh in 1991 and 1992 described a gross and consistent pattern of human rights violations committed against them by the Myanmar security forces. Abuses included the forcible conscription of men as porters for the army and as labourers on building projects; ill-treatment, torture and deliberate killing, both in the context of forced labour and portering and in other circumstances; rape; confiscation of land, property and livestock; destruction of mosques and Muslim cemeteries; and arrests on religious or political grounds. The pattern of human rights violations committed against the Muslim population of Rakhine state appears in many respects to be very similar to the abuses committed against all forms of political opposition and dissent and against members of those ethnic minorities whom the military authorities suspect may not support its national ideology. Where it differs significantly, however, is in the way in which the human rights abuses appear to have been carried out as part of a deliberate attempt to push Muslims out of northern Rakhine state.

The ruling SLORC has given varying and sometimes conflicting explanations of the legal status of Muslims from Rakhine state. Initially it depicted the refugees as illegal aliens fleeing to avoid routine immigration checks (U.S. Department of State Country Reports for 1992, 528), the same reason given by the BSPP for the massive exodus of Muslims from the state in 1978. In a meeting in Myanmar in December 1992 with the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar the Minister of Foreign Affairs, U Ohn Gyaw, denied that human rights violations had been carried out against Muslims in the state. He even went as far as to deny that any of the refugees in the refugee camps in Bangladesh had fled from Myanmar, asserting:

"it is a rubbish thing that people have left Myanmar. These people who are in the refugee camps in Bangladesh are perhaps from Dhaka, but not one single person has left Burma" (United Nations 17 February 1993, E/CN.4/1993/37, 8).

4.1 Forced Relocations/Resettlement

Large scale human rights abuse directed against the Muslims of Rakhine state appear to have begun as early as late 1989 when the SLORC began a resettlement policy in the state. The Myanmar government is reported to have carried out a similar policy in other parts of Myanmar earlier in the year, moving people into new satellite towns, apparently as a means of imposing more effective military control over the population in the aftermath of the 1988 mass uprising for democracy (Far Eastern Economic Review, 29 August 1991, 26).

In late 1989 the resettlement campaign reached Akyab, Rakhine's state capital and the SLORC are said to have begun resettling Buddhist Rakhines in the predominantly Muslim areas of the state, displacing local Muslims (Europa Yearbook 1993, 577). By October 1990 resettlement was being forcibly carried out by the military in Mawdaung and Buthidaung (Far Eastern Economic Review 29 August 1991, 26). Refugees from Rakhine state interviewed by the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1991 described how Muslim-owned land was confiscated, Muslim settlements demolished and a number of mosques were borded up or destroyed by the army (Ibid.). Refugees interviewed by Asia Watch in March 1992 appeared to confirm a government policy of moving non-Muslim Burmans into northern Rakhine state. A man who arrived in Bangladesh in February 1992 claimed that over the previous eighteen months housing projects for urban non-Muslim Burmans had been built in Rakhine state using forced labour crews (Asia Watch, 7 May 1992, 17).

The UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar believes that the policy of forced relocation was in large part responsible for grave human rights violations committed against Muslims in Rakhine state. In his report to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in February 1993 he said: "The Special Rapporteur received large amounts of direct testimony as well as other well-documented evidence indicating that the forced relocation and forced portering has led to a systematic pattern of torture (including rape) cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, disappearance or arbitrary execution of Muslim and other Rakhine ethnic minorities by the Myanmar authorities." (United Nations 17 February 1993, E/CN.4/1993/37, 27).

It is unclear what provision has been made for repatriated Muslim refugees who are unable to return to their villages of origin because of the resettlement policy.

4.2 Human Rights Abuses in Rakhine State

Large scale human rights abuse directed against the Muslims of Rakhine state appear to have begun as early as late 1989 when the SLORC began a resettlement policy in the state. The Myanmar government is reported to have carried out a similar policy in other parts of Myanmar earlier in the year, moving people into new satellite towns, apparently as a means of imposing more effective military control over the population in the aftermath of the 1988 mass uprising for democracy (Far Eastern Economic Review, 29 August 1991, 26).

In late 1989 the resettlement campaign reached Akyab, Rakhine's state capital and the SLORC are said to have begun resettling Buddhist Rakhines in the predominantly Muslim areas of the state, displacing local Muslims (Europa Yearbook 1993, 577). By October 1990 resettlement was being forcibly carried out by the military in Mawdaung and Buthidaung (Far Eastern Economic Review 29 August 1991, 26). Refugees from Rakhine state interviewed by the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1991 described how Muslim-owned land was confiscated, Muslim settlements demolished and a number of mosques were borded up or destroyed by the army (Ibid.). Refugees interviewed by Asia Watch in March 1992 appeared to confirm a government policy of moving non-Muslim Burmans into northern Rakhine state. A man who arrived in Bangladesh in February 1992 claimed that over the previous eighteen months housing projects for urban non-Muslim Burmans had been built in Rakhine state using forced labour crews (Asia Watch, 7 May 1992, 17).

The UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar believes that the policy of forced relocation was in large part responsible for grave human rights violations committed against Muslims in Rakhine state. In his report to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in February 1993 he said: "The Special Rapporteur received large amounts of direct testimony as well as other well-documented evidence indicating that the forced relocation and forced portering has led to a systematic pattern of torture (including rape) cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, disappearance or arbitrary execution of Muslim and other Rakhine ethnic minorities by the Myanmar authorities." (United Nations 17 February 1993, E/CN.4/1993/37, 27).

It is unclear what provision has been made for repatriated Muslim refugees who are unable to return to their villages of origin because of the resettlement policy.

4.3 Military Build-up in Rakhine State

The Far Eastern Economic Review (29 August 1991, 26) cites evidence from refugees, diplomats based in Dhaka, and other independent observers that during 1991 in Rakhine state the whole area along the Bangladesh border was becoming increasingly militarized. The military build up in Rakhine state coincided with a rapid rise in reports of human rights abuses and the arrival in Bangladesh of thousands of Muslims from the state seeking asylum.

During this period there were reports of entire communities being forced to leave their settlements to make way for military projects, and at least three additional battalions of government troops were said to have been deployed in the border area. Thousands of civilians, from boys as young as ten to elderly men, were allegedly forcibly conscripted as unpaid labour for the construction and maintenance of a new military camp and other "border development projects" in the area, including major new roads being constructed through the state. By August 1991 the number of government troops in Mawdaung and Buthidaung was reported to have more than doubled since the previous year, bringing the total number of military personnel in the two townships to nearly 10,000. Military personnel deployed in the two townships were understood to include several contingents from the Lone Htein, a paramilitary security force that earned notoriety in Rangoon for its brutal handling of the pro-democracy movement in 1988. Also during 1991 helicopter landing pads were said to have been built along the border, and armoured vehicles began to routinely patrol the road between Mawdaung and Buthidaung (Ibid.).

The SLORC has claimed that the military build up in Rakhine state was carried out in response to insurgent activity in the area. Yet although the two Muslim opposition groups, the RSO and the ARIF, claim to have armed wings operating in northern Rakhine state, the extent of military conflict between these groups and the Myanmar armed forces appears to have been extremely limited (Amnesty International, October 1992, 21).

5. FORMS OF ABUSE

5.1 Portering and Forced Labour

Myanmar's Legal Code does not prohibit the use of forced labour. The military routinely employs corvee labour on building projects in different parts of the country (U.S. Department of State Country Reports for 1992, 530). Government authorities informed the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar that labour on behalf of the state, and particularly portering, is not forced, that it is the right of the Government to exact this labour and that it is in fact an obligation of all persons in Myanmar to provide labour (United Nations 17 February 1993, E/CN.4/1993/37, 35). In a formal representation to the International Labour Organization (ILO) the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) describes the practice of porterage in Myanmar very differently:

"Reliable reports...have revealed the widespread use of porters by the military in Myanmar and the inhumane working and living conditions to which they are subjected... Civilians of both sexes and of advanced ages, young and middle, and a variety of fitness levels are forcibly and arbitrarily seized by local police and military units to serve essentially as "beasts of burden" for the army. They work at the mercy of the soldiers, bearing heavy loads and receiving very little rest or food. Many porters are physically and/or sexually abused by the soldiers they serve. They are worked until they are either too sick or hurt to walk any further, some are killed by mines, in cross fire, or by the units they serve, some manage to escape." (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions January 1993, 20).

Evidence gathered by the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar showed that since 1988 thousands of people have been killed throughout Myanmar while providing forced portering for the military. He reported that Muslims from Rakhine state were among the groups most affected, along with members of the Karen, Shan and Mon ethnic minorities (United Nations 17 February 1993, E/CN.4/1993/37, 16).

Informed sources have cited the policy of conscripting forced labour as a major reason for the exodus of Muslims from Rakhine state during 1991 and 1992.

In his February 1993 report to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar concluded that Muslims from Rakhine state were at high risk of being taken by the army for use as porters or forced labourers, as a consequence of which they, and other Rakhine ethnic minorities, have been subjected to a wide range of human rights violations. The Special Rapporteur stated that refugees consistently told him that they believed the practice of abduction for forced portering continues and that as a result they may again be tortured and perhaps killed if they return to Myanmar. The fear of repeated rape as a result of military reprisals for not finding men for portering was also cited by most of the women interviewed by the Special Rapporteur as a reason for resisting repatriation to Myanmar (United Nations 17 February 1993, E/CN.4/1993/37, 27).

In February-March 1992 a mission from Amnesty International visited the refugee camps in Bangladesh. It gathered substantial information about the circumstances of forced portering in Rakhine state. Until late 1991 the method commonly said to have been used for selecting porters was to oblige village headmen to provide a certain number of men from their village. Porters were often taken in rotation with each man taking his turn for duty. From late 1991 onwards however, coinciding with the military build up in the area, refugees reported that the number of people taken as porters increased, as did the frequency with which they were taken. Refugees also stated that porters were seized in a more random manner, with the military often taking people from their homes or from markets or local roads (Amnesty International May 1992, 6-7). One refugee described the process as follows: "They do it in all sorts of ways, depending on what they need people for. Sometimes they come at night and just grab people from their beds, sometimes they ask the village headman to make lists of people they should take. And then sometimes they are taken for 10 days, 15 days, two months. You can never tell." (Ibid., 6).

The interviews conducted by Amnesty International reveal that forced porterage in Rakhine state has not been confined to one age group or social category:

"...Muslim men of all ages, school children and even a malawi [a Muslim cleric in a mosque who leads people in prayer] were forced to be porters by the army. Most of those interviewed by Amnesty International were poor farmers or day labourers from villages in northwest Rakhine State, although some held leadership positions in their villages and appeared to have been more wealthy." (Ibid., 7).

An Asia Watch mission heard similar accounts of forced labour from Muslim refugees during visits to five refugee camps in Bangladesh in March 1992 and judged that:

"forced labour has been part of daily life in northern Arakan [Rakhine] for at least a decade. Any able-bodied man is subject to being forcibly recruited for hard labour at repeated intervals" (Asia Watch, 7 May 1992, 12).

From its interviews Amnesty International concluded:

"Most male villagers were in effect completely at the disposal of army troops because they might be arbitrarily seized at any time." (Amnesty International May 1992, 6)

Refugees interviewed by Amnesty International described having to carry out a variety of tasks. They included: carrying heavy loads of food, bricks or ammunition for troops; working on road construction projects digging trenches and moving earth; constructing or improving military camps; or acting as servants for troops in army camps. They also reported being forced to build new villages for the Buddhist Rakhine settlers whom the Myanmar armed forces moved into the area. Those taken as porters would be kept in army custody for periods from a few days to a few months. One refugee described it as "...like being in prison, but worse because of the heavy work we had to do." (Ibid.).

Reports of forced labour of Muslims from Rakhine state continued to be reported by newly arrived refugees in Bangladesh during May and June 1992 who "said they fled after they were forced to give up their possessions or had been conscripted into labour projects (Information Bulletin No. 2 on Bangladesh, UNHCR Public Information Section, 11 June 1992, 2).

The lack of evidence of the continuing use of forced labour in Rakhine state in 1993 should not be regarded as implying that the policy of forced labour is no longer being applied. It is more likely that the restrictions on access to the state, and exit from it, make it very difficult for information about the use of forced labour to reach the outside world. Meanwhile, there continue to be reports of forced labour in other parts of the country. For example, in July 1993 there were reports of Karen villagers being forcibly conscripted by the army to provide free labour for road building and other infrastructure projects (Far Eastern Economic Review, 15 July 1993, 24). In view of the SLORC's justification of its use of civilian labour (see page 6), and evidence of its ongoing use in other parts of the country, it is unlikely that the practice of forced labour has been completely curtailed in Rakhine state.

5.2 Ill-treatment, Torture and Deliberate Killings of Porters and Forced Labourers

Refugees who have fled to Bangladesh from Rakhine state have reported a wide range of human rights violations carried out in the context of portering and forced labour.

Muslims interviewed in February and March 1992 by Amnesty International said that people taken for porterage or forced labour were either given no food at all or a small amount of rice a day. Porters were sometimes tied up at night, making sleep impossible. Refugees said that those who became weak and could not perform their duties to the satisfaction of the army were kicked, beaten with bamboo sticks, iron rods and rifle butts, burned with cigarettes and slashed with bayonets. Sometimes they were verbally abused. Those who attempted to escape from the army's custody after being taken as porters were often said to have been ill-treated, or even killed (Amnesty International May 1992, 7-8).

Hindus as well as Muslims from Rakhine state were said to have been subjected to ill-treatment during forced portering duties. In one instance a 20-year-old Hindu man from Maungdaw township described his experience as a porter during February 1992. He told Amnesty International how he was kicked and then dragged by soldiers to the top of a hill "like a doll" after he fell down carrying a heavy rice sack. Another Hindu described being taken to build houses during which time he was given almost no food. He commented on the army's attitude towards minorities in the Rakhine State: "They make no differentiation between Muslim and Hindu, we are all just Kala to them." [Kala is a derogatory term used by ethnic Burmans to describe people from and descendants of people from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka] (Ibid., 12).

Asia Watch documented similar reports of the torture and ill-treatment of Muslim porters during a visit to the refugee camps in Bangladesh in March 1992 (Asia Watch, 7 May 1992, 12-16). So too did the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar who found that the neglect of porters, including a failure to provide medical treatment for injuries sustained as a result of torture or for illnesses contracted during the course of portering and forced labour, resulted in many deaths (United Nations 17 February 1993, E/CN.4/1993/37, 21).

Amnesty International also documented cases in which deliberate killings were reported to have been carried out against porters and labourers who became too weak to continue their work (Amnesty International May 1992, 20). Those who resisted being taken as porters were said by refugees to be at risk of being killed, while family members who protested to the army after their relatives had been taken as porters were subjected to physical punishment (Amnesty International October 1993, 13). Dozens of Rakhine Muslim women told the UN Special Rapportuer on Myanmar that their husbands had been taken away by the military for forced portering and had never returned (United Nations 17 February 1993, E/CN.4/1993/37, 46). The Special Rapporteur concluded from evidence he gathered that "there is strong evidence suggesting a systematic pattern of summary or arbitrary execution of forced porters." (Ibid., 16).

5.3 Ill-treatment, Torture and Deliberate Killings Outside the Context of Forced Portering

Refugees have also provided considerable consistent evidence of the ill-treatment, torture and killing of Muslims by security forces in Rakhine state outside the context of forced portering.

Amnesty International has documented reports from Muslim refugees of torture or ill-treatment having been carried out in a number of circumstances: if Muslims tried to protest when security forces attacked other Muslims; if they objected on their own behalf, for example if security forces stole their crops or other goods; or if they were suspected of opposing the government. Some refugees said that they were ill-treated when they were stopped by members of the security forces on their way to Bangladesh. At other times Muslims reported being subjected to ill-treatment for no apparent reason. Forms of ill-treatment were said to include slashings with bayonets, beatings with sticks and kicks with heavy boots (Amnesty International May 1992, 15-16).

Refugees frequently reported women having been raped by security forces in Rakhine state. Many alleged that Muslim women had been systematically raped by government troops (Far Eastern Economic Review 29 August 1991, 26).

Women appear to have been particularly at risk in areas where military camps were established. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, information he gathered in the course of interviews carried out in December 1992 with Muslim women from Rakhine state indicated that:

"...a large number of rapes by entire groups of Myanmar military had been taking place. Many women provided testimony that women in villages relocated by the army were rounded up and taken to military barracks where they were repeatedly raped. In other circumstances, women have allegedly been taken by the military when the husband, or other male in the family, had fled at the approach of the army. Often the "pretty" or young ones were raped immediately in front of family members and then taken away. Women who had returned to their villages stated that some of the women among them had died as a result of the continual rapes." (United Nations 17 February 1993, E/CN.4/1993/37, 16).

Similar claims were made by refugees interviewed by Amnesty International in February and March 1992, and the organization found that "reports of women being raped when their husbands were taken away for porter duty were common" (Amnesty International May 1992, 15). Asia Watch concluded from interviews with refugees in March 1992 that the rape of women whose husbands were taken for forced labour in northern Rakhine state had been "systematic" (Asia Watch 7 May 1992, 12).

The deliberate killing of Muslims by the security forces, both within the context of forced labour or portering and without, were also reported. Refugees interviewed by Amnesty International cited over one hundred cases of deliberate killing of Muslims living in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships. The organization found that:

"those deliberately killed included porters and labourers who were too weak to continue their work, individuals who refused or were unable to obey the army, suspected insurgents and victims of rape by the military, and Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh. Some were killed while they were passengers on boats; others were killed in their homes or villages; still others were prisoners at the time of their deaths." (Amnesty International May 1992, 20-21).

One refugee described to Amnesty International the routine threats and intimidation meted out to Muslims. Such allegations appear to support the claim that human rights violations against Muslims in the state were part of a deliberate policy to make them leave the

"When we were beaten at different times we were often told that we should leave and that we weren't wanted in Burma. They said also that we would be killed if we tried to go back." (Ibid., 2).

Several others also told of how they and their families had been stopped as they tried to leave Myanmar by the Lone Htein who confiscated all of their belongings and threatened to shoot them if they returned (Amnesty International October 1992, 21).

Little detailed information is available about Muslim political prisoners from Rakhine state. The lack of independently verifiable information and lack of access to the country, coupled with the fact that the names of those arrested and released are seldom made public, makes it very difficult to maintain accurate records on political prisoners.

Amnesty International does confirm, however, that Muslims living in Rakhine state have been arrested and detained for their political activities, for their alleged "economic crimes" and for attempting to exercise their right to freedom of religion (Amnesty International, May 1992, 24). One of those currently believed to be detained is Fazal Ahmed, a Muslim member of the National Democratic Party for Human Rights and a member of parliament-elect from Maungdaw South constituency in Rakhine state. He is understood to have been sentenced to two years' imprisonment in March 1993. He was arrested nearly a year earlier, in June 1992, with at least one other man, Mohamed Ilyas. The official reason given for their arrest was involvement in a bomb explosion near Maungdaw town (Amnesty International, October 1993, 6). Mohamed Ilyas, a Muslim aged in his 60s from Maungdaw township who was the local secretary of the National League for Democracy (NLD), was reportedly beaten to death by Military Intelligence Services (MIS) personnel four days after his arrest (Ibid., 10)

6. REPATRIATION

Repatriation of Muslim refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar has been taking place since September 1992. By late November 1993 nearly 50,000 refugees had returned (Reuter, 25 November 1993). The repatriation process has been marred by the use of coercion by the Bangladeshi authorities and evidence of involuntary repatriation which led to the UNHCR temporarily withdrawing from the process between late 1992 and early 1993. Repatriation has also been hampered by the refusal of the Myanmar authorities, until November 1993, to grant the UNHCR access to Rakhine state in order to monitor the safety of those refugees who have returned.

The governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar had originally intended the repatriation process to begin soon after they signed agreements in April and May 1992 that provided for the "safe and voluntary" repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh and set out the means by which the refugees would be repatriated. The agreements were strongly criticized, not least by the UNHCR, both for their failure to provide any mechanisms to ensure that the repatriation process would be truly voluntary, and for their failure to provide for the effective monitoring of the safety of the returnees once they were back in Myanmar.

The first repatriations, scheduled for May 1992, were repeatedly postponed after widespread protests among refugees in the camps in Bangladesh and an international outcry over the lack of safeguards in place regarding the repatriation process. Four months later the Bangladesh authorities did return a group of refugees to Myanmar, without the UNHCR being granted access to them to assess the voluntary nature of their return, and violence erupted in the camps in protest (Asia Watch, 9 October 1993, 2).

In October the Bangladesh Government and the UNHCR reached an agreement allowing for UNHCR staff to conduct interviews with refugees prior to their return. Two months later the UNHCR withdrew from the October agreement and halted its involvement in the repatriation process, citing evidence that Bangladesh had sent at least some refugees back to Myanmar against their will (Reuter, 3 January 1993). Nevertheless the repatriation process continued without any UNHCR involvement, and by mid-January more than 17,000 Muslims had been repatriated (Ibid., 19 January 1993).

During this period serious doubt was cast on the voluntary character of the returns (United Nations 17 February 1993, E/CN.4/1993/37, 6). Asia Watch cites evidence that coercion and physical abuse of refugees was carried out by Bangladeshi authorities when these mass repatriations were taking place (Asia Watch, 9 October 1993, 1). An official of the U.S. State Department, Richard Boucher, also talked in December 1992 of "credible reports" that Bangladesh was coercing refugees to return to Myanmar (Ibid., 6).

The repatriation process was briefly suspended by the Bangladesh government on 19 January 1993 and when repatriation was resumed at the end of the month UNHCR was once again allowed to conduct private interviews with returnees, but only in the transit camps (Ibid., 4). Discussions between the UNHCR and the Bangladesh government continued over procedures for "safe and voluntary" repatriation, formalized in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed on 12 May 1993 (Radio Bangladesh 12 May 1993). This allowed the UNHCR free access to, and a presence in, all the refugee camps (Asia Watch, 9 October 1993, 5). In spite of this agreement the pace of repatriation was relatively slow. As of 16 July the total figure for repatriations had risen to only 29,539 (Rangoon Radio Burma 23 July 1993).

A major factor influencing the slow progress of repatriation up until November 1993 was the reluctance on the part of Muslim refugees to return because of the continuing refusal of the Myanmar authorities to allow the UNHCR to monitor their return and reintegration. On 5 November 1993 agreement on this issue was finally reached and an MOU was signed by the UNHCR and the Myanmar government which allows for a UNHCR presence in Rakhine state (Associated Press, 5 November 1993). The MOU, which has not yet been made publicly available, is understood to stipulate that the UNHCR will be given access to all returnees, that they will be issued with appropriate identification papers and that they will enjoy the same freedom of movement as any other nationals. They are also to be provided with household goods and building materials and will receive food assistance for two months. Community projects in agriculture, water, sanitation and education are also to be implemented (Irna news agency 8 November 1993).

With the signing of the MOU the rate of return of Muslim refugees is expected to accelerate rapidly. On 25 November nearly 800 refugees returned to Myanmar from Bangladesh, the largest group to go back in ten months. This latest group brought the total number of returnees since repatriation began in September 1992 to 49,608 (Reuter, 25 November 1993).

While the agreement reached between the Myanmar authorities and the UNHCR is welcome it seems likely that, unless and until there is positive feedback about the situation in Rakhine state, many Muslim refugees in Bangladesh are likely to remain sceptical about their safety upon return to Myanmar. Refugee camp officials said on 8 November that nearly 1,000 Muslims had fled the camps in the three days since the MOU between the UNHCR and the Myanmar authorities was signed, and that more are expected to follow suit (Reuter, 8 November 1993). Golam Murtaza, Bangladesh's repatriation and relief commissioner, told Reuter in November that as many as 30,000 Muslim refugees have fled the camps over the last two years, either mingling with the local population or migrating to third countries, in order to avoid being repatriated to Myanmar (Reuter, 11 November 1993).

Now that the MOU has been signed, there is a need for particular attention to be paid to ensuring that those who will be returning to Rakhine state in the coming months are doing so voluntarily. As recently as April 1993 an Asia Watch consultant visited the refugee camps in Bangladesh and found that verbal, physical and sexual abuse of refugees by Bangladeshi military and paramilitary forces in charge of the camps was continuing to occur (Asia Watch, 9 October 1993, 6), arousing concern that undue pressure was still being put on refugees to return to Myanmar. These abuses took place before the UNHCR had access to the "camps of origin". However, with the rate of repatriation now set to increase significantly there may be greater incentive than ever for the Bangladeshi authorities to use coercion in order to ensure that there are sufficient refugees coming forward to fill the enlarged quotas for returnees.

7. CONCLUSION

From evidence provided by refugees and non-governmental organizations there seems to be little doubt that during 1991 and 1992 the army conducted a campaign against Muslims from Rakhine state, which included ill-treatment, torture and deliberate killings on a massive scale. These violations took place at a time when there was almost no insurgent activity in Rakhine state at the time.

Much more difficult to assess are conditions in Rakhine state now and consequently the reception in the short, medium and long term that Muslim refugees returning there will face. Those refugees who returned prior to the November 1993 agreement have not had their progress independently monitored and international human rights organizations continue to be denied access to the state. The UNHCR is only now beginning its operations there and it will be some time before a comprehensive picture of the human rights situation in Rakhine state will emerge.

UNHCR Head of Desk Patrick de Sousa who visited northern Rakhine state in September 1993 believes that there is reason for optimism. While acknowledging the limitations of the visit - he was in the state for only a few days, accompanied by government appointed interpreters and officials and reliant on the Myanmar authorities for transport - he reported that he had seen signs of normalcy, in particular signs of economic normalcy (telephone conversation with Patrick de Sousa, 30 November 1993).

Such optimism contrasts markedly with the views of Nural Islam, leader of the armed opposition group, ARIF. In an interview with the BBC World Service in May 1993 he alleged that Muslims living in Rakhine state continue to be subjected to human rights violations such as deliberate killings, confiscation of land and the use of forced labour for government building projects or as porters for the army. He also alleged that Muslims were not being permitted to travel freely within Myanmar, despite governments statements to the contrary. Regarding those refugees who had already returned to Rakhine state, Nural Islam claimed that they were living in intolerable conditions and that the repatriated refugees are being kept apart from local people (BBC World Service, South Asia Report, 25 May 1993).

Such anecdotal assessments are of course no grounds on which to draw conclusions about conditions in Rakhine state. Until non-governmental organizations and the UNHCR are established there it is unlikely that an accurate picture of the true situation in Rakhine state will emerge. In the country as a whole, however, there seems to be no indication that the ruling SLORC is prepared to curtail its abuse of real or perceived opponents.

In its country report on Myanmar covering 1992, the U.S. Department of State said that:

"While the Government took some positive human rights steps in 1992, the deplorable human rights situation remained fundamentally unchanged.... Political arrests continued...arbitrary detentions and compulsory labour persisted, as did harsh treatment and torture of detainees. Freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and association remained nonexistant." (U.S. Department of State Country Reports for 1992, 523).

Amnesty International gave a similarly bleak assessment of conditions in Myanmar in its October 1993 report:

"The SLORC...continues to commit grave human rights violations against the Burmese people with impunity. Members of political opposition parties and ethnic minorities alike live in an atmosphere of fear which pervades all areas of the country. Some improvements have been made in the human rights situation, but the SLORC has not instituted more fundamental changes which would provide the population of Myanmar with protection from ongoing and systematic violations of human rights." (Amnesty International October 1993, 1).

In a preliminary report to the UN General Assembly concerning his visit to Myanmar in November 1993, the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar is reported to have said that there is evidence that some developments have taken place that could lead to improvements in human rights. He stressed, however, that there remain "many serious restrictions and grave violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms". The Rapporteur also reported having received from reliable sources many reports of torture, arbitrary killings, rapes and disappearances (Associated Press, 25 November 1993).

Given that these independent observers are broadly unanimous in their opinion that in the country as a whole the human rights situation remains grim, it is unlikely that conditions in Rakhine state will have improved dramatically over the past year. Certainly the presence of the UNHCR is likely to encourage the SLORC to take steps to reduce violations in the state. However, until the ruling authorities in Myanmar demonstrate a fundamental change in their attitude to political opposition and begin to put an end to their repressive policies in the rest of the country, there is little room for confidence that improved conditions for Muslims living in Rakhine state can be assured in the longer term.

 

Note: In this issue paper the in-text reference system is used, which is different from the usual WRITENET standard of footnotes.

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___.

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___.

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