‘Illegal migration’ in Arakan: myths and numbers

One of the rationales underlying the persecution of the Rohingya by the Burmese state is that they are “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh”, having flooded Rakhine State (formerly known, and referred to here, as Arakan State) over the last century. But how valid are such claims in the face of available evidence?

The border between Bangladesh and Burma is extremely porous and has been poorly guarded on both sides for long stretches of time; smuggling of all kind of goods, including narcotics, is a common feature there, and often happens with the connivance of corrupt officials. Moreover, the grip of the Burmese state in border areas is very tenuous, and Northern Arakan is no exception.

Nobody, however, has provided any evidence of massive waves of “illegal Bengalis”. Nevertheless, the government and institutions linked to it have repeated such claims over and over again, and they are believed by many Burmese. In 1965, Ne Win visited Pakistan, and the West German ambassador reported that discussions took place about “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.” This figure was literally doubled in a paper published as recently as 2018 by the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies (Myanmar-ISIS), a government think tank founded in 1992 by the military junta then ruling the country. The paper asserts that “in 1971, there were around half a million war refugees who fled into Myanmar […] to escape the violence of the Bangladeshi war of independence.”

Myanmar-ISIS gives two sources for such an extraordinary assertion: a book written by Moshe Yegar, a former Israeli diplomat, and a conversation that the British and Bangladeshi ambassadors in Rangoon maintained in 1975, as recounted by the British diplomat. But Moshe Yegar merely wrote that “an undetermined number of Bengalis who were opposed to the cessation of Bangladesh from Pakistan fled to Arakan. Subsequently almost 17,000 Bengalis returned though the number that remained in Arakan continues to be unknown.” And in the conversation between the two diplomats, the British ambassador recounts that his Bangladeshi counterpart “admitted that there were upward of ½ million Bangalee [sic] trespassers in Arakan whom the Burmese had some right to eject”. The problem is that nowhere is given give any indication of what the Bangladeshi diplomat meant by “Bangalee trespassers”.

In a context in which young modern nation-states had been built on the basis of ethno-religious identities—as it was the case of the partition on India and Pakistan and the subsequent partition between West Pakistan and East Pakistan which generated Bangladesh—the Bangladeshi ambassador could have meant that the “Bengalis” didn’t belong to Arakan State as a consequence of their ethno-religious identity: in short, that many of them had trespassed during colonial times. There is no reason to believe he meant that half a million Bengalis migrated to Arakan after Burmese independence, let alone after the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971. And whatever he meant, there is no reason to believe that he was right. His credibility is seriously put in doubt by no other than the British ambassador himself, who at the end of the report asserts: “I do not regard [the Bangladeshi ambassador] Mr Kaiser as an entirely reliable source of evidence. I have found his views in the past highly subjective and sensational.”

Such is the flimsy “evidence” for the invasion of “illegal immigrants” narrative. It is important to recall here that, in the strict sense, “illegal immigration” only refers to such migration that may have occurred after Burma attained independence in 1948. According to colonial laws, migration from any part of India to Burma was perfectly legal. And no law enacted after independence by the Burmese government, not even the infamous 1982 Citizenship Law, has made immigration during the colonial period retroactively illegal. Therefore, I will focus on the period after independence, not on the heated debate on the term “Rohingya”, as I have done already in New Mandala, or migration waves during colonial times.


What census data suggest

In order to ascertain the extent of “illegal immigration” from East Pakistan/Bangladesh, we need to take a look at censuses. A comparison between the 1931 census, the last conducted by the British in Burma whose full results have been preserved, and the 1983 and 2014 censuses, carried out by the Burmese government, should throw some light on the question. It is a task complicated by the fact that the ethnic, and national categories employed in these censuses are far from consistent. Comparing ethnic categories is almost impossible, given how arbitrary such classifications were both under the colonial period and after independence. For instance, in the 1983 Census, most Muslims in Arakan were incongruously classified as “Bangladeshis”, that is, as citizens of a nation-state which at that time had only existed for 12 years.

The only category that has been kept constant throughout censuses is that of religion. Given that the overwhelming majority of Rohingyas are Muslims and that most Muslims in Arakan are Rohingya (Kaman Muslims account for a very tiny fraction of Muslims in all the censuses), we need to look at the growth of the Muslim population in those periods, with the caution that our conclusions can only possibly be approximations. But they can give us realistic orders of magnitude. I will divide our analysis in two periods: from 1931 to 1983 and from 1983 to 2014, as the late seventies and early eighties marked the beginning of the persecution of the Rohingya.




As we can see in the table comparing different censuses [view PDF here], the demographic growth of the Muslim population between 1931 and 1983 in Arakan (128%) was higher than the growth among non-Muslims (99.9%) or any religious group in the state, albeit lower than the total for Burma (141%) and not much higher than that of the Buddhist population (119%), so it can’t be regarded as inordinately high.

It is interesting to note that the Christian population in Arakan grew much than any other (by 338%), albeit from an extremely low base of 1,868 Christians in 1931. Like in the rest of the country, such a high Christian growth rate is due to conversions, mostly of animists (the majority of them in Arakan would have been ethnic Chin, Mro or Daingnet). But the combined Christian and Animist population declined enormously in the state (with a negative growth of 59.2%), against the tendency in the rest of the country (in which it grew by a 98.7%). The key factor in such a decline, apart from emigration, must be conversions of animists to Islam and Buddhism, probably through intermarriage.

The Hindu population in Arakan, as well as in Burma as a whole, also declined during the period 1931–1983. That was mostly due to the Indian exodus during World War II, when up to half a million Indians fled Burma, and during the nationalisations of Ne Win during the mid-1960s, when around 300,000 left. Some conversions to other faiths cannot be discounted.

To play the devil’s advocate, in ascertaining how many Muslims in Arakan may be “illegal” we can make a projection of growth for the Muslim population according to the growth of the non-Muslim population in the state except the Hindu population (as it shrank considerably due to specific factors) That rate was 104.5%. If such had been the growth rate among the Muslim population, there would have been 522,213 Muslims in 1983 instead of 582,984. Therefore, to continue the thought experiment, we could say that by 1983 there was a “surplus population” of 60,771 Muslims, amounting to 10.4% of the total Muslim population.

But that doesn’t mean that 10.4% of Muslims enumerated in Arakan in 1983 were “illegal immigrants”. Many surely migrated to the state in the ten years between 1931 and the beginning of World War II, when it was still legal to do so. During that period, it was easier than after independence, as there was not an international border, however poorly guarded, as well as much less risky, given that there was no serious conflict in Arakan during those years.

We have no detailed records of Arakan, or Burma for that matter, from the census conducted in 1941, as these were lost as a consequence of the war, but according to the available data, growth in Arakan was higher than in Burma as a whole between 1931 and 1941. Some of it would have been due to immigration from the Chittagong region in Bengal, following a decades-long pattern. Also, we lack information about birth rates among the Muslim and Buddhist communities of Arakan during the period between the 1931 and 1983 censuses, but a higher birth rate among Muslims is very likely. According to the 1983 Census, Arakan State had the highest gross fertility rate in the whole of Burma, with an average of 3.2 children per woman. In all likelihood, the Muslim Rohingya community contributed to that.

Another likely factor contributing to the difference in growth rates between Muslims and non-Muslims in Arakan is a possibly slightly higher rate of internal migration from Arakan to more economically promising urban centres like Rangoon among the Rakhine Buddhist community. Internal migration was often more difficult for Muslims, as immigration authorities had imposed some restrictions of movement on Muslims in Northern Arakan as early as the 1950s. Conversions to Islam through intermarriage cannot be ruled out either, as we have already mentioned.

Given the available data, we can’t deny forcefully that there was some “illegal immigration” from Chittagong to Arakan after independence, but we can conclude that it would have been of a much smaller order of magnitude than that claimed by government sources and Rakhine and Burmese nationalists. Taking all the mentioned factors that would account for a higher growth among Muslims, I would venture that post-independence immigrants couldn’t have surpassed 5% of the total Muslim population of Arakan in 1983, or 1.4% of the total there (that is, around 30,000 people), and it is possible that the real figure was lower.

So to claim that half a million, or even a quarter of a million, of “Bengali illegal immigrants” entered Arakan after independence is a ludicrous exaggeration that contradicts any serious reading of the available data. In any case, as we have seen, there was much movement back and forth across the border during the period. For instance, thousands of Muslims fled to East Pakistan in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a consequence of the conflict between the mujahideens and the Burmese Army, and some “illegal immigrants” could be people among them—that is, simply returning to their lands they had occupied before independence. It is also important to remember that Operation Naga Min in 1978, when up to 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh from brutal operations by the Army in search of “illegal immigrants”, did little to alter the demographic balance in the region, as the overwhelming majority of refugees returned after one year. And, whatever illegal immigration there may have been until that point, it was reduced significantly as a result of a more tight control of the border imposed from then on.


Effects of migration

The Burmese government started in earnest its persecution of the Rohingya population around 1978, beginning to subject them to an increasingly harsh regime of apartheid which has included an almost complete denial of access to education and healthcare services, unprecedented restrictions in their freedom of movement, even to nearby villages, and sporadic campaigns of violence. As a result, the Rohingya population has been largely confined to Northern Arakan and some pockets in central Arakan. In such circumstances, whatever illegal immigration that occurred since the late 1970s and early 1980s would have been offset by a larger flow of Rohingya fleeing the country.

Many Rohingya have fled poverty and oppression to countries like Bangladesh, Malaysia or Saudi Arabia. At the same time, many Rakhine have migrated to Malaysia or Thailand in search of economic opportunities denied at home. Also, against the idea of recent “illegal immigration” from Bangladesh, all relevant indicators reveal that, as impoverished as Bangladesh is, Burma is even more impoverished, and the gap widens in relation to Arakan, the second poorest state in the country. It would make very little sense for a Bangladeshi to seek a better life in a more impoverished region where he or she would be severely oppressed.

But the most astonishing finding in reading the census data is that growth rates among the Rohingya population in Arakan (whose demographic evolution, again, we are analysing through the category of Muslims in the censuses) are higher after policies of apartheid began to be imposed on them. If the growth rate between 1931 and 1983 was 2.47% per year, then between 1983 and 2014 it was 2.96% per year—higher than Myanmar as a whole (1.48% per year), Arakan (1.80% per year) or the Rakhine Buddhist population in that state (1.34% per year). The 2014 census revealed that the Myanmar population had grown much less than expected since 1983, due to lower birth rates and emigration to neighbouring countries. The Rohingya seem to be an exception. Why?

Part of the explanation is to be found in the containment of the Rohingya in certain areas during the period. Most Rohingya are blocked from migrating to other regions in Burma. Meanwhile the Rakhine enjoy freedom of movement, and many have moved to Rangoon and other places, including the Jade mines in Hpakant, in Kachin State, searching for more promising economic opportunities. As the results of the classification by ethnicity in 2014 census have not been released, it is impossible to know the exact number of Rakhine internal migrants living elsewhere in Burma. But it is probably high, and it would narrow the difference in growth rates between both communities. Nevertheless, such narrowing probably wouldn’t be very significant, as the growth rate of the Rohingya population is still much higher than the national rate.

Some Rakhine ultranationalists accuse the Rohingya of waging a “demographic jihad”, by begetting an inordinate number of children to overwhelm the Rakhine population and eventually take over the state. The idea that hundreds of thousands of people have decided to take part in a well-coordinated conspiracy to bear as many children as possible is absurd and doesn’t need any further analysis. But public officials have constantly exaggerated differences in demographic growths among the Rohingya, thus implicitly contributing to fuel the narrative of a “demographic jihad”.

For instance, in 2013 state officials gave the order to Muslims in Maungdaw and Buthidaung to not have more than two children. “The population growth of Rohingya Muslims is ten times higher than that of the Rakhine Buddhists. Overpopulation is one of the causes of tensions,” Win Myaing, Arakan State spokesman, said at the time. It was, of course, an exaggeration; the growth was about two times higher. And arguably it was not so much demographic growth among Rohingya what was causing tensions, but the constant repetition by local media, state officials, politicians of all stripes and Buddhist monks that such growth was dangerous.

The higher growth among Rohingya is not to be explained as some nefarious Islamist conspiracy or as a consequence of massive waves of “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. The most probable cause lies precisely in the conditions imposed on them by the government. It has often been shown that factors like poverty or lack of education are strongly related to high birth rates. Northern Arakan is one of the poorest regions of Burma and the Rohingya community have much less access to education than any other in the state and, probably, most of Myanmar as a whole. The grinding poverty in the Rohingya-majority areas, as well as the lack of education, the complete isolation from the rest of the country and the world, have arguably contributed to the high birth rates that the government decided to curtail. The irony is that the very same policies carried out over four decades by the Burmese state in its attempts to contain the Rohingya population have contributed to its demographic explosion.


A dangerous delusion

In November 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi, asked about the accusations of genocide against the Rohingya during a press conference, said: “I think it’s very important that we should not exaggerate the problems in this country.” But that’s what most governments in Burma, including hers, have been doing regarding massive waves of “Bengali illegal immigrants” that only exist in their imagination, to exaggerate what in reality was a very small problem. This is not a phenomenon unique to Burma. Human beings everywhere tend to exaggerate the numbers of people they perceive as threatening for one reason or another. For instance, research conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in several European countries revealed in 2011 that their citizens believed that there were as many as three times the numbers of immigrants living in their countries that was actually the case.

A better political economy of the Rohingya crisis

Crude speculation about ‘land grabs’ obscures the complex historical roots of today’s Rohingya persecution.

By convincing themselves and the Burmese public that there was an invasion of “illegal Bengalis”, successive Burmese governments got a self-imposed “Rohingya problem” that would lead to apartheid, statelessness and ultimately to ethnic cleansing.[i] But the accusations of “illegal immigration” are probably just a smokescreen. It’s worthy to point out that Buddhists may have migrated from Bangladesh to Burma during the period as well. There were, and still are, Rakhine Buddhist communities in Cox’s Bazar and other regions in Bangladesh and Northeast India, some of whom call themselves Marma and many of whom trace their presence there to the period when Arakan was part of the Burmese kingdom in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.[ii] The state has treated them very differently to their Muslim counterparts, welcoming them with open arms, underscoring the fact that the issue is not “illegal immigration”, but an extremely narrow ethnonationalism. In reality, it is that exclusionary ethnonationalism which lies at the root of the self-imposed “Rohingya problem”, and not any imaginary invasion by “illegal immigrants”.

Assessing the Rohingya crisis

With the expulsion of the Rohingya largely a fait accompli, the world must face up to engaging with a very different Myanmar.

Rohingya identity and the limits to history

The discussion around the history of the Rohingya, at its worst, deflects attention away from the problem of defining citizenship through ethnic indigeneity.

From battlefield to marketplace on the Thai–Myanmar border

Thai–Myanmar relations are on the up. But what happens to the large and still-marginalised migrant communities in Thai border towns like Mae Sot?

7 Responses

  1. The writer has effectively debunked the notion, spread on Burmese social media rather than in Government statements, that Arakan’s Muslim population are “illegal immigrants”. Former President Thein Sein indeed confirmed in a statement published on the Presidential website on 12 July 2012, recording a conversation on 11 July 2012 with the then UNHCR Antόnio Guterres (now UN Secretary-General), that migrants from Bengal who arrived during British rule did so legally and that their descendants are entitled to Burmese citizenship. But Thein Sein gave no indication of the numbers who might have arrived illegally after independence, and whom he described as “Rohingya”, thus seeking to distinguish them from the bulk of settled Muslim residents (who nowadays say they too want to be called “Rohingya”, which might well cause some confusion in Myanmar itself).

    Nonetheless, I believe that the writer’s conclusion that the number of post-1948 migrants “couldn’t have surpassed 5%” underestimates the reality. He is right to challenge what the West German Ambassador wrote in 1965, but the Ambassador was reporting from Pakistan, not Burma, and one literal interpretation of his report could imply that he believed there were only 250,000 Muslims in Arakan altogether, as he uses the words “der ca. 250 000 in der burmesischen Provinz Arakan ansässigen Moslems, deren Staatsanghörigkeit ungeklärt ist” and there is most unlikely to have been an estimate from Pakistani sources of some 250,000 outstanding cases. Likewise, however generally unreliable the British Ambassador in 1975 may have thought his Bangladeshi colleague, on this particular occasion the British Ambassador also noted that: “Today, however, he was in a more subdued mood and seemed anxious to talk in a relaxed manner about the alarming developments which had engulfed him during recent weeks.” The discussion of the situation in Arakan was only a minor element in a much broader conversation.

    Indeed, the writer tends to cherry-pick and even misinterpret his sources for alleged post 1948 illegal migration. He might have commented, for example, on what Virginia Thompson and Richard Adloff wrote in 1954 (Page 154 – Minority Problems in Southeast Asia”): “The postwar illegal immigration of Chittagonians into that area was on a vast scale, and in the Maungdaw and Buthidaung areas they replaced the Arakanese, who had to withdraw because of wartime bombings. The newcomers were called Mujahids (crusaders), in contrast to the Rwangya or settled Chittagonian population…..”. This contemporary analysis, and indeed other contemporary records, need to be taken into account.

    You only need to read diplomatic and press reports of meetings between Pakistani/Bangladeshi and Burmese officials and politicians during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s to know that the problem of illegal migration from Bengal into Arakan was a continuing issue which both sides sought to contain and resolve, and even to downplay in public statements. But there can be no doubt that there was a problem, and a serious one at that, during the thirty years after Burmese independence in 1948, and it was in my view rather greater, perhaps two or three times greater, than the 5% which is the author’s conclusion.

    However, an earlier estimate I had made of 30% I reduced some months ago to “not significantly exceeding 15%”, and this under the influence of the writer’s persuasive arguments elsewhere. It behoves us all, though, not to be dogmatic on this issue. None of us really knows.

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    • Mr Tonkin is not entirely wrong when he asserts that none of us really knows how many “illegal immigrants” crossed to Arakan since independence. But, as I have said in the text, it’s possible to get rough orders of magnitude by looking at the censuses and comparing the growth of different populations. The exercise shows clearly that the demographic growth of the Rohingya population is not high enough to warrant massive waves of migrants.

      I don’t know how Mr Tonkin reached his initial conclusion that 30% of Muslims in Arakan were “illegal migrants”, he has never cared to explain it. But I do know how he reached his estimate of 15%, because I persuaded him in a private exchange some months ago that such percentage was more accurate. At that time, I used exactly the same methodology I have used here, comparing the growth of different populations between two censuses. But then I did it using the censuses conducted in 1921 and 1983. The data I had at hand from the 1921 census at that time only included the Muslim population in Akyab District, not the whole of Arakan. I was not satisfied with that and I didn’t try to publish the results. The data I’m using here is both more complete and more pertinent. More complete because the data I have from the 1931 census includes the whole of Arakan, and more pertinent because the date, 1931, is closer to the year of independence, 1948. I find puzzling that now Mr Tonkin accuses me of cherry-picking and distorting my sources to assess the extent of “illegal immigration” when I’m using exactly the same methodology that I used to successfully persuade him that it was 15%, but now analyzing a more complete and relevant census.

      Mr. Tonkin seems to be possessed by a strange faith in the good intentions of successive Burmese governments . He argues that the notion of “waves of illegal immigrants” has been spread only in social media, and not by the government itself, as if such narrative had suddenly appeared out of the blue. But the government has touted such dangerous tale for years. I give an example from a government think-tank (Myanmar-ISIS), but there is more. Four years before being appointed State Counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi was already framing the conflict in Arakan as pertaining to illegal immigration, albeit in a somewhat oblique (but clear) manner. When asked about the issue in an interview with an Indian media outlet in 2012, she replied:

      “Of course we are concerned. I think in many ways the situation has been mishandled. For years I have been insisting, and the National League for Democracy also, that we have to do something about the porous border with Bangladesh because it is going to lead some day or the other to grave problems.”

      In 1992, after an exodus of up to 250,000 Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh, and at a time when most of them had recently been stripped of citizenship, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a press statement containing the following words:

      “In fact, although there are 135 national races residing in Myanmar today, the so-called Rohingya people are not among them. Historically, there has never been a Rohingya race in Myanmar. The very name Rohingya was a creation of a group of insurgents in the Rakhine State. Since the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1824, people of the Muslim faith from the adjacent country have entered Myanmar illegally [sic!], particularly Rakhine State. Being illegal immigrants, they do not hold any immigration papers like the other nationals of the country. With the passage of time, the number of people who entered Myanmar illegally has greatly inflated.”
      (I have a copy of the full statement, but this sentence, albeit with a slightly different translation can be found in this AI report: )

      The most astonishing thing here is that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs branded as “illegal immigrants” those people who arrived during colonial times, without making any distinction between them and those arrived after independence, a distinction clearly established by the laws in effect at that time! Was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ignorant of the laws in its own country? Perhaps, but I tend to think that it was merely reflecting the actual policies of the Burmese government. On paper, the law says that those Muslims arrived during colonial times are entitled to citizenship; in actual practice, they are treated as illegal interlopers, and the Ministry was just reflecting what the actual practice was. Focusing on what Thein Sein may have said two decades after the fait accompli of rendering stateless virtually all Rohingya population in Arakan, as Mr. Tonkin does, is what I would really describe as cherry-picking…

      The Rohingya have been for decades the victims of a series of injustices at the hands of Burmese governments willing to ignore and even violate their own laws in order to get rid of them. That would be true whether 30% or 15% of them were “illegal immigrants”. But such injustice is based on a lie, the gross exaggeration of the numbers of “illegals”. Mr Tonkin’s dogmatism, of which he seems prone to accuse others, prevents him from seeing that, as it prevents him from seeing many other things.

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      • There are limitations to the reliability of Census statistics in estimating the extent of illegal migration. By their very nature, illegal immigrants do not report for registration at the local Immigration Office on arrival, and in Rakhine State they might well think twice about staying at home when the Annual House Registration Lists are compiled; even the occasion of full Censuses could be a risky time to be listed or even noticed.

        Mr Galache has clearly studied in depth the 1921, 1931 and 1983 census reports. But I wonder whether he has also examined the 1953-54 or the 1973 Census reports. As regards the 1953-54 Census, Professor Hugh Tinker notes on Page 357 of his 1957 book “The Union of Burma”, where he examines the pressures in the late 1940s for the cession of Maungdaw and Buthidaung to Pakistan: “In Buthidaung town about 60 per cent of the population are classified according to the current census as Pakistanis; in Maungdaw town about 45 per cent are Pakistanis (see Census, Release No. 3, 1953).” I cannot say whether the term “Pakistanis” should be interpreted in terms of citizenship, or geographic origin. In the same context, page 21 of the 1973 Census Report notes that 98.9% of all those enumerated during the Census were Myanmar nationals.

        More specific still was a report by ‘The Scotsman’ Special Correspondent Michael Davidson dated 18 May 1949 from Akyab (Sittwe): “The great majority of Arakan Moslems are said to be really Pakistanis from Chittagong, even if they have been settled here for a generation. Of the 130,000 Moslems here, 80,000 are still Pakistani citizens.” Davidson seems to be referring to the entire Muslim population of Northern Arakan, and not just to the population around Sittwe.

        A despatch to London by the British Ambassador in Rangoon dated 3 July 1979, reporting on the repatriation of Arakan Muslims who had fled to Bangladesh in the wake of Action Naga Min, noted: “Leading up to the formation of Bangladesh in 1971-72, some 100,000 Muslims moved illegally into Burma…..This illegal flow has stepped up in the last few years. Muslims now predominate in the border areas of two townships (Maungdaw and Buthidaung), each of which is equivalent in size to an English county. They comprise 90% of the 400,000 population compared with only 35% ten years ago.” [This 35% is clearly an error, possibly typographic, as Muslims predominated in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships from late 1942 onwards after the expulsion of Buddhist communities.] Emphasizing the problem of illegal immigration, British Ambassador Booth concluded a report to London dated 12 May 1982 on the draft Citizenship Law by observing that: “Its immediate concern, I assume, is with illegal Bengali immigration into Arakan”.

        Mr Galache asked about my sources. Those I have quoted above are enough to justify my initial guesstimate of 30%, but my gut feeling now is that this may be too high, especially as Ambassador Scholl’s reference in 1965 to 250,000 Arakan Muslims with unclarified citizenship may refer to the status of Arakan Muslims as a whole. What my sources all show though is that illegal immigration into Arakan from Bengal was a serious problem between 1948 and 1978. Successive British Ambassadors reported on this, including Ambassador Whitteridge who in a despatch dated 28 January 1964 noted: “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.” The Ambassador made no attempt to quantify the extent of this illegal migration, but its importance as an irritant in Pakistani-Burmese relations is undoubted.

        I agree with Mr Galache that the report in December 1975 of the Bangladeshi Ambassador asserting that there were “upward of ½ million Bangalee trespassers” in Arakan is very likely a nonsense. It is not Ambassador Kaiser who was wrong, but Ambassador O’Brien, who when dictating a record without notes on return to his Embassy may have forgotten exactly what his Bangladeshi colleague had said. More than 500,000 surely represents the entire non-Kaman Muslim population in Arakan at the time. All Ambassador Kaiser was saying, I suggest, was that in this community of over 500,000 persons there were undoubtedly some who were there illegally and whom the Burmese had “some right” to deport. The 1983 Census puts the “Bangladeshi” community in Arakan at 497,208 which may be taken as a base figure for non-Kaman Arakan Muslims, and is totally compatible with Mr Kaiser’s 1975 figure of “upward of ½ million”.

        Mr Galache makes a lot – far too much – out of the silly comment by the Myanmar MFA in 1992 that Muslims have been entering the country “illegally” since 1824. This comment was made over 25 years ago. Mr Galache needs to come up with something said this Century to set against what President Thein Sein said in July 2012. A statement by a Head of State as recently as 2012 surely takes precedence over a fatuous press release issued 20 years previously by a government department. Thein Sein’s statement is of crucial importance. It has hitherto been widely misinterpreted if not ignored internationally. It is entirely consistent with the provisions for citizenship in the 1948 Citizenship Acts which should have benefited the vast majority of Arakan’s Muslims – who de jure may not have been stripped of their citizenship by the 1982 Law, whatever their lamentable de facto status.

        Mr Galache may think that illegal immigration into Rakhine State has never been all that much of a problem and he argues that it has been much exaggerated for domestic political reasons. My view is that it was a serious issue between 1948 and 1978, that it has continuing negative consequences and that exaggerated talk about “illegal Bengalis” has come overwhelmingly from social media and not from government pronouncements.

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  2. Mr Tonkin seems to be unable to see his own inconsistencies, and he contributes to create more confusion in an already terribly complex matter. He, who has relied so much on censuses for his assessments, now suddenly decides to cast doubts on their accuracy because they contradict a narrative he has chosen to believe with zealous faith. When my (provisional and admittedly faulty) analysis showed 15% of post-independence immigration, he accepted the 1983 census’ results; when a more complete and thorough analysis shows a smaller percentage of “illegal immigrants”, suddenly he becomes skeptical of the very same results. Now, I have never claimed any censuses conducted in Burma, or many other countries for that matter, perfectly account for each and everyone of the people living in the territory covered in them, but, as I said in the text, they can provide decent orders of magnitude. The 1983 census is not an exception. I find extremely unlikely that a huge number of Muslims in Arakan were uncounted in 1983 for a variety of reasons: in contrast with other territories in Burma, it covered the whole of Arakan, and it came after operation Naga Min (and the return of most of the refugees who had fled to Bangladesh), it was conducted when the state had asserted more control in the area than never before and insurgencies in Arakan (from the formerly active there CPB, Rakhine nationalists or Rohingya armed groups) were extremely weak, and there is no mention anywhere in the census of the possibility that any significant number of individuals could have not been enumerated. It defies logic that 30%, or even 15%, “illegal immigrants” would have passed unnoticed by the government,. That would be a huge number of people, around 100,000, playing an extremely successful game of seek and hide with the authorities to avoid the census within Arakan itself or fleeing to Bangladesh-but there was no exodus when the census was conducted. To claim that such a high number of “illegal migrants” would have escaped the net of the state at a moment when the Ne Win regime had reached the peak of its paranoia about “illegal immigration” is simply ridiculous.

    There is also the issue that most Muslims were incongruously classified as “Bangladeshis”. For Mr Tonkin that seems to be a mere anecdote without much relevance, but the classification reveals the crux of the issue: Muslims in Arakan were overwhelmingly regarded as foreigners.

    When Operation Naga Min was conducted, the number of “illegal immigrants” apprehended was extremely low, a little bit more than 1,000 in Sittwe, less than 600 in Buthidaung and 230 in Maungdaw. Of course, the government claimed that most (if not all) of those who fled to Bangladesh were “illegals”, but that’s just an ex post facto justification of the operation itself and the brutality with which it was conducted (here I see Mr Tonkin coming with the argument that most fled to Bangladesh out of fear, rather than because they were victims of real violence, and it is likely that not all of them suffered violence, but violence there was, and many would have heard of it and decide to flee before the troops arrived to their villages). When the repatriation process began, people were able to prove residency in Burma with their NRCs cards (the most extended document at the time throughout the country). Mr Tonkin can find all this information in the paper by Nyi Nyi Kyaw “Unpacking the Presumed Statelessness of
    Rohingyas”, published last year in the Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies.

    Also, we shouldn’t forget that, for all the talk about migration to Arakan in the first three decades after Burma’s independence, there was also migration from Arakan to East Pakistan/Bangladesh. In December 1951, the New York Times reported that 250,000 Muslims had fled to East Pakistan in the previous three years. In 1959, it reported an exodus of 10,000, reportedly some were forced out by the government itself. Perhaps 250,000 refugees between 1948 and 1951 is not an accurate figure, but it shows that there was substantial post-independence emigration from Arakan too.

    The documents Mr Tonkin presents in his comments to prove that “illegal immigration” was a big problem prove very little beyond showing contemporary perceptions of the “problem”. But they show clearly the confusion prevalent at the time, and now, about the Muslim population in Arakan, artificially classified as Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Bengali and of foreign origins. That’s the result of a no less artificial border between Arakan and East Pakistan/Bangladesh. As I have argued on several occasions, culturally, historically and anthropologically, Arakan and Chittagong are not separated entities, but part of a continuum. Muslims belong in Arakan as much as Buddhists, and have only come to be regarded as foreigners when the modern nation-state arrived in the region, belonging to which came to be seen as ethnically defined in the case of Burma as in many other places for reasons too long and complex to get into here.

    Mr Tonkin dismisses the MFA statement in 1992 about “illegal immigrants” too easily and gives too much importance to statement made by Thein Sein in 2012 on the same issue. The MFA statement may be “silly”, and Thein Sein might be higher in the hierarchy, but there is a crucial difference between both: the MFA statement is a more faithful reflection of the Burmese government actions than Thein Sein’s words. The overwhelming majority of the Rohingya at the time of the MFA Ministry’s statement were treated as if they were “illegals” and stripped of their citizenship, while the Thein Sein administration didn’t put his words into action, except for the pilot citizenship verification program conducted in Myebon in 2014, a drop in the ocean clearly conducted in bad faith, in which only a very tiny percentage were granted citizenship. See my report here: In both cases, the stripping of citizenship from the Rohingya in the late eighties and early nineties and the pilot program in 2014, the Rohingya are regarded by default as foreigners, regardless of when their ancestors may have arrived to Arakan and the laws themselves that the Burmese state claims to follow.

    Again, Mr Tonkin’s naive faith in the goodwill of the Burmese government on this issue is extremely puzzling, coming from a “well-traveled octogenarian” (as he defined himself in his Twitter account). I stand with what I said: successive Burmese governments have greatly exaggerated the “problem of illegal immigration” as a smokescreen for a project of nation-building in which it has decided that the Rohingya have no place.

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  3. The MFA statement of 21 February 1992 is silly because it states: “Since the First Anglo-Myanmar War in 1824, people of Muslim faith from the adjacent country illegally entered Myanmar Naing-Ngan, particularly Rakhine State.”. Thein Sein corrects this error in his statement of 11 July 2012 by pointing out that they came legally during British rule. Indeed, the British positively encouraged this migration into Arakan, where there was so much surplus land. The official English text of this sentence is not that provided by Mr Galache, but that quoted by Amnesty International. The full statement in English as issued by the MFA appeared in the Working People’s Daily of 22 February 1992 and may be found on the Network Myanmar website.

    Thein Sein’s statement could well be the passport to the reconfirmation of the citizenship of those who today say they are Rohingya.

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  4. As you can read in my piece, I point out that the MFA contradicts existing laws in Burma, I’m not denying is silly, I’m saying it reflects actual practice more accurately than Thein Sein’s statement, which reflects actual laws. The MFA statement reveals how the 1982 Citizenship Law was enforced in Arakan, in the late eighties and nineties. The overwhelming majority of Rohingya were stripped of citizenship because they were treated as “illegal immigrants” according to the definition contained in the statement, not in the actual law. It was assumed that most, if not all, of them had arrived during colonial times and after independence, without distinguishing between both categories, and consequently treated as “illegals”. Thein Sein’s statement may reflect accurately the existing legal framework but, again, there hasn’t been no effort to apply it to reinstate citizenship to the Rohingya. The only effort was the pilot program in Myebon, a drop in the ocean, as I have already said. Out of 2,916 Muslims there, only 97 were granted full citizenship and 969 [sic] were granted naturalized citizenship. That’s only around one third of the total, are we going to believe that two thirds of Muslims in Myebon are “illegal migrants” (or their descendants)? I repeat: Muslims in Arakan are treated by default as “illegals” who have to demonstrate they are entitled to citizenship, which may happen to individuals of other groups in Burma, but not to the communities as a whole (excepting, of course, other Muslims regarded by default as “Indians”). And it may be extremely difficult for most Rohingya to prove their claims for citizenship because, as Mr Tonkin knows well, their documents were snatched by the authorities when the Citizenship Law was (mis-) applied in the late eighties and early nineties. In short: the Rohingya were rendered stateless by violating the 1982 Citizenship Law, but their statelessness has been perpetuated either by inaction or by following scrupulously the letter of this very same law. Given all the confusion and bad faith in which the 1982 Citizenship Law was enforced in the case of the Rohingya, the only way to begin to correct the historical wrong done against them would be, in my view, to give back full citizenship to each and every Muslim in Arakan (and now in Bangladesh), even at the risk of granting it to those “illegals” arrived after independence (whose numbers are quite small anyway, whatever Mr Tonkin says). Of course, I’m not holding my breath expecting that such thing will happen anytime soon…

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    • It is always so important to hold political leaders to account internationally for what they have said, as well as to stress the importance of the rule of law. In this case, it would clearly be helpful if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi could confirm publicly what General Ne Win said in 1982 about the transitional nature of “associate” citizenship, what Thein Sein said in July 2012 about the right to citizenship of the descendants of British era migrants, and Immigration Minister Khin Yi’s unconditional repetition in September 2012 of the “three generations” principle concerning the right to citizenship – see RFA report at .

      I have already made it crystal clear in my Chapter on citizenship in the recently published collection of essays by Ashley Smith and Marie Lall that problems have arisen not because of the 1982 Law, but because of the lamentable failure to apply its provisions e.g. by confirming under Article 6 the citizenship of all those in Rakhine State who held citizenship prior to the Law.

      I am delighted that Mr Galache seems to share my views in this context. I am at the same time grateful for his solicitous concern about my mental and physical well-being, and would assure him that our lively exchanges are most therapeutic.

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