Muslim Refugees Flee Persecution in Myanmar Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

An estimated 250,000 to 280,000 Muslims fled to Bangladesh from the primarily Buddhist nation of Myanmar from the end of 1991 through the spring of 1992 after apparent oppression and denial of basic human rights by the Myanmar military.

Summary of Event

Myanmar, the nation formerly known as Burma, has strong historical connections to Buddhism, and the overwhelming majority of its people are Buddhists. Close to 70 percent of the people in Myanmar are of the ethnicity known as Burman, and the dominant Burmans hold political power. Continual conflicts with ethnic and religious minorities, particularly with tribal groups in the northeast, have contributed to keeping Myanmar under repressive military rule for much of its history. Refugees;Myanmar Muslims Muslims;Myanmar Human rights abuses;Myanmar Myanmar, human rights abuses [kw]Muslim Refugees Flee Persecution in Myanmar (Dec., 1991-1992) [kw]Refugees Flee Persecution in Myanmar, Muslim (Dec., 1991-1992) [kw]Persecution in Myanmar, Muslim Refugees Flee (Dec., 1991-1992) [kw]Myanmar, Muslim Refugees Flee Persecution in (Dec., 1991-1992) Refugees;Myanmar Muslims Muslims;Myanmar Human rights abuses;Myanmar Myanmar, human rights abuses [g]South Asia;Dec., 1991-1992: Muslim Refugees Flee Persecution in Myanmar[08240] [g]Southeast Asia;Dec., 1991-1992: Muslim Refugees Flee Persecution in Myanmar[08240] [g]Burma;Dec., 1991-1992: Muslim Refugees Flee Persecution in Myanmar[08240] [g]Bangladesh;Dec., 1991-1992: Muslim Refugees Flee Persecution in Myanmar[08240] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Dec., 1991-1992: Muslim Refugees Flee Persecution in Myanmar[08240] [c]Human rights;Dec., 1991-1992: Muslim Refugees Flee Persecution in Myanmar[08240] Khaleda Zia, Begum Thaung Tun, U Boutros-Ghali, Boutros

The largest concentration of Muslims in this primarily Buddhist country is in the west, near the border with Bangladesh. At the end of the twentieth century, there were one to two million Muslims living in the region of Myanmar commonly known by the older name of Arakan Province, renamed Rakhine Province by Myanmar’s military government. These Arakanese Muslims, who refer to themselves as Rohingyas, outnumbered the Buddhist Arakanese in several districts of the province.

Myanmar’s Buddhist authorities have long been suspicious of the Muslims. In addition to the Muslims’ different religious belief, the Muslims’ movement back and forth across the border has often raised questions in the minds of government officials about the citizenship and loyalties of the Muslims. In 1971, the eastern portion of Pakistan broke away and established the nation of Bangladesh. Although Burma was one of the first states in Asia to recognize Bangladesh, problems soon developed between the two countries over illegal immigration and the smuggling of goods. In 1977 and 1978, the Tatmadaw, the national army of Burma, conducted a massive crackdown on suspected illegal immigrants, and more than 200,000 Rohingyas fled into Bangladesh. Bangladesh;Myanmar Muslim refugees Following mediation on the part of the United Nations, Burma and Bangladesh signed an agreement for repatriation of the refugees in July, 1979. Although most returned, a substantial number remained in Bangladesh.

In 1982, Burma passed a citizenship law that appeared to be designed to deny citizenship rights to many of the nation’s ethnic minority groups, particularly the Muslims in the west of the country. Under this law, to qualify for full citizenship individuals in Burma had to prove that their ancestors had lived in the country in 1823. That date was one year before the British colonial government had made Arakan part of Burma, so few Rohingyas could obtain the basic rights of citizenship under the new law.

Burma’s military government became even more repressive in 1988. After popular demonstrations in Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon), the Burmese leader Ne Win resigned, a civilian government was elected, and the Burmese military staged a coup. Revolutions and coups;Burma A shadowy military junta known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) seized control. This junta, which changed the name of the country to Myanmar in 1989, acted primarily on the belief that the nation was falling apart and that therefore unity had to be imposed and maintained through force.

One of the actions of the new military government that was especially oppressive for the Muslims was the issuing of identity cards. To travel in the country, to obtain a job in the civil service, or to enroll a child in school, each citizen of what was now Myanmar had to show an identity card that included a photograph of the individual and statements of his or her ethnicity, religion, and place of residence.

During the last two weeks of 1991, Myanmar’s new military government undertook Operation Pyatya Operation Pyatya in Arakan. The government maintained that this was another check for illegal immigrants. According to Muslims, however, Muslim men were being taken away from home for forced labor, and soldiers were raping Muslim women. On January 10, 1992, the newspaper Sangbad in Dhaka, Bangladesh, reported claims of Muslim refugees that the Myanmar government had issued arrest warrants for ten thousand Muslims under suspicion of participating in an antigovernment insurgency. The newspaper also reported that the soldiers had imprisoned about twenty-eight hundred Muslims in Myanmar and that seven hundred of these detainees had died in crowded warehouses.

From January through February, an estimated forty-five thousand to sixty thousand Muslims fled across the Naf River into Bangladesh. In early March, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued an official statement in Geneva that called the situation along the border of the Southeast Asian nations a serious crisis in which five thousand to seven thousand people were fleeing to Bangladesh every day. This was particularly worrisome because Bangladesh, as one of the world’s poorest nations, was ill equipped to help the newcomers. Nevertheless, Bangladeshis and refugees from the 1978 exodus did form some organizations, such as the Rohingya Muslim Welfare Association, to help the refugees. Rabita, a relief organization for Muslims from Mecca in Saudi Arabia, also provided some assistance. The United Nations became involved also, airlifting blankets and plastic sheets to the desperate Rohingyas and establishing refugee camps in Bangladesh.

The Myanmar government rejected criticism of its actions. U Thaung Tun, deputy director of the Myanmar mission to the United Nations in New York, declared that there was no religious discrimination in his country. The problem, he stated, was one of illegal immigration; his government’s Immigration and Manpower Department had simply carried out routine citizenship checks, and these checks had resulted in the return to Bangladesh of about three thousand illegal immigrants from that country. This version of the events was not widely accepted by representatives of other governments.

In the middle of March, Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh visited the United States and complained that her country could not take care of so many refugees. President George H. W. Bush promised the prime minister that the United States would provide $3 million to help settle the refugees. The secretary-general of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, met with the Bangladeshi prime minister the day after she met with President Bush and told her that the United Nations would help solve the problem.

In April, the government of Bangladesh came to an agreement with the government of Myanmar. Under this agreement, Bangladesh would force the refugees to return. After about five thousand refugees were pushed back across the border, the UNHCR threatened to close the camps and withdraw its assistance. At the end of 1992, under pressure from the UNHCR, Bangladesh temporarily stopped forcibly repatriating people to Myanmar. In May, 1993, the UNHCR and Bangladesh entered into a formal agreement that Bangladesh would not force Muslim refugees across the border. However, Bangladesh still saw the Rohingyas as uninvited guests that it could not afford. According to some reports, by November, 1993, as many as fifty thousand refugees had been forced to return to Myanmar.


One of the few positive outcomes of the 1992 refugee crisis was that agents of the United Nations were allowed into Myanmar to oversee the resettlement and condition of Muslims in western Myanmar. In late 1993, the UNHCR was able to place a small staff of officials in Arakan to contribute to the peaceful return of people from Bangladesh. This was a marked accomplishment for the United Nations, as the government of Myanmar was usually reluctant to allow any outsiders into the country. Nevertheless, this did not solve the problems of the Rohingyas or end the problem of flight across the border. Under the agreement between the UNHCR and Myanmar, all refugees were to have been returned to their homeland by December, 1995. By that date, however, as many as thirty-five thousand Rohingyas were still reportedly in Bangladesh, and many of those who had returned home had done so unwillingly.

Bangladesh grew increasingly impatient with its refugee burden, and the refugees themselves appeared unwilling to return to Myanmar. In 1996, the government of Bangladesh told officials of voluntary agencies working in the refugee camps that all the agencies would have to leave by March, 1997, and that Bangladesh would take over and resolve the refugee situation without outside assistance. The deadline was extended, however, and voluntary agencies continued to work in the camps. By the end of the 1990’s, most of the refugees had returned to Myanmar, but several thousand remained in Bangladesh. Moreover, the opposite movement across the border continued—during the first half of 1997, for example, as many as fifteen thousand Rohingyas were reported to have fled into Bangladesh.

Those who had gone back to Myanmar found that their situation had not greatly improved. Newly arrived refugees in Bangladesh reported that despite the presence of U.N. representatives in Myanmar, the army continued to demand forced labor, to impose heavy taxes, and, in some cases, to rape women. Many Muslims were also unable to return to their former homes. In Myanmar, the government is considered the owner of all land, and citizens are regarded as tenants who are given permission to live on government land. Because most Muslim residents are not considered citizens, they have no right to live on any land in Myanmar, even if their families have lived on it and farmed it for generations. As a part of the military government’s efforts to control Myanmar society, the army has forced many Muslims to relocate to towns and has created “model villages” on land that formerly belonged to the Muslims. Buddhists are then moved into the model villages, giving the army greater power over civilian social structure.

Government ownership of land in Myanmar has also subjected the Muslims to heavy taxation. Farmers must hand over a certain percentage of their harvests of rice and other crops to the government at low fixed prices. The government calculates this percentage on the basis of acreage of land, rather than on the basis of the crops yielded by the land. Because the Muslims farm the poorest and least productive plots, they pay relatively higher taxes than non-Muslims. All families in a province must also pay a chili tax by selling the government chilis at fixed prices, whether or not these families actually grow chilis. The Rohingyas thus are frequently forced to buy chilis in local markets and sell them to the government at a loss. According to officials of the organization Human Rights Watch, Muslims in Myanmar are forced to pay taxes for fishing, for going to the market, and for almost all other necessary activities of daily life.

Although the 1992 refugee crisis received some international attention, the situation of the Muslims of Myanmar has had relatively little media coverage. They make up one of the smaller minority groups in a country known for massive abuses of human rights and for violent ethnic struggles in many parts of the country. Refugees;Myanmar Muslims Muslims;Myanmar Human rights abuses;Myanmar Myanmar, human rights abuses

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Becka, Jan. Historical Dictionary of Myanmar. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1995. Presents brief entries, arranged alphabetically, on a wide variety of historical events in Myanmar and other topics related to the country’s history. Useful as a general reference source.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fink, Christina. Living Silence: Burma Under Military Rule. New York: Zed Books, 2001. Examines changes in how people live in Myanmar since the military took control of the country in 1988. Includes maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steinberg, David I. Burma: The State of Myanmar. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2001. Discusses social, economic, and political events in Myanmar since the military takeover in 1988. Contains some information on the 1992 refugee crisis. Includes maps, glossary, and index.

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Categories: History