Reference ID: 06RANGOON235

Created: 2006-02-17 09:23

Released: 2011-08-30 01:44

Classification: CONFIDENTIAL

Origin: Embassy Rangoon


DE RUEHGO #0235/01 0480923
R 170923Z FEB 06
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 05 RANGOON 000235 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/17/2016 
REF: 226 
RANGOON 00000235  001.2 OF 005 
Classified By: CDA Shari Villarosa for Reasons 1.4 (b,d) 
¶1.  (SBU)  Summary:  In a country where everyone is oppressed 
by the military, some are treated worse than others.  In 
general, the ethnic minorities are treated worse than the 
ethnic Burman majority, and non-Buddhists face more 
restrictions on their religious practices.  Charge visited 
Northern Rakhine State January 25-27 with a group of other 
diplomats organized by UNHCR to learn why the international 
community in Burma agrees that the Muslims living in Northern 
Rakhine State are treated worst of all.  Absent dramatic 
political changes, UNHCR presence there may be required 
indefinitely to ensure the basic survival of these people "of 
concern" living in the most miserable of 
circumstances--lacking freedom of movement, citizenship, and 
land.  The current regime does not recognize these people as 
citizens, merely as residents.  They are stateless.  The 
district military commander and the district peace and 
development council have almost a blank check to control the 
Muslims as they see fit.  The primary tactic they use is 
humiliation.  We should provide humanitarian assistance in 
coordination with other donors and assist a local Muslim 
group addressing their educational needs. End Summary 
¶2.  (SBU) The Muslims of Northern Rakhine State (they call 
themselves Rohingyas, which the regime rejects, instead 
calling them Bengali-speaking Muslims) have been persecuted 
for more than 40 years.  We visited the two townships where 
most of the Muslims are concentrated:  Maungdaw (97% Muslim) 
and Buthidaung (95% Muslim).  The previous dictator, Ne Win, 
tried to force them from their native Rakhine lands in the 
1960s.  An estimated one million left, according to the 
Pakistani Ambassador, with many ending up in Pakistan, Saudi 
Arabia, as well as neighboring Bangladesh.  Many returned 
home in the 1970s, but then faced persecution again in 
1977-78 when 500,000 fled to Bangladesh (again most returned) 
and the early 1990s when 350,000 left (and again most 
returned).  Today, according to UN estimates, 850,000 people 
live in Northern Rakhine State (the three northernmost 
townships of Rakhine State bordering Bangladesh); over 90% 
are Muslim; over 50% are landless; and 80% are illiterate. 
Northern Rakhine State is the most densely populated rural 
area in Burma with 164 people/square kilometer compared to 
the national average of 74.  Infant mortality is four times 
the national average (71 per 1000 births); 64% of children 
under five are chronically malnourished and stunted growth is 
common.  Teachers are scarce as well with one for every 79 
students vice the 1:40 national average. 
3.  (SBU)  The combination of high population density and low 
productivity results in an annual rice deficit.  In addition, 
rice prices are set higher than elsewhere in Burma to stem 
smuggling to Bangladesh.  The World Food Program, the Food 
and Agriculture Organization and INGOs have tried to assist 
with alternative crops suitable for dry season cultivation. 
The landless depend on seasonal work, primarily rice 
cultivation from June-December.  80% are illiterate with few 
marketable skills.   The scarcity of work and rice becomes 
most pronounced from March-May.  Government restrictions on 
freedom of movement of people and goods hamper trade. 
4.  (SBU) Most of the last group of refugees returned a 
decade ago, and now only a few of the estimated 20,000 
refugees remaining in Bangladesh trickle back (210 returned 
in 2004 and 92 returned in 2005).  The remaining refugees 
RANGOON 00000235  002.2 OF 005 
retain the option of returning, but UNHCR does not encourage 
them to return.  UNHCR has shifted from providing 
resettlement assistance to providing protection.  It regards 
all of the Muslims in these three townships as "of concern" 
due to their miserable circumstances and lack of legal 
status.  One UNHCR rep working in Northern Rakhine State said 
he did not mind the isolation or separation from his family, 
but found the sense of hopelessness hardest to handle.  UNHCR 
representatives described the environment as one of their 
most difficult anywhere because they have no agreement with 
the authorities on basic standards and no laws. 
5.  (SBU)  To guard this "vast internment camp" the military 
has stationed 8000 soldiers and customs and immigration 
officials at 108 locations manning 50 checkpoints.    This 
makes it difficult for the people to access health clinics, 
schools and other programs set up by NGOs to provide basic 
services and training.  Permission to leave the townships is 
even harder.  A local professional with UNHCR said his 
daughter won prizes for being the top student in her high 
school, but was not allowed to travel outside the township to 
sit for university exams.  His son had faced the same 
situation and chose to go to Bangladesh for a university 
education; now his son does not plan to return.  Muslims 
interested in working with UNHCR must be willing to sacrifice 
their freedom of movement.  Even though they are not subject 
to these restrictions in Rangoon where they have long lived 
with their families, once they go to Northern Rakhine State 
to work for UNHCR, they too lose their freedom of movement. 
UNHCR will intervene to give these employees opportunities to 
visit their families, but again it depends on the whims of 
the local authorities. 
6.  (SBU) Based on the large numbers of children we saw out 
of school, the majority of children do not attend public 
schools.  Madrassahs have been set up in many villages to 
provide some education to boys; girls generally receive the 
least education.  We met with a group of women who had formed 
a microlending program.  When asked what they would do with 
additional income earned, they said they would send another 
child to school, with boys given precedence.  The women 
estimated annual school fees at the equivalent of $20. 
Several of the women had one or two children in school, but 
they also noted that they had a total of 5-7 children.  The 
one school we visited had 380 students in one extended 
classroom and only two teachers.  The day we visited, the 
students were receiving their monthly allocation of 20 pounds 
of rice from the World Food Program.  World Food Program 
estimates their school feeding program has achieved a 300 
percent increase in school attendance, reaching 87,000 
students.   Many of the NGO-run health centers have day care 
facilities attached to provide meals and some instruction to 
pre-school aged children. 
7.  (SBU) With half the population and 90 percent of the 
returnees landless, the people become more vulnerable to 
demands for forced labor and forced contributions.  The 
forced labor can vary from carrying loads for government 
officials, standing sentry duty on the major paths around the 
villages to report any outsiders without approvals, repairing 
roads, and anything else an official feels entitled to demand 
of the population.  The UNHCR reports that the number of 
forced labor complaints have declined since the peak in 2001, 
RANGOON 00000235  003.2 OF 005 
with 80 filed in 2005.  UNHCR representatives said that they 
would intervene even without a complaint where they note 
"high levels" of forced labor.  Rape is less common than in 
other ethnic areas, according to UNHCR representatives. 
8. (SBU) All land in Burma is owned by the state with a 
system of land tenancy.  The landless farm as sharecroppers, 
with the shares depending on the goodwill of the individual 
with land tenancy rights.  In keeping with the divide and 
rule tactics used throughout the country, the authorities 
have coopted the elite by giving some land tenancy rights. 
Nevertheless, both the landless and those with land tenancy 
rights have no appeal should authorities arbitrarily revoke 
their land rights.  Usually they are forced from their 
traditional land as the authorities move in ethnic Burmans 
and ethnic Rakhines.  In one case, the authorities populated 
a model village with urban criminals released from prison. 
The authorities provided the released criminals with large 
homes with metal roofs and electricity along with substantial 
farmland on the condition that they live in Northern Rakhine 
State.  The authorities then told the criminals that they 
could make the Muslims work their lands. 
9. (SBU) The Muslims in Rakhine face additional demands.  For 
instance, since there are relatively few Buddhists in the 
region, the authorities force Muslims to build Buddhist 
temples and monasteries, while denying them permission to 
make repairs to their mosques.  The Muslims of Northern 
Rakhine do not face pressures to join the regime's mass 
member organization, the United Solidarity and Development 
Association, since they are not regarded as citizens. 
However, they still must contribute plastic chairs, or the 
cash equivalent, to USDA for their rallies. 
10. (SBU) The Muslims must request permission to travel from 
one village to another, to marry, to improve their homes, and 
to do anything else the authorities can think of.  These 
permits usually also require payment of a fee.  Women must 
register their pregnancies.  The procedures change frequently 
and largely depend on the whim of the approving authority 
keeping the Muslims confused and becoming a costly burden. 
UNHCR will intervene when the demands become too egregious. 
For instance, to reduce birth rates, the authorities in 2005 
decided to stop granting approval for marriages until UNHCR 
intervened.  Then some local authorities imposed a new rule 
that they would approve marriages, but the prospective groom 
would have to submit a photo with no beard, contrary to his 
religious practices, with his application. 
11.  (SBU) While we saw new Buddhist temples and monasteries 
throughout the area (mostly built with forced labor), the 
majority of the mosques were crumbling.  One mosque had 
salvaged metal siding randomly tacked up for walls. 
Crumbling thatched roofs covering the mosques were common.  A 
mosque in the center of Maungdaw town had been converted to a 
fire station by the authorities.  The authorities usually 
deny permission to repair mosques, but occasionally one might 
be permitted.  After the repairs are made, according to UNHCR 
reps, just to humiliate the people and show who's in charge, 
the authorities sometimes claim that the work went beyond the 
permit and order it all dismantled. 
12.  (U) This trip also provided an overview of the 
international programs to assist the people of Northern 
Rakhine State.  The UNHCR has the lead among the UN agencies 
RANGOON 00000235  004.2 OF 005 
here and works through international NGOs (INGOs) to provide 
Burmese language training to women to decrease their 
marginalization and to children so that they can enroll in 
school, health care, skills development for the most 
vulnerable populations, income generation and financial 
self-help for the most vulnerable.  The INGOs operating in 
Northern Rakhine State include:  Action Contre la Faim 
(nutrition program), Aide Medicale Internacionale (primary 
health care in Buthidaung township, but running into problems 
with local authorities because their clinics are more popular 
than public health clinics), Bridge Asia Japan (basic rural 
infrastructure), CARE Australia (agro-forestry, including 
securing land rights to sloping land), Community and Family 
Services International (community services and language 
training), Groupe de Recherche et d'Echanges Technologiques 
(agricultural production), Malteser (primary health care in 
Maungdaw Township with good working relations with local 
authorities; training community health workers), Medecins 
Sans Frontieres-Holland (malaria, TB, HIV/AIDS preventions). 
The major donors are the European Commission/European Union, 
Japan, Australia, Germany, UAE, and Norway. 
13. (C) More dispiriting has been the reaction of others from 
whom we expected more sympathy: 
Bangladesh:  The Ambassador participated in this visit. 
Although he acknowledged the terrible conditions, he found 
conditions in some ways better than in Bangladesh.  "In 
Bangladesh people have a state, but no land; here they have 
no state, but land to farm."  He made clear his primary 
concern is that the Northern Rakhine Muslims do not return to 
Pakistan:  The Ambassador participated in this visit.  He 
provided historical background on how Pakistan had tried to 
help in the past, but did not offer to do anything more than 
wring his hands now.  He whispered that the U.S. must speak 
out about this, and could not respond when asked why Pakistan 
did not speak out.  He subsequently thanked Charge for asking 
the District Officer, a Lt. Col and the most senior official 
we met, about lifting restrictions on freedom of movement. 
Singapore:  The Ambassador participated in this visit and 
coined the best description:  a vast internment camp.  When 
asked why other Muslim nations did not speak out, he said 
they all have problems with minorities, who claim some 
separateness, citing the example of the Kurds.  If these 
nations highlighted the plight of the Rohingyas, then they 
would, at a minimum, look hypocritical, for not addressing 
the demands of minority groups in their own countries. 
India:  The Ambassador and DCM both agreed that the situation 
was inhumane, but they professed greater concern that the 
Rohingyas would become terrorists, saying we should focus our 
attention there, rather than trying to improve their plight. 
Saudi Arabia:  They have just opened an Embassy in Rangoon. 
The Saudi Charge made clear that the primary goal of this 
Embassy is to repatriate 120,000 Rohingyas living without 
documents in Saudi Arabia for many years.  They had entered 
Saudi Arabia on Pakistan and Bangladesh passports, but those 
countries refused to renew them.  Charge asked if he realized 
that sending them back would effectively mean sending them to 
prison.  He acknowledged that the timing might not be right, 
but that the situation in Burma might improve in the future. 
When asked about the relatively small number of Rohingyas in 
comparison with other overseas workers in Saudi Arabia (he 
rattled off:  1 million each from Egypt and Pakistan, 900,000 
from Indonesia, 400,000 from the Philippines), he replied 
RANGOON 00000235  005.2 OF 005 
that the others all had passports. 
Burmese political activists in exile whom Charge met February 
13:  After proudly describing their efforts to develop a 
constitution in consultation with representatives of various 
ethnic groups, Charge asked about the provisions they had 
made for the Muslims of Northern Rakhine State.  The first 
response:  they are not citizens.  They disputed Charge's 
assertion that these people had been living in that area for 
hundreds of years.  Finally they admitted to an agreement 
with the Arakans (a Buddhist ethnic group inhabiting the rest 
of Rakhine State), that the Muslims would not have the right 
to a separate state, but that they would be accorded 
individual rights. 
14. (SBU) The Rohingyas are a small group of oppressed people 
in a country full of many oppressed people.  The others have 
received more attention because their plight has made it to 
the international press.  The military has effectively sealed 
the Rohingyas off from the world and keeps them at the bare 
subsistence level-it is an internment camp.  The 
international community, with the UNHCR in the lead, has 
responded to enable these people to survive-just.  If 
international donors disappeared, the fate of these people 
would be far worse.  Their only hope for better lives is a 
government willing to accord them basic rights of citizenship 
and freedom.  The current government essentially acts as 
prison guards.  We should not assume that any future 
democratic government will accord these people their basic 
human rights, but should insist on it.  In the meantime, we 
should join other donors in providing humanitarian assistance 
to the Rohingyas and send the message to the military that we 
will not permit their elimination.  We also recommend support 
for efforts by the Islamic Center in Rangoon to start an 
English language program in Northern Rakhine State (reftel).


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here