This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available. C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 RANGOON 000258
E.O. 12958: DECL: 2/26/13
SUBJECT: MUSLIM REPRESSION AND RESENTMENT NEAR BURMA'S
BORDER WITH BANGLADESH
Classified By: COM CARMEN MARTINEZ. REASON: 1.5 (D)
1. (C) Summary: The Burmese regime's repression of the
mostly Muslim population of northern Rakhine State, located
along the border with Bangladesh, is breeding resentment and
poverty. DCM visited the area in mid-February as part of a
trip to the region organized by UNHCR for diplomats. UNHCR's
protective services are limiting the oppression and its
coordination of NGO and other UN agency projects is providing
the only development effort in the region. The security
forces in northern Rakhine State, reportedly numbering 8,000,
are an extractive presence, largely self-financing and/or
self-enriching. Incidents of forced labor have fallen due to
the completion of a UN-supported gravel road that has reduced
the security forces' need for forced porterage to isolated
outposts. End Summary
2. (SBU) POOR, CROWDED, AND ISOLATED: The three townships
(akin to counties in the U.S.) nearest the Bangladesh border
in Rakhine State have a population of 800,000, the vast
majority of whom are Bengali-speaking Muslims. About a
quarter of a million people in this area have returned to
Burma after fleeing as refugees to Bangladesh in the 1990s.
By almost any socio-economic measure this is Burma's poorest
and most crowded rural region--the UN reports 61% of children
are malnourished and 35% are severely stunted. The area
consists of mountainous peninsulas flanked by tidal estuaries
that are too brackish for irrigation. The 18 feet of rain
per year falls in 5 months, meaning there are two seasons:
dust and mud. There is no motorable road connection with
Bangladesh--the only official entry point from Bangladesh is
the estuary port of Maungdaw.
3. (C) NO RECENT INSURGENT ACTIVITY: According to
residents, NGO and UN expatriates, and UN and NGO local staff
members intimately familiar with the region, there has been
no serious insurgent activity in northern Rakhine State for
several years (notwithstanding insurgent press releases).
One source claimed the last major incident was in 1994. A
French NGO worker related an incident from 2001 in which four
members of the security forces were murdered at night in
their camp. He believed it had something to do with forced
prostitution or trafficking in women and was probably not
insurgent related. After the murders, her continued, the
security forces rounded up the inhabitants of a nearby
village and penned them in a field for two days with no food
or water. Two toddlers, who were left at the village,
reportedly died. Other sources said that occasional slit
throats or stabbings are sometimes vaguely attributed to "the
RSO" (the Rohingya Solidarity Organization, commonly used to
refer to any Muslim insurgents), but are likely the result of
local resentments and outraged husbands or fathers. "RSO"
members (i.e., militant Muslim refugees) total about 200
individuals, according to one informed local estimate.
3. (C) RAPACIOUS SECURITY FORCES: UN sources report that
there are some 8,000 security force personnel occupying about
80 sites in the three townships. Most are members of the
hybrid Burmese border patrol known as NaSaKa (the Burmese
acronym for Border Immigration HQ). Nearly every bridge,
tunnel, intersection, hamlet, and government building is
"guarded" by a detachment of armed men. We met with the
notorious NaSaKa commander Aung Ngwe who is such an egregious
abuser of human rights, even by Burmese military standards,
that he was previously ordered back to Rangoon for a sharp
reprimand. However, he is back commanding the border region,
with his actions unchanged, according to locals.
4 (C) SECURITY FORCES SELF-FINANCING, SELF-ENRICHING: UN
and NGO staffers say the security forces extract revenue and
labor from the local population at every opportunity, in
part, they contend, because the SPDC has made the conscious
decision to make security operations there self-financing.
This approach has the added "benefit" of dampening the pull
factor from even more-crowded nearby areas of Bangladesh,
they add. For example, Aung Ngwe has licensed nearly every
conceivable economic activity to a crony, friend, or partner.
Poor woodcutters must sell their daily cuttings to the
monopoly licensee for 8 kyat a bundle; Aung Ngwe's buddy
turns around and sells it for 20 kyat. We drove through a
large GOB cashew plantation. Aung Ngwe personally pockets
the proceeds from the cashew nuts, we were told, but allows
the villagers who pick the crop to keep some of the cashew
fruit. Every checkpoint extracts a 50 kyat fee or a pack of
cigarettes from the cargo bicycles that move rice and
provisions through the township. Aung Ngwe even sold the
right to charge tolls on a bridge connecting the port of
Maungdaw to the center of town--the tollbooth has since been
removed after UN complaints. Muslims routinely must bribe
officials to travel within or between the three townships.
5. (C) HUMAN RIGHTS: The UNHCR documents reports of
incidents of forced labor and forced contributions in the
area. The number of incidents has fallen in 2002, the UNHCR
explains, not because of a change in GOB policy or action,
but because of the completion of a road financed by a WFP
food-for-work project and the Japanese NGO BAJ. This road
allows NaSaKa easier motorized access to hitherto isolated
outposts close to the Bangladesh border and has reduced the
need for porterage services of the locals.
-- At one village the Australian DCM was slipped a note by a
person requesting protection/support from GOB oppression. A
UNHCR staffer said, "Bad news. MI minders saw the note being
passed, so now we'll have to visit this village two or three
times a week for the next couple of months to make sure that
everybody here is ok."
-- DCM spoke with one landless Muslim man who, amid tears,
explained that his daughter was in jail and he had no money
to pay for transport to the township capital, bribe the
soldiers at the numerous checkpoints along the way, or to
bribe the judge. His daughter had accused the GOB-appointed
village headman of sexual assault, as had another young woman
in the village. When NaSaka commander Aung Ngwe heard of the
accusation against the village headman (his friend), he
ordered the two women arrested. The village headman is also
in jail, but has access to resources to sway the outcome of
proceedings, our contacts explained.
6. (C) RETURNEES AND UNHCR: About 25 refugees per week are
returning from Bangladesh--all by boat through the river port
of Maungdaw. UNHCR estimates approximately 5,000 will be
willing and able to return by time of the closure of the
UNHCR repatriation program at the end of June. This means
that weekly returnee rates will need to increase at least
ten-fold to meet this deadline. Once out of the repatriation
business, UNHCR staffers admitted that they will be
hard-pressed to justify the continuation of their programs in
the border area, which in reality are a mix of UNDP-type
development activities and normal ICRC protective services.
7. (SBU) WHAT'S IN A NAME?: When returning refugees are
processed at Maungdaw UNHCR helps them fill out the
immigration and customs forms. Returnees are asked to
declare their ethnicity, nationality, and religion. The
standard and approved method by which UNHCR helps fill out
the cards yields the following: Ethnicity - Bengali;
Nationality - Myanmar; Religion - Muslim. While the
returnees are not considered citizens of Myanmar, they are
apparently considered nationals.
-- DCM did not once hear the word "Rohingya" used by anyone
to describe Muslim Bengali-speakers. Rather, "Muslim" is
used. One Muslim local staffer explained he had once written
Rohingya on a form, but was told by the local authorities not
to use it.
-- "RSO" is commonly used to describe any Muslim insurgents,
frequently accompanied by a vague wave in the direction of
the Bangladeshi border.
-- Buddhist Rakhine-speakers are usually called Rakhines.
-- Arakan, another term for the state, people, and language,
was used in private conversation by pro-democracy individuals
in the ancient Arakan capital of Mrauk-Oo and elsewhere.
Aung San Suu Kyi and her allies in the Arakan League for
Democracy also use "Arakan."
-- Almost everybody used Yangon and Myanmar vice Rangoon and
Burma, but quite a few people used Burmese (vice Myanmar)
when referring to the language and "Myanmar people" when
referring to the Burmese nationality. Several Arakanese
voiced lingering resentment at the destruction of the capital
city of Mrauk-Oo by Burmese invaders in 1754.
-- Nobody used the older term "Akyab" for the city of Sittwe,
the capital of Rakhine State.
8. (C) THE STATUS OF ISLAM: The practice of Islam is not
restricted, commander Aung Ngwe assured us. Indeed, we saw
many Muslims worshipping throughout the area. One catch is
that the authorities prohibit the construction or repair of
mosques. As a result, most mosques are in severe disrepair.
In Maungdaw, the largest city in the (almost completely
Muslim) township of 431,000 people, the central mosque has no
roof. On a Muslim holiday we witnessed thousands of
worshippers crowded into what in effect was an courtyard
enclosed by a brick wall painted green--and this in a city
that gets 18 feet of rain per year.
9. (C) INDIAN PLANS IN THE AREA: During the many hours we
spent traveling on the broad rivers of northern Rakhine, the
Indian ambassador detailed an approved GOI-GOB plan to
connect NE India to the Bay of Bengal via a road-river link
utilizing the Kaladan River. India and Burma would dredge
and, where needed, widen, the Kaladan River to enable cargo
ships to ply most of the distance between Sittwe and the
Indian border. The northern-most link would entail about 40
miles of blacktopped road. A cargo terminal would be built
at Sittwe and at the navigable northern end of the Kaladan
River, he reported. This route will cut by three-quarters
the transport time for goods between NE India and Calcutta,
he claimed. Survey and planning has commenced, he added,
with the project to be concluded "in about six years."
10. (C) COMMENT: The GOB policies in northern Rakhine are a
wonderful example of how not to win friends and influence
people. The seething resentment is almost palpable and is,
in fact, visible. As we traveled by boat up the rivers and
estuaries from central to northern Rakhine State, the UNHCR
staff suggested that we note the reaction of people along the
riverbanks to our presence. Sure enough, during the first
part of the voyage people called out, smiled, and waved as we
sped past. Further on, folks wouldn't even return a wave,
and often stepped back into the brush as we approached. The
change occurred about the same place Buddhist temples stopped
appearing in villages. The Muslim-majority townships felt
like an area suffering from an oppressive occupier, with
Islam the prime uniting and potentially mobilizing force.
This website hosts an archive of all 251,287 US Embassy diplomatic cables that were released by WikiLeaks between November 28, 2010 and September 2, 2011.
While the cables are generally available at http://wikileaks.org/cablegate.html
, we find it hard to search or even navigate the site to read the cables.
We have made all 251,287 cables available here at Dazzlepod with the hope to make it easier for readers to browse, search, share and discuss about the released cables.
The cables are periodically selected and posted to our Twitter page
and Facebook page
for readers to review them.
For comments or questions, please do not hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org