Reports on violence in Burma’s Rakhine State: Where do they differ?
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Reports on violence in Burma’s Rakhine State: Where do they differ?

Last month, both Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Burmese government’s Rakhine State Conflicts Investigation Commission released reports on infamous riots that started in June of last year in Rakhine State. While HRW says the riot was all about ethnic cleansing, the investigation commission tries to portray it as immigration issue. Where do those reports differ addressing the same issue?


HRW interviewed 104 individuals – 54 Rohingya, 34 Arakanese and 9 Kaman and 10 groups. The main researcher is a consultant from Human Rights Watch and deputy directors and directors of different departments edited it with other reviewers.

The interviewees for in-depth interviews and focus group discussions conducted by Burmese government’s investigation commission included 1,200 Rakhine (Arakanese) and 800 Bengalis (the term used to refer to Rohingya in the report). The commission was formed with Christian leaders, Muslim leaders, journalists, politicians and ethnic leaders.

(READ MORE: Burma president vows to protect Muslim rights)

Both reports mention the limitations of their research. For HRW access to affected area was the major challenge, while the investigation commission reports that false answers and complaints from both groups affected their progress.


According to both of the reports, there have been occasional clashes between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state over the past few decades. HRW traces it back to British colonial times and reasons that clashes began when Rakhine ethnics joined the Burmese Independence Army (BIA) to fight against British while the Rohingya remained loyal to Britain. It does not detail the origin of Rohingya Muslims.

The investigation commission’s report says the Rohingya came to Burma from Bangladesh as migrant workers early in the 19th century. Both Rakhine ethnics and Muslim resettlers have since maintained their own beliefs, traditions and cultures, the report said. The report comments that the higher fertility rate of Bengalis and their influence in local business has threatened Rakhine people.

Past Conflicts

HRW focuses more on the loss of Rohingya lives during past conflicts while the investigation commission emphasises Rakhine fatalities.

HRW says two armed groups known as the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) and the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF) were founded in 1982 and 1987 with no “serious threat to Burmese military state”. It did not record the conflicts between two ethnic groups before 1992. It also mentions that Rohingya were forcibly returned to Burma in 1992 and 1993. It documents that Arakanese mobs attacked Muslims throughout the country in 2001, destroyed mosques and other buildings that caused “unknown number of deaths and injuries”. It also said 28 mosques were destroyed in 2002.

On the other hand, the investigation commission lists clashes going back to 1942. It said flyers offering rewards for those who married Rakhine women were distributed at a gathering in Taungok, which led to the destruction of the mosques in 1982. In return, Bengalis attempted and failed to take control of Maungdaw during the 1988 nationwide uprising and a Buddhist monastery was also set on fire during the same year. In 1994, Nazi Bazaar in Sittwe was burnt following a dispute between a Buddhist monk and a Bengali pharmacy owner, the report said.

Some information about Rohingya armed forces – RSO and ARIF – in the commission’s report contradicts HRW’s record. It says that the RSO attacked a Rakhine village in Maungdaw in 1994 and the RLO destroyed monasteries and Buddhist structures in Maungdaw in 1998.

Recent Clashes

Both HRW and the investigation commission provided similar information on recent clashes that started in June, 2012.

HRW reprts three Muslims raped a Rakhine girl, after which a Rakhine mob took revenge by “beating to death” to 10 Muslims visiting Taungok, noting that the Burmese government failed to take any action until now

The investigation commission report described the same crimes but described the three rapists as ‘Bengalis’. It also touched on the effect of online media and how it was used by extremists to spread hatred.

(READ MORE: In Burma, Facebook becomes a hotbed of extremism)

Both reports agree that the riot started on June 8, 2012. HRW reports that state security forces participated in violence against Muslims and that 75,000 out of 100,000 people displaced are Rohingya. The investigation commission’s report says 66 Bengalis were killed, 72 injured and 4,188 houses were destroyed, while 68 Rakhine were killed, 45 injured and 2,371 houses were destroyed.

Discrimination against Rohingya 

The HRW report alleges serious crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Burma. It also says it has found extensive evidence that the violence was well organized by monks, political parties, and even govt forces (some of whom committed killings and other abuses).

HRW says the 1982 Myanmar citizenship law is “discriminatory” and the root cause of the violence. It says that since 1982 citizenship law does not allow someone who cannot speak one of the official ethnic languages and whose parents did not reside in the country before independence to become a naturalized citizen, Rohingya who have no valid documents are ineligible for citizenship. Though there is no review and analysis on citizenship law in the investigation commission’s report, it says the government issued a number of white cards (a form of registration card for immigrants) to Bengalis in order to get more votes for the current ruling Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP).

(READ MORE: Burma’s potential for a nationwide religious war)

Other discrimination described by HRW includes different restrictions on Rohingya, such as marriage and childbirth. The report also says that Rohingya are persecuted with murder, sexual assault and forced transfer. The investigation commission claims that some restrictions on Rohingya are applied since their fatality rate and population are a burden to the country and the cultures of Bengalis are not yet in harmony with native Rakhine people.


HRW provides several recommendations to the Burmese government, including: the  proper investigate the abuses during the violence; to allow access to the UN office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR); to publicize detainees information and to release Dr. Tun Aung who they claim political prisoner; to provide safety to victims with full access to the affected area; to order security forces and authorities to stop mass arrests of Rohingya; to promote tolerance and non-discrimination among citizens; and to include Rohingya in the current national census program and other suggestions.

The investigation commission also recommends government action on various aspects such as nutrition, accommodation, health and education. Their recommendations include research on malnutrition throughout the state; the provision of employment and business opportunities for Internally Displaced People (IDP); the provision of basic household facilities before the upcoming rainy season; a plan for the resettlement of Bengalis; the provision of healthcare to IDPs including toilets and other basic needs; the education of locals in order to reduce hatred among Rakhine and Bengalis; the provision of an FM radio station and a TV Channel with local the language; the provision of safety to teachers and students at government schools in affected areas; and collaboration with NGOs and CSOs in order to generate a rehabilitation plan.

Next month it will be one year since the beginning of the riots, but the government has not announced any plan and the future of Rakhine State is still uncertain.