Ethnic cleansing and genocidal massacres 65 years ago by Ishtiaq Ahmed

One of the completest cases of ethnic cleansing – that entailed the murder of 500,000-800,000 Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs – took place in 1947 in the Punjab Province of British India. Until now very little research had been conducted on it though in Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi literature the horrors of the partition have figured extensively, mostly in short stories but also in novels and poetry. The trauma of a gory and shattering destruction of the demographic structure and culture in Punjab has never been absent from the public conscience although the generation that went through it is now on the way out. However, once the Punjab was partitioned it was impossible for an Indian citizen to visit the Pakistani Punjab and do research and likewise a Pakistani scholar stood no chance of doing the same in the Indian Punjab. International research on the Punjab partition had also been limited – confined to some cities and districts.

As a Swedish national of Pakistani origin, I did manage to visit both Punjabs and do extensive field research. Therefore now for the first time after 65 years a holistic, detailed and penetrating research on the events of 1947 have been published under the title, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2012, ISBN 9780199064700, pages 640).  It is theoretically and empirically a very distinctive study, because it seeks to solve the Punjab partition puzzle as part of a general phenomenon that has appeared elsewhere in the world as well.  More than 250 interviews were conducted over a period of 15 years, though the most intense period was 2003-2005 when a very generous research grant from the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskaprådet) enabled me to do field research in both the Indian and Pakistani Punjabs. In some cases I traced people from both sides of the divided Punjab after 50 and more years to check the same incident.

Punjab was partitioned in mid-1947 as part of the overall partition of British India into two independent nations of India and Pakistan. The main party of Indian Muslims, the All-India Muslim League, had argued that the Muslim minority (roughly one-fourth) constituted a separate nation from other communities of India. Therefore they were entitled to a separate state in areas where they were in a majority. This was reluctantly agreed to by the Indian National Congress, the main secular-nationalist party, which was dominated by Hindus. The British, who had decided to withdraw from India by June 1948, also agreed to the partition of India. However, the partition of India was also to include the partition of two Muslim-majority provinces, Bengal and Punjab.

Map of Punjab 1941

The total population of undivided Punjab was nearly 34 million living in 357,692 sq. km. Of it more than 28 million lived in territories directly administered by the British and its territorial expanse was 256,640 sq. km.  The Muslims constituted a slight majority of 53.2%, while Hindus and Sikhs together formed a very large minority. Less than 2% belonged to other religions. In the directly administered British territories the Muslim percentage was slightly higher, 57.1%. The Sikhs, who were a minority of around 14%, were essentially a Punjabi people – their religion and history and most of their community was located in Punjab. On the other hand, Punjabi Hindus and Muslims could link up with their communities in all nooks and corners of India.

The Sikhs were insistent that if India is partitioned on a religious basis then Punjab should also be divided on the same basis. They feared persecution under Muslim rule based on a religious notion of nationhood. The problem was that the Sikhs were not in a majority anywhere in Punjab. They were, however, an important community because they were disproportionately overrepresented in the British Indian Army and were also a propertied community with regard to agricultural land and even business and commerce. When it became clear that India could not remain united because the Muslim League and the Congress would not agree on a mutually acceptable formula the latter threw its full weight behind the Sikh demand for the partition of Punjab. While the western regions had a clear Muslim majority and eastern regions of Punjab a Hindu-Sikh majority the central areas, even though mostly comprising Muslim majority, had substantial Hindu-Sikh minorities and in some districts even majorities.

The book argues that if India had not been partitioned Punjab would also not have been partitioned. However, that did not mean that if India were partitioned then Punjab must also be partitioned. Had the Muslim League and the Sikh leaders agreed to keep Punjab united even if the Punjabi Hindus did not they would have made up such a large majority that Punjab could have remained united. Why could not the Punjabi Muslims and Sikhs agree to that? That is the main puzzle I have tried to solve.  No division of Punjab would have been a satisfactory to all three main communities – Punjabi Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Moreover, any partition of Punjab would have inevitably divided the Sikhs into the two states. The British governors as well as the chief secretaries, who from 1945-47 were Indians, were warning that Punjab would explode into unprecedented violence if it was partitioned and pleaded for a power-sharing formula that could prevent its division.

Historically Punjab had excellent record of inter-communal relations as Sufi Islam, the Bhakti Movement of Hindus opposed to the caste system and the early Sikh Gurus (spiritual leaders) had over the centuries preached communal harmony. In the 20th century religious revivals took place, which instead of bringing Punjabis closer drove them away from each other on the basis of religious purity as compared to the folky forms of Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism. Yet, from 1923 onwards when the Punjab Unionist Party, headed by Muslim leaders and supported by Hindus and Sikhs, was founded on shared Punjabi values and interests the three communities had managed to live in peace and harmony. Both the Muslim League and the Congress had no major following in Punjab before the 1940s.

Trouble started in Punjab during the 1945-46 election campaign. The Muslim League had to wrest Punjab away from the Punjab Unionist Party and that necessitated portraying it as an agent of anti-Islam forces. Consequently, ‘Islam in danger’ was launched as the battle cry, the Muslim League was projected as the saviour and Pakistan as the utopia where no exploitation would exist, moneylending would be abolished and a model Muslim society based on Islamic law would come into being. Pages 81-106 of my book The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed provide the details. Islamic slogans, of which the most famous, Pakistan ka nara kiya? La Illaha Illillah (What is the slogan of Pakistan? It is that there is no god but God), were used profusely. The pirs (custodians of Sufi shrines) and ulema (Muslim clerics) told the Muslims that voting for the Muslim League would be voting for the Prophet Muhammad; those Muslims who did not do so, their marriages would be annulled, they would be refused an Islamic burial, and so on. The Hindus and Sikhs were told that they would be tried under Islamic law and they would have to bring their cases to mosques. Governor Sir Bertrand Glancy noted on September 13, 1945, “Muslim Leaguers are doing what they can in the way of propaganda conducted on fanatical lines; religious leaders and religious buildings are being used freely in several places for advocating Pakistan and vilifying any who hold opposite view. Communal feel is, I fear, definitely deteriorating. Sikhs are getting definitely nervous about Pakistan, and I think there is no doubt that they will forcibly resist any attempt to include them in a Muslim Raj” (page 84).

He noted on February 2, just days before the elections, “there seems little doubt that the Muslim League, thanks to the ruthless methods by which they have pursued their campaign of ‘Islam in danger’ will considerably increase the number of their seats and unionist representatives will correspondingly decrease” (page 88). The Muslim League swept the reserved Muslim seats. It won 73 seats (later increased to 75) out of 86. Its tally, however, fell short by at least 10 to form the government in the 175-member Punjab Assembly. The Congress swept the general vote getting 50 seats, and the Sikh Panthic parties secured 23 reserved for the Sikhs. The Unionists were reduced to a rump of 18. The rest were reserved seats for the scheduled castes, Christians and Anglo-Indians. A coalition government comprising the Punjab Unionist Party, the Punjab Congress and the Panthic Parties was formed with Khizr Hayat Tiwana as premier. The Muslim League felt deprived of the chance to form the government but it could not produce evidence that it enjoyed a majority in the Punjab Assembly.

Meanwhile, violence elsewhere in India increased sharply in 1946. The Muslim League ordered ‘Direct Action’ or mass agitation in Calcutta in August 1946. It resulted in thousands of deaths. The violence was unleashed by Muslim groups but later the Hindus and Sikhs struck back with equal savagery. Thousands of people were killed. Violence then spread to Bihar where the provincial Congress government was involved in a butchery of Muslims.

Punjab too was heading towards a confrontation and Chief Secretary Akhtar Hussain reported that “private communal armies” were being recruited. In December 1946, the Sikhs and Hindus of Hazara district, NWFP, were subjected to unprecedented savagery of Muslim mobs. Thousands fled to Punjab, some got refuge in Rawalpindi, but most went eastwards where Sikhs were in substantial numbers. On January 24, Tiwana ordered police raids on the headquarters of the Punjab Muslim League and the RSS. Muslim League leaders who resisted were arrested. It triggered a mass movement of defiance of authority by Muslim League agitators. Every day Muslims courted arrest and the jails were filled with them. Slogan mongering against Tiwana was conducted in the filthiest of Punjabi abuses and taunts. The agitation also became increasingly violent. Glancy’s successor, Governor Sir Evan Jenkins noted in his report dated February 28, “The Sikhs have been profoundly moved by the obvious desire of the Muslims to seize Punjab for themselves and would not permit them to do so. The agitation has shown Pakistan in all its nakedness and was a fair example of the kind of treatment that the minorities, including the Sikhs, might expect from Muslim extremists”(Page 124). Chief Secretary Akhtar Hussain wrote on March 4, 1947, when direct action was over and an uneasy peace had been established, “Muslims in their stupidity disgraced Sikhs, singled out Sikh policemen for their attacks and brutally murdered a Sikh constable. The effect of this was grave in the extreme and, as has been stated, communal strife between Sikhs and Muslims was almost inevitable if the League movement of defiance had continued” (page 125).

On February 20, 1947, the British government had announced the transfer of power to Indians by June 1948. Although the Muslim League agitation ended on February 26 and all Muslim League detainees released, Premier Tiwana had lost heart because British rule would soon end. He therefore resigned on March 2, 1947, precipitating an acute political crisis. On March 3, Master Tara Singh famously flashed his kirpan (sword) outside the Punjab Assembly, calling for the destruction of the Pakistan idea. That evening, Hindu and Sikh leaders gathered in Lahore and made even more extremist speeches (pages 128-135).

Next day Hindu-Sikh protestors and Muslims clashed in Lahore, the capital of undivided Punjab. The same day in the evening, Sikhs and Muslims clashed in nearby Amritsar. On March 5, violence spread to Multan in south-western Punjab and Rawalpindi in north-western. The same day, Governor Jenkins imposed governor’s rule. Punjab remained under governor’s rule until power was transferred to Indian and Pakistani Punjab administrations on August 15, 1947.

In Multan, the fight was uneven from the first day. There were very few Sikhs and the Hindu minority was also heavily outnumbered. Almost all casualties were those of Hindus and a few Sikhs. The gruesome murder of Seth Kalyan Das, a highly respected gentleman, whom all communities respected, is narrated by old-timer Ataullah Malik (pages 160-161).

In Rawalpindi, Hindu-Sikhs and Muslims clashed on March 5. In the evening of March 6, Muslim mobs in the thousands headed towards Sikh villages in Rawalpindi, Attock and Jhelum districts. Until March 13, they had a free hand to kill, burn, rape, and forcibly convert mainly Sikhs but also Hindus. I have given eyewitness testimony of Muslims, and a Sikh survivor from Thamali, interviewing him in Kapurthala city in the Indian East Punjab (pages 165-193). The pictures of the interviewees are also given.

According to British sources, some 2,000 people were killed in the carnage in the three rural districts. The Sikhs claim 7,000 dead. Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League and founder of Pakistan, committed a major blunder when he did not issue any condemnation of those atrocities. An exodus of Sikhs took place in the thousands to the eastern districts and Sikh princely states from Rawalpindi, where they narrated their woes, and set up the nucleus of a revenge movement.

The Sikh leaders had been working on some Sikh princes to convince them to try establishing a Sikh State. If India could be partitioned for two nations based on religion, then why could it not into three for the Sikh nation as well? To achieve that, a compact Sikh majority was needed and that could be achieved only by expelling nearly six million Muslims from East Punjab. However, 1947 was too early for such a bid; it emerged in the 1980s as the Khalistan movement.

By May 1947, it dawned upon Jinnah that the Sikhs were not going to join Pakistan. For a while he argued that Punjabis and Bengalis shared a common culture and identity. However, since it contradicted his basic stand that Hindus and Muslims were separate nations who did not share any national character, the discovery that Punjabis (Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs) and Bengalis (Hindus and Muslims) shared the same culture was the weakest argument in his brief for the Two-Nation Theory. He then demanded that a corridor should be provided through more than 1,000 miles of Indian territory to connect East and West Pakistan!

Nevertheless, Viceroy Mountbatten brokered talks between Jinnah and the Sikhs during May 14-16 with a view to keeping the Punjab united. Jinnah offered very generous terms. Hardit Singh Malik who acted as spokesperson of the Sikhs reported the following concluding remarks:

“This put us in an awkward position. We were determined not to accept Pakistan under any circumstances and here was a Muslim leader offering us everything. What to do? Then I had an inspiration and I said, ‘Mr Jinnah, you are being very generous. But, supposing, God forbid, you are no longer there when the time comes to implement your promises?’ His reply was astounding…He said, ‘My friend, my word in Pakistan will be like the word of God. No one will go back on it.’ There was nothing to be said after this and the meeting ended” (page 213).

Meanwhile, the British military had on May 12, 1947 come round to the view that if Pakistan was created it would be good for their interests in South Asia and the Persian Gulf. On page 209, I have quoted verbatim the memorandum the British heads of the three branches of the armed forces and Field Marshal Montgomery prepared in support of the creation of Pakistan.

In any event, on June 3, 1947, the British government announced the Partition Plan. It brought forward the transfer of power date to India and Pakistan to mid-August 1947. On June 23, the Punjab Assembly voted in favour of partitioning Punjab. It was followed by the deliberations of the Punjab Boundary Commission, which culminated in the Radcliffe Award of August 13, which was made public on August 17. In June, the Hindu-Sikh locality of Shahalmi in Lahore was set ablaze. I traced one of the culprits whose confession is given in detail on pages 237-243. Until July, the East Punjab Muslims were not attacked. On August 17, when the Radcliffe Award became public, all hell broke loose on the East Punjab Muslims. In India, scores of studies exist on the suffering of Hindus and Sikhs in what became West Punjab. The fact is that more Muslims were killed in East Punjab than Hindus and Sikhs combined in West Punjab. 500,000-800,000 Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs lost their lives altogether. The macabre dance of death that took place in western Punjab until June 1947 was now played out in East Punjab more pitilessly and on a much grander scale.

The evidence is based on heart-wrenching interviews I conducted over a period of 15 years with many Muslims. Pages 411-525 highlight the slaughter of Muslims. The book also documents cases of extreme magnificence as Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs saved lives across the communal divide, sometimes of complete strangers and at great risk to their own lives. Humanity was debased in 1947 but not without outstanding examples of sublimation as well.

At the end of the day, 10 million Punjabis had been driven away from their ancestral abodes: it is the greatest forced migration in modern history. Except for the tiny Malerkotla State, Indian East Punjab was emptied of all Muslims; equally, from the Pakistani West Punjab, Hindus and Sikhs were driven out to the last man almost.

I have developed a theory of ethnic cleansing, which is tested in the Punjab case. It has also served as the theoretical framework to explain and analyse the events that transpired in Punjab in 1947. The theory can be usefully employed to analyse the events of ex-Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Iran and other such cases. Each case has its unique characteristics but they also share some essential common features. Among them the main are the end of a particular type of state system without a power-sharing formula being agreed among apprehensive communities suffering from great anxiety about an uncertain future. When state functionaries assume partisan roles ethnic cleansing and genocide can take place as organized force and terror can be used against the enemy groups.

by Ishtiaq Ahmed

The writer has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His latest publication is: The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011). He can be reached at:

So..what is the definition of Genocide, again?

Rohingya: Rohingya is an ethnic minority with dark skin, Muslim beliefs and, for the most part, no citizenship anywhere. Some groups live as sea nomads.  Others live as illegal immigrants in Thailand, India or Bangladesh. Some live in refugee camps different places. Most live in poverty and most live in Burma.


Nobody likes the Rohingya here, though:

Since the group was collectively stripped of citizenship in the 80s by Burmese strongman, Ne Win, they have been systematically persecuted by authorities, and denial of basic human rights, humiliation, slander and ethnically motivated violence are existing circumstances in the life the Rohingya.  This does not differ them from a range of other minorities, especially not in Burma, where the government frequently is at war with rogue militias representing repressed ethnic groups in the country.

But the scale of it does. The above is the preexisting condition. This is the current situation:

In May this year, a young Buddhist girl was raped by three Muslim. It happened in the Northern province of Arakan and that is an absolute disaster. It is horrible to that girl and her family.

But the retaliation… The retaliation for the incident was brutal and frightening:

A mob of Buddhist Burmese attacked a busload of Rohingya people, killing 10 of them. Fighting erupted and spread, and this is what happened over the next few weeks:

The already overwhelmingly larger group of Buddhists was aided in carrying out organized attacks on several Rohingya villages by the military. The attackers rounded up the villagers, put them in vans and took them to concentration camps. Several girls were raped, houses were burned down, people were beaten and tortured.  650 Rohingya is confirmed dead, 50,000 have been displaced and an unknown number is simply: missing.

The main reason why this was frightening was not the violence itself though, although that is certainly frightening enough.

The main reason was that these attacks are largely supported by the Buddhist people of Burma.

Yup. That´s the same dudes that marched so beautifully peaceful in their orange robes in 2008, and for the first time really gave the Burmese people the international focus it needed to make changes. It is the same people who through 20 years waited quietly and took abuse from a self installed government, only to turn out by the thousands at the house of Ang San Suu Kyi to see her released.

Those are the people, who, when asked, cannot see anything particularly wrong with ridding Burma of Rohingya all together. Burmese bloggers have deemed them “thieves, dogs, terrorists and black monsters.” Burmese historians have challenged their “burmeseness” due to their aforementioned black skin, dialect and religion.

Even The Lady is hesitant to denounce the violence, knowing that by doing so she will estrange a large part of her followers.

So congratulations, Burma, on all the positive changes you have achieved in the past year or so. Hooray for brave monks, for the Saffron Revolution, for the free Lady and for finally starting to move towards democracy.   That is fantastic, no one in their right mind will argue otherwise.

By the way, the definition of Genocide, as per the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide is:

“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Sound familiar?


Anya Palm,

Freelance journalist and NIAS Associate, Bangkok

Myanmar open for business, not its people

by Gerhard Hoffstaedter, School of Social Science at the University of Queensland

Aung San Suu Kyi has just left Myanmar (Burma) for the first time in 24 years visiting Thailand and Europe and calling for more foreign investment in Myanmar. Meanwhile, ethnic tensions in Myanmar continue to erupt to the surface in a country that is slowly shaking off its pariah status in international affairs.

The recent by-elections in Myanmar, in which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy claimed 43 of the 45 seats available, have awakened hope and a flurry of activity around the world to weaken if not dissolve the Western sanctions regime against the ruling military junta.

For now, Suu Kyi will take her seat in a parliament that remains firmly in the hands of the military-backed ruling party.

The by-election follows extensive market reforms, the release from house arrest of Suu Kyi, the re-registration of her party that allowed her to contest the election, the freeing of political prisoners, and the relaxation of media censorship controls.

It seems like Myanmar is coming in from the cold. More than that, Myanmar is open for business and everyone is lining up to enter a large domestic market of 60 million untapped consumers and a largely un- or underdeveloped natural resources sector.

Thailand has a long trading history with Myanmar, dominated by logging and the import of natural gas among other natural resources. It is, however, the access to cheap labour in Myanmar that is seen as a great drawcard for manufacturing industries. Already Thailand is profiting from the cheap labour of Myanmarese refugees in Thailand who work illegally in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors, most often on an itinerant basis.

Long the preserve of Thai business interests and cross-border trade, Myanmar is of great geo-strategic importance to the region as a whole, and its other neighbours are entering the fray. Two global players are increasingly overtaking the Thai special relationship: China and India.

At the forefront of this regional engagement is the Dawei Deep Seaport currently under construction in Myanmar’s south. It will offer an alternative entrée into the Indian north-east and Chinese southern markets. It will also be the country’s first special economic zone as well as the entire region’s largest combined port and economic zone.

Thailand stands to gain most from this endeavour. Firstly, as its closest neighbour, long-time investor and main trading partner, Thailand will have direct access to cheap labour, resource abundance and offer itself as a transit point for goods to Cambodia and Vietnam. Already, a Thai construction company is the main contractor for the first phase of the project and further investments in the energy and manufacturing sectors are in the offing. The figures are staggering. The first phase alone of the $US58 billion project is worth $US8.6 billion.

Secondly, Thailand still houses millions of irregular migrants in its borders, most of whom have fled or left Myanmar for Thailand. This massive scheme offers a way to resettle and offer opportunities to, especially, the economic migrants.

Indeed, some have begun to trickle back to Myanmar, including political exiles. The government is wooing them back for their expertise and capacity to support the burgeoning economy.

However, the Myanmar government has its work cut out to capitalise on these opportunities. On the one hand, China, in particular, will require order and stability in Myanmar to provide safe transport links for their products as a viable alternative to the South China Sea. On the other, the West and some ASEAN members will require Myanmar’s rulers to, at least, offer some vestiges of democratic governance (as we are seeing at the moment) and a durable solution to the refugee crisis along the Myanmar/Thai border and wider ethnic tensions.

Some of these tensions have resulted in all-out wars with intermittent ceasefires. The situation in the uplands and ethnic held areas continues to be tense, and despite the recent political changes in the capital, the situation for ethnic minorities has not changed significantly.

Thousands are still fighting insurgencies and vast stretches of the country remain off limits to government troops. These conflicts continue to elicit a steady stream of refugees and asylum seekers fleeing the fighting to Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India and beyond. The diaspora networks of these refugee populations span the globe with small minorities settling in Europe, the US, Canada and Australia.

Since last June, for example, the army has been in a protracted war in Kachin state, again displacing thousands of civilians. While some ethnic conflicts have calmed and ceasefires have been in place, the Kachin conflict is again causing destruction in the poorest, remotest and most disadvantaged areas of Myanmar.

Asked about the tens of thousands of refugees living in Malaysia recently, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said that it was too early to return to Myanmar as, “They have got to have something to return to.”

Indeed, but the situation for them in refugee camps in the region or living as illegal immigrants in places like Malaysia, which does not recognise refugees, is no solution either. Late last year, Malaysia introduced a new registration program for illegal migrants, called the 6P program.

The program was designed to find out how many undocumented workers are currently in Malaysia and whether they can be retrenched into specific sectors that are in need of labour, or repatriated.

The program has been aided by the mass mobilisation of the army, police force, immigration department, and RELA, an auxiliary police force that is undertrained and poorly resourced but ideologically driven.

In addition, the Malaysian home minister proposed an immigration detainee swap program last year, no doubt inspired by the so-called Malaysia-swap agreement between Australia and Malaysia. The deal would see Myanmar nationals detained in Malaysia ‘swapped’ for Malaysian nationals detained in Myanmar.

The Malaysian government’s attempt to systematically register illegal immigrants living and working in Malaysia is aimed at enabling better law enforcement. However, the final part of the program is ‘repatriation’, i.e. deportation of those not needed in the Malaysian economy and those deemed unsuitable, e.g. those with criminal convictions. Caught in the midst of all this are the thousands of asylum seekers, political exiles and refugees who have fled Myanmar’s enduring conflicts.

It is they who fear ‘repatriation’ most, as they have no homeland to return to, much less interest in doing so.

Author’s note: The people I work with, mostly ethnic refugees from Myanmar, call the country Myanmar because calling it Burma invokes the notion that the country belongs to the Burmese Bamar, the dominant ethnic group. Most Western governments refer to the country as Burma.

Gerhard Hoffstaedter is a lecturer in anthropology in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland. His first book Modern Muslim Identities: Negotiating Religion and Ethnicity in Malaysia is published by NIAS Press.

This article was first published by the ABC Drum.

A little tale about lies by Anya Palm

“The neighborhood of Dey Krahorm has never received a social land concession.”

This was the words of Cambodian Information Minister His Excellency Khieu Kanharith when I last visited him for an interview. About a week ago.

But let´s go back a little. Let´s go back to May 2003. Prime Minister Hun Sen gives a speech in which he declares his intention of upgrading 100 poor neighborhoods every year, until all of Cambodia´s urban poor has secure land tenure and full basic services. All the neighborhoods are granted a social land concession. A social land concession means that the state gives the land to the people living on it.

The promise is much needed. In 2003, the South East Asian Kingdom is only a few years away from political instability, frequent guerilla attacks and Khmer Rouge strongholds that just won´t give in.

As a consequence, there is an overwhelming amount of poor people and in addition – a high number of slum dwellers.

Many of them live in the country´s capital, Phnom Penh. The neighborhood of Dey Krahorm, the one the Minister is talking about, is a poor neighborhood just exactly in the midst of the city. This is, of course, quite fortunate for the 805 families living in the community – they can easily earn a living by driving a motorcycle taxi or sell goods on the market.

In his speech in May 2003 Prime Minister Hun Sen names four urban neighborhoods that are to be the first ones to be upgraded. Dey Krahorm is mentioned. Posters are put up in the neighborhood, informing the residents and a decree from the Council of Ministers certifies it. Ironically, most Dey Krahorm does not actually need it, because they already own the land, they live on. But nevertheless, a social land concession is a good thing to have.

And then…things take an unfortunate turn.

In 2005 suddenly a company makes its entrance in the lives of the people of Dey Krahorm. Construction company 7NG has now – without the knowledge or consent of the residents – made a deal with 35 village representatives to swap the land of Dey Krahorm for a strip of land 20 kilometers outside of the city.

Of course, one cannot sell what one does not own, so the agreement with the company is illegal and invalid. The residents are entitled, not only to remain on their land, but to have it upgraded. The Prime Minister promised them this.

There are absolutely no legal grounds to argue otherwise. None.

But then the intimidation begins.

Now the residents of Dey Krahorm experience theft, sudden fires, destruction of their property frequently. Over the next four years, this practice increases to the point where many of the villagers give up, take the meager compensation offered to them and leave. The ones that doesn´t? They get charged with trumped up charges and has to go to court so frequently, they cannot do their everyday job. They get threatened. They get beat up.

And then one day:

The excavators come.

Early in the morning January 24, 2009, the villagers are awakened by the sounds of their houses being torn down. An army of military police, police officers and company workers have sealed off the area and are aggressively beating down everyone, who steps in their way.

There is one man, who with his palms together raised in the air begs for the chance to go inside his own house and salvage a few of his belongings, while the excavator driver ignores him and carries on. A few moments later, a police officer comes with a fire extinguisher and sprays the praying man straight in his face to get him to move away.

One woman stands on top of the rubble trying to stop the excavator when she loses her balance and falls down under it. Shocked bystanders believe they just saw her die until they see her crying daughter carry her out and get her to a hospital.

In a few hours, the neighborhood is nothing but rubble. Half an hour later, then-Deputy Governor Mann Chouen holds a press conference on the site. Undistracted by the scenery behind him, and of what just happened, he congratulates the police and company workers on the operation.

Meanwhile the families from Dey Krahorm are on their way to the relocation site 20 kilometers from the city, a place they clearly and lawfully refused to move to. And no wonder. Everything out there is inadequate. In-adequate schools for the children, in-adequate hospitals too far from the residents, in-adequate sanitation, water, food…and for jobs? Well, there is a factory out there. It´s owned by the company that took their land.

So – I was in Phnom Penh to see what had happened Dey Krahorm since that day in 2009.

Nothing, really. A lot of the families had gotten a lot more complicated stories to tell now, but very few of them had gotten any better. Many were sick. Many were jobless. All were poor.

And the lucrative land of Dey Krahorm itself? There is a 7NG office there now, but I was not allowed to go in. Instead, I went up to say hello to the Minister and spokesperson for the Cambodian Government to ask him about the Dey Krahorm case. I asked him, why the Cambodian government has not kept their promise about upgrading the communities they had given social land concessions.

You already know what he answered.

“The neighborhood of Dey Krahorm has never received a social land concession.” Wish-wash.

But Mann Chouen – the then-Deputy Governor of Phnom Penh, who held the press conference on the rubble…he received a medal for his work on Dey Krahorm.


Land grabbing is the biggest problem in Cambodia today. It affects about one million people every year. According to the Cambodian Land Law of 2001, people who have been living on a strip of land for five years have the right to ownership. It also states that if land is to be used for other purposes, the residents are entitled to a “fair” compensation. A common land grabbing scenario is selling a piece of land to a foreign company, who then removes the residents living there – like they did with the people of Dey Krahorm. In 2011, the Cambodian Government sold 800,000 hectare of land to foreign companies – in 2010, this number was 200,000 hectare.

Anya Palm
Freelance journalist based in Bangkok 

The waiting

Ang San Suu Kyi was released. And there was an election. And that’s about as concrete as this post is going to get – of course there are more to be said, but as is always the case with Burma and her elusive leadership, there are no answers to be found in Rangoon.

As always, details are sketchy, indecipherable and insufficient and what is really the situation for the average Burmese citizen is unclear. Getting more concrete than just stating the two above things is not an easy task.

The best way to get answers is to piece tidbits together yourself. Here is one:

On the Thai side of the border between Burma and Thailand there are several refugee camps and they have been there for decades. A majority of the people living in those camps are the ethnic Karen, who has rebelled against the Burmese leadership since the 70s. They came in 1984, when the Burmese military launched a major offensive and around 10,000 people were driven out of Burma and into Thailand. There was never a clear resolution to that conflict and thus, the refugees remained in Thailand.

By 1995, the camps had grown into housing around 115,000 people and because of the student uprising in 1988 that landed Ang San Suu Kyi under house arrest, the camps were not only populated by Karen, but now also by political refugees.

The junta had by then taken control of the border areas and clashes were not uncommon. The military started a process of carrying out an extensive relocation plan which affected around half a million people – in 2007, hundreds of thousands were unaccounted for, having fled to unknown whereabouts, and the population in the camps were now about 150,000.

So the fact that the recent election on Nov 7 resulted in fighting between Burmese military and Karen-rebels in that area is not surprising. Just weeks before the election Thai authorities had made it clear that it was their intention to return the refugees after the election, but – again – no clear plan was articulated and it was not certain how the refugees would be received once they got back. Later on, the Thai Foreign Minister declared that Thailand was NOT going to start repatriating the refugees immediately after the election, but rather when Thai authorities deem Burma safe for them to return to.

No wonder people reacted. When the election came, the Burmese soldiers came with it and people ran.  

They were caught in between the Thai soldiers on one side whose orders were to get them to run the other way and the Burmese military on the other side, whose orders no one has any clear idea of. That explains the contradictory reports that came out of the area just after the election where people were first running from and then returning to Burma.

Today, the situation has stabilized again, which is a nastily neutral way of saying that the refugees are back in the camps – there is nothing stable about living in a refugee camp, not even if that camp has been there for decades.

 What the future holds for them is impossible to foresee as the information coming from both Thailand and Burma is wildly changing every few days. So they sit there and they wait.

And what are they waiting for? Possibly they are not waiting for anything.

Possibly they are just waiting.



Rohingyas – the forgotten people of Burma turning up on Thailand´s paradise beaches

Martin Gemzell, Asia Program Manager Olof Palme International Center

During the last couple of weeks the international press saw a new name being added to its vocabulary – “Rohingya”. After 60 years of severe discrimination from Burmese authorities, the fate of this Burmese minority group finally draws international attention. Photos of odd scenes from the beaches of a Thai tourist resort were covering the front pages of papers never before having mentioned the word “Rohingya”. The pictures showed people lying on the beach in the hot sun. However, it was not the sunbathing western tourist we are used to, but instead dehydrated boat migrants, trying to escape economic and political hardship in Burma. The pictures from the tourist paradise showed Burmese migrants being forced to spend hours, arms tied together, lying on the beach in the burning hot sun. On the surrounding beach tourists were watching the brutal spectacle offered by the Thai navy. Later reports spoke about the navy confiscating motors from approaching dilapidated ships carrying Rohingyas, to prevent them from landing in Thailand, instead leaving them to dehydrate and starve on the sea.

st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } Burmese refugees being led ashore by Thai navy soldiers. Photo by Urban Svensson

Sixty years of civil war, 45 years of dictatorship and the continuing mismanagement of the Burmese economy have brought millions of Burmese refugees to Thailand. A recent WFP report speaks about as many as one third of all Burmese children being malnourished. At least two million but perhaps as many as five million Burmese are living as illegal migrants in Thailand. Burmese are having dirty, dangerous and low paid jobs in textile, fishery, sex and construction industries. Burmese workers are denied the rights to unionize and frequent reports show evidence of nearly systematic abuse by Thai employers and authorities.  In some provinces draconian laws have prohibited Burmese from owning a mobile phone, driving a motorbike, attending meetings – including religious ceremonies – wearing Burmese clothes and decrees also force them to stay indoors between certain hours.  Extorting bribes from Burmese has become an industry in itself and the town of Mae Sot, the nexus of Burmese migration on the border between Thailand and Burma, is said to be a very attractive posting for Thai police looking for lucrative opportunities to get their share of the pie. Employers in the local garment industry often have close ties with authorities, and sometimes they have themselves been high ranking police and border control officials.[i]

A great number of Burmese are also working as low paid – if paid at all – illegal workers in the tourist industry.  No more invisible, the corpses of thousands of unidentified persons that were found dead after the Tsunami were thought to be illegal Burmese workers. One of many signs of the size of Burmese migrant labour in the Thai tourist industry.[ii]

Brutal treatment of Burmese migrants is nothing extraordinary in Thailand.  Burma has always been seen as the arch rival and historic enemy of Thailand and sentiments towards Burmese are often very negative.  However, Rohingyas are denied respect of basic human rights not only for being Burmese but they also suffer from islamophobia. Following the insurgency in Muslim, southern Thailand Rohingyas are sometimes claimed to be a security threat.

Rohingyas also suffer multifold discrimination in Burma. Rohingyas are residing in the Arakan state, in western Burma, bordering to Bangladesh. Since centuries the Burman kingdom based in the mainland of what is today’s Burma, and later the military junta, oppressed Arakanese aspirations for autonomy. However, within the Arakan state itself there are also tensions between the Buddhist Arakanese majority and the Muslim minority.

The Rohingya community in Burma is estimated to constitute about 725 000 persons. Muslims have been living in the Arakan state for at least a thousand years – old grand monuments like mosques bear evidence of this and the area used to be multi ethnic and multi religious. Still it is claimed that Rohingyas are not true Arakanese, and even less, Burmese. Instead Arakanese and Burmese chauvinists claim they are of Bangladeshi origin and do not have a long enough history in the Arakan state.

Language-wise they are very close to Bengali, and Rohingyas do occupy both sides of the border drawn by the British between Burma and what later became Bangladesh. The colonial era brought with it a great influx of Indian migrants and resulted in an ethnic division of labour which worsened ethnic tensions. Today it is claimed by the military junta, that Rohingyas were part of this colonial time labour migration.[iii]

The British tactics of divide and rule resulted in ethnic minorities siding with the British and the Burman majority with the Japanese during World War II. In the Arakan state, Rohingyas supported the British while the Buddhist majority sided with the Japanese. After the war ended the stage was set for ethnic tensions and a number of massacres on Rohingyas followed. Anti Muslim sentiments were given full state legitimacy after the military coup in 1962. General Ne Win launched two campaigns against Rohingyas in 1978 and 1991-92, including the tactics of mass rapes. At least 250 000 fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh. In 1982 their right to hold Burmese citizenship were withdrawn and Rohingyas were required to show evidence of roots in Burma dating from before colonization and the first Anglo-Burman war in 1824 – which of course is near impossible.

Today, even after the international outcry against the treatment of Rohingyas in Thailand, Burmese authorities show no embarrassment for openly showing the true nature of their attitudes towards Rohingyas. Recently the Burmese junta’s consul in Hong Kong, General Ye Myint Aung, called them “ugly as ogres”.[iv]

However, looking for explanations for the sudden attention given to the fate of Rohingyas it has probably more to do with the spectacular pictures from the tourist beach, than Rohingyas suddenly starting an exodus from Burma. This exodus has been going on for several years. 2007 it was estimated that between five and six thousand Rohingyas undertook the risky journey on unseaworthy vessels taking them either to Thailand or to Malaysia. At least two boats sank with hundreds drowning.  21 boats were detained in Thailand. One boat was detained as far away as Sri Lanka but 20 out of 91 passengers had by then died of starvation.[v]

The end destination of the boat refugees is normally not Thailand but Malaysia. Here Rohingyas are spared from Islamophobia, but never the less they have to endure severe discrimination and exploitation. There are convincing reports of networks of traffickers operating in collusion with law enforcement personal in Malaysia, Thail
and, Burma and Bangladesh. Thai immigration authorities are for example handing over Rohingyas to traffickers who detain them close to the Thai-Malaysian border in camps where they are routinely beaten and pressured into arranging costly payment to traffickers – usually by borrowing huge sums from relatives or friends. If they fail to pay they are sold to plantation owners or to fishing boats as bonded labour. Those who reach Malaysia have to live with fear of the armed volunteer militia, RELA, which rounds up migrant workers and frequently robs them of their savings before deportation.[vi]

The number of Rohingyas leaving misery in Burma is increasing and so is the number of families desperately seeking for news about missing, but not forgotten relatives.

Martin Gemzell

[i] See for example ALTSEAN Burma, Burma Bulletin November 2007[ii] Tetz Hakoda.  Invisible Victims of the Tsunami – Burmese Migrant Workers in Thailand[iii] Martin Smith (2006). The Muslim “Rohingya” of Burma.[iv] South China Morning Post, 11 February 2009[v] ALTSEAN Burma, Issues & Concerns Vol. 5, 2008.[vi] Cris Lewa (2008). Asia´s new boat people. In Burma´s displaced people. Forced Migration Review 30, 2008