Vesali is one of the oldest ancient cities in all of Burma, dating from AD 327 to AD 1018. It was founded by Dvan Chandra who, according to an Anandacandra Inscription from 729 AD, was believed to have been a descendant of the Hindu god Shiva.
Vesali is noted for being the first Arakanese kingdom to use currency, almost a millennium before it was introduced by other civilizations in Burma. Gold and silver coins, inscribed with the Chandra dynasty emblem and the word “king” in Sanskrit have been found and dated back to the Vesali era. The Vesali kingdom had a far-reaching trade network, exporting goods to the Arab and Persian kingdoms and beyond.
From 794 AD – 1413 AD several Arakanese capitals were founded along the Laymro River. The first, Sambuwauk, was founded by King Nga Tone Munn, who was the son of the last king of Vesali, Sula Chandra. In 818 AD his second cousin Khattathun seized the throne and moved the capital to Pyinsa, where it stayed for 285 years.
Over the next 148 years, the capital was re-located five times to different spots along the Laymro River. In 1406 the second Laungkrauk city, the capital at the time, was invaded by the Burmese and King Munn Saw Munn fled; according to an early 1940s account written by Nga Me for Arthur P. Phrayre (then the governor of Arakan), the King was given refuge in Bengal by Sultan Nazzir Udin Shah. In 1429, with the Sultan’s assistance, Munn Saw Munn led an army back into Arakan and restored its independence. This version of events has been disputed due to the lack of evidence of a strong link between the Arakan and Bengal kingdoms of the time. What is certain is that shortly after Munn Saw Munn returned to Arakan, the capital was moved to Mrauk- U and arguably the most prosperous era in Arakanese history followed.
The period 1430–1530 AD is known as the first golden Mrauk- U era. Munn Saw Munn’s brother, Naranu, came to power in 1433 and shortly thereafter concluded a bilateral agreement with the King of Burma, Minn Khaung, which recognized the sovereignty and territorial integrity of both nations as independent states. The treaty established a border that lasted even through the British colonial era, separating the countries along the crest line of the Arakan Roma mountain range, down to the Ngawan River, the Bassein River and to the Martaban Sea. Haigree Island, Pagoda Point and Cape Nagris were also recognized as Arakanese territory.
The second golden Mrauk- U era lasted from 1530 to 1620 AD. In the early 16th Century, around the time of King Henry VIII’s coronation in England, King Munn Bun of Arakan ruled a thriving empire. Arakan was renowned for its modern army and advanced trade network, which covered the known world and extended as far as Portugal and the Netherlands. Mrauk- U during this period enjoyed similarly far-reaching diplomatic relations, notably with India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the Burmese, the Mon, Siam (Thailand), Indonesia, Java, Japan and several western countries. Much closer links with the Muslim states and peoples to the west appear to have been made during this period, although it is unclear exactly why this occurred. Some historians have suggested that a debt was owed to the Sultan of Bengal for supporting Munn Saw Munns’s return to power. At this time, many Arakanese kings adopted Islamic names, coins were inscribed with Parsi as well as Arakanese, and hundreds of Muslims from Bengal migrated to the area in and around Mrauk-U.
During this era, many areas of modern Bangladesh and West Bengal were fought over by the kings of Arakan, Mughal emperors, Afghan kings and various Bengali Sultans. A city of particular importance was the booming commercial centre of Chittagong. Few details of these conflicts have survived, but it is known that during the reign of Munn Bunn (1531 – 1553) Arakan forged close ties with the Portuguese, whose presence (and influence) in the region was quickly expanding. These ties helped the Arakanese to develop a superior military and navy, which helped them defeat several rival kingdoms in the region, and capture Chittagong. According to various Arakanese scholars, by 1532 the Arakanese frontier extended up to Calcutta in West Bengal, India, encompassing the whole of modern day Bangladesh. By the end of the 16th century, noblemen in Mrauk- U received tribute from cities as far away as Mushidabad in the west, to the Mon capital of Pegu in the east, and much of lower Burma. Their power was maintained in these areas by thousands of Mughal, Burmese, Japanese, Mon, Siamese and Portuguese mercenaries.
The dominant theme of 17th century Arakanese history was the kingdom’s struggle to preserve its vast empire. During the early part of the century, border tensions between the Arakan and Mughal empires escalated and developed into full-blown conflict. Most of East Bengal came firmly under the authority of the Mughal king; around the same time the Kingdom of Ava rose to power and Arakan lost its grip on Pegu and much of lower Burma.
Its huge, modern navy helped Arakan hold power in Eastern Bengal throughout the first half of the 17th century; during this period thousands of Bengali slaves were taken by the Arakanese and many were sold to the Dutch to work on nearby plantations.
In the 1730’s a number of internal disputes in the Mrauk-U administration led to a breakdown of national unity and significant political instability. In 1638, King Sirisudhamma died, followed by his only heir. A powerful lord named Launggrak then took the throne by force and executed most of the royal court. His reign was the first of several that brought about the gradual demise of Arakan’s prosperity.
In the late 17th century, the Mughal Empire forged closer relations with the Dutch and was able to significantly modernize its military. In 1660, the Mughals took Dhaka, previously under the rule of the Bengali sultan Shah Shuja, precipitating a notable influx of Muslims to Mrauk-U. In 1666 they annexed Chittagong after almost a century-long struggle, depriving the Arakanese Kingdom of a key source of income. The Mughal Emperor subsequently allowed the expanding British East India Company to establish a diwan, or de facto governmental body, in the area; in 1772, the Company established a capital at Calcutta and took control of the majority of what had been Western Arakan.
In mid-November 1784 a Burmese army led by King U Wine invaded Mrauk- U without declaring war. U Wine likely received some help from the inside, by exploiting some of the many feuds among the Arakanese nobility. By the end of that year, the Burmese had occupied the whole country, and “The Dark Age of Arakan” had dawned.
The Dark Age of Arakan
At the end of the 18th century, the people and culture of Arakan were decimated by atrocities committed by the invading Burmese. The Royal House and golden Palace of Mrauk- U were burnt down immediately after the invasion; subsequently, more than 3500 religious centres were destroyed, such as monasteries, temples and pagodas. Innumerable valuable statues, shrines and pillars of literature were looted by the invaders or destroyed. Arakan’s royal and other noble families were captured or killed, and all of the high priests were forced to de-robe or become low-level monks. The most valuable and sacred item in all of Arakan, the Maha Muni Buddha image, was taken as a war trophy to Mandalay, where it remains to this day. On the same day, the Burmese stole the Tipitaka, the foundational scriptures of Theravada Buddhism, and a key to the origin of the Theravada tradition in Arakan.
The genocide that followed started a trend of Burmanisation in Arakan State, which has continued into the present. By 1789, over 500,000 citizens of Arakan had been murdered throughout the country; many more fled into British-occupied Bengal, and those who remained were forced to wear pieces of bamboo or palm leaf stamped with “Slave of Burman Emperor”. These slaves were crucial to the construction of many famous buildings and monuments of the era, such as the Mingun Bell. Those that refused to work were accused of being pro-revolutionary and usually beheaded.
By 1799, it is estimated that two thirds of all Arakanese had fled their native land. Between 60,000 and 80,000 of these went to Chittagong, where the British gave them refuge. Captain Hiram Cox, the British envoy appointed to administer the influx, noted that the infant mortality rate among the refugees there was roughly 20 a day.
Another British observer of the time, J Stuart, wrote, “When one party of immigrants was ordered to return to Arakan country, they said, ‘If you choose to slaughter us here, we are ready to die; if by force to drive us away, we will go and dwell in the jungles of the great mountain, which afford shelter to wild beasts.’”
From the beginning of the Burmese invasion many Arakanese resistance groups tried, unsuccessfully, to reclaim their independence. After the occupation, Nga Than Day was appointed head of the government of Arakan by the Burmese. Shortly thereafter, he committed mutiny by refusing to send the full quota of arms and men that had been requested to fight in the Burma-Siam war. This started a strong anti-Burmese movement, which was later led by his son Chunn Byan.
Gaining the support of Arakan’s most respected families, many of which had fled the country, Chunn Byan’s resistance campaign picked up steam in the early 19th century. In May 1811, leading an army of more than 30,000 men, he captured Maungdaw, a district which now lies on the border with Bangladesh. Within two months the resistance had total control over modern-day Site-tway district, and support was building. Chunn Byan held negotiations with the magistrate of Chittagong, promising future tribute and a sustained friendship with the British in return for arms.
Before long, the Burmese had deployed troops and crushed the rebel forces. Chunn Byan managed to escape; later he returned leading a much smaller naval force, with many of his supporters armed only with pointed bamboo spears. Inevitably, they were routed again and retreated to Bengal, followed by 90,000 Arakanese civilians. Chunn Byan then reneged on his promises to the British and seized land under their control at Ukhia Ghat. Over the next four years he led several more insurgency attempts, survived many battles, and avoided arrest by the British despite the large price on his head. On January 25th, 1815 Chunn Byan died in Palungchurai and his movement, today referred to as the Maghs rebellion, disappeared with him.
The Colonisation of Arakan
For decades Arakan had been a buffer zone between Burma and the great expanse of territory occupied by the East India Trading Company. However, during the 1820’s tensions grew amid border disputes between the two empires. The Burman Kunbaung Dynasty had enjoyed great military success fighting inferior armies (mainly to the east) and somewhat naively believed it had one of the most powerful military forces on Earth. When the British requested permission to start trading in Burma, the latter’s leaders scoffed at the proposal.
The Arakanese in exile, however, were fully aware of the might of the modern British Empire and aided its occupation of Arakan in 1824. Hoping to restore the sovereignty of their once prosperous kingdom, Arakanese elders signed an agreement with the British Governor of Chittagong, outlining the terms of their joint operation to drive the Burmese forces out of Arakan. Under the treaty, Arakanese commanders would lead an invasion funded by the British. Upon successful completion of the invasion, the British were to be reimbursed double the cost of the operations, and sovereignty was to be handed back to the Arakanese.
The British declared war in 1824, attacking with an invasion force of just 600 Indians and 1600 Arakanese. Within three months they had occupied all of Arakan, and Mrauk- U came under the administration of the East India Trading Company. The British never fulfilled their promise to restore the sovereignty of Arakan, despite the fact that they were adequately reimbursed by the Arakanese for their war expenses. For a long period, they faced little resistance; even those who resented the occupation knew all too well that, without British protection, Arakan would again become an oppressed feudal state under Burman rule.
Arakan was under British rule for over 100 years; compared with other colonial territories, however, few records are available that would yield information about Arakan’s politics or socioeconomics at the time. It is believed that archives were lost due to tropical storms and general neglect. There are accordingly various gaps in the information available for study.
Under the administration of the British East Indian Trading Company, Arakan State was initially split into 3 regional divisions, Akyab (Site-tway), Ramree and Sandoway. There were significant disputes early on with the various Burman and Arakanese mrowuns (governors) who had previously kept order. Certain privileges to which these officials were accustomed, such as the ownership of slaves, were forbidden by the British. The first commissioner of Tennasserim, an area in southern Burma, proclaimed that the British had liberated the area from tyrannical rule and that they would provide the provinces “with civil and political administration on the most liberal and equitable principles”. Although some improvements were seen, by modern standards, liberal and equitable principles were far from adhered to.
Each of the three districts of Arakan (four between 1833 and 1837) was assigned a number of commissioners who oversaw tax collection. Beneath them were several kywan oks (village circle headmen), who were given authority over a number of villages, for which they would negotiate a lump sum to pay as land tax to the British government. They were not given ownership of the land, which contributed to the keeping of peace, as it was not in their interest to charge tax at overinflated rates. There were nevertheless countless cases of exploitation where those in power found loopholes to make personal profits at the expense their constituents. This system prevailed, despite much criticism, until Commissioner Archibald Bogle introduced reforms in the 1930’s.
The political system introduced by the British divided the country into administrative units that were managed slightly differently. The flatter areas of central and western Burma, including the Arakan and Mon States, became known as ministerial Burma and were ruled directly by the British. The more rugged regions of outer Burma, such as the Shan and Karen States, were considered frontier areas and were allowed slightly more autonomy. A parliament was set up in Rangoon, the capital, which permitted representatives from some of the frontier states; as a section of ministerial Burma, however, Arakan was represented by Burmans in the Rangoon parliament.
There were a number of rebellions in the early days of British rule, as well as widespread dacoity (banditry). One of the most famous uprisings was led by Nga Mauk Kri, who in 1830 declared his intention to become king of the country. With just 100-200 men he enjoyed a number of victories, including the seizure of over 25 villages, before the colonial police imposed order.
The first effective resistance to the British occupation was led by U Ottama, an Arakanese monk, who to this day is a revered symbol in the struggle for Arakanese autonomy. Born Paw Tun Aung in 1880, U Ottama studied in Calcutta for three years before travelling around India, and then to France and Egypt. During this time he became a linguistic master, becoming fluent in nine languages. He later taught the ancient languages of Sanskrit and Pali at the Academy of Buddhist Science in Tokyo, Japan. U Ottama’s experiences had given him the opportunity to travel most of Asia before returning to Burma.
Deeply opposed to British Colonial rule, U Ottama began touring the country giving speeches and calling for independence. He earned much support for his writing in the nationalist newspaper Thuriya (The Sun), and his leadership of 60,000 monks on campaigns with the General Council of the Sangha Samettgyi (GCSS).
Interestingly, he was one of few Burmese political minds of the time who opposed the separation of Burma from India. He was not against Burma’s independence; rather he believed that the countries’ unity against a powerful colonizer should be the priority, and that independence could be won later. This stance damaged his reputation within the Akyab (Site-tway) community, eventually forcing him to leave Site-tway altogether. In 1937, Burma was partitioned from India by the British and became a self-governing colony. The once-united nation of Arakan is today divided between three countries: 10% in India, 15% in Bangladesh, and 75 % in Burma.
Over the course of his life, U Ottama was arrested numerous times but his enduring struggle only heightened the confidence he instilled in the Burmese people. He died in 1939, sadly without seeing the independent Burma of which he had dreamed. To this day he is seen as Burma’s first real, successful political activist, and continues to inspire like-minded individuals across the country.
U Ottama had laid the foundations for an upsurge of Arakanese resistance. In 1939, the Arakan National Congress (ANC) was formed, bringing opposition groups with a range of ideologies, including communists, socialists and democrats, under the banner of nationalism.
World War Two
By the early 1940’s, the British presence in Burma had waned significantly. Almost the whole world was at war and Arakan was no exception: between 1941 and 1943, the Japanese had conquered and occupied most of Southeast Asia, including Arakan State and the rest of Burma.
In 1943, most of the British-controlled Indian Army was tied up supporting the Empire’s struggle in Northern Africa. A force was scraped together to launch a six-week offensive against the Japanese forces stationed at Akyab; the Japanese were well-entrenched, however, and managed to repel the invasion.
The Japanese were given a mixed reception during their brief occupation of Arakan, but their fascist ideology generally didn’t sit well with most of the population. The Japanese started training Arakanese men for the planned invasion of India; this directly contributed to their downfall in the following years, as many of these new soldiers chose to back the ever-rising resistance movement.
By 1944, there were numerous political organisations calling for Burmese independence. The most prominent of these was the Anti-Fascist and People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), which had been set up in part by the ANC. The AFPFL became a nationwide network, winning broad-based support, including from many members of the ethnic nationalities.
At this time, the strength and influence of the ANC and its armed wing, the Arakan Defence Army (ADA) was rising in Arakan. Kra Hla Aung (Bo Gri), who had been trained by the Japanese, became chief commander of the ADA and regional leader for the AFPFL. The ADA joined the advancing Allied Forces and by December 1944 had driven the Japanese out of Arakan.
The ANC’s celebrations were to be short lived, however; on January 1st, 1945, the British invaded Arakan and occupied Akyab. Arakanese guerrillas, who just weeks earlier had fought alongside the British, were arrested, tortured, and many hanged. Numerous villages which had supported the anti-Japanese resistance were burnt to the ground in a betrayal reminiscent to events following the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1824.
At this time, General Aung San began to receive widespread support as he and his Burma National Army (BNA), fought alongside the Allied Forces. Unlike many rebel forces of the time, Bo Gri’s army was not completely integrated under the command of the Burma National Army; however they operated under the supervision of U Nyo Tun, one of General Aung San’s close associates, and therefore served the same cause.
In early 1945, the coalition captured Mandalay and then Meiktila in quick succession. Over the next two months they advanced south under the leadership of British General William Slim, taking many towns without much resistance. The decisive battle was won at Elephant point, a key entrance to Rangon Harbour; by the time British troops entered Rangon, it had been virtually abandoned by the Japanese.
Pang Long Era
In the post-war years a long series of negotiations took place to determine the shape and structure of an independent Burma. These were headed by General Aung San, president of the AFPFL, who had received support nationwide including, most importantly, from most of the ethnic leaders in the frontier states. In January 1947, Aung San travelled to London where he met with the British Labour Government to sign an agreement recognizing Burma’s independence. The agreement required that: “The free consent of the non-Burma ethnic nationalities shall be required for the incorporation of their territories into Burma.” In-depth negotiations thus began between the AFPFL and ethnic leaders across the country.
In February 1947, the basis for the Union of Burma was agreed at Pang Long in Shan State. There were 23 signatories to the Pang Long Agreement, including General Aung San and many ethnic leaders from the frontier states. These delegates committed themselves, and their peoples, to the principle of “Full autonomy in internal administration for the Frontier Areas”.
At that time, Arakan was still considered part of Burma proper and not a “frontier state” which meant that its people were officially represented by the Rangon administration. However, one of the four signatories representing Burma proper was AFPFL cabinet minister U Aung Zan Wai, a well-supported Arakanese politician.
At this point there was a significant rift in Arakanese politics. One faction, led by veteran monk U Seinda, wanted to achieve formal independence from Burma and form a sovereign Arakan republic. These nationalist ideals initially garnered a lot of support, but the majority of the population soon fell behind the other faction, which supported union with Burma as a whole. Many of these unionists joined the AFPFL and put their faith in Aung San’s leadership, confident that he would grant them the right to their own government, legislature and federal state.
However, by the end of 1947 General Aung San and all but one of his cabinet ministers had been assassinated. Several new and influential figures emerged onto the political scene, many of whom were far less supportive of the ethnic states’ desire for autonomy.
This sudden change of circumstances led to unrest in Arakan State among both political and military factions. U Seinda continued to campaign for Arakan’s right to sovereignty well into the 1950s. Bo Gri, one of the key figures in the independence struggle against the Japanese, went back underground and began planning for revolution. Later in his life, he would describe the mood at the time thus: “We all agreed that we had no other choice but to wage another civil war.” In the same period, armies were formed in many of Burma’s ethnic states, and preparations were made to take up arms against the Burman-dominated central administration.
In 1948, Burma’s first independent democratic government was formed under the leadership by Prime Minister U Nu, a leading figure in the fight for independence. This government was supported by the AFPFL, which still had a lot of support in Arakan State. The new constitution was a scaled-down version of the one that had been drafted under the leadership of Aung San; it dropped the federalist principles enshrined in the original document altogether. Disputes erupted between leaders from the various ethnic states, the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), and the Rangon administration.
Pressure from the ethnic regions for a federal system continued through the 1960s. In Arakan the strongest pressure came from the newly-formed All Arakan National United League (AANUL) under the leadership of U Maung Kyaw Zan; the AANUL earned significant popular support in elections during this period. Civilians took to the streets to protest what they felt was another colonialist government, this time being run from Rangon.
In 1961, at a meeting between U Nu and various ethnic leaders, a new federal constitution was drafted which granted far more autonomy to various regions, including Arakan. Because of this and other emerging signs of instability, politicians in Rangon and military officials began to express strong opposition to U Nu’s government. In 1962, General Ne Win, the leader of the Tatmadaw(the Burmese Army),staged a coup d’état and took total control of the country.
The Burmese way to Socialism
Ne Win installed himself as prime minister and Chairman of the Revolutionary Council. He nationalized most of the economy and set the country on the “Burmese way to Socialism”. Burma became one of the most isolated countries in the world and Burmese citizens no longer enjoyed their inalienable rights, including the right to participate in politics. Since 1962, the people of Burma have not been permitted to publicize or speak openly about their views on current political issues, amounting to a total denial of their freedoms of speech, press and assembly.
Since 1962, political organization and activities in Arakan State have had to be conducted clandestinely. Public rallies and speeches were replaced with subversive classes, furtive meetings and the secret distribution of anti-government publications. Underground military groups continued to form, often inspired by or in support of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), which was the strongest of the rebel groups at the time. The leading armed group in Arakan at the time was the Arakan National Liberation Organisation (ANLO).
According to local Arakanese sources, in the late 1960s construction was resumed on a hydropower dam at Sai Din Waterfall. The project had been started under the U Nu government, but abandoned in 1952 after a foreign engineer was killed by a group linked with the Communist Party of Burma. Ne Win had a change of heart before the development was completed, however, deciding that bringing electricity to the undeveloped Arakan region would not benefit his regime; he ordered the site to be permanently shut down, demolishing the existing facilities with dynamite. Since the project had been largely financed by foreign investors and important business associates, official government statements blamed local insurgent groups for the destruction.
In 1967, the severity of the Tatmadaw’s extortion in Arakan triggered a severe famine and led to thousands of deaths; the army had been illegally confiscating rice to sell for profit while the population starved. On August 13th, 1967 tens of thousands of civilians took to the streets of Site-tway protesting the junta and refusing to meet the rice quotas demanded of them. They called for rice supplies confiscated by the military to be returned; instead, over 300 starving civilians were shot dead, and a clear message sent to civil rights activists nationwide.
In 1974, the Arakan region of Burma proper was granted recognition as an independent state in the Union. It was named “Rakhine State (Arakan State)” after the area’s most prominent ethnic group, the Rakhaing (Arakanese). Although it might have been a step in the right direction, the alteration of its political status did not yield any meaningful changes, or freedom from the oppressive Ne Win regime, for the Arakanese people.
Throughout the 1970s the Arakanese opposition continued to strengthen its armies training with the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and Karen National Union (KNU). The leading armed groups of the time were the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), led General Khaing Moe Lunn, and the Arakan Independence Organisation (AIO), led by San Kyaw Htun as general secretary and his elder brother, Htun Shwe Maung as chairperson of the organisation.
In 1976, Arakanese forces marched from Karen and Karenni States, via Shan and Kachin States, destined for Arakan. They fought and survived many battles with the Tatmadaw, the Burmese Army along the way. When they reached Chin State, just north of Arakan, they were ambushed by Burmese Army forces that had been informed of their arrival by a Chin insurgent group. General Khaing Moe Lunn’s offensive was crushed. He took his own life rather than be captured or killed by the Tatmadaw, becoming a nationally revered martyr. Following this defeat most Arakanese armed resistance groups went into hiding outside of Burma, mainly in Bangladesh and India.
Around this time, the AIO launched a separate military offensive against the Tatmadaw. They had trained mainly in Kachin State, and set off from there on a long march to Arakan. For a number of years the AIO had nearly total control over parts of Kyauktaw and Mrauk-U townships. When they arrived the AIO had been celebrated as liberator; however, it seems power eventually went to Htun Shwe Maung’s head, and he ultimately oppressed the locals in a manner not dissimilar to Ne Win’s regime.
This tyranny led to growing opposition from inside the AIO, particularly from his brother San Kyaw Htun. Eventually, the situation became so dire for many local citizens that they were forced to become informants for the Burmese regime, who then resumed control in the area. Htun Shwe Maung was arrested and imprisoned for many years. Since his release, he has lived in Site-tway with two of his wives, and is believed to be one of the SPDC’s key informants on the Arakanese resistance.
In the late 1970’s the Burmese regime cracked down heavily on Arakanese militants. Attacks were launched indiscriminately on armed combatants and civilians, resulting some of the era’s worst human rights abuses. At the time, the Tatmadaw were keeping many of the ethnic armies at bay by employing its notorious “four cuts” policy. This strategy aims to cut off all forms of support and supplies to all armed resistance groups from the roots up, typically targeting villages that could be in a position, willingly or not, to provide food, funds, recruits, or information to the insurgents. In Arakan, enforcement of the policy led to the killing of 2000 civilians, destruction of 1500 villages and the unlawful detention of 10,000 ordinary citizens in military concentration camps. Throughout this campaign, countless rapes were committed and personal property was looted by Tatmadaw soldiers on a massive scale.
The brutality of the crackdown damaged the morale of previously mobilised civilians, and marked a huge setback for opposition groups in Arakan. The next significant act of rebellion didn’t come until May 1986, when the Communist Party of Arakan (CPA) captured the city of Munbra and proclaimed independence. The CPA depended on support from the rural working class, who were attracted to the party’s nationalistic and anti-imperialist ideals. Following the victory, the local football ground was overrun by celebrating locals for two days, until their liberation party was crushed by the Tatmadaw. While reasserting its control over the area, the army killed many locals and arrested, robbed and tortured far more.
By 1988, opposition to the authoritarian military regime had grown to an all time high. Burma was one of the most impoverished nations on earth and Ne Win’s regime was synonymous with human rights violations. Increasingly, calls for democracy were being issued nationwide and civilians were mobilising, ready to take action. On August 8th students began protesting in Yangon (Rangoon), setting in motion the biggest wave of resistance the country had seen in years. The 8888 uprising, as it would later become known, lasted for over 40 days and saw thousands of civilians take to the streets nationwide.
In August 1988, demonstrations began in many areas of Arakan State. Protests in Site-tway were led by key politicians from the nation’s 1940’s independence struggle. By August 23rd the demonstrators had taken over the city’s government offices and installed “people’s administrative committees”. News of these successes was broadcast on BBC radio, encouraging civilians around the country to do the same in their respective regions. By the end of the month, almost the whole country was under the control of such “people’s administrative committees”, which were later called “General Strike Committees”.
The rebellion was brought to a sudden halt on September 18th when the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) took control of the country by force in a second coup d’état. By the end of the month around ten thousand protesters, primarily monks and students, had been killed across the country. This precipitated an exodus of Arakan’s leading and aspiring politicians. A new era of Arakanese resistance was born, characterised largely by activities outside of Burma’s borders.
The SLORC and the SPDC
In 1990, SLORC held a democratic election in an attempt to improve its international image. The Arakan League for Democracy (ALD) was the biggest winner in Arakan, earning 11 out of the 25 seats allocated to the State. The National League for Democracy (NLD) led by General Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, won 9 seats and 36% of the vote.
Nationally, the NLD won a landslide victory, while the ALD earned the third-most seats. However, SLORC confirmed suspicions that the election was just a publicity stunt and refused to let the NLD take power, arresting the majority of the party’s leaders. SLORC continued to rule the country with an iron fist, and the quality of life for most citizens of Arakan sank to a new low. In 1992, General Than Shwe was installed as Chairman of the Council (SLORC), head of state, Secretary of Defence and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, becoming the undisputed leader of Burma’s ruling military junta. The name ‘SLORC’ was abandoned in 1997 and the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) formed, though little else changed.
Immediately after seizing power, SLORC introduced policies intended to increase foreign investment and stimulate economic growth. These policies precipitated massive changes to Arakan State’s socioeconomic structure. In the past 20 years a large number of so-called “development” projects in Arakan State have invariably profited the rich, powerful, and military-affiliated, while devastating the lives of average citizens.
In the 1990’s, ground was broken on several big projects, including the Site-tway – Rangoon highway. These directly caused numerous human rights abuses, severe environmental damage, and the destruction of archaeological sites and Arakanese cultural heritage. The rights violations suffered include, but are not limited to: forced labour, land confiscation, forced relocation, extortion, brutal violence and rape. Unfortunately, there is very little documentation available regarding the projects of the time.
During the 1990’s a number of underground political and armed groups continued to gain support and plan for a revolution in Arakan. Perhaps the most influential organization of this era were the National United Party of Arakan (NUPA) and its military branch, the Arakan Army (AA). Led by several prominent figures of previous resistance movements, NUPA and AA cultivated close ties with the Karen National Union (KNU) and its military branch, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
These groups also forged links with various Indian military officials. Notably, the AA general headquarters, Parva, based in Mizoram in northeast India was no secret to the local authorities. It is believed that during this period, the AA and NUPA were involved in espionage activities on behalf of the Indian military, supplying it with intelligence on both the SPDC and the Chinese military.
By the late 1990s the AA and NUPA had become quite rich; according to some sources, by 1998 their total assets were worth $3 million USD. The majority of this had been earned by warning fishermen in the Andaman Sea, primarily Thais, whenever the SPDC were in the area. At the time, the SPDC navy had wanted to enforce a total monopoly over fish stocks off its coastline and would regularly attack foreign vessels with extreme force. The AA had a number of modern speedboats with radar systems, with which it were able to monitor the positions of SPDC vessels. It would ensure foreign fishermen were not caught, for a tax of 2-5% of their earnings. The AA also made a considerable amount of money selling arms to Burma’s other ethnic armed groups.
In the approximately four years prior to 1998, a series of clandestine negotiations took place between the AA, NUPA, and a number of Indian military officials. The primary purpose of these meetings was for the AA to secure permission to build a military base on the Indian-owned Landfall Island in the Andaman Archipelago. This would give the AA a place beyond the reach of the SPDC to hide out, store arms, and train personnel. In past decades, India had offered similar to support to groups from Bangladesh in their struggle for independence from Pakistan.
At the centre of these talks was a man of many names: Lt. Colonel Vijau Singh “Gary” Grewal of the Indian Directorate of Military Intelligence. Grewal was born in Burma, studied in Yangon, and spoke Burmese fluently. He also had a Burmese alias, Nye Win. He bridged a cultural gap between the two parties and is said to have personally masterminded what is now known as “Operation Leech”.
In 1997, a series of negotiations were held to hammer out the intricacies of the deal, mostly in Bangkok, where Grewal was wined and dined at the AA’s expense. During this period Grewal reportedly received around $55,000 USD from the AA in cash and various gifts, such as gold for his wife and daughter. In early 1998 plans were made for a final set of talks to be held in New Delhi between leading members of the rebel organisations and high-ranking officials of the Indian military.
On February 11th, 1998, 27 Arakanese and 13 Karen insurgents convened with Grewal on Landfall Island. The plan was to meet with the military officials on the 12th and then travel with them back to New Delhi by helicopter. On arrival, the rebels were asked to disarm on the beach, an expected formality with which they complied. They were then presented with a feast and drank rum with Grewal, who had gained the trust of the Burmese leaders and was becoming a friend.
On the morning of the 12th, Grewal requested that the five insurgent leaders, Generals Khaing Raza, Saw Tun, Ran Naing, Lunn Zin Khaing and Phodo Mulway, accompany him to welcome the Indian officials who were about to arrive on the island’s helipad. The leaders were led into the jungle unarmed and were never seen again.
As soon as they were out of sight, Indian soldiers surrounded the remaining rebels and blindfolded them. Five gunshots in quick succession were heard from the jungle; Captain Myint Shwe shouted, “What is happening?” and was shot twice and killed. The answer was clear those still alive: they had been betrayed and their leaders murdered.
Before the day was up, navy vessels and hundreds of military personnel arrived at Landfall. A statement was made to the media that a major gang of international gun smugglers had been apprehended with a large shipment of arms, destined for terrorist groups in Northern India. Grewal was reported to have received intelligence of the operation just in time, and was on his way to becoming a national hero.
Shortly after this incident NUPA’s Bangkok office was raided by the Thai police, who took a number of documents including an address book. The surviving insurgents were detained in Indian jails, where many still languish today. Subsequent statements from the military reported that during the bust there had been an “incident” in which five of the smugglers had opened fire, and were then killed by security forces acting in self-defence. It is not known what happened to their bodies.
Grewal currently lives in Mandalay where the SPDC has rewarded his service with lucrative business opportunities. It is widely believed among the Arakanese that Grewal had planned “Operation Leech” with the SPDC even before entering the Indian military, in exchange for certain monetary benefits.