Plight of the Rohingya

The civilian-led Myanmar government of Aung San Suu Kyi has come under intense international scrutiny over the alleged mistreatment of ethnic minority Rohingya Muslims.

International human rights groups have released satellite photos showing extensive fire damage to Rohingya homes in Maungdaw, the part of northern Rakhine state where they are a majority. Muslim-majority Southeast Asian states such as Malaysia and Indonesia have condemned the treatment of the Rohingya, posing a delicate diplomatic challenge to Aung San Suu Kyi.


November 10, 2016

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November 18, 2016


Credit: Human Rights Watch



According to a 2014 government census, there are some 1.3 million Rohingya living in Myanmar, mostly in the townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung on the northern tip of Myanmar’s Rakhine (or Arakan) state, bordering Bangladesh, and in the Rakhine state capital Sittwe.

Another one million live outside Myanmar in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. The Rohingya adhere to Sunni Islam, and the Rohingya language is related to, but not mutually intelligible with, Bengali, the language of Bangladesh and India’s West Bengal State.

The Rohingya were not included in a list of 135 ethnic groups eligible for citizenship under a 1982 citizenship law, leaving them effectively stateless. Many people in Myanmar do not recognize the Rohingya, referring to them as “Bengalis” and dismissing them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and they suffer discrimination in education and employment.


In 1799, a doctor working for the British East India Company in what was then known as Burma encountered a Muslim ethnic group that had settled in the region and called themselves “Rooinga.” The historical record shows Muslims in Arakan going back to the 15th century when the region was known as the Rakhine Kingdom of Mrauk-U.

After Britain annexed Arakan in 1823, colonial rulers encouraged Bengali inhabitants from what are now India and Bangladesh to migrate into Arakan as farm laborers during a time when there was no formal border between Bengal and Arakan.

When Britain abandoned Arakan after an invasion by Japan in World War II, Arakan Buddhists and local Muslims fought each other in spates of intercommunal violence. As India and Burma gained independence from Britain, some Muslim leaders sought to graft their part of Arakan state onto the nascent East Pakistan, but were rejected.


Others agitated or fought for an autonomous Muslim state in Rakhine. The civilian government that ruled Burma from 1948-62 recognized the Rohingya as an ethnic minority. However, a 1962 coup that launched five decades of army rule in Myanmar also brought military operations against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine, driving many into East Pakistan (later Bangladesh). The 1974 Emergency Immigration Act stripped the Rohingya of citizenship and crackdowns in 1978 and 1991 drove hundreds of thousands to flee to Bangladesh.


Long-simmering tensions between the Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists erupted in communal violence in mid-2012 that saw the widespread burning of homes, rapes and killings.

The violence left more than 200 dead and tens of thousands homeless, with the Rohingya bearing the brunt of the violence.

Some 140,000 Rohingya were displaced and settled in squalid camps in Rakhine state. About 120,000 of them remain in the camps, while thousands have fled to other Southeast Asian countries.

In early 2015, about 25,000 Rohingyas fled from Myanmar on rickety boats, often run by smugglers, across the Andaman Sea and the Strait of Malacca to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Hundreds are believed to have died en route. In May 2015, Thailand and Malaysia discovered dozens of bodies in smugglers’ camps on their border. In October 2016, a deadly attack on three border guard stations in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships in Rakhine left nine policemen dead. The attacks, blamed on local Rohingya Muslim militants aided by outside elements, sparked a fierce, ongoing crackdown in the northern part of Rakhine State. In all, nearly 90 people died in the violence, and about 65,000 Rohingya fled their villages for neighboring Bangladesh, according to an estimate by the United Nations.