Who Are the Rohingya?

Called “the most persecuted minority in the world” by the United Nations in 2013, the Rohingya are a majority-Muslim ethnic group that resides in Rakhine State in Myanmar (known as Burma prior to 1989), and who have done so since about the 9th century, descended from Arab traders and merchants. Since 1982, however, the Rohingya have been stateless, denied citizenship in a country that refuses to claim them, and, too often, denied life by the military that runs the Southeast Asian nation.


When Myanmar gained independence in 1948 after a century of British rule, it instituted a policy of nationality that allowed citizenship for those born on Burmese soil, but only if one of the parents was already Burmese, creating exclusionary loopholes for an ethnic minority not considered part of the national identity. In 1962, the military seized power, and has effectively run the country ever since, despite some recent moves towards democratization. In 1982, a new nationality law was put in place, listing 135 recognized ethnic groups, and explicitly excluding the Rohingya, leaving them with no state of their own in country where the Buddhist majority, comprising about 90% of the population, sees them as illegal immigrants, insisting on calling them Bengali instead of Rohingya.

As a result, the Rohingya have suffered all manner of oppression. They have no freedom of movement within Myanmar, requiring state permission to leave their townships; they face Islamophobic policies; they are only allowed two children in certain regions; and face other restrictions on employment, education, and religious choice.

One year ago, in August 2017, a series of attacks were carried out and later claimed by a pro-Rohingya militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). They resulted in the death of 12 members of the Burmese security forces, though the ARSA suffered much heavier losses. The military used this as cover to label the ARSA a terrorist organization, and began a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the nationally despised minority. They began to clear entire villages by burning them to the ground and firing on fleeing civilians, having already placed mines on the paths they would use to flee. Doctors Without Borders reported 6,700 deaths in the first month.


Before the events of last summer, there were thought to be around 1.2 million Rohingya residing in Myanmar. Now, over 700,000 have fled the country, decimating the population, and leaving only 400,000 Rohingya in Myanmar. The rest have fled to Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. However, there, too, they face discrimination. Bangladesh considers the refugees entering its southern border to be an illegal invasion, and has instituted checkpoints to ensure they are prevented from moving about the country, striking a deal to repatriate the Rohingya.

Meanwhile, in Myanmar, entire villages in Rakhine, razed to the ground, have been built over with new housing and infrastructure. The government allowed in foreign journalists to see the villages, and to hear the government tell it, the Rohingya burned their own villages to the ground, fled for some god-forsaken reason, and the government is now rebuilding to prepare the way for repatriation. The few Rohingya who remain walk in fear.


Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s leader, won a Nobel Peace prize in 1991 for founding and leading to electoral victory the country’s first democratic party, though she would be placed on house arrest and prevented from assuming power until 2016. Since, though, she has come under fire for abandoning the Rohingya, refusing to acknowledge their plight or utter existence. It would be hard to ignore the reality that Suu Kyi’s power is limited, shared as it is with the military that dominates governance in Myanmar. Nonetheless, her silence speaks volumes.

The Rohingya are in the news this week because Myanmar is using faked photos depicting Muslims committing violence against Burmese Buddhists to literally rewrite the history books, perpetuating the narrative of “two-sided sectarian violence”. This is how it ends. #fpf