History of the Rohingya

The Rohingya have been described as the “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities”

The Politics of Rakhine State International Crisis Group [2014-08-22]

The Rohingya have been described as “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities”.The UN has cited the Myanmar government for “crimes against humanity” in their brutal treatment of the Rohingya.

Fisher Jonah [2017-03-10]

Myanmar Muslim minority subject to horrific torture, UN says

BBC News [2016]

“What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable?” International State Crime Initiative at the Queen Mary University of London has stated that the Myanmar government is conducting a program of genocide against the Rohingya population. “Campaigns of violence towards Rohingya are highly organized and genocidal in intent”. “What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable?”

Queen Mary University of London [2015-08-29]

The Simon-Skjodt Centre of the Holocaust Memorial Museum has reported that the Rohingya are “at grave risk of additional mass atrocities and even genocide”. “The most persecuted people on Earth?”

The Economist [2015-06-13]

These quotes from world humanitarian organizations and governments highlight the current plight of the Rohingya. The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority who have historically lived in the area known as Arakan, in the current state of Rakhine, in northern Myanmar. They speak the Rohingya language, which is a distinct language, unrelated to other languages in the area. The Rohingya are predominantly Sunni Muslims. About 800,000 Rohingya live in present-day Myanmar. Most live in the townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung, as well as in neighboring towns and the state capital, Sittwe. The government of Myanmar doesn’t recognize the Rohingya as citizens or indigenous Burmese people. It asserts that they are Bengalis who migrated to Arakan after Burmese independence in 1948 or after the Bangladeshi Liberation War of 1971. However, records show that the earliest traces of the people known as the Rohingya go as far back as the 8th century. Likely in the 9th-14th century, they converted to Islam through contact with Arab traders. It is known that during the Kingdom of Mrauk U, the Buddhist ruler Min Saw Mon, in the 1430s, encouraged the settlement of Muslims in the Arakan area and often employed them in prestigious positions within the administration. In centuries thereafter, Arakan changed hands between Bengali rules from India and local Arakanese rulers. There was considerable adoption of Muslim traditions and titles among the elite of Arakan at this time. [6]


In 1785 Arakan was overswept by the Bamar, the dominant ethnic group in Burma. The Burmese occupation of Arakan was particularly oppressive. Thousands of Rakhine men were executed and many were deported to central Burma. By 1799, as many as 35000 people fled to British Bengal to escape persecution by the Bamar. Around this time, one of the earlier recorded instances of the term “Rohingya” appears in British literature. An article by Dr. Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, a British physician and geographer, published in 1799 states, “the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, call themselves ‘Rooinga’, or natives of Arakan… the other is Rakhine … who adhere to the tenents of Buddha.”[7] This mention not only establishes that there was an indigenous Muslim minority in Arakan with the name Rohingya, but it further distinguishes them from the majority Rakhine Buddhist population.


In 1823, Burma came under British rule after a number of wars. While the British encouraged Bengali and other native Indian immigrants to migrate and settle throughout Burma for the work in the paddy fields and tea plantations, these were distinct from the Rohingya. The Rohingya always maintained their own language. Under British rule, the Burmese Buddhist majority felt particularly unsupported and threatened. Traditionally, rule by the Burmese kings had been legitimized by their homage and protection of the Buddhist religious hierarchy.[8] To make matters worse, due to the Buddhist anti-colonial sentiment, the British preferred the Muslims for administrative positions. This early identity of the Burmese as Buddhists, and as Burma as a land purely for them, became fuel for the nationalism that propelled the Burmese Independence movement later on.

World War II

In World War II, the Japanese invaded Burma and the British retreated to India. The Burmese nationalists welcomed the Japanese as it meant the removal of the British Empire. The Rohingya, however, were pro-British, due to the British support they had received during the colonial period. As a result, significant intercommunal violence erupted between the Buddhist Rakhines and the Muslim Rohingya. Further, the Japanese repressed the Rohingya for their pro-British stance. To make matters worse, the British also armed the Muslim Rohingya to create a buffer against the Japanese, which contributed to the violence.[9]


The Japanese left in 1945, and, in 1948, Burma gained its independence from the British. The Burmese government refused to acknowledge the Rohingya as rightful citizens. As a result, there were movements from the Muslim Rohingya to join the newly formed state of Pakistan. The Burmese government, at this point under the control of General Ne Win, carried out several military operations against the Rohingya. In 1971, during the Bangladeshi Liberation War, several Bengalis were forced to find refuge in neighboring Arakan. This resulted in large-scale protests from the local Buddhist population, who were afraid of being outnumbered in Arakan, and the Burmese government forcedly expelled over 200,000 Muslims from the region back to Bangladesh, which included native Rohingya.


In 1982, the Burmese government enacted the 1982 Citizenship Law. The document identifies 135 ethnic groups, which the government asserts had settled in Burma prior to 1823 and does not include the Rohingya as one of them. 1823 was the year of the first Anglo-Burman war, after which the British took control of Burma. As the British encouraged immigration into Burma, the current government asserts that immigrants who came under British occupation are not indigenous Burmese people, and thus are there illegally. As mentioned, there is substantial evidence, including British census records have taken after the occupation to show that the Rohingya had been living in the area for generations prior to the British conquest. Also, to underscore the insensibility of this argument, even though other Indian peoples had migrated to Burma, not the Rohingya, it was at the request of the British administration and hence legitimate at that time. And it has been well over 150 years since it happened; where are these people to be expelled too, as they have been living in this land for centuries? It is important to also note that there existed an unmarked and unguarded border between Bengal and Arakan for centuries, and only recently has the Mynamar government enforced it. So it is plausible that Rakhine Buddhists, Muslim Bengalis, and Muslim Rohingya all moved between the regions based on the economic and military conditions of the time.


The military government that ruled Myanmar from the 1980s through the 2000s mixed Burmese nationalism with Theravada Buddhism and used that as a means to strengthen its legitimacy. It also heavily discriminated against minority populations in Myanmar, such as the Rohingya, Kokang, and Panthay peoples. In the same vein as the early nationalist movement under British occupation, it fostered the belief that Burma is a land purely for the Burmese Buddhists, and used the “us” and “them” discriminatory rhetoric to unite the population under its military rule. In 2012, riots broke out between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist Rakhines. The Burmese government encouraged these riots, as there is evidence that Rakhine men were bussed in from Sittwe and given knives and free food to participate in the riots. According to Burmese authorities, the riots left 78 people dead and 140,000 displaced as a result of the burning of villages. As a result of the 2012 riots, the Burmese government instituted curfews and deployed the military in Arakan. This has led to increased and targeted arrests and violence toward the Rohingya people.


2015 saw massive migrations of Rohingya to Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia to escape the persecution by the Burmese military. The perilous sea journey through the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea is often attempted in poor, rickety boats that are not fit for this long and rough journey. Many people die at sea, are often stranded at sea with little or no food, are robbed by pirates, and often find themselves arrested and imprisoned after arrival at their destinations. This has further led to a rise in human trafficking with the Rohingya being sold into servitude. In 2016, the persecution of the Rohingya in Arakan worsened. The Burmese military targeted Rohingya Muslims for attacks on police camps by unidentified men, which were again believed to be orchestrated by the Burmese authorities. The response was overwhelmingly brutal with gang rapes, executions, and torture. Entire villages were torched forcing people to live in internal displacement camps within Burma to flee the country to seek refuge elsewhere. So many villages were burned that they could be seen by satellite imagery; the Burmese government denies this or states the Rohingya burned their own villages.

As a result of the 1982 citizenship law, the Rohingya do not have access to education, and freedom of movement, and are routinely subject to forced labor. Agricultural land from Rohingya families has been seized, Muslim cemeteries plowed over, and the land given to Buddhist settlers. After the 2012 riots and the torching of villages, over 140,000 Rohingya live in internal camps in squalid conditions. As a result of restrictions on movement and work, they cannot leave the camps and have been forced into destitution, without food, clean water, shelter, and medical care. Many have fled to neighboring Bangladesh to escape persecution, where they live in refugee camps. The Bangladeshi government, which is very poor, to begin with, has restricted the aid it provides to the refugees in order to discourage further entrance into Bangladesh. And as mentioned, many have attempted the dangerous sea journey to Thailand and Malaysia.