close

Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

menu

Who are the Rohingya?

Who are the Rohingya?

Explainer

6 min read

The migrant crisis in Southeast Asia in the first half of 2015 has brought the situation of the Rohingya Muslim community of Myanmar into the international spotlight. Thousands of refugees, mainly Rohingya, have left Myanmar on crowded boats seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. While this phenomenon has been going on for some time (as discoveries in May 2015 of mass graves of trafficked refugees in Thailand revealed), the scale of the crisis is now far greater than has previously been seen. Furthermore, the international crisis is a reflection of what is happening inside Myanmar, where at least 6,000 people were newly internally displaced in 2014. Many of the displaced Rohingya Muslim community now live in refugee camps along the Myanmar-Thailand border, from Mae Hong Son in the north to Tham Hin in the south. Conditions in the camps have been condemned by a number of international organisations, including the United Nations.

The crisis has been seized upon by global Jihadi groups.

The situation has been the subject of extensive international condemnation, including from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). On 29 May 2015 the organisation agreed to work together to stem migration from Myanmar, with Indonesia and Malaysia stating that they would continue to provide temporary shelter for the refugees and a joint task force would co-ordinate assistance to countries dealing with migrants. However, the crisis has also been seized upon by global jihadi groups from al-Qaeda to ISIS. These have, in numerous public statements, called for jihadis to go to the aid of the Rohingya. In the past, there have been allegations that Rohingya groups were been linked with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but there are not thought to be any active Rohingya jihadi groups.

Myanmar is a country closely linked with Buddhism. Religious demographics show that 75 per cent of the population identifies as Buddhist, eight per cent are Christian and four per cent are Muslim. The Rohingya population, the majority of whom are Muslim, originated in what is today Bangladesh, although there is extensive evidence that the population has long been established in the region of Myanmar formerly known as Arakan, officially designated Rakhine State in 1989.

The population of the Rohingya in Rakhine State varies, but it is thought to number between 800,000 and 1.3 million out of a total state population of 3.3 million. The group is believed to be of mixed ancestry, tracing its origins both to outsiders (Arabs, Turks, Persians, Moguls and Pathans) and to local Bengali and Rakhine. They speak a version of Chittagonian, a regional dialect of Bengali, which is also used extensively throughout southeastern Bangladesh.

The Rohingya are not only present in Myanmar: estimates show there are 250,000–350,000 in Pakistan; 250,000–500,000 in Saudi Arabia; 200,000–500,000 in Bangladesh; 20,000–45,000 in Malaysia; and 3,000–20,000 in Thailand.

History of Persecution

The debate around the status of the Rohingya within Myanmar dates back to 1947 when the country gained independence. The founding constitution declared that citizens were those defined as an "indigenous race" including the Arakanese, originating from Arakan (Rakhine State), which at the time was understood to include the Rohingya.

 

Myanmar's political opening did nothing to stem the discrimination.

However, from 1962, when General Ne Win seized power in a coup d'etat, successive military-backed regimes in Myanmar have persecuted the Rohingya Muslims. The first major assault accompanied the Bangladeshi War of Independence in 1971, which led to many Bengalis fleeing to Myanmar. In 1978, a Myanmar government campaign known as Naga Min aimed to force the refugees from the country. There were arbitrary arrests, desecration of mosques, destruction of villages, and confiscation of lands. The close identification of Rohingya Muslims with Bangladeshi refugees led to large numbers of Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh, where the government set up makeshift camps and appealed to the United Nations for aid and assistance.

While some official refugee camps were set up, an agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar in July 1978 allowed for the repatriation of 200,000 refugees back to Myanmar. By the end of 1979, roughly 180,000 Rohingya had returned to Rakhine state, despite refugee protests that resulted in hundreds of deaths.

In July 1991 the Myanmar government launched another campaign against the Rohingya, known as Operation Pyi (Clean and Beautiful Nation), the purpose of which was to scrutinise each individual within the state, to determine whether they were a citizen or "illegal immigrant." This led to around 250,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh and could be seen as the beginning of the refugee situation, which has led to many Rohingya today living in makeshift camps as stateless people.

Myanmar's political opening did nothing to stem the discrimination. Rakhine state has for several years seen violent clashes led by Buddhist nationalists, who believe, according to one slogan, "to be Burmese is to be Buddhist." Further violence broke out in 2012 between Buddhist nationalists and Rohingya Muslims, and by November 2014 the United Nations was reporting that over 100,000 Rohingya Muslims had been displaced since 2012, with an average of 900 per day fleeing the country. The 969 Movement, a Buddhist nationalist movement led by Ashin Wirathu which actively preaches anti-Muslim sentiment, is thought to have been behind much of the incitement to violence during this period.

Citizenship

However, violent persecution is not the only issue facing the Rohingya community. Since 1982, a series of legal changes has challenged the status of the community's presence in Myanmar. The 1982 Citizenship Law defined citizens as members of ethnic groups that had permanently settled within the boundaries of modern-day Myanmar, prior to 1823. While an earlier citizenship law had included the Arakanese (which was deemed to include the Rohingya), the 1982 version did not, excluding the Rohingya from both full and associate citizenship.

Following this, in 1994 the government stopped issuing Rohingya children birth certificates and later began to require the Muslim population to be granted official permission from local authorities to marry (this practice has never been confirmed in law).

Citizenship remains an issue for the Rohingya since 2011. The recent census, the first to be carried out in 30 years, left the group off its list of ethnicities. The term Rohingya is controversial in the country, with both government and Rakhine Buddhists suggesting that the term has no historical or legal basis. It has been explained to the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar in 2015 that to validate the Rohingya as an ethnic group could allow a claim of indigenous status and corresponding rights under the Constitution. It is because of this that the government classified Rohingya Muslims as Bengali, which links their ethnic origins to Bangladesh.

The Rohingya Muslim community has endured years of uncertainty.

The Rakhine State Action Plan, which has been in draft form since October 2014 has caused further controversy. International organisations, including the United Nations, have raised concerns that the plan would fall below international human rights standards. In particular, they have suggested certain measures that would classify Rohingya as Bengali, could render them "illegal" and subject them to possible prolonged internment in temporary camps or removal from the country altogether. However, in February 2015 the government announced that it would revoke temporary identification cards (so-called white cards) for minorities in Myanmar, which gave them temporary citizenship. The Rohingya Muslim community was the main recipient of these cards. In December 2014 the government also announced the submission of four bills, known as the 'National Race and Religious Protection' package: the Interfaith Marriage Bill, the Religious Conversion Bill, the Monogamy Bill and the Population Control Bill. These bills are also widely regarded as targeting minority communities.

The Rohinyga Muslim community has endured years of uncertainty over its status and the citizenship of its members, resulting in a crisis affecting the entire region. The words and phrases, 'stateless', 'unwanted' and the 'the world's most persecuted religious minority,' often used about the group, appear to hold firm today, even as the international community attempts to rally support.

The Depth of the Challenge

Counter-extremism

Join us

Be the first to know what we’re doing – and how you can get more involved.