Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis: Everything You Need to Know

Daniele Selby

Mushfiqul Alam/AP

“My life has been one long struggle,” Begum Jaan told journalist Katie Arnold.

“One night I woke up to the sound of guns and explosions - they were so loud, I could not bear it … Everyone was fleeing, so I fled with them, I did not want to be left on my own,” she said.

Jaan is a 65-year-old Rohingya Muslim woman from Rakhine, Myanmar. Like some 400,000 other Rohingya, according to NPR, she is now a refugee in Bangladesh.

“Even though I am now in Bangladesh, I am still scared I will run into the Myanmar military. I feel like the outside world is supporting us a lot and that makes me feel better. I want everyone to hear our story, I want the whole world to hear our sorrows, but I don't know what good it will do. We don't have a future; our lives are hopeless.”

In just the last few weeks, Jaan and around 164,000 others fled recent outbursts of violence in Rakhine, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). However, the Rohingya Muslims have been persecuted for decades with increasing violence in what UNHCR head Zeid bin Ra’ad al-Hussein recently called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Who are the Rohingya?

Embed from Getty Images

In Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, there is an ethnic minority group known as the Rohingya, the majority of whom are Muslim in a country where 90% of the population is Buddhist, according to Al Jazeera

There are approximately 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims in the country, though they are not recognized as one of Myanmar’s “national races” or one of its 135 ethnic groups, according to Al Jazeera

Most Burmese Rohingya live in the southwest state of Rakhine, which shares a border with neighboring Bangladesh. Throughout history the Rohingya have sought refuge in Bangladesh in times of conflict. After World War II, any Rohingya who fled were barred from returning, according to the International Crisis Group.

Although the Rohingya can trace their roots to Rakhine as far back as the 8th-century, according to the Wall Street Journal, the Burmese government largely considers them to be “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh and tends to refer to them as Bengalis, which the Rohingya widely regard as an insult. They have been denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982.

They can become “naturalized” citizens if they can show proof that their family has been in Myanmar for more than 60 years; however, the paperwork necessary to demonstrate this is often unavailable or denied to Rohingya trying to become citizens, according to Al Jazeera.

Those who are able to become “naturalized” citizens are still second-class citizens. “Naturalized” citizens are not entitled to secondary education, cannot vote, and are barred from certain professions like law and medicine. These are rights the government of Myanmar reserves for “full” citizens.

A Short History of the Conflict

Embed from Getty Images

Today’s crisis really began in 2012. 

That year, tensions that had been mounting between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine — exacerbated by poverty, lack of employment, and poor infrastructure in the state, which is Myanmar’s least developed — exploded. In June, 2012, Rohingya men were accused of the rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman, resulting in violent clashes and tension. 

The accusations against the Rohingya triggered a series of “revenge attacks,” according to the New York Times, that took place over the course of a month. Ten Muslim men were beaten to death by a group of Buddhists who sought to “avenge” the rape and murder. In response, a group of Rohingya attacked Buddhist villagers, killing seven.

Francis Wade, the author of book about the conflict in Myanmar, told NPR that the conflict and discrimination stems from fear inspired by “this narrative that Myanmar and particularly its majority Buddhist faith is under threat from Islamic cultures, particularly from the subcontinent.” This narrative has been spread in more recent years by an extremist, right-wing group of Buddhist monks, according to the International Crisis Group.

Read more: Buddha Would Have Helped the Rohingya Muslims, Dalai Lama Says

The violence escalated and the Burmese government declared a state of emergency, enabling its military to intervene in the intercommunal violence.

By Aug. 2012, 280 people had died, according to the Washington Post. And close to 150,000 people were internally displaced and forced into camps, the Wall Street Journal reported. Intercommunal violence persisted in Rakhine, with reports of fatal clashes in 2013 and 2014.

Embed from Getty Images

The conflict erupted again in Oct. 2016, when a Rohingya militant group attacked border guard posts, killing nine soldiers, according to the BBC. And in response the Burmese military conducted a violent “counter-insurgency” campaign that caused more than 25,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar, and conflict between the groups, hit another boiling point this summer. 

Renewed Violence

Embed from Getty Images

On August 25, the same militant group that restarted the violence of 2016 — the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ASRA) — launched a coordinated attack on at least two dozen different police posts and checkpoints and one military base in Rakhine, according to Human Rights Watch, prompting this latest wave of violence. 

According to the International Crisis Group, ARSA is funded by wealthy people in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and led by Rohingya emigrants — and the Burmese government has declared them a terrorist group.

The Burmese military and ARSA have been engaged in violent conflict since the attacks a few weeks ago, causing hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee in recent weeks — around 20,000 people have fled each day, CNN estimates. In fact, the government says nearly 40% of all Rohingya villages are empty or abandoned now.

On Sept. 10, ARSA declared a month-long cease-fire to enable “all concerned humanitarian actors to resume their humanitarian assistance to all victims of the humanitarian crisis, irrespective of ethnic or religious background during the ceasefire period,” the group said. However, the Burmese government refused talk with the group.

Instead, the Burmese government has been planting landmines along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border to prevent the Rohingya from fleeing Rakhine, Amnesty International reports. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said the military’s response to ARSA’s attacks is "clearly disproportionate and without regard for basic principles of international law.”

Unnecessary Force

Embed from Getty Images

The stories refugees have shared, once safely in Bangladesh, have revealed a brutal campaign against the entire ethnic group. 

“Refugee accounts paint a horrific picture of an army that is out of control and rampaging through Rohingya villages,” the Asia director of Human Rights Watch said. “The Burmese government says its crackdown is in response to a security threat, but what security advantage could possibly be gained by raping and killing women and children?”

Thousands of Rohingya fled Myanmar between 2012 and 2016 — crossing the border into Bangladesh and taking dangerous boat journeys to Malaysia — bringing with them haunting stories of violence and abuse.

Read more: Rescue Boats Are Leaving the Mediterranean to Help the Rohingya Fleeing Myanmar

Refugees described armed government security forces attacking villagers with small arms, mortars, and armed helicopters to Human Rights Watch. They’ve shared accounts of systematic rape and soldiers setting fire to homes with rocket launchers.

Though the Burmese government accused Rohingya militants of setting fire to their own homes, Human Rights Watch was able to determine that the Burmese military was responsible for torching at least 1,500 buildings and homes by the end of 2016 using satellite imagery.

Global Response

Embed from Getty Images

Reports of the devastation and the Burmese military’s indiscriminate attacks on Rohingya villagers have prompted world leaders and governments to finally speak out against the long-standing violence.

On Monday, the US called on “Burmese security authorities to respect the rule of law, stop the violence, and end the displacement of civilians from all communities,” in a White House statement. The government of Pakistan has expressed similar sentiments.

Read more: Malala Demands an End to the ‘Heart-Breaking’ Violence Against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar

Last week, thousands of people in Bangladesh, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Pakistan took to the streets in protest of the Burmese government’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims, according to CNN. Around 15,000 people participated in the protest in Dhaka, Bangladesh last Friday, the Dhaka Tribune reported.

Embed from Getty Images

The demonstration took place less than a week before the government of Bangladesh appealed for international support to move the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees now within its borders to the uninhabited island of Bhashan Char, although the island is prone to serious flooding.

Read more: Over 140,000 Rohingya Refugees Just Escaped Violence. Now They Face Unsafe Housing and Medical Crises

For many years, the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has refused to recognize the severity of the issue and the government’s systemic discrimination against Rohingya people. Suu Kyi is a celebrated human rights activist and was an advocate for democracy under a military regime. And right now, all eyes are on her.

While Suu Kyi is effectively the leader of her country, she is not the country’s elected leader, and she has no control over Myanmar’s military, which controls 25% of the parliament’s seats and whose forces include police officers and border control.

However, the Nobel Peace Prize Winner has yet to unequivocally condemn the violence. Suu Kyi recently blamed “terrorists” for “a huge iceberg of misinformation” about the violence in her country and previously told the BBC that “ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use” to describe the Rohingya’s plight.

But “when one-third of the Rohingya population had to flee the country, could you find a better word to describe it?” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres asked at a conference on Wednesday.

Suu Kyi had planned to attend this month’s UN General Assembly, but announced that she would be cancelling her trip on Wednesday because of the crisis in Rakhine. A spokesperson for her office said she would address the crisis and “explain about everything” in a speech next week, according to CNN.