Rohingyas: Their Impossible Past and Present

Oma Salema, 12, held her undernourished brother Ayub Khan, 1, at a camp for Rohingya in Sittwe, Myanmar | Source: New York Times


The Rohingyas have been variously seen as the “most persecuted minority in the world,” and the “most friendless people on the earth”. Their latest exodus out of Myanmar, ostensibly at the behest of Myanmar’s armed forces, is now being seen as a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.” The large-scale exodus of the Rohingya, though not new in the history of Myanmar, certainly stands out due to the sheer number of moving bodies involved. A UN report says that more than 600,000 Rohingya refugees have now crossed over to Bangladesh since violence erupted after Myanmar military camps were attacked by “Islamic Jehadists” in Rakhine state on August 25, 2017, which sparked a frontal offensive against the Rohingya Muslims. Although the government states that actions are only carried out against the terrorist elements within the Rohingya society, observers have argued that the military has carried out a pogrom in these areas. Seen in this context, this article seeks to unravel the impossible past of these people and seeks to explain their current predicament. Such a study becomes imperative in the context of a global refugee crisis, with Western democracies already trying to determine their role in the refugee movement problem.

Keywords: Rohingyas, Exodus, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Terrorists

The boats over the Naf River speak volumes of the wounded past and harrowing present of ‘the most persecuted minority group’ in the world- the Rohingyas. These boats seem to exemplify the history of the people who have ‘ping-ponged’ between their own nation and those from which they have sought refuge over decades. In the climate of human rights abuses, violence, torture, rape and arbitrary arrests, the exodus of this community has continued unabated and shows little prospect of improving, compelling some to view this as a ‘textbook case of ethnic cleansing’.[1]

Described by the United Nations as the “most persecuted minority group” in the world, the Rohingyas are an ethnic Muslim minority, who live in majority Buddhist Myanmar. They mostly inhabit the Northern part of the Rakhine state. This community has been denied citizenship since 1982 by the Government of Myanmar.[2]  Seen in this respect, it becomes imperative to view their present and future in relation to their past. Does their previous persecution help explain the current predicament? Can it provide any pointers towards the resolution and the future?

The Rohingyas have deep and complicated roots in the Rakhine state and society which has made their presence in Myanmar undesirable to the majority Buddhist population. Some observers believe that, between the ninth and 14th centuries, Rohingyas came into contact with Islam through Arab merchants.[3] According to Human Rights Watch, the Rohingyas have had a well-established presence in Burma since the 12th century.[4]  Some scholars believe that they arrived in Myanmar as labourers who migrated under the British colonial rule from what is now India and Bangladesh.[5] In her article in The Diplomat, ‘‘The Truth about Myanmar’s Rohingya Issue,” Jasmine Chia argues: “In even a cursory survey of Rohingya history, it is clear that the Rohingya are not an ethnic, but rather a political construction. There is evidence that Muslims have been living in Rakhine state (at the time under the Arakan Kingdom) since the ninth century, but a significant number of Muslims from across the Bay of Bengal (at the time a part of India, now Bangladesh) immigrated to British Burma with the colonialists in the 20th century.”[6] In fact, the rate at which they entered Arakan in that period was massive and became the cause of great resentment among the local population. This resentment only increased in the development of nationalism. The Burmese Buddhists viewed Rohingyas as a fabricated religious identity.  After the British departed, communal clashes broke out between the local Buddhist population and the Rohingya who stayed on. According to an Al- Jazeera Report, at the time of independence, the Rohingyas were not on the list of ethnicities that could gain citizenship. However, they could apply for identity cards. Some Rohingyas were also given citizenship by the Myanmar government under the ‘generational’ provisions. However, in 1982 a new citizenship law did not recognize Rohingya as one of 135 ethnic groups of Myanmar, effectively rendering them ‘stateless’.[7]

The Burmese government and nationalists maintain the view that the Rohingyas are relatively recent migrants from the Indian subcontinent and therefore do not qualify as citizens. They insist on the use of the term ‘Bengalis’ who have migrated from Bangladesh. The Rakhine majority view the Rohingyas as Muslims from another country and fan a widespread public hostility towards them. The Rohingyas on the other hand, feel strongly that they are a part of Myanmar, and the victims of basic human right abuses and persecution by the state. The long history of communal mistrust in a Buddhist majority country was allowed to simmer in the decades of military rule, especially after the military coup of 1962. After facing a long period of persecution, some Rohingyas formed a militia group that targets both the military and police. After Burma’s independence, a Muslim ‘Mujahedeen’ group emerged in Arakan State. This group demanded equal rights and an autonomous Islamic area. It led to the formation of the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO).

So, what sparked the current exodus of Rohingya from Northern Rakhine?

The latest phase of the violence appears to be the most horrifying in the recent history of Myanmar. Recently, a new group with similar aims and tactics surfaced in the area called Harakah-al-Yaqin, “faith movement” in Arabic and are known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). According to some media reports, in August 25, 2017, this group attacked police bases in Northern Myanmar. The army responded by brutally killing hundreds of Rohingyas, prompting more than 420,000 to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. According to The Economist, the weekly average of those crossing the border into Bangladesh is 120,000.[8] Most of them have settled in Cox’s Bazaar, south of Chittagong. The state-run New Light of Myanmar have reported that some 2600 Rohingya houses have been burnt and approximately 1000 lives have been lost.[9] It has raised the crucial question of the role of the authorities in handling the unrest. They have clearly failed to act swiftly and assertively enough. In April 2013, Human Rights Watch said that, although the state forces did intervene to protect fleeing Muslims, more often they fueled the unrest.[10] The “scorched earth campaign” launched by the Myanmar military on August 27, 2017 has cost a number of lives on both the sides.

The most disturbing of all the aspects which the Rohingya crisis has highlighted is the role of Buddhists monks, who have been using hate speech against Muslims and joining the violent mob. Alan Strathern writing for BBC argues that Buddhists took a leading part in the Independence struggle in Burma and Buddhism became an integral part of the national identity. Many Buddhists believe that their nation must be unified and that their religion is under threat. [11]

There have been voices of concern on humanitarian grounds from various parts of the world. The brutality the Rohingyas are facing is being termed as a ‘genocide’ by the Government of Bangladesh. The Malaysian Prime Minister said in December 2016, “The world cannot stand by and watch genocide take place.” The United Nations’ office for Human Rights remarked that the crisis “could be tantamount to a crisis against humanity.”

The image of Aung San Suu Kyi has also been tainted. She has been accused of not fulfilling her promise of creating a ‘new era’. How fair is it to blame her? Some of her loyalists argue that her hands are tied since, under the constitution, she has little control over security issues. The 2008 Constitution has allotted to the military three important ministries (Home, Border Affairs, and Defence) and 25% of the seats in the Parliament. She also has to respond to vast majority of public opinion which is very hostile towards the Rohingyas. This has to be seen in the context of support for the Military, as seen through the recent march in Yangon.[12]

Is there any hope in sight for the Rohingyas?

Many argue that the Rohingya crisis needs a ‘Regional Solution’ since it poses a security challenge for South and South-East Asia. As these people are being denied refuge by neighbouring nations, is it acceptable or even rational to push them back to war-torn Myanmar? The twin problems of economic burden of harboring Rohingyas and the threat of (Islamic) terror activities spreading to these countries remain very important. However, recently there have been some changes to such approaches by neighbouring countries. While Bangladesh plans to shift all its Rohingya population to one large camp, the Supreme Court of India has put a stay on the government of India’s plan to deport Rohingyas within its territory. The Rohingya conflict is no doubt a massive humanitarian crisis. But the need to manage it locally by countries in the region is of utmost importance.

International relations experts opine that platforms such as ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Training and Economic Co-operation) should be more effectively used to guide the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) of Myanmar to discuss the issue openly, and try to learn from the experiences of India and Thailand. The clashes have left Myanmar’s recently achieved democracy in a very fragile state. But there are global concerns as well. The crisis could attract the attention of Jihadists as yet another ground for their extremism. The West has started viewing the crisis as the breeding ground for religious terrorism.

Recent developments, like the agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar to work together towards resolving the crisis, in addition to the recent decision by the Government of Myanmar to allow aid and relief workers inside Rakhine, offer fresh hope for some kind of resolution to this crisis. However, whether these are mere hopes or to be followed by concrete actions can only be answered in the coming days. Till then, the Naf River will continue to bear witness to the exodus of the “most friendless people on earth.”


[1] Zeid Ra’ad al- Hussein, human rights chief of United Nations used it to describe the Military’s clampdown on the Rohingyas in August, which sparked off the latest exodus of Rohingyas outside Myanmar; Cumming-bruce, Nick. “Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar Is ‘Ethnic Cleansing,’ U.N. Rights Chief Says.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 11 Sept. 2017. Web. 29 Oct. 2017.

[2] Staff, Al Jazeera. “Myanmar: Who are the Rohingya?” Rohingya | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, 28 Sept. 2017. Web. 29 Oct. 2017.

[3] Staff, WSJ. “Timeline: A Short History of Myanmar’s Rohingya Minority.” Timeline: A Short History of Myanmar’s Rohingya Minority. Dow Jones and Company, 23 Dec. 2016. Web. 29 Oct. 2017.

[4] “Burmese Refugees in Bangladesh: Still No Durable Solution.” N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2017.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Chia, Jasmine. “The Truth About Myanmar’s Rohingya Issue.” The Truth About Myanmar’s Rohingya Issue. N.p., 5 Mar. 2016. Web. 29 Oct. 2017. <>.

[7]Staff, Al Jazeera. “Myanmar: Who are the Rohingya?” Rohingya | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, 28 Sept. 2017. Web. 29 Oct. 2017.

[8] Figures till September 19, 2017; “The Rohingya refugee crisis is the worst in decades.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 21 Sept. 2017. Web. 29 Oct. 2017.

[9] “Rohingya Flee as More Than 2,600 Houses Burned in Rakhine.” The Irrawaddy. N.p., 02 Sept. 2017. Web. 29 Oct. 2017.

[10] “The Government Could Have Stopped This”.” Human Rights Watch. N.p., 12 Sept. 2017. Web. 29 Oct. 2017.

[11] Strathern, Alan. “Why are Buddhist monks attacking Muslims?” BBC News. BBC, 02 May 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2017.

[12] Looi, Florence. “Despite Rohingya crisis, thousands march in support of military.” Myanmar News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, 29 Oct. 2017. Web. 29 Oct. 2017.


Burmese Refugees in Bangladesh: Still No Durable Solution. (c). Human Rights Watch, 1 May 2000. Web. 29 Oct. 2017.

Chia, Jasmine. “The Truth About Myanmar’s Rohingya Issue,” The Truth About Myanmar’s Rohingya Issue. N.P., 5 Mar. 2016. Web. 29 Oct. 2017. <>

Cumming-bruce, Nick. “Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar is ‘Ethnic Cleansing,’ U.N. Rights Chief says.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 11 Sept. 2017. Web. 29 Oct. 2017.

Looi, Florence, “Despite Rohingya crisis, thousands march in Support of military.” Myanmar News / Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, 29 Oct. 2017. Web. 29 Oct. 2017.

“Rohingya Flee as More than 2,600 Houses Burned in Rakhine.” The Irrawaddy. N.P., 02 Sept. 2017. Web. 29 Oct. 2017.

Staff, Al Jazeera. “Myanmar: Who are the Rohingya?” Rohingya / Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, 28 Sept. 2017. Web. 29 Oct. 2017.

Staff, WSJ. “Timeline: A Short History of Myanmar’s Rohingya Minority.” Timeline: A Short History of Myanmar’s Rohingya Minority. Dow Jones and Company, 23 Dec. 2016. Web. 29 Oct. 2017. <>.

Strathern, Alan. “Why are Buddhist monks attacking Muslims?” BBC News. BBC, 02 May 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2017.

“The Government Could Have Stopped This”.” Human Rights Watch. N.p., 12 Sept. 2017. Web. 29 Oct. 2017.

“The Rohingya refugee crisis is the worst in decades.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 21 Sept. 2017. Web. 29 Oct. 2017.

“Washington Post: Breaking News, World, US, DC News and Analysis.” The Washington Post. WP Company, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2017.

Deepak Jain is currently serving as a contributor for Synergy.

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