THE ROHINGYA PEOPLE are an ethnic group from Myanmar, once called Burma. Most live in Rakhine State on Myanmar’s western coast.
Myanmar is a majority-Buddhist state, but the Rohingya people are primarily Muslim, though a small number are Hindu. The ethnic minority is considered “the most persecuted minority in the world” by the United Nations.
The story of that persecution has its roots in Britain’s colonisation of Burma, and modern-day Myanmar’s refusal to recognise the existence of a people who have existed for thousands of years.
A Rohingya woman, a member of the Muslim minority in Myanmar, stands on a plateau near her hut in a newly built part of Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh.
PHOTOGRAPH BY WILLIAM DANIELS, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
Coming to Burma
Muslim settlers came to Arakan State, an independent coastal kingdom in what is now Myanmar, starting in the 1430s, and a small Muslim population lived in Arakan State when it was conquered by the Burmese Empire in 1784. Burma in turn was conquered by Britain in 1824, and until 1948 Britain ruled Burma as part of British India. During that time, other Muslims from Bengal entered Burma as migrant workers, tripling the country’s Muslim population over a 40-year period. But though Muslims had lived in Burma for centuries, and though Britain promised the Rohingya an autonomous state in exchange for their help in WWII, it never followed through, and the Burmese people resented what they saw as an incursion of uninvited workers.
Myanmar gained its independence from Britain in 1948. The government didn’t provide for a Muslim state, either. Nor did it acknowledge the Rohingya—a name adopted by a group of the descendants of both Arakan State Muslims and later migrants to Burma. Instead Myanmar worked to cast out the Rohingya people, excluding them from its constitution. In 1982, Myanmar passed a citizenship law that denied the Rohingya people citizenship, too.
As non-citizens, Rohingya people lack basic rights within Myanmar and are considered stateless. Though Myanmar recognises 135 distinct ethnic groups, the Rohingya are not one of them. Myanmar refuses to recognise the term as one that refers to the region’s Muslim minority.
When Myanmar became a military state in 1962, the Rohingya became victims of state-sponsored persecution. During “Operation King Dragon,” Burmese military forces targeted the Rohingya people, and were accused of human rights abuses including rape, destruction of houses and villages, and mass arrests. Rohingya people began fleeing to nearby Bangladesh in huge numbers. Another targeted campaign, “Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation,” pushed another 200,000 people out of the country.
Today, the Rohingya are considered illegal immigrants by Myanmar, and are not recognised under the law. Rohingya people cannot access social services or education, and their movement outside of Rakhine State is closely restricted. Myanmar has also imposed strict regulations on birth control and marriage, only allowing Rohingya in some townships in Rakhine State to have two children and restricting the marriages of some Rohingya.
Resist or flee
Some Rohingya people have put up violent resistance. In 2017, a group of Rohingya militants attacked the Myanmar army, sparking another wave of anti-Rohingya persecution. A huge wave of Rohingya people began fleeing the violence in summer 2017, going to nearby Bangladesh.
Before the 2017 crisis, an estimated 1 million Rohingya people lived in Burma. As of August 2018, over 723,000 Rohingya refugees had fled to Bangladesh. Many settled in the Kutupalong refugee settlement, now the world’s largest. The massive camp has stretched humanitarian aid and is particularly vulnerable to monsoon rains. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, estimates that 200,000 Rohingya refugees are at risk during monsoon season, which can create landslides and floods in the camp.