The Rohingya are a Muslim minority population living mainly in the state of Arakan, in the country known as
Myanmar (formerly Burma). Although approximately 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar, and although their ancestors have lived in the region for centuries, the current Burmese government does not recognize Rohingya people as citizens. People without a state, the Rohingya face harsh persecution in Myanmar, and in refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh and Thailand as well.
Arrival and History in Arakan
The first Muslims to settle in Arakan were in the area by the 15th century CE. Many served in the court of the Buddhist King Narameikhla (Min Saw Mun), who ruled Arakan in the 1430s, and who welcomed Muslim advisers and courtiers into his capital. Arakan is on the western border of Burma, near what is now Bangladesh, and the later Arakanese kings modeled themselves after the Mughal emperors, even using Muslim titles for their military and court officials.
In 1785, Buddhist Burmese from the south of the country conquered Arakan. They drove out or executed all of the Muslim Rohingya men they could find, and about 35,000 of Arakan’s people likely fled into Bengal , then part of the
British Raj in India .

Under the Rule of the British Raj
In 1826, the British took control of Arakan after the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824–1826). They encouraged farmers from Bengal to move to the depopulated area of Arakan, including both Rohingyas originally from the area and native Bengalis. The sudden influx of immigrants from British India sparked a strong reaction from the mostly-Buddhist Rakhine people living in Arakan at the time, sowing the seeds of ethnic tension that remain to this day.
When World War II broke out, Britain abandoned Arakan in the face of Japanese expansion into Southeast Asia. In the chaos of Britain’s withdrawal, both Muslim and Buddhist forces took the opportunity to inflict massacres on one another. Many Rohingya still looked to Britain for protection and served as spies behind Japanese lines for the Allied Powers. When the Japanese discovered this connection, they embarked on a hideous program of torture, rape, and murder against the Rohingyas in Arakan. Tens of thousands of Arakanese Rohingyas once again fled into Bengal.
Between the end of World War II and General Ne Win’s coup d’etat in 1962, the Rohingyas advocated for a separate Rohingya nation in Arakan. When the military junta took power in Yangon, however, it cracked down hard on Rohingyas, separatists and non-political people alike. It also denied Burmese citizenship to the Rohingya people, defining them instead as stateless Bengalis.
Modern Era

Since that time, the Rohingya in Myanmar have lived in limbo. In recent years, they have faced increasing persecution and attacks, even in some cases from Buddhist monks. Those who escape out to sea, as thousands have done, face an uncertain fate; the governments of Muslim nations around Southeast Asia including Malaysia and Indonesia have refused to accept them as refugees. Some of those who turn up in Thailand have been victimized by
human traffickers , or even set adrift again on the sea by Thai military forces.

Australia has adamantly refused to accept any Rohingya on its shores, as well.
In May of 2015, the Philippines pledged to create camps to house 3,000 of the Rohingya boat-people. Working with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), the Philippines’ government continues to provide temporary shelter for Rohingya refugees and provide for their basic needs, while a more permanent solution is sought. Over 1 million Rohingya refugees are in Bangladesh as of September 2018.
Persecutions of Rohingya people in Myanmar continue to this day. Major crackdowns by the Burmese government including extrajudicial killings, gang rapes, arson, and infanticides were reported in 2016 and 2017. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have fled the violence.
Worldwide criticism of the de facto Myanmar leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has not abated the issue.


A brief history of the word “Rohingya”

The Rohingya are a largely Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar at the center of a humanitarian catastrophe. But the Myanmar government won’t even use the word “Rohingya,” let alone admit they’re being persecuted. Instead, the government calls them Bengalis, foreigners, or worse, terrorists.
This difference between these two terms—Rohingya and Bengali—is crucial to understanding the crisis unfolding in Myanmar, where more than 500,000 Rohingya have recently fled following a government crackdown and which has been called a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing by the top United Nations human-rights official. Many of those ended up sheltering in makeshift camps in Bangladesh, telling tales of the killings, rape, and massacres.
Before the massacres, there were thought to be around 1.1 million Rohingya living in the country. The Rohingya have existed in Myanmar—a Buddhist majority country— for centuries. It was known as Burma under British colonial rule (from 1824-1948) and there was significant migration between today’s Myanmar, India, and Bangladesh. Once Burma won independence in 1945, the government passed the Union Citizenship Act (pdf), which detailed the ethnicities “indigenous” to Myanmar. The Rohingya were not considered to be one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups.
That said, the Rohingya were able to carve a place for themselves in newly independent Burma; with some serving in parliament and other high offices. And their ethnicity was included in the 1961 census.
The situation quickly deteriorated for the Rohingya, however, following the 1962 military coup, when the government—driven by Bamar-supremacist ideology (paywall)—gave fewer official documentation to the Rohingya and refused to fully recognize new generations of the Rohingya population. In 1974, all citizens in Burma were required to get national registration cards, but the Rohingya were only allowed to obtain foreign registration cards.
By 1982, a new citizenship law was passed that prevented Rohingya from easily accessing full citizenship, rendering many of them stateless. In 1989, the country was renamed Myanmar.
It’s not just the Rohingya, outbreaks of violence have affected non-Rohingya Muslims across Myanmar. Certain extremist monks have intensified the Islamophobic rhetoric in the country, claiming Myanmar’s dominant Buddhist faith is under threat from Muslims (pointing to Afghanistan and Indonesia as examples). These monks were crucial in passing “race and religion” laws that targeted Muslims and attempted to stem their population growth.
In 2009, a UN spokeswoman described the Rohingya as “probably the most friendless people in the world” and it’s easy to see why. In 2015, the plight of the Rohingya was brought to the forefront when boats packed with Rohingya migrants were left stranded at sea. The Rohingya—collectively dubbed across international media as “boat people”—were stuck because they were turned away from a number of Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. Unwanted in Myanmar, the Rohingya are also often rejected from the countries they hope to flee to.
Since the late 1970s, nearly one million Rohingya are estimated to have fled Myanmar. The 2014 census—which the UN helped conduct—
banned the use of the term “Rohingya.”
Words matter
By referring to the Rohingya as “Bengalis,” the government is able to designate this persecuted minority as the “other.” This perception of Rohingya as outsiders and illegal immigrants provides a not so subtle justification for the systematic disenfranchisement of the group and the government’s efforts to root them out of their homes. It implies they belong in Bangladesh, with other Bengali Muslims.
It’s a tactic the world has seen before. In 1992, a couple of years before the Rwanda genocide, Léon Mugesera, a well-known Hutu ideologue, delivered a now infamous speech in which he rallied others to exterminate the Tutsis. During the speech, he called on Hutus to “wipe out this scum” and send the Tutsis to Ethiopia by way of the Nyabarongo River. At the heart of this genocidal discourse was the belief that the Tutsis were not native to Rwanda and originated from Ethiopia (known as the Hamitic hypothesis). Mugesera message had clearly resonated; at the end of the bloodshed, tens of thousands of dead Tutsis were thrown in Rwanda’s rivers.
Perhaps, most depressingly, is the reaction of the de facto leader of Myanmar and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has remained largely silent on the humanitarian crisis. Suu Kyi response has shocked the world—with other Nobel laureates condemning her failure to act—but a look at the words Suu Kyi has long etched out her position.
In 2012, she said that she did not know if the Rohingya could be
regarded as citizens. And just like the military, Suu Kyi has also long
refused to use the term “Rohingya.”

I am Rohingya

By Ali Johar | New Dehli

Yes I am a Rohingya
Yes I am from Myanmar
But I too am Human

Somewhere I am persecuted,
Somewhere I am tortured.
Somewhere I am killed,
Somewhere I am kidnapped.

Yes I am a Rohingya
Somewhere I am restricted,
Somewhere my rights are denied.
Somewhere I am discriminated,
Somewhere my rights are delayed.

Somewhere I am crossing a border,
Somewhere I am pushed back.
Somewhere I am a meal of the sea.
Somewhere I am smuggled.

Yes I am a Rohingya
Somewhere I am trapped in a camp,
Somewhere I don’t have daily food.
Somewhere I may have a place to stay,
Somewhere I am displaced.

Somewhere I wither in detention,
Somewhere I grow up in restrictions.
Somewhere I am banned from school,
Somewhere I am jailed without reason.

Yes I am a Rohingya
Somewhere I do rag picking,
Somewhere I am starving.
Somewhere I am a child labor,
Somewhere I am a forced labor.

Somewhere I don’t have a roof,
Somewhere I don’t have a bed.
Somewhere my kids are naked,
Somewhere I sleep without a blanket.

Yes I am a Rohingya
Somewhere I am raped,
Somewhere I am a sex slave.
Somewhere I am prostituted,
Somewhere I do survival sex.

Somewhere I lost my wife,
Somewhere I am a single mother.
Somewhere I lost my family,
Somewhere they all are killed.

Yes I am a Rohingya
Some think I am stateless.
Some say I am a refugee,
Some say I am a foreigner,
Some can realize the real me.

Somewhere I am called Kalar,
Somewhere I am called Bangali.
Some say I am an Arab,
But I am none of them.

Yes I am a Rohingya.
Somewhere I have to hide my Identity,
Somewhere it’s looted.
Somewhere I may get a citizenship,
Somewhere I am accultured.

Somewhere I cannot have a profession,
Somewhere college for me is banned.
Somewhere I am in a cage,
Somewhere I am simply helpless.

Yes I am a Rohingya
Yes I am from Myanmar
I too am a Human
I too am part of this world.
I too wanna have a life just like you.
Don’t wipe me out
In a genocide…