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Rohingya in Burma

The Plight of the Rohingya

Burma’s Muslim Rohingya minority face severe discrimination, escalating violence, forced statelessness, and myriad restrictions at the hands of the state. 

In 2012, violent attacks, fanned by a campaign of virulent anti-Muslim hate speech that continues today, destroyed numerous Rohingya communities and displaced approximately 140,000. In late 2016, widespread and brutal attacks erupted against Rohingya civilians in northern Rakhine State in western Burma—crimes that UN officials estimate may have killed up to 1,000 people. This latest explosion of violence is a sharp escalation of long-running, state-led persecution and attacks by the Burmese military and other security forces on the Rohingya population.

Today, many Rohingya in Burma are forcibly isolated, cut off from necessary humanitarian assistance, and unable access basic services such as health care and education. According to the United Nations, crimes against humanity have been—and continue to be—perpetrated against the Rohingya. Their treatment, combined with statements by government, political, and religious leaders indicate that the Rohingya are being subjected to ethnic cleansing.

While the new democratically-elected Burmese government, led by Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has signaled its intention to alleviate the plight of minorities, Burmese leaders have done little to address the ongoing violence targeting Rohingya and have not addressed the fundamental causes of their suffering. Leaders in Burma’s democracy movement have been largely silent about the treatment of the Rohingya.


background: A Persecuted Minority

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in Burma, and most live in Rakhine (also called Arakan) State, which borders Bangladesh and has a Buddhist majority that is ethnically Rakhine. Although Rohingya have resided in the area for at least several centuries, Burma’s 1982 citizenship law does not include them among the country’s officially recognized ethnic groups, effectively denying them any right to citizenship. The Burmese government classifies the approximately 800,000 Rohingya in the country as “Bengalis” and insists that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. 

Since Burma’s independence in 1948, the Rohingya have been subjected to periodic campaigns of violence and continue to face various forms of official and unofficial persecution, including: 

  • Limits on the right to marry and bear children
    Rohingya in some areas must obtain official permission to marry and in some areas have been prohibited from having more than two children. As a result, some 60,000 Rohingya children born in violation of these restrictions cannot be registered and are thus ineligible for all government services, including education.
  • Limits on movement
    Rohingya must obtain official permission to travel even to a neighboring village. Applications for travel permits require long waits, payment of fees and bribes, and intrusive scrutiny. The travel restrictions effectively deny the Rohingya access to post-primary education, markets, employment opportunities, and health care.
  • Forced labor
    Rohingya in Northern Rakhine State have regularly been required to work without pay for government and military authorities. Children frequently perform this labor, which is required exclusively of the Rohingya in Rakhine State.
  • Denial of due process
    Rohingya are routinely subjected to confiscation of property, arbitrary arrest and detention, physical and sexual violence, and even torture at the hands of authorities.
  • Segregation
    Rohingya are barred from the teaching, medical, and engineering professions. Many health care facilities will not treat them and few businesses will hire them other than for manual labor.

Rakhine State is one of Burma’s poorest states, and the Rakhine ethnic group has also long suffered from economic discrimination and cultural repression by the Burmese majority and central government. As Buddhists and an officially recognized minority, however, the Rakhine enjoy rights and opportunities denied to the Rohingya. Poverty exacerbates Rakhine animosities toward the Rohingya, whom the Rakhine view as alien competitors for scarce resources.

Recent attacks on civilians

While Rohingya have been subjected to targeted violence, including killings, rape, arbitrary detention, and torture for decades, there are two events in recent years that show escalated violence against the group.

Long-simmering tensions erupted into communal violence between Rohingya and Rakhine between June-October 2012 that left hundreds dead and more than 140,000 displaced, the vast majority of whom were Rohingya. According to both Rakhine and Rohingya witnesses, Buddhist monks and local Rakhine politicians incited and led many of the attacks, with state security forces failing or refusing to stop the violence and sometimes participating in it. The violence forced Rohingya from their homes, where anything left standing after the attacks was subsequently razed by the government. 

An attack on police offers in fall of 2016, allegedly by a group of Rohingya men, was followed by a harsh crack down by security forces on Rohingya civilians. Simon-Skjodt Center staff interviewed survivors of this brutal reaction by the state, who reported extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, and the burning of villages. An estimated 70,000 people fled across the border into Bangladesh, where they live as unregistered refugees, unable to access sufficient services. Burma’s leaders have denied that crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing have taken place against Rohingya victims, defying statements of high-level United Nations officials that mass atrocities likely have taken place.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report in February 2017 that included evidence of mass gang rape, killings—including of children and babies—and disappearances that were committed as part of the security forces’ response to the initial attacks on police. The United Nations Human Rights Council established a fact-finding mission in March 2017 to gather information about these crimes, but the Burmese government has vowed not to cooperate nor allow investigators access to the areas in which mass atrocities allegedly took place.

Spreading Anti-Muslim Hate Speech and Violence

This lack of accountability has likely contributed to the outpouring of anti-Muslim hate speech that has been accompanied by sporadic violence targeting Muslim Burmese citizens residing in other parts of the country. While Buddhist monks have been among the most visible instigators, there is ample evidence of security forces’ complicity in the violence, which has claimed scores of lives and destroyed thousands of properties. The Buddhist “969” movement uses anti-Muslim hate speech and intimidation to force boycotts of Muslim businesses and is now seeking to criminalize marriage between Muslim men and Buddhist women. The escalating segregation and discrimination against Burma’s Muslims, who comprise about 5% of the population, leave them in well-founded fear for their safety and livelihoods.


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