The Rohingya Crisis, Explained

This summer and early fall, a wave of devastating violence sent hundreds of thousands of persecuted Rohingya people fleeing their homes in Burma, filling the news with brutal stories of a people under fire. Here’s a primer on the crisis.

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are an ethnic minority group from the Rakhine State of Burma. They have a unique language and culture, and while they live in a predominantly Buddhist country, the majority of Rohingya people are Muslim.

The Rohingya have lived in Burma for centuries, yet they are reviled as outsiders, accused of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. In 1982, the Burmese government stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship, and through subsequent waves of violence destroyed their communities and denied them freedom of movement in the country they call home.

Over 600,000 Rohingya people have fled their home, Rakhine State in Burma, for Bangladesh.

How many Rohingya are in Burma?

As of 2015, there were approximately 1 to 1.5 million Rohingya in Burma, though the exact number is unknown. Because in Burma the Rohingya are not officially recognized as a people, in the 2014 census the Burmese government refused to count the Rohingya unless they declared themselves Bengali.

How did tensions escalate?

In 1962, a military coup in Burma hurled the country into a military dictatorship that has severely oppressed many ethnic minorities including the Rohingya.

Because of ethnic, religious and political differences—and because of shifting demographics—the Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists have long been entangled in a cycle of tension, flare ups of violence, and retaliation. The Burmese military has consistently stoked violence against the Rohingya and suppressed their uprisings with brutal force.

In 1982, the military regime passed a citizenship law that gradually rendered the Rohingya stateless. To this day, Rohingya in northern Rakhine State require authorization from the Burmese authorities to travel between and even within towns. In June 2012, after a new wave of violence, Burma’s security forces forced many of the state’s Rohingya population into Internally Displaced Person camps.

What sparked the latest crisis?

On August 25th, 2017, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a disorganized militant group, attacked 30 police posts and an army base in the state’s north using sticks, knives and homemade bombs—killing 12 security force members. The Burmese government cites this attack as the reason for the massive campaign that the country’s military unleashed, which they termed a “clearance operation.”

However, the 2017 attacks have not only targeted ARSA forces. Rather, the attacks on civilians have been widespread, brutal and systematic, specifically targeting the Rohingya population—murdering villagers, raping women and burning entire villages to the ground. A United Nations human rights report released in October 2017 concluded that the Burmese security forces “purposely destroyed the property of the Rohingya, scorched their dwellings and entire villages in northern Rakhine State, not only to drive the population out in droves but also to prevent the fleeing Rohingya victims from returning to their homes.” Most crucially, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recently declared that the current attacks on the Rohingya constitute “a text book case of ethnic cleansing.”

In just three months, the military has driven more than 600,000 Rohingya refugees into neighboring Bangladesh—thrusting the Rohingya’s plight into the international spotlight.

What is happening to the Rohingya refugees?

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have attempted the multi-day journey into Bangladesh on foot. The Burmese military has planted landmines along the border region. Food is scarce. Many Rohingya are walking with severe wounds and suffering traumas from fires, gang rape, malnutrition and more.

Those who escape by sea pour onto overcrowded, rickety boats—and many have lost their lives when their vessels capsized.

More than half of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have no access to health care, and up to 30 percent have no clean water. Over 387,000 people are in need of nutritional assistance, and 17,000 children are suffering from severe malnutrition.

How are the Rohingya who remain in Burma faring?

While sporadic violence continues in Rakhine State, starvation has become the primary threat. Moreover, the Burmese government has barred humanitarian assistance from entering the country.

Is international pressure helping?

Global leaders—including UN officials, heads of state, human rights activists and faith leaders —have condemned the Burmese military for perpetrating these atrocities, and its elected civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, for failing to put an end to these attacks. AJWS has decried the violence against the Rohingya for years, and has joined other human rights organizations in denouncing the current attacks and calling on the U.S. and other governments to sanction Burma.

After nearly two months of silence, Aung San Suu Kyi announced the formation of the “Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine” to address the crisis; yet Rohingya refugees and human rights organizations are skeptical that this newest commission will make a tangible difference.

What is AJWS doing to address the plight of the Rohingya?

AJWS responded quickly to identify and support organizations working to stop the persecution of the Rohingya. As we ramp up our response to the refugee crisis, AJWS will use advocacy and grantmaking to:

  1. Provide humanitarian aid and food to Rohingya refugees who are most at risk—pregnant women, orphans and the elderly. We are also working to protect vulnerable refugees from further harm.
  1. Work towards holding the Burmese military accountable through advocacy that calls on the U.S. and fellow global leaders to denounce the violence, and prevent military support or cooperation with Burma. We have urged Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi to intervene in the ethnic cleansing taking place under her watch.
  2. Address the underlying causes of the crisis, particularly discrimination and exclusion of the Rohingya, by building awareness of the problems of ethnic minorities in Burma—including the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities—among US policymakers, US-based diplomats, university communities and NGOs.

How long has AJWS been working in Burma?

AJWS has been working in Burma since 2002. For the past 15 years, support for the rights of ethnic minorities, including those of the Rohingya community, has been a pillar of our strategy in Burma. AJWS’s programmatic staff is in close contact with partners in Burma, Bangladesh and London who are monitoring the situation in both Burma and Bangladesh. The current crisis is symptomatic of a larger problem of discrimination by the Bamar majority against minority ethnic groups in the country.

What can you do?

To help sustain AJWS’s work in Burma and aid Rohingya refugees fleeing the violence, please support our Rohingya Emergency Response Fund and sign up for our advocacy alerts.

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