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 people?

The Rohingya people 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 people 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 them 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 688,000 Rohingya people have fled their home, Rakhine State in Burma, for Bangladesh.

How many Rohingya people are in Burma?

As of 2015, there were approximately 1 to 1.5 million Rohingya people in Burma, though the exact number is unknown. Because in Burma, they are not officially recognized as an ethnic group, in the 2014 census the Burmese government refused to count Rohingya residents 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 people.

Because of ethnic, religious and political differences—and because of shifting demographics— 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 them and suppressed their uprisings with brutal force.

In 1982, the military regime passed a citizenship law that gradually rendered the Rohingya people stateless. To this day, Rohingya people in northern Rakhine State require authorization from the Burmese and Rakhine 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 people 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 people’s plight into the international spotlight.

What is happening to the Rohingya refugees?

In recent months, more than 688,000 Rohingya refugees have fled across the border, making the multi-week journey into Bangladesh on foot or on boats. Many refugees walked to Bangladesh with severe wounds. They crossed land dotted with mines planted by the military along the border region, and many suffered severe casualties.

Those who made it to Bangladesh now live in enormous, overcrowded refugee camps, where the situation remains bleak. A recent outbreak of diptheria has infected at least 3,523 and has killed at least 30 people. There continues to be a dire shortage of adequate healthcare. Approximately 67% of the 58,700 pregnant women living in the camps do not have access to obstetrical care, with approximately 15,480 women expected to give birth in the next three months. Water contamination and waterborne illness remain a significant concern, as the World Health Organization reports that 81% of water samples collected in camps are contaminated with E. coli.

How are the Rohingya people who remain in Burma faring?

An estimated 200,000 to 500,000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine State, including approximately 120,000 who are in camps in Sittwe, the capital. While it is difficult to ascertain their wellbeing, as many areas are closed to aid organizations, reports from the communities indicate that most have not been allowed freedom of movement, are not allowed to work, and have very limited access to healthcare.

Additionally, the Burmese government and military have been forcing the remaining Rohingya to accept a National Verification Card that lists their nationality as Bengali. This move—which would certify the accusation that the Rohingya are not citizens of Burma—has pushed many of the remaining Rohingya people to flee 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 people 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 people?

AJWS responded quickly to identify and support organizations working to stop the persecution of the Rohingya people. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Address the underlying causes of the crisis, particularly discrimination and exclusion of the Rohingya people, by building awareness of the problems of ethnic minorities in Burma—including the Rohingya community 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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