Who are the Rohingya Muslims? 7 things to know about the ‘world’s most persecuted minority’

Thousands of members of various Indonesian muslim groups demonstrate in support of Myanmar's Rohingya population in front of the Myanmar embassy on September 6, 2017 in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Credit: Ed Wray

Credit: Ed Wray

Thousands of members of various Indonesian muslim groups demonstrate in support of Myanmar's Rohingya population in front of the Myanmar embassy on September 6, 2017 in Jakarta, Indonesia.

This story has been updated.

Since last August, more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled a brutal military crackdown in the Buddhist majority country of Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship and reportedly face an array of human rights abuses, to seek refuge in Bangladesh.

And many other Rohingya refugees were turned away, leaving thousands stranded at sea.

During the first month of a military crackdown in Myanmar in late August, aid group Médecins Sans Frontières estimated a minimum of 6,700 Rohingya were killed in attacks and at least 2,700 others died from disease and malnutrition.

Myanmar’s government, however, put the death toll figure in the hundreds.

» RELATED: Rohingya living in 'no man's land' insist they will stay

Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein, the United Nations human rights chief, has called what's happening to Rohingya in Myanmar “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

A report published by global rights group Amnesty International detailed evidence of mass killings, torture, rape and forcible transfers of the Rohingya, Al-Jazeera reported.

Senior UN official Yanghee Lee echoed genocide concerns. "I am becoming more convinced that the crimes committed following 9 October 2016 and 25 August 2017 bear the hallmarks of genocide and call in the strongest terms for accountability," Lee told the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday.

» RELATED: What's behind Rohingya exodus from Myanmar

Who are the Rohingya and where do they live?

n this Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, photo, Rohingya refugee Muhammad Ayub shows off a picture of his grandfather allegedly killed during recent violence in Myanmar, in Klang on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Recent violence in Myanmar has driven hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to seek refuge across the border in Bangladesh. There are some 56,000 Rohingya refugees registered with the U.N. refugee agency in Malaysia, with an estimated 40,000 more whose status has yet to be assessed.

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The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group living primarily in the Buddhist nation of Myanmar (or Burma). There are approximately 1.1 million Rohingya living in the country, though hundreds of thousands continue to flee.

According to Al Jazeera, the Rohingya have been described as the "world's most persecuted minority," and have faced systematic persecution since Myanmar's independence in the late 1940s.

» RELATED: The Rohingya crisis explained in maps

Most Rohingya in Myanmar reside in the Rakhine State on the country’s western coast.

Rakhine State is regarded as one of the country’s poorest states and lacks basic services in education and health care.

The Rohingya’s history in Myanmar

According to historians, the group has been residing in Arakan (now Rakhine State) since as early as the 12th century, Al Jazeera reported.

When the British ruled between 1824 and 1948, they administered Myanmar as a province of India and, thus, any migration of laborers between Myanmar and other South Asian countries (like Bangladesh) was considered internal. The majority of the native Myanmar population did not like that.

» RELATED: From India to Malaysia, Rohingya face hardship, uncertainty

After gaining independence in 1948, the Burmese government still frowned upon any migration that occurred during the period of British rule, claiming it all to be illegal.

In fact, many Buddhists in Myanmar consider the Ronhingya to be Bengali, or people from Bangladesh.


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The discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law officially prevented them from obtaining citizenship.

And according to a Human Rights Watch report from 2000, this is the basis the Myanmar government uses to deny Rohingya citizenship in the country.

Over the years, military crackdowns on the Rohingya have forced hundreds of thousands to escape.

According to the HRW report, Rohingya refugees reported that the Burmese army had forcibly evicted them. Many also alleged widespread army brutality, rape and murder.

Between 1991 and 1992, more than 250,000 Rohingya refugees fled to southeastern Bangladesh. But with the influx of refugees, the Bangladeshi government insisted the refugees return to Arakan (Rakhine State).

By 1997, according to the HRW report, some 230,000 refugees returned.

That same year, the Burmese government said it would not accept any more returning refugees after Aug. 15, 1997, leading to a series of disturbances in Bangladeshi refugee camps.

The Human Rights Watch has called the crisis a deadly game of “human ping-pong.”

» RELATED: US to give $32M for Myanmar’s Rohingya refugee

What’s happening to the Rohingya now?

Myanmar, a Buddhist majority country, continues to deny the Rohingya citizenship, freedom to travel, access to education and the group still faces harsh systematic persecution.

In October 2016, the Burmese government blamed members of the Rohingya for the killings of nine border police, leading to a crackdown on Rakhine State villages in which troops were accused of rape, extrajudicial killing and other human rights abuses — all allegations they denied.

In August 2017, violence erupted after a Rohingya armed rebel group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvatian Army (ARSA) attacked police posts and an army base in Rakhine, Al Jazeera reported.

ARSA has reportedly killed a dozen Burmese security personnel in the past. And according to the Washington Post, it's unclear how much support the rebel group, which seeks an autonomous Muslim state for the Rohingya, actually has among the Rohingya.

Following the August event, civilians began paying the price for ARSA’s small insurgency as Burma’s military launched a “clearance operation,” which U.N. commisioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” the Washington Post reported.

During the first month of a military crackdown in late August, at least 6,700 Rohingya are estimated to have died in attacks. That's according to aid group Médecins Sans Frontière, which interviewed several thousand Rohingya refugees in four Bangladeshi camps in late October and early November.

According to the MSF news release, the Rohingya death toll following the crackdown could be as high as 13,759, including at least 1,000 children under the age of 5.

The Myanmar government has the figure in the hundreds.

According to CNN, the country continues to deny all charges, and says its military has only targeted the suspected ARSA terrorists that killed 12 security officials in late August. In January, however, the military admitted involvement in the killing of 10 Rohingya buried in a mass grave.

Satellite images have also shown Rohingya villages burning — at least 288 villages so far, according to an Amnesty International report.

The report said Myanmar authorities are building security force bases and bulldozing land where Rohingya villages were destroyed.

"What we are seeing in Rakhine State is a land grab by the military on a dramatic scale. New bases are being erected to house the very same security forces that have committed crimes against humanity against Rohingya," Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International's crisis response director, said. "This makes the voluntary, safe and dignified return of Rohingya refugees an even more distant prospect. Not only are their homes gone, but the new construction is entrenching the already dehumanizing discrimination they have faced in Myanmar."

Why won’t other neighboring countries take them in?

More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh to escape the aforementioned allegations of human rights abuses such as rape, murder and arson, according to the United Nations.

Women, children and the elderly made up two-thirds of that group.

“Hidden behind closed doors in the sprawling [Bangladesh] refugee camps, many Rohingya women and girls continue to be exploited and abused,” Al Jazeera reported.

Approximately 40,000 have also settled in India and 16,000 of which have obtained official refugee documentation.

But severe flooding in Bangladesh and India have made conditions in refugee camps even worse and according to National Geographic, there have been reports of cholera outbreaks, water shortages and malnutrition.

Many of Myanmar’s neighboring countries, including Bangladesh and Thailand, refuse to take in anymore Rohingya refugees.

The Thai navy has actually turned them away.

Over the past three years, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have tried to escape by boat to neighboring countries that refuse to let them in.

More than 8,000 migrants have been stranded at sea.

Lex Rieffel, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Brookings Institution, told NPR in 2015 that the Buddhist-majority nation of Thailand has been battling an Islamist insurgency for decades and has "no stomach" for bringing in more Muslims.

"Where will the budget come from? That money will need to come from Thai people's taxes, right?" Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters in 2015.

Malaysia and Indonesia, despite being Muslim-majority nations, have also prevented Rohingya from entering their countries, citing “social unrest.” And Indonesia worries about “an uncontrolled influx.”

"What do you expect us to do?" Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Jafaar told The Guardian in 2015. "We have been very nice to the people who broke into our border. We have treated them humanely, but they cannot be flooding our shores like this."

In December, the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments said they were working on a plan to send hundreds of thousands of refugees back to Myanmar, but according to Al Jazeera, the United Nations and other rights groups said the plan is flawed, because it doesn't guarantee safety when they return.

In response to the complaints, Bangladesh announced plans to build nearly 1,500 barrack houses and 120 shelter centers on 150 acres of land on the island of Thangar Char.

According to CNN, the country is also building a 3,000-acre refugee camp at Kutapalong, near the Myanmar border.

What is Aung San Suu Kyi saying?

The crisis has drawn worldwide criticism of Myanmar's government and its leader, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi.

Most human rights activists have denounced Suu Kyi for not publicly condemning the Myanmar military’s treatment of the Rohingya.

According to the BBC, Suu Kyi said "a huge iceberg of misinformation" was distorting the crisis.

“We know very well, more than most, what it means to be deprived of human rights and democratic protection,” she is quoted as saying to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a recent statement. “So, we make sure that all the people in our country are entitled to protection of their rights as well as, the right to, and not just political but social and humanitarian defence.”

But the misinformation or “fake news” is possibly generated by the Burmese government’s decision to deny media access to its troubled areas, BBC’s Tn Htar Swe said.

"If they allowed the UN or human rights bodies to go to the place to find out what is happening then this misinformation is not going to take place.”

Condemnation of Suu Kyi's inaction and response have led to calls for the rescindment of her Nobel Peace Prize, which she won in 1991 as a result of her long fight for democracy in Burma. According to the Washington Post, the Nobel Committee said that will not happen.

In December, Dubin, Ireland, rescinded an honorary title from Suu Kyi amid her "muted response to the ethnic cleansing of Muslim Rohingyas," Time reported.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum also rescinded its Elie Wiesel human rights award to Suu Kyi.

"We had hoped that you — as someone we and many others have celebrated for your commitment to human dignity and universal human rights — would have done something to condemn and stop the military's brutal campaign and to express solidarity with the targeted Rohingya population," the Holocaust Museum wrote in an open letter.

Other cities, including Oxford, London and Sheffield have rescinded similar accolades.

According to the New York Times, Bill Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico and longtime friend of Suu Kyi, resigned from Myanmar's advisory board on the Rohingya crisis in January and called it a pro-government "cheerleading squad." He also accused her of "an arrogance of power."

Nobel laureates Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai, have also publicly criticized Suu Kyi.

» RELATED: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi cancels U.N. trip amid outcry over Rohingya slaughter

How is the world reacting to the Rohingya crisis?

Bangladesh, which is facing the largest influx of Rohingyas from Myanmar, has called on the international community to intervene.

In January, both countries agreed to complete the return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled an army crackdown in Myanmar within two years.

In response, UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said the Rohingya should return voluntarily only when they feel it is safe to do so. The U.S. echoed similar sentiments.

International aid to much of Myanmar's Rakhine State have been suspended, leaving more than 250,000 Rohingya Muslims without medical care, food and other vital humanitarian assistance, the Human Rights Watch reported last September.

“The United Nations, ASEAN, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation need to ramp up the pressure on Burma, and provide more assistance to Bangladesh, to promptly help Rohingya and other displaced people,” Philippe Bolopion, deputy director for global advocacy at Human Rights Watch said.

» RELATED: Southeast Asia: End Rohingya Boat Pushbacks

The U.S. State Department also announced plans to dispense about $32 million in humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya ethnic minority facing persecution in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

“Through this support, the United States will help provide emergency shelter, food security, nutritional assistance, health assistance, psychosocial support, water, sanitation and hygiene, livelihoods, social inclusion, non-food items, disaster and crisis risk reduction, restoring family links, and protection to over 400,000 displaced persons in Burma and in Bangladesh,” the press release stated.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the world's largest Muslim body, also issued a statement urging Muslim countries to work together to help the Rohingya refugees.

Earlier in 2017, the United Nations Human Rights Council approved an investigative mission, but was denied entry into Myanmar in June. And when an envoy entered in July, it was met with protests.

The U.N. Security Council condemned the violence, its first unified statement on Myanmar in nine years, the New York Times reported.

But, according to the New York Times, the U.N. is unlikely to act against Myanmar.

China also blocked Egypt’s efforts to add language for Rohingya refugees to be guaranteed the right to return to Myanmar from Bangladesh.

Both China and Russie hold veto power in the U.N. Security Council and can block efforts to sanction Myanmar.

More at NYTimes.com.

Who is helping the Rohingya?

Aid groups continue efforts to reach Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and send aid to refugee camps.

The United Nations has pledged roughly $340 million and according to Mark Lowcock of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the U.N. and its partners are seeking $434 million to help the Rohingya Muslims through February.

In December, a United Nations-backed campaign also began immunizing Rohingya children in Bangladesh against diphtheria, following an outbreak that resulted in nine deaths in the country's refugee camps.

According to the Indian Express, India sent an aircraft with the first shipment of humanitarian assistance to Bangladesh for Rohingya Muslim refugees in September.

Bangladeshi citizens themselves are also among those providing aid and shelter to the many starving Rohingya refugees in their country.

Canadians have contributed more than $37.5 million to the crisis so far, according to international development minister Marie-Claude Bibeau.

Jordan's queen, Queen Rania, said in October after visiting a refugee camp in Bangladesh that she was shocked by the refugees' limited access to basic support and health care, the Dhaka Tribune reported.

“It is unforgivable that this crisis is unfolding, largely ignored by the international community," she said. "The world response has been muted. I urge the U.N. and the international community to do more to ensure we can bring peace to this conflict.”

According to the Human Rights Watch, the Tatmadaw True News Information Team announced a military-led investigation of security forces in the Rakhine State.

"We want to go home and we want peace. But I believe the world is watching our crisis and that they are trying to help us," Rahimol Mustafa, a 22-year-old Rohingya Muslim told Al Jazeera in an interview.

Read Mustafa’s story at Al Jazeera.com.

Mustafa fled Rakhine State a few weeks ago and is currently safe at a refugee camp in Bangladesh, but with “no shelter and no future.”

The following nonprofit organizations have campaigns to help the Rohingya:

International Campaign for the Rohingya


Amnesty International

Doctors Without Borders

Save the Children