Already widely reduced to statelessness and in many cases forced into camps for displaced people, an 800,000-strong population of Muslims in western Burma now faces increasing efforts to eradicate the very word they use to identify themselves as a group. Under pressure from Burma’s nominally-civilian government, the international community sometimes appears complicit in the airbrushing of “Rohingya” from official discourse.

In this briefing, let us examine some of the questions about a group of people that has been called one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

Who are the Rohingya?

Approximately 800,000 Rohingyas live in Burma. Tens of thousands have fled in recent decades to Malaysia, up to half a million to neighbouring Bangladesh, and an unknown number are scattered from Thailand, to India, to Saudi Arabia. [ ] [ ]


A 1799 study lists an identity called “Rooinga” in what is now Burma’s Rakhine State. However, a historian in March 2014 argued that “this term has only become popular since the late 1990s”. [ ] [ ] [

Some Muslims were brought to Burma territory under British rule in the 19th and 20th centuries, fuelling a popular claim that more continue to pour over the border from Bangladesh, which has been refuted by economists.  

Why are they so marginalized?

For years, Rohingyas have had their rights – from movement to reproduction to citizenship – restricted by what a Bangkok-based human rights organization called deliberate state-designed “policies of persecution”.

In July and October 2012, violence erupted between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingyas. The outbursts and ensuing round-ups by security forces resulted in 140,000 people, mostly Rohingyas, being held in government-built camps.

Meanwhile, government officials openly promised to tighten regulations on Rohingya movement and other rights.

Nearly two years later, the outgoing UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma said: “The pattern of widespread and systematic human rights violations in Rakhine State may constitute crimes against humanity.” [

What does the Burmese government say?

When Burma’s reform-minded president, Thein Sein, addressed the UN General Assembly in 2012, he referenced the Rakhine violence without naming parties to the conflict.

U Shwe Maung, a Rohingya member of parliament, said: “When I talk about the Rohingyas with government officials, they just go silent. They know their silence is extremely powerful.”

The politician argues that the term appeared in a government-published geography textbook as recently as 2008.

However, in response to a September 2014 announcement that Bangladesh would repatriate some of the verified Burma citizens it hosts, the Burmese government rejected the name of the group itself, saying: “We have never had ethnic nationals called ‘Rohingya'”. [ ] [

What happened in the 2014 census?

Burma had not conducted a census in 30 years, and partnered with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) for its 2014 survey.

Despite warnings from local leaders, the Transnational Institute (TNI), the International Crisis Group (ICG) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), the questionnaire included a particularly contentious item: a question about ethnicity for which a 1982 list of 135 ethnic groups, which does not include “Rohingya,” would be used. [ ] [

The government initially promised they would allow Rohingyas to self identify on an open-ended “other” option. But two days before the start of enumeration in March 2014, international aid workers fled western Burma after being targeted by Buddhist mobs who attacked their offices over perceived humanitarian bias towards Rohingyas. The government reneged on its promise to record “Rohingya” on security grounds. ] [

Anyone who asked to be recorded as “Rohingya” went uncounted; some were allowed to be listed as “Bengali”. “Both options entailed denial of the ethnic group’s existence,” prominent international lawyer Geoffrey Nice and analyst Francis Wade wrote in a May 2014 article, which warned that the Rohingya were likely to fall victim to more organized violence.

“The census team asked me ‘what is your ethnicity?’ When I answered ‘Rohingya’, they walked away. They didn’t even ask me any of the other questions,” Nor Mohammed, 60, who lives in the Dar Paign camp in Rakhine State, said. “Now if we don’t appear in the census, are we really here?”

In Rakhine State before enumeration, opposition to any use of the term Rohingya proved far more serious than anticipated” and that “UNFPA voiced regret that people could not self-identify and were consequently not included in the census. In a statement the agency said the move “could heighten tensions in Rakhine State.”

In the wake of the census, David Matheison, HRW’s senior Burma researcher lamented “the failure of the government, the UN and international donors to take action to effectively address the ethnic and religious divides that help fuel instability, violence and disenfranchisement”. [

An international observer report called the census process in Rohingya areas “a complete failure”, explaining that Rohingyas “very much wanted to participate in the census but were prevented from doing so by the census field staff and the Department of Population officials.”

Why does exclusion from the census matter?

While an ethnicity question (along with religion and language) is not mandatory on a census, about 85 percent of countries do include it. [

However, he explained, if ethnicity is included, there are guidelines for asking the question: “Ethnicity should be a completely blank line. Even if you list five options for ethnicity and have a line marked ‘other’, you are in a certain way appearing to limit the choice of responses. The enumerator must not guide responses in any way.”

In September the government released provisional results from the census, but said ethnicity data would not be published until 2015 on the grounds that such data could enflame intercommunal tensions. ] [

Nonetheless, census information, with a zero count for Rohingya and an unknown number of people registered as “Bengali”, appears to be informing citizenship verification programmes, designed to determine who is eligible for documents based on how long their families have lived in Burma.

However, for those who qualify, documents will come without the label “Rohingya,” and probably with “Bengali” instead. According to HRW, “the stipulations of the Burma Citizenship Law governing the right to one of the three types of Burmese citizenship effectively deny to the Rohingya the possibility of acquiring a nationality.” ] [

The government is running verification programmes in several locations, including Rakhine’s Myebon Township, which was razedin the 2012 violence, and where a high percentage of people reportedly accepted “Bengali” as their ethnicity on the 2014 census. [ ] [

Some cling intensely to the identity term.

“I am Rohingya, I am not Bengali,” said Muhammad Uslan, 58. “I’m holding onto the name no matter what. In 2012 the Rakhines attacked us for our ethnicity, and today if they want to try to kill me again, they can – I’m not changing it.”

Others are open to the idea of shedding the Rohingya label in exchange for more rights.

“If we get equal rights with other ethnic groups by calling ourselves Bengalis, then we should accept that name,” said Hamid Huq, a 36-year-old living in a camp outside Sittwe.

However, even in his assertions, Huq retains distrust of the government and acknowledges pressure to change identity terms has been increasing.

“At every meeting we have with government officials, they always tell us we are going to have to register as Bengalis. But the government must declare it genuinely equal citizenship. I don’t trust this government so they must say this specifically or I won’t believe them,” he said.

“Even when foreign missions come to meet with us, Western government officials take us to the side and tell us that we should accept Bengali so we can leave the camps.”

What do international actors say?

In June 2014 after local media reported that the government had asked the UN Children’s Fund to apologize for using “Rohingya” in a presentation, UNICEF called the incident “an oversight”, asserting that the agency “had no intention of engaging in a discussion on [the] sensitive issue of ethnicity at that forum”.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon continues to use the term in his speeches about Burma.

In July, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma explained at the conclusion of her mission to the country: “I was repeatedly told not to use the term ‘Rohingya’ as this was not recognized by the government.”

A joint OCHA/UNDP mission to Rakhine ending on 11 September mentioned “ethnic Rakhine” and “Muslim” communities, but not “Rohingya”. An ICRC statement one day earlier used the same terms.–undp-assistant-administrator-haoliang-xu-an/

In June 2012, hundreds Burmese Muslims were butchered, and many more injured and made homeless in Burma as a result religious intolerance by the Buddhist majority.

Rights activists called for international monitors to safeguard the lives of thousands of Muslim Rohingya in Burma’s western Rakhine State following an outbreak of another round of deadly sectarian violence in October 2012.

“We are begging international observers to come and witness what is actually happening – to stop the violence and attacks on innocent civilians,” Mohammad Nawsim, secretary of the Rohingya Human Rights Association based in Bangkok, said.

His call comes one week after serious clashes, the second in less than five months, erupted between Muslim Rohingya and ethnic (mainly Buddhist) Rakhine across eight Rakhine townships (Kyaukpyu, Kyauktaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Myebon, Pauktaw, Ramree and Rathedaung) on 21 October.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs [ ], more than 28,000 residents were displaced, more than 4,600 homes and religious buildings destroyed, and at least 76 people killed.

These figures do not include several thousand people who have fled their houses by sea, nor those who have arrived in Sittwe (the Rakhine State capital) since 21 October, OCHA said.

100,000 in IDP camps

The latest displacement follows a major outbreak of communal violence in June after the alleged rape of a Rakhine woman by a group of Muslim men in May, which left some 75,000, mostly Rohingya residents, displaced, the vast majority in nine overcrowded IDP camps in Sittwe.

The latest unrest brings the number of displaced now in camps in Rakhine to more than 100,000, putting a further strain on ongoing assistance by the government, the UN [ ], and its partners on the ground.

Timely action and unhindered access are critical for life-saving assistance to reach these people, according to the UN, which is having difficulty accessing all those in need.

“As a clear benchmark, there should be unfettered ’round the clock’ international access,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), including the presence of a UN human rights monitoring office [ ] in the country. “This is a top-level critical issue that needs to be addressed.”

On 27 October, HRW released satellite imagery [ ] it had received showing extensive destruction of homes and other property in a predominantly Rohingya area of the coastal town of Kyauk Pyu – one of several areas of new violence and displacement and where a major pipeline carrying Burmese gas to China begins.

More than 800 homes and buildings were destroyed, with many Rohingya in the town fleeing by sea towards Sittwe, 200km to the north.

“There has been no serious drive to prosecute those who have been instigating this hatred and violence,” said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, an advocacy organization for the Rohingya.

Fragile stability

Meanwhile, an uneasy calm has reportedly been restored across Rakhine State following a significant increase in security forces on the streets of affected towns and villages, state media reported.

The government-owned New Light of Burma [ ] said the region “is under control”.

According to the authorities, there are now 5,000 police officers deployed, as well as 1,000 border security forces. Additionally, the Burmese army reportedly has 10,000 troops in the region.

Lewa noted, however, that even during the ongoing state of emergency, monks [ ] were allowed to demonstrate, basically promoting hatred by demanding the expulsion of Muslims.

“People in power, people in authority need to be taking a strong stance to not tolerate this any more,” Lewa said.

Earlier, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, said the international community should ensure that “human rights considerations remain at the forefront of its engagement with Burma during this period of transition”.

The Burmese military government, far from trying to resolve the problem and protect the minority, has been silently conniving with the rioters by creating greater hardships for the Muslim minority.

The reason of this June 2012 riot is unknown except for the periodical outbursts of the Burmese Buddhists to show their might and vent their anger on the helpless minority. It is commonly accepted that the June 2012 massacre of Burmese Muslims was intentionally orchestrated by the rioters in collaboration with the government. Yet the world, including the UN, is conveniently silent.

As in India, anti-Muslim riots are nothing unusual in Burma.

Violence in Burma against Muslims have been erupting periodically since the 1920s based simply on religious intolerance by the Buddhist majority.

The Muslims of Burma mainly belong to the Arakan state in western Burma. They are known as Rohingya or Burmese Muslims. The term “Rohingya” has been derived from the Arabic word “Raham” meaning sympathy. Muslim settlements began being established in the Arakan province of Burma since the arrival of the Arabs in the 8th century.

Presently about 800,000 Rohingya live in Burma. The United Nations describes them as “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.” Yet it has never bothered to help them.

Religious freedom for Muslims in Burma has been systematically curbed. In the post 9/11 era, random accusations of “terrorism” against Muslims have become a common form of persecution and harassment by Burmese Buddhists. Burmese Government does not consider Rohingya Muslims as citizens and they are hated by the Buddhist majority. Rohingya Muslims in Burma have long demanded recognition as an indigenous ethnic group with full citizenship by birthright. But the Government regards them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh and denies them citizenship.

The notorious master hypocrite and undercover CIA agent, Dalai Lama, continues to globe trot without mentioning a single word of the dangerously growing Buddhist intolerance in Burma, Thailand, Tibet and across the world. Such intolerance and persecution invariably result in resistance by the oppressed. Many Muslims have joined armed resistance groups, fighting for greater freedom in Burma.

On June 3, 2012, eight Muslims returning to Rangoon in a bus after visiting a Masjid in the Arakan province were attacked by a mob of hundreds of Buddhists and slaughtered brutally. An eye-witness reported that after the mass murder “the culprits were celebrating triumph spitting and tossing wine and alcohol on the dead bodies lying on the road.”

“These innocent people have been killed like animals,” said Abu Tahay, of the National Democratic Party for Development, which represents the country’s much-persecuted stateless Muslim Rohingya community.

The Rohingya Muslims of Burma have continued to suffer from human rights violations under the Burmese junta since 1970s. Over the years thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled to neighboring countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Bangladesh etc. Even as refugees they have been facing hardships and have suffered persecution by the Thai government. In February 2009, a group of 5 boats packed with Burmese Rohingya Muslims were taken out and abandoned in the open sea by the Thai army. Four of these boats sank in a storm and one was washed ashore near the Indonesian islands. The few survivors who were rescued by Indonesian authorities told horrific stories of being captured and beaten by the Thai military and then abandoned at open sea.

Being “peaceful” or “humble” (as claimed by their biased supporters) is a far cry concerning the Burmese Buddhists. Their vindictive temperament prowls for vendetta, waiting to use even the most insignificant occurrence as an excuse to perpetrate violence on Burmese Muslims. At any time, if there’s some ethnic disturbance between Muslims and Buddhists/Hindus in any other country, the Burmese Buddhists waste no time going on a murderous spry killing the Muslim minority in Burma. If there is the slightest of trouble between Muslims and non-Muslims in Indonesia, it’s taken as a pretext to kill Muslims in Burma by Buddhist mobs. The destruction of the statues in Bamiyan (Afghanistan), created an immediate excuse to commit violence against Muslims in Burma in 2001. The firebrand Buddhist monks demanded a Muslim masjid to be destroyed in retaliation. Mobs of Buddhists led by monks, vandalized Muslim-owned businesses and property in Burma, and attacked and killed Muslims in Muslim communities.

Gruesome images of murdered Rohingya Muslims in the recent June 2012 riots in Burma have been circulated on websites, resulting in protests in several Muslim countries and by various human rights activists around the world demanding justice & protection in Burma for the minority, but has fallen on deaf ears as usual, getting little or no coverage from mainstream news channels.

As if the above was not enough, the government of Bangladesh has ordered three international NGOs to stop providing services to Muslim ethnic Rohingya refugees from Burma, fearing such services will encourage an “influx” of people fleeing recent sectarian violence in the neighbouring country.

The international medical relief agency, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Action Against Hunger, and the UK-based Muslim Aid were recently ordered to suspend their services in Cox’s Bazar, a district bordering Burma, where tens of thousands of mostly undocumented Rohingya refugees live in makeshift camps clustered around two government-run ones.

Calling the influx argument “groundless”, director of The Arakan Project, an advocacy organization for the Rohingya, said: “Basic health-related services are not a pull-factor, and no increase of population has been observed in these two camps.”

She said the problem lies in push-factors in Burma, including “violence, insecurity, mass arrests and aid boycott”.

Bangladesh’s prime minister declared in June that the country could not take in any more Rohingyas due to already strained services and a dense population.

The Rohingya are not legally recognized in Burma, where they have long struggled with a lack of access to healthcare, social services and education.

The Bangladeshi authorities estimate that there are more than 200,000 Rohingya in the country, of whom some 30,000 are officially registered in the government-run camps.

MSF confirmed that they had been ordered to stop services at its Kutupalong clinic in Cox’s Bazar, where they provided outpatient and inpatient care, maternity services, family planning, vaccinations and mental healthcare to 55,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi patients in 2011.

MSF spokesman declined to comment on the ban, saying the agency is in discussion with the government and is “keen not to jeopardize ongoing talks”.

The ban is hitting an area with an already critical humanitarian situation. “Any expulsion would make conditions worse, especially during the monsoon, and not just for refugees but also for the local population, which these agencies also serve.”

Some 47 people died in recent flooding in Cox’s Bazar, a disaster-prone district that is among the country’s poorest, where one in every five children under the age of five is malnourished, according to the UN World Food Programme.

A spokeswoman for the UNHCR expressed the agency’s concern, saying, “We urge the government of Bangladesh to reconsider this request [to halt services.”

Displaced Rohingya living “worse than animals”

As of October 2012, nearly 75,000 people living in temporary camps and shelters following inter-communal conflict in Rakhine State in June face deteriorating living conditions.

“Right now the displaced are facing health problems from diarrhoea, fevers and colds. A lot of them are living together in small spaces,” said secretary of the Rohingya Human Rights Association (RHRA) based in Bangkok. “Their condition is worse than animals.”

As of 25 September, the government estimated some 72,000 from the (mainly Muslim) Rohingya ethnic group and almost 3,000 people from the (mainly Buddhist) Rakhine ethnic group are displaced. They are staying in 40 camps and temporary sites in Sittwe and Kyauktaw townships, from where they are still able to access schools and work.

Immediately after the outbreak of violence in June, aid agencies visited areas in four affected townships and identified sanitation and clean water as major needs. At the time, only about 30 percent of the surveyed displaced persons had access to clean water, while six out of 10 people did not have any way to store it even if they secured some.

A number of camps had only one latrine serving 100 persons. Little has changed in recent months. Young and elderly Rohingya in the temporary camps along the road leading west out Sittwe (capital of Rakhine State) as well as Sittwe township are falling ill due to fetid living conditions.

Long-simmering ethnic and religious tensions between Rakhine State’s majority population from the Rakhine ethnic group and its minority Rohingya population erupted in early June [ ] after the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by a group of Rohingya.


Meanwhile, Rohingya both in the camps and villages have reported arbitrary arrests and detention, and frequent phone calls with those in and around camps and shelters for the displaced.

“They send me messages and then I call them back but it’s still very dangerous for them to have mobile phones because the soldiers will search them often. They used Bangladesh mobile phones. The phone only works for a while so when I get on the phone they will give me all details such as how many people are missing and which villages they come from.”

Deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division based in Bangkok, said the displaced are “effectively restricted to camps by both the security forces and by the violent attacks they fear from the Rakhine community.”

Most Muslims have shuttered their former businesses and left Sittwe after the authorities ordered their departure, said director of the Arakan Project, an advocacy organization for the Rohingya.

While supplies and relief are getting into the camps, delivery is still hampered.

Many of the staff of the NGOs are local workers and are afraid to go to the Muslim camps – not so much that they are afraid to be attacked by Muslims in the camps, but they are mostly afraid that if the Rakhine Buddhists see that they are assisting the Muslims, they will be attacked by their own community.

According to a 4 September report [ ] from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “humanitarian partners remain concerned that access is still limited to some affected areas and townships outside of Sittwe,” which includes aid groups working with Rohingya before the most recent bloodshed which have now been forced to discontinue their services.

International aid workers report being unable to get travel authorization to work in affected northern townships in Rakhine State, including Maungdaw, which borders on Bangladesh and where almost 500 homes were burnt down in the violence.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled persecution in Myanmar over the past three decades, the vast majority to Bangladesh in the 1990s.

International aid efforts

UN Secretary-General and Burma’s President Thein Sein discussed how to address the root causes of inter-communal tensions in Rakhine State, including through development efforts, on 29 September at the recent UN General Assembly meeting in New York. The president said the government would address the needs [ ].

The Burmese government signed a memorandum of understanding with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in mid-August to facilitate OIC partner organizations’ humanitarian assistance to displaced Rohingya. The head of international relief and development of Qatar Red Crescent Society, Khaled Diab, said his chapter will carry out relief work estimated at US$1.5 million [ ] among displaced Rohingya over the next six months – and possibly longer depending on funding – in health, shelter, water and sanitation.

A multi-agency Rakhine Response Plan [ ] estimates it will take some $32.5 million to cover basic emergency needs until the end of the year for an estimated 80,000 displaced.

Most people in the camps believe they will never be able to go back to the town, even though the government says the camps are only temporary.

Aid groups working in Rakhine State are meeting in Myanmar’s capital – most recently on 22-23 September – to review longer-term issues of relief, rehabilitation and rule of law in the state.

According to the UN database which records international humanitarian aid, the Financial Tracking Service [ ], and not-yet-recorded recent donor announcements, some $11 million has been pledged or contributed to humanitarian assistance in Rakhine State this year.