The Rohingya are a minority who practice Islam and primarily live in Rakhine State, near the border with Bangladesh. They speak a regional Bengali dialect and resemble Bangladeshis, with darker skin than most people in Burma, which is mostly Buddhist. Descendants of South Asians from the Indian subcontinent, they are widely regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are heavily discriminated against. “Bengalis” is the a term common in Myanmar for the Rohingya, indicating the belief that they belong in Bangladesh.

The United Nations estimates the Rohingya population in Burma at 800,000, but the Burma government does not recognize them as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups. Most are denied citizenship and have no passports, though many of their families have lived in the country for generations. Bangladesh also refuses to accept them as citizens. Khin Yi, a Myanmar minister, told Reuters there are 1.33 million Rohingya in the country of 60 million people, above past estimates of 800,000. He said 1.08 million are in Rakhine State. Only about 40,000 had citizenship, he said.

Rakhine state in home to 80 percent of the Royingya in Myanmar. Rakhine lies in a region of Burma traditionally known as Arakan state. Most Rohingya are to three districts in Rakhine— Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung. Most are stateless, recognized as citizens neither by Myanmar nor neighboring Bangladesh. They are the world’s largest stateless population.

The Rohingya language is is an Indo-European language linguistically related to the Chittagonian language spoken in the southernmost part of Bangladesh bordering Burma. The Rohingya people practice Sunni Islam with elements of Sufi worship. Because the government restricts educational opportunities for them, many pursue fundamental Islamic studies as their only educational option. Mosques and religious schools are present in most villages. Traditionally, men pray in congregations and women pray at home.

Rohingya Muslims are officially considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are denied the rights of citizenship, though many of their families have lived in Burma for generations. The Myanmar government says the Rohingya are Muslim migrants from Bangladesh who arrived during British colonial rule between 1824 and 1948. Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Act excluded Rohingya from Myanmar's 135 recognized ethnic groups, effectively rendering them stateless. It stripped them of their nationality, and limited their movement, ability to marry and other basic rights. Bangladesh also disowns them and has refused to grant them refugee status since 1992.

According to Human Rights Watch: “Though many Rohingya have only known life in Myanmar, they are viewed by Rakhine's estimated three million Buddhists as intruders from neighboring Bangladesh. The Rohingya number approximately one million in Burma and were effectively stripped of their citizenship in 1982 through the discriminatory Citizenship Law. There has been little political will to repeal the law due to widespread prejudice against Rohingya, including by prominent pro-democracy figures. The government has long restricted their rights to freedom of movement, education, and employment. [Source: Human Rights Watch]

Muslims and Arakan

Muslim settlements have existed in Arakan since the arrival of Arabs there in the 8th century A.D. The direct descendants of Arab settlers are believed to live in central Arakan near Mrauk-U and Kyauktaw townships, rather than the Mayu frontier area, the present day area where a majority of Rohingya are populated, near Chittagong Division, Bangladesh. Early evidence of Bengali Muslim settlements in Arakan date back to the time of King Narameikhla (1430–1434) of the Kingdom of Mrauk U. The Bengalis who came with him formed their own settlements in the region. [Source: Wikipedia]

Narameikhla ceded some territory to the Sultan of Bengal and recognized his sovereignty over the areas. In recognition of his kingdom's vassal status, the kings of Arakan received Islamic titles and used the Bengali Islamic coinage within the kingdom. Narameikhla minted his own coins with Burmese characters on one side and Persian characters on the other. Narameikhla's successors captured Chittagong (in present-day Bangladesh), holding it until 1666, and gained independence from the Sultans of Bengal.

The Arakanese kings were Buddhists but the used Muslim titles., compared themselves to Sultans and fashioned themselves after Mughal rulers. They employed Muslims in prestigious positions within the royal administration. The Bengali Muslim population increased in the 17th century, as they were employed in a variety of workforces in Arakan. Some of them worked as Bengali, Persian and Arabic scribes in the Arakanese courts, which, despite remaining mostly Buddhist, adopted Islamic fashions from the neighbouring Sultanate of Bengal.

Early History of the Rohingya

Following the Burmese conquest of Arakan in 1785, as many as 35,000 Arakanese people fled to the neighbouring Chittagong region of British Bengal in 1799 to avoid Burmese persecution and seek protection from British India. The Burmese rulers executed thousands of Arakanese men and deported a considerable portion of the Arakanese population to central Burma, leaving Arakan as a scarcely populated area by the time the British occupied it. According to an article on the "Burma Empire" published by the British Francis Buchanan-Hamilton in 1799, "the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan," "call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan."

Fighting in border areas in the early 19th century created problems between British India and Burma. In 1826 the British defeated the Bamar in the First Anglo-Burmese War and Rakhine (Arakan) was ceded to Britain under the Treaty of Yandabo. Akyab was then designated the new capital of Rakhine (Arakan). In 1852, Rakhine (Arakan) was merged into Lower Burma as a territorial division.

British policy encouraged Bengali inhabitants from adjacent regions to migrate into the then lightly populated and fertile valleys of Arakan as agriculturalists. The East India Company extended the Bengal administration to Arakan, thus there was no international boundary between Bengal and Arakan, and no restrictions on migration between the regions. In the early 19th century, thousands of Bengalis from the Chittagong region settled in Arakan seeking work. In addition, thousands of Rakhine people from Arakan also settled in Bengal.

The impact of huge waves of south Asian immigration to Burma under the British was particularly acute in Arakan, one of less populated regions. In 1939, the British authorities, alert to the long-term animosity between the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims, recommended securing the border between India and Burma, however, with the onset of World War II, the British retreated from Arakan. On 28 March 1942, around 5,000 Muslims in Minbya and Mrohaung Townships were killed by Rakhine nationalists and Karenni. Meanwhile, Muslims from Northern Rakhine State massacred around 20,000 Arakanese including the Deputy Commissioner U Oo Kyaw Khaing, who was killed while trying to settle the dispute

Rohingya During World War II and After

During World War II, Japanese forces invaded Burma, then under British colonial rule. The British forces retreated and in the power vacuum left behind, considerable violence erupted. This included communal violence between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya villagers. The period also witnessed violence between groups loyal to the British and Burmese nationalists. The British armed Muslim groups in northern Arakan to create a buffer zone from Japanese invasion when they retreated.

During the Second World War, Rakhine (Arakan) was given autonomy under the Japanese occupation and was even granted its own army known as the Arakan Defence Force. The Arakan Defence Force went over to the allies and turned against the Japanese in early 1945.

At the end of the war the Rohingya supported the Allies during and opposed the Japanese forces, assisting the Allies in reconnaissance. The Japanese committed countless acts of of rape, murder and torture against thousands of Rohingya. In this period, some 22,000 Rohingya are believed to have crossed the border into Bengal, then part of British India, to escape the violence. About 40,000 Rohingya eventually fled to Chittagong after repeated massacres by the Burmese and Japanese forces.

Rohingya and After Burmese Independence

In the 1960s, hard-line Gen. Ne Win expelled hundreds of thousands of Muslims whose families had come from India to work. Years later, he forced more than 200,000 Rohingya over the Bangladeshi border. There are up to 250,000 Rohingya living in southern Bangladesh, many of whom fled from Myanmar in the early 1990s complaining of abuses by the army.

In 1948, Rakhine (Arakan) became a division within the Union of Burma. Shortly after, violence broke out along religious lines between Buddhists and Muslims. Later there were calls for secession by the Rakhine (Arakan), but such attempts were subdued. In 1974, the Ne Win government's new constitution granted Rakhine (Arakan) Division "state" status but the gesture was largely seen as meaningless since the military junta held all power in the country and in Rakhine (Arakan). In 1989, the name of Arakan State was changed to "Rakhine" by the military junta.

The Mujahid party was founded by Rohingya elders who supported Jihad movement in northern Arakan in 1947. The aim of the Mujahid party was to create a Muslim Autonomous state in Arakan. They were much more active before the 1962 Burmese coup d'état by General Ne Win. Ne Win carried out some military operations targeting them over a period of two decades. The prominent one was "Operation King Dragon" which took place in 1978; as a result, many Muslims in the region fled to neighboring country Bangladesh as refugees. Nevertheless, the Burmese mujahideen (Islamic militants) are still active within the remote areas of Arakan. The associations of Burmese mujahideen with Bangladeshi mujahideen were significant, but they have extended their networks to the international level and countries, during the recent years. They collect donations, and receive religious military training outside of Burma. In addition to Bangladesh, a large number of Rohingya have also migrated to Karachi, Pakistan.

The military Junta which ruled Burma for half a century, relied heavily on Burmese nationalism and Theravada Buddhism to bolster its rule, and, in the view of US government experts, heavily discriminated against minorities like the Rohingya. But even some pro-democracy dissidents from Burma's ethnic Burman majority refuse to acknowledge the Rohingyas as compatriots. Successive Burmese governments have been accused of provoking riots against ethnic minorities like the Rohingya and Chinese.

Discrimination and Persecution of the Rohingya

The Rohingya are considered by the United Nations to be one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. Unlike other minorities, including several ethnic groups that have waged separatist rebellions for decades, the Rohingya have never been recognized as citizens of Myanmar. In some areas they are barred from traveling, marrying or giving birth without state permission. Sme government officials are calling for implementation of a ban, rarely enforced during the military era, on Rohingya women’s bearing more than two children.

The U.N. refugee agency says the Rohingya are subject to many forms of "persecution, discrimination and exploitation", including forced labour, extortion, police harassment, movement restrictions, land confiscation, a de facto "one child" policy, and limited access to jobs, education, and healthcare. William McGowan wrote in Foreign Policy: “ A 1982 law denies them citizenship based on the presumption that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in Burma for generations. There's also their darker skin color, which makes them "ugly as ogres" by comparison to the "fair and soft" complexion of Burmans, as a Burmese consul stated in 2009.” [Source: William McGowan, Foreign Policy, September 17, 2012]

Myanmar's Buddhist-majority government regards the Rohingyas as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. Bangladesh has refused to grant Rohingyas refugee status since 1992. The United Nations calls them "virtually friendless" and one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. They live under severe government restrictions. Stateless Rohingya cannot freely travel or marry and have limited access to education and healthcare. Many Rohingya have fled to ghettos and refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, and to areas along the Thai-Myanmar border.

According to Amnesty International, the Muslim Rohingya people have continued to suffer from human rights violations under the Burmese junta since 1978, and many have fled to neighboring Bangladesh as a result: “The Rohingyas’ freedom of movement is severely restricted and the vast majority of them have effectively been denied Burma citizenship. They are also subjected to various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation; land confiscation; forced eviction and house destruction; and financial restrictions on marriage. Rohingyas continue to be used as forced labourers on roads and at military camps, although the amount of forced labour in northern Rakhine State has decreased over the last decade.

According to the U.S. Department of State: “Muslims in Rakhine State, particularly those of the Rohingya minority group, continued to experience the severest forms of legal, economic, educational, and social discrimination. There were reports that Buddhist physicians would not provide Muslims the endorsement required by the Ministry of Health that permits Muslims to travel outside Rakhine State to seek advanced medical treatment. The government denied citizenship status to Rohingyas, claiming that their ancestors did not reside in the country at the start of British colonial rule, as the 1982 citizenship law required. The Rohingyas asserted that their presence in the area predates the British arrival by several centuries. In November 2008 the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women urged the government to review its citizenship law. In February 2010 the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar visited the country and noted discrimination against Muslims. Many of the approximately 28,500 Rohingya Muslims registered in two refugee camps in Bangladesh and the estimated 200,000 Rohingya Muslims living outside those camps, also in Bangladesh, refused to return to the country because they feared human rights abuses, including religious persecution. [Source: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor International Religious Freedom Report for 2011 *]

“Essentially treated as illegal foreigners, Rohingyas were not issued Foreigner Registration Cards (FRCs). Since they also were not generally eligible for NRCs, Rohingyas have been commonly referred to as “stateless.” In the run-up to national elections in November 2010, the government issued Temporary Registration Cards (TRCs) to residents in northern Rakhine State; the majority of them are Rohingyas. The issuance of TRCs was primarily done, it appears, to allow Rohingyas participation in the elections. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) worked with approximately 750,000 residents of Rakhine State who did not hold citizenship in the country. At the end of the reporting period, the UNHCR (quoting government estimates) indicated that 85 percent of eligible residents (637,500 stateless persons) over the age of 10 possessed TRCs. The UNHCR noted that according to information from individuals in northern Rakhine State, many individuals issued TRCs were actually only given a TRC number and no document. The UNHCR also assisted Rohingyas with education, health, infrastructure, water and sanitation, and agriculture.*

“Without citizenship status Rohingyas did not have access to secondary education in state-run schools. Those Muslim students from Rakhine State who completed high school were not permitted to travel outside the state to attend college or university. Authorities continued to bar Muslim university students who did not possess NRCs from graduating. These students were permitted to attend classes and sit for examinations, but they could not receive diplomas unless they claimed a “foreign” ethnic minority affiliation. Rohingyas also were unable to obtain employment in any civil service positions. Rohingya couples needed also to obtain government permission to marry and faced restrictions on the number of children they could have. Muslim newcomers were not allowed to buy property or reside in Thandwe, Rakhine State, and authorities prevented Muslims from living in the state’s Gwa or Taungup areas. *

Arakanese Buddhists claim they too have been marginalized by the government, which is dominated by another ethnic group, the Burman.

History of Persecution and Violence Against of the Rohingya

The Rohingya have long been treated as “foreign” by the government and many Burmese, a situation that activists say has led to a deepening alienation from Rakhine’s Buddhists. In 1978 and again in 1991, the military conducted what human rights activists call ethnic cleansing operations against the Rohingya, which resulted in huge refugee flows into Bangladesh.

In 1978 over 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh, following the ‘Nagamin’ (‘Dragon King’) operation of the Myanmar army. Officially this campaign aimed at "scrutinising each individual living in the state, designating citizens and foreigners in accordance with the law and taking actions against foreigners who have filtered into the country illegally." This military campaign directly targeted civilians, and resulted in widespread killings, rape and destruction of mosques and further religious persecution.

During 1991–92 a new wave of over a quarter of a million Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh. They reported widespread forced labour, as well as summary executions, torture, and rape. Rohingyas were forced to work without pay by the Burmese army on infrastructure and economic projects, often under harsh conditions. Many other human rights violations occurred in the context of forced labour of Rohingya civilians by the security forces.

Pockets of sectarian unrest have occasionally broken out in the past across the country, with Rakhine state a flashpoint for tensions. In February 2001, the then-ruling junta declared a curfew in the state capital Sittwe after clashes between Muslims and Buddhists.

As of 2005, the UNHCR had been assisting with the repatriation of Rohingya from Bangladesh, but allegations of human rights abuses in the refugee camps have threatened this effort. Despite earlier efforts by the UN, the vast majority of Rohingya refugees have remained in Bangladesh, unable to return because of the negative attitude of the ruling regime in Myanmar. Now they are facing problems in Bangladesh as well where they do not receive support from the government any longer.

In July 2012, the Myanmar Government did not include the Rohingya minority group–-classified as stateless Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh since 1982—on the government's list of more than 130 ethnic races and therefore the government says that they have no claim to Myanmar citizenship.

Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times, “Since 2012, many Rohingya have been herded into miserable camps they are not allowed to leave, even for work. Those still allowed to live in villages like Du Chee Yar Tan are at the mercy of the local authorities, many of whom are inspired by an extremist Buddhist group whose monks have used the nation’s new freedoms to travel the countryside on motorbikes preaching hatred of Muslims. The only Rohingya doctor in Rakhine State — Dr. Tun Aung, trained before a citizenship law in 1982 disqualified Rohingya for medical school — was jailed after the June 2012 violence. He remains in prison, convicted of inciting violence, despite requests from the United States government for his release, an American official said.[Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, March, 1, 2014]

Rohingya: “Stateless and Friendless”

“The Rohingya are virtually friendless amongst Myanmar’s other ethnic, linguistic and religious communities,” a December 2011 UNHCR report said. Images of squalid camps and reports of perilous attempts to flee to other countries in rickety boats have drawn international attention to their plight in recent years, but living conditions have scarcely improved.

AFP reported: “That animosity extends outside the state and even includes key figures in the democratic movement, long supported by the international community, which has warned the unrest and displacements pose a threat to Myanmar’s reforms. There have also been a series of recent anti-Muslim protests by Buddhists in the country, sometimes led by monks, amid perceptions of a threat to the majority Buddhist religion and fears over Islamic extremism — accusations the Rohingya strongly deny. [Source: AFP, October 27, 2012]

“Neighboring Bangladesh – where the U.N. estimates there are at least 230,000 Rohingya – sees the group as a burden on its strained finances and the refugees are blamed for all sorts of crimes in the southeast of the country ranging from petty theft to drug trafficking. Bangladesh, which has mobilized extra patrols along its river border in response to the latest violence, drew U.N. criticism after it turned back boatloads of Rohingya, mainly women and children, after June’s unrest. Two massive waves of refugees, of approximately 250,000 people each, flooded across the border into Bangladesh in 1978 and 1991-92. Large scale repatriations ensued, with the U.N. questioning the “voluntary” nature of the measure.

“In recent years, other Rohingya migrants have undertaken the dangerous voyage by boat towards Malaysia or Thailand, whose navy was has in the past been accused of towing them back out to sea. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are now thought to live outside Myanmar, including communities in Pakistan and around 400,000 in Gulf states, according to the UNHCR report. Many are also now fleeing to Malaysia, where the U.N. says around 24,000 are registered. Rights groups say there may be thousands living unregistered in the country.

Doctors Without Borders runs clinics in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, home to Rakhine State's largest Rohingya populations. The government does not allow foreign journalists to visit either area.

Hatred and Hostility Towards the Rohingya

The Rohingya have been described as "invaders" and "terrorists" by Burmese using their newfound freedom of expression and easier access to the Internet to vent their anger on social networking sites and express anti-Rohingya sentiments that have simmered for decades. Like their government, many Burmese refuse to recognise the term "Rohingya", referring to them as "Bengalis," and view them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Decades of systematic persecution by the Burmese authorities had made sectarian violence inevitable, Elaine Pearson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, told Reuters. "All those years of discrimination, abuses and neglect are bound to bubble up at some point, and that's what we are seeing now," she said. [Source: Reuters, June 11, 2012]

Associated Press reported: “Maung Than Naing, who also lost his home in an arson attack, blamed the Rohingya for breaking the calm. "These poor Muslim people who live hand to mouth burned their own homes so that they enjoy the U.N. aid where they are given shelter and free food," he said. Human rights groups say racism also plays a role: Many Rohingya, who speak a Bengali dialect and resemble Muslim Bangladeshis, have darker skin and are heavily discriminated against. [Source: Associated Press, October 29, 2012]

According to Reuters: “Sectarian hatred in towns and villages in Rakhine State is mirrored online. "They should shoot at least one (to) make them shut up," read a comment on Facebook under a photo purporting to show rioting Muslims. Twitter users are railing against "Rohingya terrorists," one under the hashtag "#OneThingWeAllHate". These sentiments were echoed by nationalistic blogs such as Won Thar Nu, which ran gruesome photos of what it said were Buddhist victims. It accused the Rohingya of staging a "foreign invasion". [Source: Reuters, June 11, 2012]

Lucile Andre of AFP wrote: “In Sittwe even pronouncing the word Rohingya can ignite passions among people who view them at best as unwanted immigrants from Bangladesh and at worst "invaders". "They are fighting to own the land, occupy the entire state," said Khaing Kaung San, a local activist in education and other areas. "They don't need weapons, just by their numbers they can cover the entire land." It is a sentiment echoed by Shwe Maung, of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, which represents the ethnic Rakhine people. Talking about hostility to Muslims in general, he said: "One day it will be a serious problem, they caused trouble in Thailand, Europe, USA. They try to make trouble in Rakhine State." [Source: Lucile Andre, AFP, June 5, 2012]

According to Human Rights Watch: “Burmese security forces committed killings, rape, and mass arrests against Rohingya Muslims after failing to protect both them and Arakanese Buddhists during deadly sectarian violence in western Burma in June 2012. “Soldiers are not defending us," Kyaw Myint, a Muslim who took refuge at Thechaung camp outside after a wave of anti-Rohingya violence, told Associated Press."I feel as though I am in hell," he said. "We have no one to take care of us, no place to go, and now no job to earn a living." A 37-year-old Rakhine trader named Maung Than Naing, said, "We are helpless because the government is not dealing with the root of the problem. We no longer want to live with the Muslims." [Source: Associated Press, October 29, 2012]

Fear and Bigotry Towards the Rohingya by Buddhists in Rakhine Stae

Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times, “The Rakhine people, a group of about 2.1 million who are fiercely proud of their ancient kingdom, known as Arakan, are fearful of the Rohingya based on “an acute sense of demographic besiegement,” according to a recent article by Kyaw San Wai, a Myanmar citizen who is a senior analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. It is a feeling shared by many Buddhists across Myanmar. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, March, 1, 2014 ^*^]

“Given the lack of a census since 1983, the demographics are imprecise. It is generally accepted by Myanmar and international officials that about 89 percent of the roughly 55 million people in Myanmar are Buddhist and 4 percent are Muslim. The Rohingya are a subset of those Muslims, making the Buddhists’ fear of being overwhelmed seem irrational though it is nonetheless real, the experts say. “Among Burmese Buddhists, there is a widespread belief that Buddhism will disappear in the future,” Mr. Wai wrote. ^*^

“While there is little chance of Muslims taking over the nation, they are enough of a presence here in Rakhine to make their presence felt politically. In the 2010 general election, the central government allowed the Rohingya to vote despite their lack of citizenship, and the results were too close for comfort, said Khaing Pyi Soe, a senior member of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party. The Rakhine candidate in Sittwe won 52 percent of the vote, and the Rohingya candidate 48 percent. Mr. Khaing Pyi Soe and other officials say the Rohingya must not be allowed to vote next year because with many young Rakhine leaving the impoverished region for work elsewhere, the results would be reversed.” ^*^

Buddhism, Race and Discrimination Against Rohingya

William McGowan wrote in Foreign Policy: “ As the violence against the Rohingyas played out, the newly "liberated" Internet lit up with racist invective. Using a pejorative for the darker-skinned Muslims, one commenter declared, "We should kill all the Kalars [a derogatory word meaning "black"] in Burma or banish them, otherwise Buddhism will cease to exist." Meanwhile, monks in Rakhine state distributed pamphlets urging Buddhists not to associate with Rohingyas. Some Buddhist religious groups were also reported to have interfered with the delivery of humanitarian aid to the areas affected by the recent violence. An expat English teacher in Rangoon said in an email that among most Buddhists, even in the educated classes, "There is fairly uniform xenophobia on the [Rohingya] issue and it won't change soon." [Source: William McGowan, Foreign Policy, September 17, 2012]

In September 2012, hundreds of Buddhist monks staged a rally in Mandalay in support of Myanmar president’s proposal to send the Rohingya to another country. The monks held a banner saying, "Save your motherland Myanmar by supporting the president." "For many people, a Burmese is a Buddhist by definition. Buddhism forms an essential part of their identity," Jacques Leider, a historian at the French School of the Far East based in northern Thailand, told AFP. "The situation is explosive and from friction to the clashes is only a matter of lighting the fuse." [Source: Lucile Andre, AFP, June 5, 2012; AP, September 2, 2012 ^]

“Ko Aung Aung, of the exiled Burmese Muslim Association (BMA), told AFP, "The daily relationship with Buddhists is good as long as you know your limited ground and do not cross it," he said. For the majority of people "any crime is a crime", but when a Muslim is suspected "it could be a good reason to riot against them," added Ko Aung Aung, who fled Myanmar in 2004 fearing for his safety because of his activism. "Riots are always possible at any place and any time. So we must be very careful," he said. But a Muslim leader in the town, who asked not to be named, told AFP there was "no religious freedom", adding that authorities rarely granted permission for new mosques to be built, or repairs to be carried out. ^

“Despite decades of isolation, Muslims have also suffered from the images of violence associated with radical Islam, according to a foreign researcher. He said Myanmar's devout Buddhists had been particularly shocked by the destruction of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan by Afghanistan's Taliban regime. "There is a feeling, a fear among the country's Buddhists about being invaded," he added.” ^

A member of the Kaman, a non-Rohingya Muslim minority, told AFP: "My father is Muslim and my mother is Buddhist... They attacked us by defining us as 'Rohingya'. We are not Rohingya. We did not migrate from other countries." said Aye Kyaw, a Kaman who fled the unrest in Kyaukpyu. The 30-year-old, who said his community had lived in Rakhine for centuries, said the Rakhine had "tortured us cruelly" and appealed for protection. [Source: AFP, October 28, 2012]

Myanmar Government Response to the Rohingya Problem

Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times, “Since 2012, many Rohingya have been herded into miserable camps they are not allowed to leave, even for work. Those still allowed to live in villages like Du Chee Yar Tan [where the January 2014 massacre took place] are at the mercy of the local authorities, many of whom are inspired by an extremist Buddhist group whose monks have used the nation’s new freedoms to travel the countryside on motorbikes preaching hatred of Muslims. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, March, 1, 2014 -]

In February 2014, the government ordered Doctors Without Borders, the Rohingya’s main health care provider, to stop providing its services to them. One of the group’s offenses, according to a government official, was the hiring of too many Rohingya. The latest carnage is a major embarrassment for the government, which has just assumed an important position as the annual chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. -

In a sign of the sensitivity, a visit to the village to assess the conflicting reports about the night of Jan. 13 was cut short when local police officers briefly detained two New York Times reporters and a photographer.

In response to a major 2012 spasm of violence in Sittwe that included the firebombing of homes and left an estimated 300 dead, most of them Muslims, President Thein Sein said most Rohingya were in Myanmar illegally, despite their having lived there, in some cases, for generations. His solution: The United Nations should help deport them.

Actions Taken by Local Governments Against the Rohingya

Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times, “Of the 18 townships in Rakhine State, seven have already barred Muslims from using their clinics, foreign aid workers said. And a report released last week by Fortify Rights, a group that specializes in the Rohingya, chronicled a pattern of discrimination by officials that is intensifying as local authorities appear increasingly desperate to drive the group out. A dozen leaked documents dated from 1993 to 2008 showed the government’s efforts to slow the growth of the Rohingya population, including a requirement for official permission to marry and limits on the number of children couples can have. The presidential spokesman, Mr. Ye Htut, dismissed the findings as “a one-sided view of the Bengali.” [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, March, 1, 2014]

Two Child Limit Imposed on Myanmar's Rohingya

In May 2013, Al-Jazeera, reported: “Authorities in Myanmar's western Rakhine state have imposed a two-child limit for Muslim Rohingya families, a policy that does not apply to Buddhists in the area, and comes amid accusations of ethnic cleansing in the aftermath of sectarian violence. Local officials said on Saturday that the new measure would be applied to two Rakhine townships that border Bangladesh and have the highest Muslim populations in the state. The townships, Buthidaung and Maundaw, are about 95 percent Muslim. [Source: Al-Jazeera, May 25, 2013]

The unusual order makes Myanmar perhaps the only country in the world to impose such a restriction on a religious group, and is likely to fuel further criticism that Muslims are being discriminated against in the Buddhist-majority country.China has a one-child policy, but it is not based on religion and exceptions apply to minority ethnic groups. India briefly practised forced sterilisation of men in a bid to control the population in the mid-1970s when civil liberties were suspended during a period of emergency rule, but a nationwide outcry quickly shut down the programme.

Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing said the new programme was meant to stem rapid population growth in the Muslim community, which a government-appointed commission identified as one of the causes of the sectarian violence. Although Muslims are the majority in the two townships in which the new policy applies, they account for only about 4 percent of Myanmar's roughly 60 million people. The measure was enacted a week ago after the commission recommended family planning programs to stem population growth among Muslims, Win Myaing said. The commission also recommended doubling the number of security forces in the volatile region. "The population growth of Rohingya Muslims is 10 times higher than that of the Rakhine (Buddhists)," Win Myaing said. "Overpopulation is one of the causes of tension."

Myanmar Minister Backs Two-child Policy for Rohingya Minority

In June 2013, Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “Myanmar's Immigration Minister has expressed support for a controversial two-child limit on a Muslim minority group that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the United Nations call discriminatory and a violation of human rights. Khin Yi, Minister of Immigration and Population, is the most senior official to publicly support the recently announced enforcement by local authorities of a two-child policy in northwestern Rakhine State for Rohingya Muslims, a stateless minority termed "Bengalis" by the Myanmar government. "This will benefit the Bengali women," Khin Yi said in an interview with Reuters. [Source: Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, June 11, 2013]

A spokesman for the Rakhine State government last month reaffirmed a 2005 two-child regulation in two townships, Buthidaung and Maungdaw, part of a web of restrictions drawn up by the former military government to control a fast-growing Rohingya population. "The Bengali women living in the Rakhine State have a lot of children. In some areas, one family has 10 or 12 children," said Khin Yi. "It's not good for child nutrition. It's not very easy for schooling. It is not very easy to take care of the children." Health workers say the two-child policy encourages unsafe abortions in one of Southeast Asia's poorest regions. Asked whether he supported the policy, he replied: "Yes." Health workers say the two-child policy encourages unsafe abortions in one of Southeast Asia's poorest regions.

Khin Yi He said the two-child policy appears to have been implemented on a grass-roots level by the local authorities. "The order is not issued by the central government. It is not issued by the state government," he said. He said the policy would help reduce problems caused by large impoverished families. "Almost all of the Bengali women are very poor, uneducated. It is not easy to take care of the children. The two-child policy or three-child policy is enough for these people. That is my point of view," he said.

Response to the Rohingya Two-Child Policy: Abortions and Condemnations

Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “The policy has drawn worldwide condemnation and stoked a growing debate over treatment of Rohingya, who claim a centuries-old lineage in Rakhine State. The United Nations has called on Myanmar to "to remove such policies or practices". New York-based Human Rights Watch said the law was "violating international human rights protections and endangering women's physical and mental health". Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi has called the policy "discrimination" that is "not in line with human rights". [Source: Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, June 11, 2013]

To avoid paying fines or being arrested, some pregnant Rohingya have resorted to illegal abortions, say health workers. "We see women coming into our clinics with infections and medical complications because they have had unsafe abortions," said Vickie Hawkins, deputy head of mission in Myanmar at international medical charity Doctors Without Borders, which has been operating in Rakhine State since 1994. "We have concluded over the years that women are having unsafe abortions because of the restrictive policies." Hawkins said the two-child limit was "a public reinforcement of policies that have already been in place for decades".

Human Rights Watch said some Rohingya women pay bribes to evade the regulations and register their children with other legally married adults. Others keep their children hidden or unregistered to avoid fines or jail, it said. When authorities learn of families with more than two children, the children are sometimes placed on a government blacklist, making them vulnerable to arbitrary arrest.

In early June, hundreds of Rakhines marched in support of the policy through the Rakhine capital Sittwe and the towns of Mrauk U and Minbya, reported the Yangon-based publication The Voice Weekly. Led by Buddhist monks, the rallies carried echoes of nationwide protests against the Organisation of Islamic Conference that preceded violence in October 2012.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s Response to the Rohingya Problem

Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times, “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is rarely asked at home about discrimination against the Rohingya because it is broadly accepted in Myanmar. She has defended her lack of action to the foreign news media, saying that taking sides could further exacerbate tensions, an explanation that even her Western supporters believe is calculated to avoid offending voters ahead of elections next year. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, March, 1, 2014]

Burma's pro-democracy community, including leading figures in Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), have been as harsh on the Rohingya as anyone. William McGowan wrote in Foreign Policy: “Ko Ko Gyi, who was imprisoned for his role in the 1988 student uprising and now functions as a mentor to younger democracy activists through his leadership in the 88 Generation Students group, described the Rohingya as "terrorists" who infringed on the country's sovereignty. Like other pro-democracy figures, Ko Ko Gyi denied that the Rohingya should be counted among the nation's 135 recognized "national groups" and said that "the root cause of the violence comes from across the border," meaning Bangladesh. NLD spokesman Nyan Win simply said: "The Rohingya are not our citizens." [Source: William McGowan, Foreign Policy, September 17, 2012]

See Aung San Suu Kyi and the Royingha

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy,,, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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