Atrocities against Burma's Rohingya Population

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Long considered one of the world’s most persecuted peoples, Burma's Rohingya population has been rendered stateless in Burma and faces severe discrimination, abuse, and lethal violence. In 2012, violent attacks, fanned by a campaign of virulent anti-Muslim hate speech, destroyed numerous Rohingya communities and displaced approximately 140,000 people. The Rohingya in Burma have been forcibly isolated1, cut off from public goods and services, and made unable to provide for themselves.

Actions and statements by political and religious leaders have subjected the Rohingya to increased risks of ethnic cleansing and, at worst, genocide. The Burmese government has done little to alleviate the plight of the Rohingya, and instead has enforced laws and policies aimed at making life unlivable for the Rohingya population.

Renewed violence in northern Rakhine State in late 2016 escalated when the military sought collective punishment for deadly attacks on police officers. An estimated 35,000 Rohingya have been displaced from northern Rakhine State, a predominantly Rohingya area that has been under the total rule of the police for decades. Many of those fleeing violence have crossed the border into Bangladesh, where they have shared reports of extrajudicial killings, rape, and the burning of villages.

The Burmese government has established commissions to investigate the violence and to promote reconciliation between the Rohingya and Rakhine people, but doubts remain as to the effectiveness of the investigations and whether the government is doing all it can to protect civilians at risk of violence.


The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in Rakhine (also called Arakan) State, which borders Bangladesh and has a Buddhist majority that is ethnically Rakhine. Since Burma’s independence in 1948, the Rohingya have been subjected to periodic campaigns of violence. They continue to face various forms of official and unofficial persecution2, including limits on the right to marry and bear children, limits on movement, forced labor, denial of due process, and forcible segregation.

Although Rohingya communities have resided in Rakhine for at least several centuries, Burma’s 1982 citizenship law3 does not include them among the country’s officially recognized ethnic groups, effectively denying them any right to citizenship. The Burmese government classifies the approximately 800,000 Rohingya as “Bengalis” and insists that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Recent Violence and Humanitarian Crisis

Though the Rohingya are particularly at risk, they are not the only ethnic or religious group that experiences discrimination in Burma. Rakhine State is one of Burma’s poorest states, and the Rakhine ethnic group has also long suffered from economic discrimination and cultural repression by the Burmese majority and central government. As Buddhists and an officially recognized minority, however, the Rakhine enjoy rights and opportunities denied to the Rohingya, who are often reviled in Burma. Poverty exacerbates Rakhine animosities4 toward the Rohingya, whom the Rakhine view as alien competitors for scarce resources.

Between June and October 2012, tensions between the two communities erupted into Rakhine violence against Rohingya civilians that left hundreds dead and more than 140,000 displaced, the vast majority of whom were Rohingya. According to both Rakhine and Rohingya witnesses5, Buddhist monks and local Rakhine politicians incited and led many of the attacks, with state security forces failing or refusing to stop the violence and sometimes participating in it. The violence forced the Rohingya to abandon many of their communities, where anything left standing after the attacks was subsequently razed by the government.

The displaced Rohingya now live in official and unofficial IDP (internally displaced persons) camps under deplorable conditions. Humanitarian aid workers have frequently been prevented from accessing these camps. At a press conference6 in June 2014, Kyung-Wha Kang, the UN’s Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, stated, “In Rakhine, I witnessed a level of human suffering in IDP camps that I have personally never seen before, with men, women, and children living in appalling conditions with severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, both in camps and isolated villages.”

Citing the need to maintain security, Burmese officials have essentially imprisoned much of the Rohingya population, using barbed wire and barricades to cordon off not only those in the camps but also thousands more in still extant Rohingya communities. Denied permission to exit, inhabitants of these camps7 cannot access markets, schools, or health care facilities and cannot pursue their livelihoods.

In October 2016, deadly attacks on police stations in northern Rakhine State—a predominantly Rohingya area—triggered a violent response by the Burmese military. The military pursued those who may have been responsible for the attacks in so-called “clearance operations,” but in doing so also targeted the general Rohingya population. The military attacked men, women, and children, approximately 65,000 of whom were forced to flee into neighboring Bangladesh. Those who crossed the border shared stories of extreme violence by the military, including extrajudicial killings, rape, and the burning of villages.

International Response

The persecution of the Rohingya has forced many to seek refuge in neighboring countries, often by means of risky journeys8 to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Many seeking asylum have been vulnerable to violence, human trafficking, and other abuses. In July 20159, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) established a task force and finances to address the influx of refugees within the region. Additionally, the United Nations requested $190 million to support the 2015 Humanitarian Response Plan.10 The United States11 and the European Union12 have also contributed to humanitarian assistance funds and provided support for programs intended to bolster Burma’s transition towards democracy.

Critical Thinking Questions

  • How might citizens and officials within a nation identify and respond to warning signs? What obstacles might be faced?
  • How might other countries and international organizations respond to warning signs within a nation? What obstacles may exist?
  • How can knowledge of the events in Germany and Europe before the Nazis came to power help citizens today respond to threats of genocide and mass atrocity?

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