Who are the Rohingya Muslims? The stateless minority fleeing violence in Burma

Nicola Smith
- 2017 Anadolu Agency

They have often been called the most persecuted minority in the world. The 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims squeezed precariously into the north-west state of Rakhine, in mainly Buddhist Burma, bordering majority Muslim Bangladesh, are stateless and unwanted.

Neither country will give them citizenship even though their families’ roots in modern-day Rakhine, once called Arakan, can be traced back to the Eighth Century. 

Displaced Rohingya refugees from Rakhine state in Myanmar carry their belongings as they flee violence, near Ukhia, near the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar on September 4 Credit: K.M. ASAD/AFP

Since World War Two they have been treated increasingly by Burmese authorities as illegal, interloping Bengalis, facing apartheid-like conditions that deny them free movement or state education while government forces intermittently drive out and slaughter them.

Displaced Rohingya refugees from Rakhine state in Myanmar rest near Ukhia, near the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar, as they flee violence on September 4, 2017 Credit:  AFP

Over the past year, military operations against Rohingya villages have been so intense and cruel that the minority’s defenders have warned of an unfolding genocide.

The United Nations has reported that the army may have committed ethnic cleansing.

The inhumane treatment of the Rohingyas has tarnished the image of Myanmar’s civilian leader and Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, once a famously unflinching defender of human rights and darling of the West.

She now faces international fury, particularly from Muslim nations, for failing to stand up to armed forces chief General Min Aung Hlaing, whose soldiers are accused of rape, murder, arson, and of ripping Rohingya babies from their mothers’ arms and throwing them into rivers and fire.

Rohingya Muslim refugees along with Indian supporters hold placards against human rights violations in Myanmar during a protest in New Delhi on September 5, 2017 Credit: AFP

Ms Suu Kyi has publicly stuck to the military’s line that the Rohingya are illegally squatting on the Burmese territory, leaving fellow Nobel winner, Malala Yousafzai, aghast and urging her to speak out against the tragedy.

The latest military crackdown, which began on August 25, caused almost 90,000 Rohingyas to flee under fire to squalid, overflowing relief camps across the Bangladeshi border in just two weeks.

Officially close to 400 people had died by early September, but human rights activists claim to have confirmation of at least 1,000 deaths and believe the figure is much higher.

The death toll will inevitably rise after Burma, also known as Myanmar, blocked UN agencies from delivering vital food, water and medicine supplies to 250,000 Rakhine residents desperately in need.

Rohingya Muslims driven from Burma, in pictures

Ongoing persecution of the Rohingya has inevitably led to an armed, if disorganised, resistance.

The army “clearing operations” which sparked the mass exodus of civilians in both October 2016 and in August 2017, were launched after insurgents known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked several paramilitary checkposts.

Rohingya activists claim the insurgents are mainly young men who have been pushed to breaking point by relentless oppression.

A report released in early September by the Burma Human Rights Network documents the rise of systematic abuses against Burmese Muslims since 2012, including the creation of “Muslim-free zones”, denial of ID cards, and the banning of Islamic holidays.

The oppression has been mirrored by an upsurge of ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups who encourage an anti-Muslim rhetoric.

ARSA has so far been described as a rag-tag collection of small groups armed with knives, sticks and some basic IEDs, rather than a robust military force or mass mobilisation.

But rising anger in the Muslim world about the plight of the Rohingya has compounded fears of homegrown militancy as well as support from international jihadists.

Al Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen has already called for retaliatory attacks against Myanmar, while the Afghan Taliban called on Muslims to “use their abilities to help Burma's oppressed Muslims.”

Matthew Smith, director of Fortify Rights, a human rights group working with Rohingya refugees, said there was a danger of escalation.

“There is certainly a risk that international extremist organisations will seek to be involved in northern Rakhine state,” he said. “The best way to prevent this from escalating is to protect the rights of the civilian population. Myanmar is doing the exact opposite.”

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