The Rohingya in Myanmar: An Explainer


The current conflict in Myanmar Rakhine’s state involves Rohingya Muslims, who practice a branch of Sunni Islam. Religous tensions developed in the majority Buddhist country in the 1970s, but violence has been on the rise in recent years. Many thousands of Rohingya have fled the country for neighboring countries (Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand).


The area that is now Rakhine state was governed by Great Britain until Burma became independent in 1948. The nation changed its name to Myanmar in 1989. Muslims arrived in Rakhine state as early as the 1400s, and continued to move there during British occupation.

Rohingya Status in Myanmar

The Rohingya are systematically discriminated against, and their Rakhine state suffers from deep poverty due to neglect from the government. The government has always refused the Rohingya official citizenship, but offers them temporary “white cards”, which allows for some rights. These white cards were revoked in early 2015 by then-President Thein Sein, and the Rohingya were thereby prevented from participating in that year’s election.

The Government’s Response

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won elections, but they have done mostly nothing to help the Rohingya people. Recently, Aung San Suu Kyi has at least assembled a committee to make suggestions for resolving the Rohingya’s plight in Myanmar. The committee is led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and their report is due to be released in August 2017.

The Recent Violence Began in 2012

In 2012, Buddhist nationals began killing Rohingya after a group of Rohingya men were accused of raping a Buddhist woman. The ethnic violence drove 120,000 Muslims into internment camps, which offered hardly any social services.

January 2014 – May 2015

Large numbers of Rohingya began to flee the country, making dangerous ventures overseas. 88,000 Rohingya left Myanmar by boat during this period.

October 2016 – January 2017

An additional 65,000 Rohingya crossed the border into Bangladesh. Violence against them had increased after they were accused of attacking security posts along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. Many Rohingya homes were burned and aid (food, medicine) was prevented from reaching their villages. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Malaysian Foreign Minister both accused the Myanmar government of ethnic cleansing, which the government denied.

[Source: Council on Foreign Relations]

August 2017

A group of militant Rohingya attacked around 20 police posts and a Myanmar army base. In response, the Myanmar army and Buddhist vigilante groups are attacking Rohingya villages with fire and guns. Thousands more Rohingya are fleeing to Bangladesh to seek refuge, although food, housing, and medicine for refugees there are inadequate.

[Source: The New York Times]