Who are the Rohingya Muslims and what’s going on in Burma?

According to the United Nations, 270,000 Rohingya people have entered Bangladesh after fleeing Burma since August 25.

And Burmese leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has been fiercely criticised over the crisis.

But who are the Rohingya people, and why have they been forced to leave their homes?

Who are the Rohingya?

Newly arrived Rohingya Muslims in a refugee camp in Bangladesh (Bernat Armangue/AP)
Newly arrived Rohingya Muslims in a refugee camp in Bangladesh (Bernat Armangue/AP)

The Muslim Rohingya people live in Buddhist-majority Burma, particularly in the state of Rakhine in the west of the country. Around 800,000 of them used to live there, according to a UN report issued in February.

The state is one of the poorest in the country, and Muslims in particular face barriers to education and freedom of movement.

In Burma they are referred to as Bengali, with many locals contending that they migrated illegally from Bangladesh.

Even though many have lived in Burma for generations, they are heavily discriminated against and over the years violence has erupted – the last major incident being riots in 2012.

How did this start?

A heavily militarised police officer sits in a car, wearing a hat and holding a rifle
A Burma border guard (AP)

Rohingya militants reportedly attacked several police and border outposts in Burma on the 24th of August, and in response the government said it launched “clearance operations” which initially killed 77 Rohingya people.

Thousands of Muslims then tried to cross into Bangladesh, according to the Associated Press.

What has happened to the Rohingya people since?

Remnants of a burned out home
Remnants of Gawdu Zara village in the north of Rakhine state (AP)

Initially reports emerged from Rohingya supporters that the Muslims’ villages were being burnt, and civilians were being shot indiscriminately.

Just a week after the initial clashes, the UN said 73,000 Rohingya people had crossed into Bangladesh, some of whom described bomb attacks on their villages by the Burmese military and attacks by Buddhist mobs in Rakhine.

A hospital in Bangladesh near the Burmese border reported that refugees were arriving with bullet wounds, and the country plans to open another refugee camp to ease pressure on one that already has 50,000 inhabitants.

Journalists who visited Rakhine state found villages abandoned by Rohingya people were still smouldering from fires the military said were started by the Muslims themselves.

What’s the situation like in Burma?

Policeman holds large rifle
A Burma police officer watches as journalists look around a village (AP)

Burma, also known as Myanmar – a name its military leaders introduced – became independent from Britain in 1947. After just 15 years of democracy the nation was subjected to a coup d’etat, and has had only a handful of military leaders since.

In 1978 one of these leaders led an operation that caused an estimated 250,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh.

Over the years, peaceful protesters from all religions were arrested, and the country held captive many political prisoners and was accused of torturing them.

Protestor in India holds a burning image of Aung San Suu Kyi (Bikas Das/AP)
A protester in India holds a burning image of Aung San Suu Kyi (Bikas Das/AP)

Multi-party elections were eventually held in Burma in 1990 after huge protests in the late 1980s. Current leader Suu Kyi won by a landslide, but was placed under house arrest.

She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and finally created a civilian government in 2015.

Throughout this political turmoil, persecution and violence against Rohingya Muslims has been consistent.

What has the world’s response been?

A Rohingya Muslim child carries a solar panel as she crosses over the border (Bernat Armangue/AP)
A Rohingya Muslim child carries a solar panel as she crosses the border (Bernat Armangue/AP)

Suu Kyi has dismissed the crisis as misinformation helping to promote terrorism, referring to the initial attack on police.

Fellow Nobel Prize winners Malala Yousafzai and Desmond Tutu have urged her to intervene, as has the Pope and the Turkish government.

And UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson  has told Suu Kyi to use “all her remarkable qualities” to stop the violence.

LifeWeb editor