Burma’s Persecution of the Rohingya Creates a Refugee Crisis

15 May 2015

The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group, most of whom live in Rakhine State in Western Burma, on the border with Bangladesh. Despite the fact that many Rohingya have been settled in Burma since the 8th Century, the Burmese Government and many Burmese in Rakhine State consider the Rohingya to be foreigners, illegitimate and the Government have consequently put in place many discriminatory measures in an apparent attempt to drive them out of the country.

According to Relief Web, ‘While the government has continued to insist that it seeks reconciliation between all the country’s ethnic communities, it has undertaken several measures that have systematized the persecution, segregation and disenfranchisement of Rohingyas.

Many including the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, believe that the persecution and exclusion of the Rohingya amounts or is building up to genocide. The Rohingya have been denied citizenship with the revoking of ‘white cards’ which signify temporary citizenship, are being forcibly relocated to IDP camps with little or no medical support or educational opportunities. They also face religious persecution and restrictions on marriage and child bearing, which do not apply to other ethnic minorities.

Political, Racial and Religious Discrimination

The 1982 citizenship laws have prevented Rohingyas from obtaining full citizenship by law as they do not belong to one of the 8 ethnic groups who settled in Burma prior to 1823. Whilst some can apply for full citizenship, most do not have the documentation to prove that they resided in Burma before 1948, the cut off point for the citizenship laws. This effectively renders them stateless.

Hate speech and discrimination has continually increased, with the Buddhist ‘969’ movement using anti-Muslim hate speech and boycotting Muslim business. New laws which seek to criminalise marriage between Buddhist women and Muslims have increased animosity and the state denies the Rohingyas as a ‘recognised race’, instead classing them as Bengali, implying that they are illegal immigrants. This discrimination is epitomised by the ‘Rakhine State Action Plan’ which, according to Altsean, ‘reveals the regime’s intention to permanently segregate Muslim and Buddhist communities in Arakan State’.

In the 2014 census, the regime denied the Rohingyas the right to self-identify themselves. In a subsequent assessment, many were forced to identify as ‘Bengali’ causing widespread fear that they would be classed as illegal immigrants and relocated. International officials who have publically used the term ‘Rohingya’ have been severely criticised by the Burmese Government and asked to apologise. One example of this is UN Special Rapporter, Yanghee Lee, who was condemned by the Burmese Government for using the term ‘Rohingya’ to describe Burma’s stateless and persecuted minority.

Many Rohingyas have previously relied on temporary citizenship signified by the possession of a ‘white card’. However, in February of this year, the Government decided that the cards would expire by the 31st March 2015. This has left the majority of Rohingya people without citizenship and disenfranchised. Those who have returned their cards are given a receipt to prove that they possessed a white card before they expired. This receipt may be used to enter the citizenship verification process, however the process is not due to begin until June and many understandably do not trust the authorities so are reluctant to give up their only official form of identification.

Military Destruction

As well as sustained political and religious persecution throughout the 1900’s and early 2000’s, the Rohingya have faced violent waves of military attacks including Operation Naga Min, a national citizenship registration effort by General Ne Win’s military and subsequent massacre carried out in 1978 which resulted in 250,000 Rohingyas fleeing to Bangladesh.

In 2012, 2 waves of violence erupted between the Rohingya and Rakhine in Arakan’ resulting in mass killings, torture and the displacement of approximately 135,000 people who are now living in IDP camps in the Sittawe township. Homes and belongings of Rohingyas were burned by their Buddhist neighbours, and others who came into the region to take part in the attacks. Police complicity has also been reported and the Burmese Regime failed to prevent or investigate these attacks.

The state has tried to portray these attacks as spontaneous civilian actions which they were powerless to prevent. However, as Altsean, a network of organisations and people based in ASEAN member states working to support the movement for human rights and democracy in Burma state, ‘an array of laws, policies, and practices pursued by the regime since 2014 has created a climate of fear, hatred, and discrimination against Muslim populations across Burma’. Altsean, has listed some of these policies:

  • ‘Introduction of ‘National Race and Religion protection’ package, including bills to restrict interfaith marriage and religious conversion.
  • Ten-month expulsion of MSF and restriction of humanitarian access in Arakan State, mainly affecting Rohingya.
  • Failure to combat hate speech led by extremist Buddhist monk U Wirathu and his ‘969’ movement.
  • Disproportionate sentences against Muslims across Burma, including 20 Muslims in Shan State in January 2015.
  • Pursuit of legal cases in Rangoon and Sagaing Divisions targeting individuals accused of ‘insulting Buddhism.’
  • President’s Office Director Zaw Htay has also conspicuously used an alias Facebook account to share provocative material supporting the regime’s policy of denying the existence of Rohingya identity.’

Humanitarian Deprivation

The Government of Burma has blocked much needed aid to the region by ‘implementing administrative barriers’ making it difficult for humanitarian organisations to gain access. Local extremist groups have worsened the humanitarian situation by carrying out mob attacks, forcing organisations to suspend their work. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was expelled from Rakhine State in 2014, and although they have since been allowed to return, there is still insufficient medical assistance and only the most basic medical care is available. More recently, in April, following fighting and the burning down of Aung Lan Chaung village, relief workers who gathered supplies to take to IDPs following distress calls, were denied access.

Recent discoveries have found abandoned camps from which Rohingya refugees were being trafficked. On the 1st May 2015, ‘a joint military-police taskforce discovered at least 30 bodies at an abandoned human trafficking camp in the Sadao district of Songkhla province close to the Thai-Malaysian border’. Many of these people are believed to have died from starvation or disease in the camps, whilst waiting for enough payment to be smuggled into Malaysia. Human Rights Watch reported that Rohingyas fleeing abuse in Burma or Bangladesh are often trafficked and face abuse from the networks that are working with ‘official protection’.

As a result, the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organisation Malaysia (MERHROM) has released a statement saying:

For many years, Thailand has been giving bad treatment for ethnic Rohingya who seek refuge in Thailand. We were treated as illegal immigrant and faced deportation to Myanmar. Ethnic Rohingya are not illegal immigrants. We are asylum seekers who fled Genocide from the Myanmar government and should be given treatment as asylum seekers according to the International Law. It is well-known that Thai authorities are involved in the Trafficking chain but nothing was done by the Thai government to tackle the problem.

Refugees Deserted

Those that have opted not to flee Burma across land have been trafficked in boats. Fleeing Burma by boat is not a new tactic for the Rohingyas. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimate that approximately 53,000 people, mostly Rohingya escaped in smuggling boats from the Burma-Bangladesh border in 2014. While the majority of these people paid traffickers to smuggle them out of Burma, there were also reports of people being forced onto the boats, sometimes at gunpoint. Traffickers on these boats are paying regime officials to allow the boats to leave, and some regime naval boats have even escorted Rohingyas to the ships.

In recent weeks, there has been a dramatic increase in publicity surrounding Rohingya refugees attempting to flee on boats to Indonesia and Malaysia. Traffickers have been accused of transporting men, women and children on boats with minimal supplies, and people have been left on their boats without food for up to 5 days. Fearing an increasing crack down, many traffickers have abandoned the ships, leaving refugees vulnerable on their boats with no access to help.

Tom Andrews, president of United to End Genocide stated, “The Andaman Sea is about to become a floating mass grave, and it’s because of the failure of governments, including our own, to do what is necessary… Not only is there not a search-and-rescue operation going on right now — with thousands out to sea — but governments are towing these people out from their shores back to open sea, which is tantamount to mass murder.”

On arrival in Indonesia waters, one boat was towed back out to sea and supposedly put on course to Malaysia as The Irrawaddy reported on the 13th May 2015,

On Tuesday, one such boat with hundreds of Rohingyas was stranded not far from Malaysia’s Langkawi. It includes about 50 women, said Chris Lewa, director of the nonprofit Arakan Project, which has documented the plight of Rohingyas.

They told her by phone their captain had fled days ago, and that they needed to be rescued.

Soon after, Lewa said she heard cheers, and people on board spotted a white vessel with flashing lights. When they realized authorities weren’t going to help them, women started to scream.

“Oh! I could hear children crying,” Lewa told AP. “It was terrible! I can hear them.”

A group of Southeast Asian parliamentarians, meanwhile, released a statement calling the refusal to accept the refugees “inhumane.”

“Towing migrants out to sea and declaring that they aren’t your problem anymore is not a solution to the wider regional crisis,” said Charles Santiago, a member of parliament in Malaysia. “Any solution must include securing binding commitments from Myanmar to end the persecution of Rohingya that is fueling their exodus.”’

Similarly, Malaysia said on Wednesday that it was unwilling to accept any more refugees coming to the country by boat. Up to 6,000 refugees are believed to still be stranded at sea between Malaysia and Indonesia.


The Rohingya are being persecuted from all angles. Incitement of hate speech by the Government has encouraged local Buddhists in the Rakhine State to be wary of their neighbours, resulting in more extremist people engaging in violence. The government has revoked Rohingya citizenship rights, and increasingly passes legislation that is discriminatory against the Rohingya minority in an attempt to drive them out of the country. IDP camps provide insufficient support leading to starvation with minimal access to medical care and almost no opportunity for education. When attempting to flee, they have been pushed back into the Rakhine state by Bangladeshi forces, towed back out to sea by Indonesian and Malaysian authorities, and if they do make it onto the shore, are kept in asylum centres with the possibility of deportation.

The persecution of the Rohingya minority is amounting to the crime of genocide according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and many others and must be stopped immediately.

What can be done?

Burma Partnership, Arakan Rohingya National Organisation, Burma Campaign UK, Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK and many others have called on ASEAN Members to stop pushing the Rohingya refugees back out to sea and to launch search and rescue operations. They have also asked the international community to intervene and assist the search and rescue operations.

Sign Restless Beings’ petition to demand ASEAN countries find short and long term solutions to the Rohingya crisis.

Sign Amnesty International’s petition to call on the Malaysian Prime Minister, currently chairing ASEAN, to stop the humanitarian crisis and protect refugees and asylum seekers in Southeast Asia.

Burma Campaign UK are asking people to write to British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, asking him to make sure the Rohingya refugee crisis is discussed by EU Foreign Ministers on Monday, and to ensure the EU applies pressure on these countries to stop pushing these desperate people back out to sea. Sign up here. The FCO Minister, Hugo Swire has since then met with the Burmese Ambassador in London urging the Burmese to tackle the immediate humanitarian issues and address the root causes.

United to End Genocide has launched a petition asking the US Government to launch immediate search and rescue operations.

The root cause of this problem remains the violent mistreatment of Rohingyas in Burma. This must be tackled by pressuring the Burmese government to end persecution and recognise equal citizenship of this ethnic minority.

To support these recommendations, please write to your MPs, sign the online petition and raise awareness of the problems the Rohingyas, and other ethnic minorities are facing across Burma.

More Information

Burma Rohingya Organisation have written a briefing paper on how the government uses poverty to drive Rohingya out of Burma (available here) as well as the Governmental use of repression and human rights violations (available here).

Keep an eye out for HART’s most recent visit report, available next week. The report details conflict, human rights abuse and problems of land confiscations across Burma, focusing on minorities near to the Thai-Burma border, based on interviews with our partners who were visited by a HART team last week.

Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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