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The Rohingya Genocide Crisis : History & Origin

~ Zoya Pankhania & Krishya Nema


Often called “the world’s most persecuted minority”, the Rohingya are an ethnic, predominantly Muslim group from the Rakhine State in Myanmar. For decades, they were facing a vicious cycle of oppression, discrimination and violent ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar Security forces until the barbarous circumstances finally forced them to flee their homes and undertake dangerous routes across the borders to neighboring countries, majorly Bangladesh. Their story sheds a spotlight on Myanmar’s genocidal actions that target Rohingya refugees and violate their basic human rights. An example of this is how the government denied any recognition to the community and identified them as ‘illegal Bengali immigrants’. Consequently, over seven lakh people crossed the border into Bangladesh in 2017. As a result, there was an inundation of a surge of camps and settlements in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, which is now home to the world’s largest refugee camp.

The history

Who are the Rohingya and where did they come from?

Historically speaking, the Buddhist-majority Rakhine state was a subject to several Hindu kingdoms in the past. According to historians, the Rohingya lived in an independent kingdom called Arakan, now known as Rakhine state. Arabs, who traded in the region between 9th and 14th century, brought Islam with them. Eventually in the late 18th century, a Burmese king conquered the region. Poor infrastructure, widespread poverty and lack of employment opportunities made Myanmar adopt a lot of racial policies which created differences between the Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.

The increasing tension and communal conflict paved the way for alienation of Rohingya from the other communities. Essentially, they were only deemed as remnants of the British colonial past and thus, ineligible for full rights. However, the Rohingya claimed to be descended from Indo-Arab traders with their origins in Myanmar tracing back to the 1500s but granted that they had no concrete proof to justify this claim. Moreover, the lack of any legal written documents adds further suspicion to the Burmese government to believe that many of them might have just illegally crossed over from Bangladesh, making them unauthorized immigrants. After independence, Burma anticipated the Rohingya to migrate to Bangladesh but since that didn’t occur, the government imposed restrictions on their movement and ostracized them.

Reason of the Rohingya’s migration

Unhappy with being marginalized, the Rohingya took up arms and formed rebellions which were instantly subdued by the government. After Burma became a military dictatorship in 1962, all the social and political organizations of the Rohingya were dissolved. To make things much worse for them, in 1977, Operation Dragon King was launched, intended to drive out the ‘foreigners’. It included mass arrests, tyranny, and horrific violence and thus began a cycle of forced displacement as about 2 lakh Rohingya fled across the border to Bangladesh. All these atrocities were majorly a result of nationalism-fueled racism and islamophobia. Many Buddhist monks are known for perpetuating hate speech against the Rohingya while the military encouraged those sentiments. After decades of persecution, a group of Rohingyan insurgents formed the Arakan Rohingyan Salvation Army (ARSA) in 2012 to attain their citizenship and basic rights back.

The 2017 Incident

Now 2017 is an important year to note. On 25 August 2017, ARSA launched a coordinated attack on multiple security outposts killing 12 officers. Within hours, the Myanmar Military responded with a brutal counter-offensive crackdown, launching their campaign of violence against the Rohingya under the banner of “Clearance operation.” They ruthlessly attacked thousands of Rohingya civilians, including children, and abused and raped the women. The Human Rights Watch reported that at least 200 Rohingya villages were destroyed and burned by the federal security forces, and an estimated 13,000 Rohingya were killed. These events of state-sponsored violence forced more than seven lakh Rohingya to be internally displaced or migrate and seek refuge in neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, India and chiefly, Bangladesh.

What Happened in Bangladesh?

The Rohingya refugees driven from Myanmar met with hostility and resistance in Bangladesh. Some 7 lakh Rohingya sought safety in camps here and joined over 2 lakh others from the community who had fled earlier episodes of targeted violence. Bangladeshi local authorities cut off all Rohingya access to the rest of the country, essentially trapping them in the camps. The Rohingya outnumbered the locals there and the Bangladeshi community leaders were increasingly frustrated by the impact this had on their economy. Anti-Rohingya sentiments started intensifying in Bangladesh too, as the government planned for their repatriation. In 2018, a deal for the return of the refugees was made, but none agreed to return unless citizenship was guaranteed. The Bangladeshi authorities were lenient but with the rising number of immigrants, in 2019, Bangladesh declared it would no longer accept Rohingya fleeing Myanmar.

How did international bodies react to the situation?

In September 2018, the UN released a report stating that the mission focused on the situation in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan state, has been a human rights violation and a contravention of the international humanitarian law. It stated that the actions principally conducted by the Myanmar military are “based on policies, tactics and conduct that consistently failed to respect international law, by deliberately targeting civilians.” It declared the Rohingyas' persecution in 2017 to be a “textbook example of Ethnic Cleansing”.

  • Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, called the situation catastrophic and the Rohingyas “one of, if not then, the most discriminated people in the world". He called on the Myanmar authorities to suspend Military action, end the violence and recognize the right of return of those who had left the country.

  • The Algerian and Australian foreign ministry expressed great concern towards the Rohingya crisis. Australia took further action by passing a motion to call on the UN for a commission of inquiry in the spring of 2017.

  • Though the US government had condemned and issued sanctions with regards to the coup in Myanmar, they have not done much to address the genocidal actions of the state and violence against the Rohingya. Their state department has not yet declared the human rights violations and treachery against the country’s genocidal action even with the large amounts of evidence that has been revealed.

  • Contrastingly, the Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces denied that the Rohingyas even existed by saying “I would like to make sure the world knows there were no Rohingya in Myanmar”.

  • The People’s Republic of China has made statements in support of Myanmar. They stated that China is in support of the actions taken by the government to uphold “peace and stability in the Rakhine state”. On the other hand, Wang Yi, their foreign minister, showed willingness to help Bangladesh and Myanmar to find a solution to the crisis and proposed a three-stage course of action to help refugees return to the country.

Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner, served as Myanmar’s State Counsellor and Minister of Foreign and Affairs, defended Myanmar’s actions and denied claims of genocide. In September 2017, Suu said that her government had “already started defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible.” Later that year, the UN special rapporteur on human rights had been denied access to the country as well as had her cooperation suspended for the remaining term.


The struggles of Rohingya over successive cycles of brutal oppression, persecution and sexual violence have long been an under publicised catastrophe. In a nutshell, more than half of an entire population got evicted from their ancestral home in a span of eight weeks. The reality of an inconvertible evidence of large scale burning of villages, reports of widespread torment against fleeing citizens and years of discriminatory rhetoric have made it difficult to avoid, the conclusion: this is Genocide.


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