A refugees are seen after feeling the violence in 2017, heading to Bangladesh.

The Rohingya: The Story of ‘The Most Persecuted Minority in History’

In the past, the Rohingya helped Burma gain its independence. Now, they’re ‘the most persecuted minority in history’, fleeing from the very people they helped. 

The Rohingya, targeted by their government because of their ethnicity, have no choice but to leave their homes and persevere through an uncertain future.

The Rohingya

Rohingya and other community leaders meet in 19
image source: exhibitions.ushmm.org

In Burma, now Myanmar, the Rohingya are an ethnic and religious minority group in the Rakhine state.

Followers of the Islamic faith, the Rohingya uphold a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam because of the strong bond they developed with their religion. They are a community that works together to support one another.

For centuries, they lived side-by-side with the Rakhine Buddhist community.

The invasion of Great Britain created divisions between the local communities that would only intensify in later years.

Burma’s Independence

Burma gained independence from Great Britain in 1948.

The Rohingya played an important role in the establishment of a new government. Two served on the Constitution Assemble in 1947 and one was part of the committee that laid out the fundamental rights and citizenship of the nation.

Additionally, official documents show the Rohingya had the same rights and legal standing as everyone else.

Evidence of Belonging

The Rohingya took part in Burmese public life, such as being elected officials, teachers, judges, doctors, and police officers. The majority worked as farmers.

The proof is in documents and photographs.

The Rohingya Students Association also showed their active role in higher education.

However, this lasted only a decade before a new power was seized. It had a small effect before it grew into violence.

Targeted through Change

Rohingya men, women, and children seen leaving their home and walking to Bangladesh, nearly a weeks journey.
image source: bbc.com

In 1962, the military seized power under the leadership of General Ne Win. The government was in his control.


The Burma Broadcasting Service gave each ethnic group airtime each week. The Rohingya had the Qur’an read and news presented in the Rohingya dialect of Burmese.

The military canceled the Rohingya radio airtime when they seized control. Other ethnic groups continued.

This was only the beginning.


The 1970s challenged ethnic minorities through the military.

Operation: Dragon King launched on 6 February 2978.

Its intended purpose was to register citizens and expel ‘foreigners’ from Rakhine, the foreigners being the Rohingya. The expulsion included multiple arrests, persecutions, and violence.

Authorities confiscated the Rohingya’s national identification cards that confirmed their citizenship. This resulted in a national operation that registered and verified citizenship status and ‘foreigners’.

This operation later became an excuse for soldiers to assault and terrorize the Rohingya and destroy their homes and properties throughout the Rakhine state.

Being stripped of their citizenship led to a cycle of forced displacement. 200,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh.

On 31 July 1976, Burma and Bangladesh reached a repatriation agreement. The Rohingya could return but were left without their identification cards. To their own government, they are ‘foreigners’.

Citizenship Stripped

A new citizenship law was passed in 1982 when citizenship was based on ethnicity. As a result of this new law, the Rohingya and other minorities were excluded, emphasized by their confiscated identity cards.

Although given temporary identity cards, it didn’t improve the Rohingya’s status and proved unhelpful. To obtain a temporary identity card, the Rohingya must identify as Bengalis or immigrants from Bangladesh, in addition to the temporary cards not being proof of Burmese citizenship.

In 1989, Burma became ‘Myanmar‘ but the people continued to be called Burmese.

From then on, the military presence in the northern Rakhine state increased.

Increase in Violent Attacks

In the late 1980s, conflict arose.

The Burmese called for democratic reforms. The authorities sought a distraction and the military launching a campaign against the Rohingya was that distraction.

The 1991 operation, Clean and Beautiful Nation, had soldiers execute, sexually assault and physically assault the Rohingya. They destroyed property and homes.

Again, the Rohingya sought refuge in neighboring countries. Between 1991 and 1992, 250,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh.

A Life of Restriction and Abuse

A young girl holding her malnourhsied baby sibling in the internment camps in Myanmar.
image source: bpr.berkeley.edu

In 1992, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a second repatriation agreement that allowed the Rohingya to return. The refugee camps were closed to new arrivals by spring.

Despite international protests, the Rohingya were forced to return.

In the following years, hundreds of thousands were sent back to Myanmar. The new refugees attempting to enter Bangladesh were denied entry.

NaSaKa was a special border for the security forces created by the Myanmar authorities. Its purpose was to maintain order for those returning. This again became an excuse to harass and further persecute the Rohingya, this time, by the security forces.

The Rohingya’s daily life consisted of:

  • Forced Labour: Men built roads and military installations without pay, where many died or suffered injuries.
  • Marriage Restrictions: Authorities prevented the Rohingya from marrying. Many needed to bring security forces to get permission. If they’re caught without permission, the husband is thrown in prison.
  • Land Seizure: The government often seizes Rohingya land to make way for Buddhist communities.
  • Physical Abuse: Security forces beat and harassed the Rohingya women. For example, they made women stand up to their necks in pond water for hours. They had to stare into the sun as the soldiers pelted them with mud.

Family Regulations

All families keep a household list, a detailed list of their family members. This was a regular method to conduct population checks among Rohingya families.

By the mid-2000s, Rohingya families stood for household registration photographs. All members needed to be present. If any were missing without an approved excuse, the government removed them from the list. Being removed from the list meant you no longer lived in Myanmar.

2012 Riots

In June 2012, three Muslim men allegedly assaulted and killed a Buddhist woman while on her way home.

This accusation resulted in local Rakhine citizens and extremists attacking the Rohingya. The Myanmar officials and police officials took part.

By October 2012, the second wave of anti-Roohingya violence erupted.

Armed Buddhist civilians attacked the Rohingya. The Buddhist civilians physically assaulted the Rohingya and burned their villages. Security forces did nothing to stop the violence and later assisted in the attacks.

This resulted in mass displacement and permanent segregation. 120,000 Rohingya survivors were sent to 24 internment camps.

Since then, the Rohingya communities of Rakhine have faced further restrictions. They had limited access to medical care, education, and work. 10,000 Rohingya in the Nazir Muslim Quarter were forced to abandon their homes.

Soon after, bulldozers leveled their homes.


The Rohingya and the Rakhine Buddhists are segregated.

In the internment camps, six or more Rohingya families shared a single makeshift barrack. They were prohibited from working and relied on humanitarian assistance for food and basic medical services.

Restricted Movement

While in the internment camps, authorities monitored every move of more than 120,000 Rohingya. They’re at constant risk of questioning and harassment.

Healthcare Restrictions

Travel restrictions are placed on the Rohingya communities. They can’t seek the necessary medical care and, therefore, suffer mild and severe symptoms of diseases, such as Tuberculosis.

Denied an Education

Most Rohingya children can’t attend regular government schools. The Rohingya instead provide students with informal education.

Hate Speech

Two men protesting for Facebook to stop being the social media platform that promotes hate on Muslims.
image source: aljazeera.com

With discriminatory laws came restricted free expression.

Leaders took over or closed independent publications and controlled the news.

State-run newspapers demeaned the Rohingya and denied their very existence. Buddhist nationalists and extremist monks provoked racism against Muslims, including the Rohinga.

A new government was elected in 2011.

The ways to communicate evolved over time with mobile phones and social media, resulting in more ways for hate speech to circulate.

The government and other public speakers exploited Facebook’s reach.

Political cartoonists, extremist monks, the military, and government officials faked claims that depict the Rohingya as predators who will destroy Buddhism. They continue to call the Rohingya ‘foreigners’, but the government denies any assault or harm done to the Rohingya.


The ultra-nationalist monk-led groups saw the Rohingya as a threat to Buddhist identity.

Through their publication, MaBaTha, they include racist language and promote the use of violence against the Rohingya. They believe their anti-Rohingya messages worked well in their favor as they promoted Buddhist values and normalized their hate-filled content.

State-run media and state-sanctioned social media channels were an official message of discrimination against the Rohingya. The Burmese citizens share and comment on their social media posts.

Claiming the Rohingya Don’t Belong

The most widespread claim is that the Rohingya aren’t native to Burma. It inspired the policy changes to revoke Rohingya citizenship.

Examples of published headlines:

  • 21 February 2013. State-run New Light of Myanmar: ‘There is no so-called Rohingya ethnic race.’
  • 16 October 2016. MaBaTha, Tha Ki Thway: ‘Muslims Are Not the Union-Born Indigenous Citizens.’
  • 4 February 2017. MaBaTha, Ah Tu Mashi: ‘There is no ‘Rohingya’ at all.’

Targeting Rohingya Humanity

Regularly, the Rohingya are compared to fleas and thorns. These comparisons are never accidental and only made the violence against them seem less extreme and more justified.


  • 1 November 2016. State-run The Global New Light of Myanmar: ‘The Rohingya are a ‘thorn’ that must be “removed before it pieces”.’
  • 27 November 2016. State-run The Global New Light of Myanmar: ‘… those human flees are destroying our world by killing people and harming others.’

Claiming the Rohingya a Threat

To the Burmese government and Buddhist citizens, the Rohingya are a threat.

They understand that ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islam’ refer to the Rohingya. This continued further into stating the Rohingya would soon outnumber the Buddhist population. For example:

12 December 2014. The Ki Thway: ‘The “Jihad War in Myanmar” was to tie the Rohingya to Islamic extremism.’

Doctor Tun Luin, a famed meteorologist and trusted public figure, warned of an enemy invasion into Burma from Bangladesh in 2016. The Burmese saw the Rohingya as the invading army.

The Rohingya Response

The Rohingya responded in numerous ways. Some fled to neighboring countries and others stayed in Burma to try and cope with the restrictions.

In October 2016, a small group of Rohingya men, part of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked the Burmese police outposts. Their weapons were household knives, stones, and homemade explosives.

This only furthered the Burmese authorities’ cause and their claim that the Rohingya threatened national security.

The military retaliated with another wave of violence by burning Rohingya villages to the ground. Tens of thousands fled to neighboring countries.

There was worse yet to come.

In August 2017, Burmese soldiers launched a planned attack, their Clearance Operation. Their target was the Rakhine state, where they massacred the Rohingya and burned more villages. They destroyed any evidence of the generations of Rohingya in those villages and it started in Maung Nu.

Maung Nu

An aerial view of a burned village, charred and not possible for anyone to live in again. The trees surrounding the villages are also burned.
image source: wikipedia.com

A village in the Rakhine state, Maung Nu, was the first village attacked by the Clearance Operation.

In June 2012, military trucks rolled in. The soldiers confiscated anything that could be a weapon.

After 18:00, they instructed the villagers to turn off all the lights. Soon after, the military left the village. When they returned, they tied red cloth to mango trees in front of Rohingya homes and near a mosque.

On 25 August 2017, the ARSA attacked a border guard and military base near Maung Nu.

Two days later, trucks filled with armed soldiers arrived. Many villagers took refuge inside the compound of one of the richest families.

While this may have been seen as the safer option, it worked to the military’s advantage. They forced more into the compound, separating the men and women in the process.

The military forced the women to remove their clothing for inspection and used their headscarves to gag the men and older boys. Then, they were beaten.

The military killed 100 Rohingya in Maung Nu.

In total, throughout the Rakhine state, they killed 9,000.

Violence against Women

In 2017, gang rape by Burmese soldiers accounted for 80% of sexual violence against women.

The Aftermath of the “Clearance Operation”

In 2017, more than 7000,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh.

Many made the journey barefoot and bled from their untreated injuries. They traveled on foot for weeks along dirt roads, fields, and across murky lakes.

Parents carried their younger children and held their possessions in plastic bags. Most women and children traveled alone after their husbands and fathers were killed by Burmese soldiers.

They faced a new normal.

They still can’t work and rely on humanitarian assistance. Children try to recover from the trauma they witnessed and women struggle to recover from their own. Many hope to return home, despite all they encountered.

Even though they survived the journey, they face an uncertain future.

When in Bangladesh, they make do with limited supplies and shelter and managed to persist in the camps.

The small population that remains in Myanmar still faces persecution. The authorities haven’t guaranteed the safety of those that return and aren’t committed to restoring the Rohingya’s rights.

Stolen Land

The Rohingya infrastructure is nothing but charred ground, confiscated by the military and Burmese citizens. On that charred ground, the Burmese government began new construction to further erase the generations of Rohingya.

For example, the village of Inn Din:

  • September 2017 – the military destroyed the village.
  • October 2018 – the military started building new infrastructure on Rohingya Land.
  • October 2019 – The construction continues and there isn’t a trace of the Rohingya community.

Denial of Burmese Leaders

A promotion board depicting the crimes General Min Aung Hlaing, wanted for the crimes he led against the Rohingya. led
image source: dw.com

For decades, the Burmese government denied the persecution of the Rohingya and continues to do so.

Aung San Suu Syi, a former political prisoner of the Burmese military and Nobel Peace laureate, was elected the leader of Myanmar in 2015. She denies the allegations of genocide and minimized the number of people affected.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing directed violence toward the Rohingya in 2016 and 2017. The United Nations called for an investigation into his acts. He faces persecution for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities.

Deception is often the reason behind growing hatred.

The Burmese military is known for dressing as public figures to continue inciting violence. There’s even a possible chance they dressed as Buddhist monks to promote this violence.

The Future for the Rohingya

A view of the refugee camps in Bangladesh during the day, where people can be seen in the fields far from their makeshift homes.
image source: micicinitiative.iom.int

The Rohingya receive constant support from organizations and corporations, such as the MSF, as well as aid sent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Their lives continue to change and their ‘new normal’ changes with time.

They once stood as a strong symbol of Burmese independence and must now stand strong against those they once helped.

“Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.”

– Charles De Gaulle, quoted in Life. 

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