‘Feeling like prisoners’: The plight of Rohingya refugees today

Five years ago, a violent campaign by security forces in Myanmar sparked a mass exodus of about 730,000 Rohingya, who – carrying their belongings on their backs and sometimes crowding onto makeshift bamboo and jerry-can rafts – fled in search of safety. Most headed to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The violence – which included reports of gang rape, mass killings, and forced expulsion – brought renewed international attention to decades of documented persecution against the mostly Muslim Rohingya, who are largely stateless after years of what rights monitors have called systematic marginalisation by Myanmar’s government.

But as refugees, many Rohingya have found little reprieve as they mark the fifth anniversary on Thursday of what advocates call Rohingya Genocide Remembrance Day.

A United Nations report found that attacks on Rohingya were carried out with “genocidal intent”, and in March, the United States became the first government to formally declare that the attacks constituted genocide. Myanmar has denied that any violence committed by security forces amounted to genocide.

The community remains stuck in a “cruel limbo”, according to Norwegian Refugee Council chief Jan Egeland, as refugees contend with a backslide in rights and stagnating opportunities in Bangladesh, and grim prospects of a safe and dignified return to their home in Myanmar.

Who are the Rohingya?

  • The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group that trace their presence in modern-day Myanmar to the ninth century. They speak Rohingya or Ruaingga, a distinct dialect, and maintain a unique culture. They live mainly in Myanmar’s Rakhine state along the country’s western coast.

  • More than a million Rohingya have fled the country amid decades of government persecution, settling predominantly in Bangladesh, as well as India, Pakistan and Malaysia, among other countries.

  • While most Rohingya were considered equal citizens under a law passed following Myanmar’s independence from British rule in 1948, the military takeover of the government in 1962 led to the passage eight years later of the Emergency Registration Act, which limited the rights of communities viewed by the government as having foreign roots.

    • Documented persecution of the Rohingya escalated in the following years, as the military-led government sought to register all Rohingya, resulting in the first major violent crackdown on the community in 1978. During that period, about 200,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh

    • In 1982, Myanmar’s government passed a citizenship law, which defined full citizenship as based on ethnicity; specifically, being a member of one of the 135 ethnic groups the government said settled in Myanmar prior to the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1824.

      • Myanmar’s leadership has generally maintained that a distinct Rohingya ethnicity does not exist, and that members of the Rohingya community are descendants from India and Bangladesh who migrated during Britain’s colonial rule from 1824 to 1948. That position has been challenged by historians.

      • “The narrative of the Rohingya has been overtaken by fiction, with their place in Myanmar’s history expunged by a succession of military governments looking for scapegoats and aided by the country’s already strong sense of Buddhist nationalism,” wrote Gregory Poling, the director of the Center for Strategic Studies’ Southeast Asia programme, in 2014.

      • Tensions between Rohingya and other Muslim and Buddhist communities have led to further spates of state violence, most notably in the early 1990s, when about 250,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, and between 2012 and 2014, when tens of thousands more left the country.

      • Meanwhile, rights groups have documented continual moves by Myanmar to render Rohingya residents stateless and marginalised, including, in 2015, the government invalidating long-held identification cards and replacing them with “national verification cards” that require, among other stipulations, that Rohingya prove three generations of residence in Myanmar and register as either “Bengali” or “Muslim”, but not Rohingya.

      • In Myanmar, rights monitors continue to record restrictions on Rohingya, which have included limits on movement, education, employment and childbearing. About 600,000 Rohingya currently remain in Myanmar, with more than 130,000 living in restrictive internal displacement camps inside the country.

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