What do you do about a population that the UN describes as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, which has been denied recognition and citizenship by it’s indigenous homeland and restricted to even move about freely, denied state education or any kind of civil services? Do you house them in your own territory, resource their survival and acknowledged the existence of their human rights; or let them be by themselves- homeless and on the move every day.

This was the dilemma that multiple Southeast Asian countries faced in 2015 when the Rohingyas who were staying in Myanmar were forced to flee and seek refuge elsewhere.

Who are the Rohingyas?

Not recognised as one of the national indigenous races and denied citizenship under the 1982 Myanmar Nationality Law, the Rohingyas are a stateless Indo-Aryan ethnic group who resided in the Rakhine state of Myanmar before they were forced to flee in a mass migration move that started in 2015. The population claims that they descended from people in pre-colonial Arkan and colonial Arkan. Historically, it was an independent kingdom lying between Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent.

In what conditions did the population live in Myanmar?

The Myanmar government has stopped using the term ‘Rohingya’ and thus, they refer to the population as ‘Bengalis’ as they believe them to have illegally migrated from Bangladesh. The government refuses to grant the Rohingyas citizenship, and as a result most of the group’s members have no legal documentation, effectively making them stateless. Myanmar’s 1948 citizenship law was already exclusionary, and the military junta, which seized power in 1962, introduced another law twenty years later that stripped the Rohingya of access to full citizenship.

In 2014 the government held a UN-backed national census, its first in thirty years. The Muslim minority group was initially permitted to identify as Rohingya, but after Buddhist nationalists threatened to boycott the census, the government decided Rohingya could only register if they identified as Bengali instead. In the 2015 elections, which were widely touted by international monitors as free and fair, no parliamentary candidate was of the Muslim faith. “Country-wide anti-Muslim sentiment made it politically difficult for the government to take steps seen as supportive of Muslim rights,” wrote the International Crisis Group.

The Myanmar government had effectively institutionalized discrimination against the ethnic group through restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement. Moreover, Rakhine State is Myanmar’s least developed state, with a poverty rate of 78%, compared to the 37.5% national average, according to World Bank estimates. Widespread poverty, poor infrastructure, and a lack of employment opportunities in Rakhine have exacerbated the cleavage between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. This tension is deepened by religious differences that have at times erupted into conflict.

How did the 2015 crisis start?

The initial inertia comes from the 2012 Rakhine State Crisis when a group of Rohingya men were accused of rape and murder of a Buddhist women, following which Buddhist nationalists retaliated by killing and burning Rohingya homes. Many people were put in internment camps and a state emergency was imposed in Rakhine. The imposition of the emergency did nothing but increase the military’s role in administration, making it even harder for the Rohingyas to live. According to the UN, the human rights violations were regarded as “crimes against humanity”.

The government officials told the BBC that it was then facing an armed insurgency which was in a way self-inflicted. The report recognised that the communal differences were deeply embedded in history and would be different for any government to deal with. Observers, particularly from the NGO community saw the situation of the Rohingya not just a simple humanitarian emergency. Rather according to the International Crisis Group that it is a protracted crisis affecting all communities in Rakhine State. In October 2015, researchers from the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London released a report drawing on leaked government documents that reveal an increasing “ghettoization, sporadic massacres, and restrictions on movement” on Rohingya peoples. The researchers suggest that the Myanmar government are in the final stages of an organized process of genocide against the Rohingya and have called upon the international community to redress the situation as such.

What were the consequences of the crisis?

As of 2014, 137,000 people, most Rohingya, were forced to live internment camps which was described by a UN official as ‘appalling’, with inadequate access to basic services. The UN estimated that there were a total of 310,000 people in Rakhine State that were in need of humanitarian assistance. On 26-27 March 2015 the situation erupted into a riot in Sittwe when according to reports, an ethnic Rakhine mob attacked the compound housing international NGO agencies. In total, 33 premises such as offices, residence, and warehouses were ransacked resulting in $1 million in loses. The interruption on humanitarian services affected and estimated of 140,000 vulnerable people.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 25,000 people have been taken to boats from January to March in 2015 by migrant smugglers. In late May around 3000-3500 other migrants travelling to other countries were rescued at the sea and some of them swum to the shore. Also, many were reported to be trapped in the sea with little food and water.

Majority of the population took the sea route to Malaysia and Indonesia among other countries. The countries turned down the entry of the vessels and officials of these governments emphasized that the refugees are not their responsibility and it would only encourage more immigrants to arrive.

How did the international community react?

Several international and NGOs proposed recommendations to avoid another migrant crisis in the region. Most of the recommendations are aimed at addressing the root causes of the crisis- the marginalization of the Rohingya in Myanmar. In addition, UNHCR is advocating for ASEAN states to ratify the UN Convention on Refugees and its Protocols. The former recommendation is met with opposition by the Myanmar government ‘s insistence that the Rohingya is an internal affair of the state and that ASEAN should abide by its principle of non-interference.

The refugee crisis has since increased with another set of mass migration in the following two years. Majority of the population is presently in refugee camps in Bangladesh and India. The crisis has certainly affected the Southeast Asian countries’ with the maximum impact on Bangladesh. Efforts for the relocation of the refugees are underway and many other countries like the US and Australia have extended a hand for help.


Two-thirds of the population that had been living in western Rakhine State before the end of 2017 remain displaced in crowded camps in Bangladesh. The several hundred thousand who remain in Myanmar face serious restrictions, and what the chair of an independent, international fact-finding mission describes as an “ongoing genocide.” The government of Bangladesh and UN agencies must continue to work together to improve the conditions for nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees living in the country. The year 2019 will not likely be the year that the Rohingya crisis is resolved, but with the right steps there is hope that, a year from now, we can say that the Rohingya have a better outlook for 2020.

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