History of Rohingya: Past and Present

You may or may not have seen headlines and articles about the Rohingya people back in 2016 and 2017. The Rohingya people are a stateless group of people, before the 2016-17 crisis, there were approximately 1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar (previously called Burma).

The Rohingya peoples struggle is said to be one of the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis, with nearly 700,000 people fleeing their home since 2017

However, in December 2016 there were an estimated 625,000 refugees who had crossed the border into Bangladesh. This is partly because the Rohingya people are denied citizenship in Myanmar.

The Rohingya people also face terrible abuse at the hands of the Myanmar government, with the United Nations describing the military tactics against the people as a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’.

It’s estimated that nearly 1 million Rohingya people have died within Myanmar, most likely at the hands of the military of Myanmar.

Who Are The Rohingya?


There are approximately 1.1 million people belonging to the ethnic group of The Rohingya, and it’s estimated by the National Geographic that they have a millennial-long history in the state of Myanmar.

The majority are Muslim but some being Hindu, and they’ve lived for years and years in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist state.

They speak Rohingya, or Ruaingga, and mostly live in the coastal state of Rakhine in the Western part of Myanmar, which is one of the poorest states in Myanmar, and the people live in almost ghetto-like conditions.


Back in the 1430’s, Muslim settlers started to come into the Arakan state, what is now Myanmar, and a small group of them settled and lived there when it was conquered by the Burmese Empire in 1784.

The state was then renamed Burma, and was later conquered by the British Empire in 1824, and was then consequently ruled as part of British India until 1948.

Throughout this time period, the country’s Muslim population tripled, thanks to other Muslims coming into the country for work from Bengal.

Britain then later promised the Rohingya people an autonomous state for their help in World War Two, however, this never happened, and when Myanmar gained its independence from Britain in 1948, they not only didn’t provide a Muslim state, they also denied the Rohingya citizenship.

Denying Citizenship

The Rohingya people are often acknowledged as the most persecuted minority in the world because as of 1982, the Myanmar government passed the citizenship law, that denied the Rohingya people citizenship in the country.

This act did allow people whose families had lived in the state for two generations to apply for so-called identity cards, up until the 1962 military coup in Myanmar.

All citizens were thereafter required to have national registration cards, but the Rohingya were only given foreign identity cards. These cards then consequently limited the jobs and educational opportunities they could pursue and go after, being legally registered as foreign citizens.

This continued up until 1982, when a new citizenship law was passed, which effectively rendered the Rohingya stateless people. There were, once again, not recognised as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups, based on a three-tier level of citizenship.

The very fundamental and basic bottom line of citizenship, a person needed proof that their family lived in Myanmar before 1948, as well as being fluent in one of the national languages. However, many of the Rohingya didn’t have any paperwork, as it was either simply unavailable or was denied to them.

Despite not being recognised as legal citizens of Myanmar, the Rakhine State, where the Rohingya people live, is closely restricted, and the people living there are closely monitored. They cannot access social services or education, and the Myanmar government also closely follows and/or restricts their travel outside of Rakhine State.

The government then also closely restricts what the Rohingya people can do inside the Rakhine State, and with their laws on birth control and marriage, some Rohingya people are only allowed to have two children, and the laws also restrict the marriages of the Rohingya people.

Today, the Rohingya people are recognised as illegal immigrants and are not recognised under the law.



Going even beyond this lack of acknowledgment, the Rohingya people have faced persecution on a basic human rights level.

As previously mentioned, Myanmar became a military state back in 1962. This change of hand, meant that the Rohingya people became victims of state-sponsored persecution.

The Burmese military forces started to actively target the Rohingya people, and have since been accused of crimes such as abuse, rape, mass arrests, and destruction of their houses and villages.

These are what are often referred to as targeted campaigns, the first being known as ‘Operation King Dragon’, and a subsequent campaign known as ‘Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation’.

The result of these two campaigns, the first also resulting in the horrific abuse and persecution, pushed huge numbers of Rohingya people out of the country, fleeing into Bangladesh.

Fleeing the Country

The Rohingya peoples struggle is said to be one of the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis, with nearly 700,000 people fleeing their home since 2017, but the Rohingya people have been migrating through the region since the 1970s, so exact figures are not always known.

In the summer of 2017, a huge wave of Rohingya people started fleeing the country. A group of Rohingya militants decided to attack the Myanmar army, which then resulted in another outburst of violence directed at the Rohingya people.

It’s said that 6,700 Rohingya people were killed in the following months, with at least 730 of them being children under the age of five. Those are the numbers from the Medecins Sans Frontieres, whereas the Myanmar government puts the total death toll at 400, whilst also claiming that the operations against the militants ended on 5th September 2017.

Before this crisis point in 2017, it was thought that there were approximately 1 million Rohingya people living in Burma, but after this crisis, in August of 2018, over 723,000 Rohingya people had left the violence and fled to Bangladesh.

Between 2012 and 2015, more than 112,000 Rohingya people made the boat journey across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea to get to Malaysia, which is a dangerous trek.

Kutupalong is the world’s largest refugee settlement, is where a lot of the Rohingya people fled to. Kutupalong is particularly vulnerable in the monsoon rain, and the UN estimates that nearly 200,00 Rohingya refugees are at risk of floods and landslides during this season.

There are now approximately 947,000 Rohingyas in Bangladesh, 350,000 in Pakistan, 500,00 in Saudi Arabia, and 40,000 in India.

Many of the journeys the people make, either by foot or by boat, the journeys are never safe and many have most likely died while fleeing this awful violence at home.

There is still no real conclusion to the Rohingya people’s fight, many are still stuck in Myanmar, facing persecution, yet those who chose to leave are not choosing a safer life, but risking drowning or death in another horrific way, and there’s no guarantee that where they get to will be safe for them.