Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims have been called the world’s most persecuted minority, a people without a country.

In the last two weeks, in numbers estimated to be nearing 300,000, Rohingya have been fleeing for their lives into already-crowded refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh.

It is the third such mass exodus in four decades. A look at what’s behind it.


An estimated 1 million to 1.2 million people in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine self-identify as Rohingya. The government of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, refuses to recognize them as one of the country’s 135 lawful ethnic minorities, instead calling them Bengalis, with the implication that their native land is in Bangladesh and they are illegally settled in Myanmar. They are similarly unwelcome in Bangladesh. What has made the situation particularly dire for the Rohingya was the passage in 1982 of a citizenship law that had the practical effect of making most of them stateless and depriving them of most of their civil rights along with economic opportunities. They are legally restricted in their right to travel, to marry and in the number of children they can have. In practical terms, access to decent education and health care, as well as employment, is also limited.


The legitimacy of the Rohingya claim to indigenous status is a matter of sharp debate inside Myanmar. But most historians agree that by the 9th century, there was an independent kingdom of Arakan in what is now Rakhine state, and thanks to contact with Arab traders who arrived by sea, Islam made increasing inroads among the local population. Over several centuries, an admixture of outsiders – Arabs, Turks, Persians, Mughals and Pathans – congealed with the local population to form what many scholars recognize as the Rohingya. Arakan was conquered by a Burmese king in 1784, but natural barriers with the rest of Burma prevented Buddhist colonization in northern Arakan. Britain’s annexation of Arakan in 1824-26, attaching it to its colony of India, was a fateful turning point. South Asians, including Bengali Muslims, moved into Arakan as cheap labor, many integrating into the established Muslim community. Even the handful of Myanmar Buddhist nationalists willing to accept the idea of an indigenous Rohingya identity draw the line here: Descendants of settlers during the British colonial period, they believe, have no legitimate claim to be natives of the region.


The British followed the traditional but cynical colonial practice of placing minority people – in this case Indians – in midlevel administrative positions. In those jobs they were privileged but also resented by Burmese Buddhists. When Burmese nationalism, strongly supported by the Buddhist clergy, blossomed in the 1920s and ’30s, the Rohingya, identified by many with the Indian influx, were put in an awkward position. Burma’s political separation from India in 1937 saw riots against them. World War II’s Japanese invaders, who fostered a tactical alliance with Burmese nationalists, had little patience for any friends of the British. In 1942, with the physical withdrawal of the British from Arakan, grisly massacres by Buddhists against the Rohingya Muslims, and vice versa, established a blood feud.


The Rohingya, like the country’s other minorities, fought the post-war civilian government for greater autonomy and in turn were promised equal rights. But a military dictatorship that seized power in 1962 sought to deny the minorities’ demands and promoted strong nationalism favoring the majority Buddhist Burmans. Rohingya became targeted by security forces in the 1977-78 crackdown, which sent some 200,000 fleeing across the border into Bangladesh. The junta’s renewed onslaught in 1991-92 forced another 250,000 into Bangladesh. Most eventually returned, though with the same lack of legal rights as before and in many cases to find their land had been taken over. Indignities large and small had become part of daily life, and tensions with the Buddhist Rakhine minority, dominant in southern Rakhine but seeking to expand north, resulted in bloody communal rioting in 2012, taking at least 200 lives and driving at least 120,000 Rohingya into displacement camps, where most subsist to this day. A wave of anti-Muslim sentiment, fanned by ultra-nationalist Buddhists taking advantage of a democratized political atmosphere, kept tension at a boil.


A shadowy group of Rohingya insurgents staged raids on police outposts last October, killing nine border guards. The army responded with “clearance operations” that human rights groups say involved organized brutality against Rohingya villagers. The insurgents, now calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, used newly recruited members to launch much larger attacks on Aug. 25, triggering larger and harsher reprisals. The government says about 400 people have been killed, nearly all of them “terrorists.” Rohingya refugees accuse security forces of indiscriminate killings and burning villages. Many Rohingya and their supporters say the crackdown is a long- term plan for ethnic cleansing; some even call it genocide.