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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar: ‘the World’s Fastest-Growing Refugee Crisis’

Updated: Jan 27, 2019

An Introduction to the Crisis

Introducing the Rohingya population

The Rohingya are an ethnic minority (although they are not officially recognised as such) that have lived, for centuries, in the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar. Totalling around 1.1 million[1], the Rohingya population in Myanmar are predominantly Muslim and speak a dialect distinct to the rest of the country – Rohingya (otherwise known as Ruaingga). As well as their own language, the Rohingya have their own distinguished culture, this is derived (in part) from their ancestors – Arab traders and other groups that inhabited (and continue to inhabit) the region. The vast majority of this ethnic minority group are situated in the Rakhine state, a western, coastal location bordering the neighbouring country of Bangladesh. Conditions here are poor with basic services and opportunities largely unavailable, yet the government’s decision to prevent the Rohingya vacating this desperately deprived area, at least not without official government permission, prolongs the suffering of the Rohingya people.

The cause of the conflict

In the most simplistic sense the route of the conflict in Myanmar is the religious and social differences between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. The conflict dates back almost 75 years to World War Two, the two groups fought one another on account of their alliances with Japan and Britain respectively. The Rohingya people were promised a Muslim state in return for their support, this was subsequently denied and furthermore, the mainly Buddhist state denied the Rohingya citizenship. This new political dimension to the conflict simply served to heighten tensions still further and add to the growing atmosphere of hostility.

The situation now

The persecution faced by the Rohingya population

While the persecution and suffering of the Rohingya population has only (relatively) recently been cast into the public eye, primarily because of the mass exodus to Bangladesh, the issues faced by this ethnic minority date back further. Indeed, crackdowns on the Rohingya population have been prevalent in the country for over 50 years and accusations of rape, murder, torture and arson are commonplace in the aftermath. Over 360 Rohingya villages have been destroyed or damaged in the last 18 months and reports of mass graves have been circulated in the mainstream media[2]. Concern appears to be growing in the international community as many observe the distinct similarities between the situation in Myanmar and those of 1940s Germany or South Africa whilst operating under a system of Apartheid.

The stance of Myanmar’s government

The brutal nature of treatment experienced by the majority of the Rohingya population is concerning alone but reports of a coordinated campaign of ethnic cleansing on the part of the Myanmar government raises greater issues. There is a distinct reluctance among government officials to discuss the Rohingya and the issues they face, this is in keeping with the emerging trend that in the eyes of the government the Rohingya aren’t even there (or at least have no right to be). This theme is also reflected in the denial of citizenships and omission of the Rohingya as one of the ethnic minorities that make up Myanmar. Some within government have even gone further labelling the Rohingya ‘terrorists’[3], and laying the blame for ongoing violence and unrest in the Rakhine region at their door. Despite escalating pressure from the international community, the government of Myanmar continues to ignore the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya people. Indeed, UN documents deeming the chances of crimes against humanity ‘very likely’[4] and the proposal of a UN probe into the alleged violence in Rakhine have both been insufficient in swaying the position of the government. Instead they continue to maintain there is ‘no discrimination’[5] and present a view of the country as one dominated by ‘peace and stability’[6], a viewpoint quite inconsistent with wider evidence.

The exodus of the Rohingya population

While the flight of Rohingya people to Bangladesh and other neighbouring countries has been a continuous process over the last 50 years the most recent exodus came in August of 2017. Rohingya militant groups attacked multiple police posts in Myanmar, this was met with a vicious response from Buddhist mobs and groups. Rohingya villages were attacked, and burned to the ground, many civilians were killed or badly injured. According to Medecins Sans Frontieres reports over 6500 civilians, including almost 750 children, were killed in the violence[7]. These figures are somewhat different to those presented by the government who put the number of deaths at just 400[8]. The violence in August and September prompted many Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh where many refugee sites are located. It is estimated that 687,000 more refugees[9] have arrived in Bangladesh since the breakout of violence in August 2017[10], that number seems unlikely to stop rising as more and more Rohingya people are forced over the border.

Future prospects and foreign intervention

Foreign intervention or involvement in Myanmar

International opinions on events in Myanmar are easy to find and similar in their viewpoint, condemnation of the actions of the Myanmar government and the prolonged nature of the Rohingya’s suffering are widespread. This unity among members of the international community is illustrated in their labelling of the Rohingya as the ‘most persecuted minority in the world’[11]. Less obvious, however, is any immediate intervention international states may take in Myanmar. While the UN has set up an independent investigation they have chosen not to call for a Commission of Inquiry. Having said this, support is being provided to those in the Rohingya community that flee to refugee camps in Bangladesh or other states in the region. The Inter Sector Coordination Group report that 70% of 1 million refugees are receiving food aid, furthermore, nearly 50,000 temporary emergency shelters have been put into place by Bangladesh military and large-scale vaccination programmes have been implemented[12]. While this support improves the situation of the Rohingya people it is perhaps too reactionary, efforts to address the problem at its core need to be stepped up to resolve this ‘looming humanitarian crisis’[13].

The uncertain future for the Rohingya population

In short there seems to be no real end in sight for the Rohingya people. Consistent international condemnation and rising political pressure perhaps give some cause for optimism, but the insistent reluctance of the Myanmar government to acknowledge, let alone deal with, the issue suggests international intervention of a more substantial nature may be required before we see an end to the suffering of the Rohingya people.

Ben Tanner

Human Rights Section Feature Writer

25 December 2018


[7] ‘Myamnar Rohingya: What you need to know about the crisis’ (2018) <>

[8] ‘Myamnar Rohingya: What you need to know about the crisis’ (2018) <>

[12] ‘Myamnar Rohingya: What you need to know about the crisis’ (2018) <>

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes above.

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