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Myanmar's persecution of its Muslim-minority population

Rohingya Muslims walk towards a refugee camp in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh. Photo: Dar Yasin / AP

Myanmar is currently in the midst of a brutal crackdown against its persecuted Muslim minority Rohingya population, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee into neighboring Bangladesh. Aung San Suu Kyi, the de-facto leader of Myanmar and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has remained defiantly dismissive of the topic — and the international reaction has remained decidedly muted.

Think big: Myanmar has only just opened up to the outside world after years of secretive military rule, culminating in a visit by then-President Obama in 2012. As the country teeters between the Chinese and American spheres of influence in Southeast Asia, the international community seems reticent to react and disrupt that balance.

The Rohingya are a minority ethnic group in Myanmar's Rakhine State who have inhabited the region for centuries. As a mostly Muslim ethnicity, they stand out in Buddhist Myanmar — amplified by the fact that they have darker skin and speak a different language.

The reason for persecution: As Rohingya expert Azeem Ibrahim told New York Magazine, the Rohingya were chosen as a scapegoat for the failure of the (then) Burmese government's communist reforms during the 1960s. Their non-Buddhism was used against them by the reigning military government, allowing their persecution to become institutionalized.

  • Something you should know about Myanmar: The country adheres to a more militant type of Buddhism than is usually imagined in the West.
  • The heart of the problem: The Burmese government passed a law in 1982 that denied the Rohingya from gaining citizenship, formalizing the nation's repudiation against them. It also made them stateless, denying the Rohingya the ability to work, marry, and travel freely.
  • A startling stat: A recent Harvard study estimates that one in seven stateless people in the world are Rohingya.

What's happening now: Myanmar's government launched its latest surge of violence against the Rohingya last October after alleged attacks by Rohingya insurgents against government posts. A report from the United Nation's Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights calls the crackdown "systematic" and "very likely" including crimes against humanity, branding the government's work as "ethnic cleansing." Some big picture examples of the violence:

  • Initially, Myanmar's government forced the Rohingya into concentration camps after unrest in 2012, but it has recently turned to systematically destroying their villages to prevent their return.
  • Last month, as the effort to expel the Rohingya turned more violent and left at least hundreds dead, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh to escape the violence, leading the Myanmar military to mine the border to keep them there, per Reuters.

The political controversy: Aung San Suu Kyi, who was imprisoned for nearly two decades after calling for democracy and human rights under the country's oppressive military junta, has refused to speak out against the violence as Myanmar's de-facto leader. Five other women who have won the Nobel Peace Prize called on Suu Kyi to acknowledge the violence in an open letter — though the Nobel Committee remains exceedingly unlikely to revoke her prize, per the NYT.

She told the BBC in an interview earlier this year: "I don't think there is ethnic cleansing going on. I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening."

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