Burmese, Jingpho, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, Shan
Year of Independence
Global Peace Index Rank
130 of 162
Number of Stateless People
Burma gained independence in 1948. A coup in 1962 put the military in control of the government, and the military has played a prominent role in politics ever since. The government isolated Burma from the rest of the world, suppressed all dissent, and controlled the economy. In 1989, the government changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar.
Myanmar is has more than 135 ethnic groups. The majority Burman ethnic makes up 68% of the population (distinct from the term “Burmese” which refers to all citizens of Myanmar). The majority of Burmese are Buddhists, with 89% of the population identifying as Buddhist, 4% as Christian, and 4% as Muslim. For many Buddhism is closely tied to Burmese identity, and non-Buddhists are often marginalized. There are up to 1,100,000 Rohingya living in Myanmar today. The term “Rohingya,” while not recognized by the Burmese government, refers to a distinct Muslim ethnic group. The Rohingya live in Rakhine state in the northwest of Myanmar. With the passage of the Citizenship Act in 1982, the Rohingya’s citizenship was revoked. The government justified this by claiming that the Rohingya were actually illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Ethnic conflict in Myanmar qualifies as the world’s longest civil war. In 2013-2014, there was a renewed outbreak of ethnic conflict until a ceasefire deal was signed in March 2015. Adding to the state’s fragility, in the summer of 2015, floods in the low-lying parts of country killed 100 people and displacing a million others.
Tensions with the Rohingya came to a head in May 2012 after a Buddhist woman was raped and killed. Three Rohingya men were accused. Groups Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya took up arms, leaving at least 200 dead. Up to 1,100 people (mostly Rohingya) were detained and 115,000 internally displaced. Anti-Muslim violence spread into other parts of Myanmar. In February of 2015, the government withdrew temporary voting rights from Muslim Rohingya ahead of proposed constitutional referendum, following street protests by Buddhists. Tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar continue to be high despite progress in other areas.
As stateless people, the Rohingya live in highly oppressive conditions. They are forced to live in camps and ghettos, lack access to basic services, are forced to work hard labor, are unable to marry without permission, are restricted in their movements, and are limited in the number of children they can have. Since the violence in 2012, over 87,000 Rohingya have fled the country in rickety boats, putting their lives in the hands of human traffickers to reach other countries. Some argue that “nowhere in the world are there more known precursors to genocide” than the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
But there is cause for hope as well. In November 2015, in a monumental victory, the opposition party National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi won enough seats in parliamentary elections to form a government. The military regime agreed to respect the results of the election and both sides engaged in the peaceful transitional process. Since then, there have been positive developments, such as the lifting of trade restrictions by the U.S. and the opening on the Yangon Stock exchange in December of 2015. In March of this year, Htin Kyaw was sworn in as president, ushering in a new era as Aung San Suu Kyi’s democracy movement took power after 50 years of military rule. The government lifted the curfew on Rohingya and lifted the state of emergency, in what is hopefully the beginning of an era of increased tolerance, protection and peace in Myanmar.
To learn more about the history of the Rohingya and their current situation, please see our Rohingya Briefing Report.