The Rohingya people live primarily in Myanmar (also known as Burma), one of the least developed countries in Southeast Asia. Myanmar is ethnically diverse, with more than 130 distinct ethnic groups. The Rohingya are one of these ethnic groups, although they aren’t recognized as such by the Burmese government. The Rohingya primarily live in the northern part of Rakhine state, on the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh. There are between 800,000 and 1.1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar.
The Rohingya are oppressed and even hated in their own country. One reason for this is they are Muslim in a country that is almost 90% Buddhist. The government accuses them of being immigrants from Bangladesh and refuses to give them citizenship. Because they are not citizens, they are denied many rights. The Rohingya are forced to live in camps and ghettos with terrible conditions. They lack access to many services including health care and education. In elections scheduled for November 2015, the government has revoked the Rohingya’s right to run for office and even vote.
In 2012, violence broke out between the Rohingya and members of the Rakhine ethnic group (the majority ethnic group in Rakhine state). At least 200 people were killed, 1,100 were detained, and 115,000 fled their homes. Since then, tensions remain high between the Rohingya and the Rakhine, and more violence could break out at any time. The Rohingya are despised not only by the Rakhine, but by most of Myanmar’s population. They are blamed for many of the country’s problems, and the government even tries to unite the population under it’s disdain for the Rohingya.
Because of this violence and the degrading conditions the Rohingya are forced to live in, many have decided to flee Myanmar. Some have crossed the border with Bangladesh where they have settled in camps little better than the ones they left behind. Others have chosen to pay smugglers to take them in rickety, dangerous boats across the ocean to other countries in Southeast Asia. This leaves the Rohingya vulnerable to trafficking, kidnapping, and even death at the hands of their smugglers. It is a testament to how difficult their lives must be that so many of them are choosing to face these risks just to get out of Myanmar. In the first three months of 2015 alone, over 25,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat. These flights by boat are expected to increase again in the next few months as the rainy season ends and weather conditions improve.
So why is the Rohingya’s situation so important? Some have argued that, “nowhere in the world are there more known precursors to genocide” than the Burmese government’s treatment of the Rohingya. And yet this issue is not covered by the media and very few people have heard about the Rohingya. We are compelled to speak out on behalf of the Rohingya, to make their voices heard and to stop the world’s next genocide.