What Happened to the Rohingya?

By Nikki Bambauer

In August 2017, a genocide occurred on our watch. For years, the international community ignored the warning signs in Myanmar. This Southeast Asian nation has led a campaign against the Rohingya people that includes their imprisonment in internment camps and widespread violence against the group. Two years have passed and more than 700,000 Rohingya remain displaced. How did this happen?

Map of Southeast Asia, with Myanmar indicated in green


Myanmar, also known as Burma, has a population of more than fifty million people, most of whom identify as Buddhist. The country is also home to many ethnic and religious minorities, including the Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim group. The Rohingya have faced systematic discrimination for decades. Despite having lived in Rakhine State in western Myanmar for generations, they are often described as “illegal immigrants” and “Bengalis,” a term that implies they are foreigners from Bangladesh. The government stripped the group of citizenship in 1982 and still does not recognize the Rohingya as one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups. As a result, the Rohingya have few rights and are considered stateless.

Since the end of British colonial rule in the 1940s, Myanmar has been run by the military. Since 2010, the country has experienced a period of nominal democratization, leading to the election of “pro-democracy,” Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi. In 2015, she was appointed to the office of State Counsellor (a role equivalent to prime minister). Despite her top position in the government, the country is still largely under the control of the military.[1]

On August 25, 2017, a Rohingya militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police outposts in Rakhine State. According to official government accounts, twelve police officers were killed in the attacks. The Burmese army and security forces retaliated against entire Rohingya villages in a systematic campaign that the former United Nations human rights chief called “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Although its stated target was ARSA, the army killed men, women, and children. Soldiers – with voluntary support from civilians – also conducted a widespread campaign of rape and pillage, including razing entire Rohingya villages to the ground.

While the Burmese military claims that the ARSA attacks were the reason for its violent actions against the Rohingya, evidence indicates that preparation began at least a year earlier. According to Fortify Rights, an NGO investigating the genocide, the Burmese army:

  • Disarmed Rohingya civilians, including confiscating kitchen tools that could be used for self-defense;

  • Forced humanitarian organizations to withdraw from Rakhine State;

  • Provided military-style training to non-Rohingya civilians; and

  • Tore down fences and other structures that would provide cover for Rohingya during an attack.[2] 

In addition to physical preparations, the government used social media before, during, and after the violence to stir up anti-Rohingya sentiment. In a country where Facebook is most people’s only point of access to the internet, social media is a very powerful tool to disseminate misinformation and incite hate. Members of the military spread anti-Rohingya propaganda via Facebook in the months leading to its so-called “cleansing operations” and even ‘checked in’ to – and posted pictures from – the sites of massacres.[3]

Following the violent campaign in Rakhine State, more than 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar. Most ended up in refugee camps across the border in neighboring Bangladesh, but many thousands died trying to escape.

Rohingya refugees Hamida and her son Mohammed wait to receive food at a Refugee Camp in Bangladesh (via  UNHCR/Andrew McConnell )

Rohingya refugees Hamida and her son Mohammed wait to receive food at a Refugee Camp in Bangladesh (via UNHCR/Andrew McConnell)



In the years before the genocide, more than one million Rohingya lived in Myanmar. Today, fewer than 130,000 remain in Rakhine State, confined to internment camps. Some genocide survivors would like to return to Myanmar, but without assurance that they will be granted safety and full citizenship, they choose to stay in Bangladesh. As a result, nearly all of the refugees who fled Myanmar two years ago remain in refugee camps.

The government of Bangladesh asserts that it cannot support the refugees indefinitely. It plans to forcibly relocate 100,000 Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal. Most Rohingya do not want to live there, where they will be isolated and at risk of floods and cyclones. The United Nations is also wary of this relocation plan.  

Acknowledgements of genocide at the international level are somewhat rare; however, following its investigation of the events the UN fact-finding mission suggested that Myanmar’s top generals be prosecuted for genocide. Despite this pronouncement, it has become clear that the plight of the Rohingya will not be resolved quickly or easily. The international community must keep its eyes Myanmar and Bangladesh to ensure the safety and survival of the Rohingya. Their future depends on it.

By teaching about the Rohingya Genocide, we not only educate our students about current events and encourage them to stay informed, but we also provide a platform from which they can begin to speak out against the injustices perpetrated by Myanmar – and others – against minority groups around the world.



[1] Since August 2017, Aung San Suu Kyi has defended the military’s actions and denied that the genocide took place. She has been widely criticized for her unwillingness to stop the violence and many cities and organizations have stripped her of awards, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The Nobel Committee has not revoked her Nobel Peace Prize (awarded in 1991).

[2] They Gave Them Long Swords: Preparations for Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity Against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, Myanmar, Fortify Rights, July 2018, https://www.fortifyrights.org/downloads/Fortify_Rights_Long_Swords_July_2018.pdf (accessed September 3, 2019).

[3] UN Human Rights Council, Report of the detailed findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, September 17, 2018, A/HRC/39/CRP.2, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/FFM-Myanmar/A_HRC_39_CRP.2.pdf (accessed September 10, 2019).