Addressing the Rohingya Crisis: What is Happening in Myanmar?

By María Carmen Martín Palacios


Despite the importance of this issue in South-East Asian Affairs, this summer marked the beginning of intensive western media coverage of the Rohingya people. I was hopeful that this sudden public interest, centered around the inaction of the Administration of the Nobel Peace Prize awardee Aung San Suu Kyi, would help shed light on the dimensions of one of the world's largest ethnic cleansings. Further, that this would provide sufficient impetus for the Global Community to demand the immediate cease of violence against this community. Not surprisingly, the response has been superficially bureaucratic; the repression has sky-rocketed in the last weeks due to the absence of a sufficient international response.


Unfortunately, history is full of similar cases as the Rohingya problem, which is rooted in the lack of international agreement on procedures to protect stateless people, as well as its collision with the principle of “non-interference in domestic affairs”.

The presence of the Rohingya people in Myanmar has been recorded since the 12th century. However, it became more prominent in the Northernmost part of the country (the Rakhine province) during the colonial supervision of Great Britain (1824- 1948), whom had unified under one sole ruling demarcation India, Bangladesh and Myanmar itself. As a Muslim community, their presence in a Region dominated by Buddhists was never warmly welcomed, and labor disputes were soon encouraged by this religious disparity.

The fierce persecution of the Rohingya minority begun after Myanmar´s military coup in 1962. Until then, the country had been ruled under the dispositions of the Union Citizenship Act, passed after the country´s Independence in 1948. Even though this law did not include the Rohingya minority as one of the ethnicities that were considered legally qualified to hold the country´s nationality, it enabled second-generation migrants to ask for identity cards. However, when General Ne Win overthrew the former government civilian government, the rules of the game changed.  


In the aftermath of the coup, the new military government sought to increase the supervision of its people, by redefining the requisites of acquiring the Burmese citizenship, as well as those to achieve residence permits. The government, whom was financially supported by the upper conservative classes, aimed to restrict Rohingya´s rights to the extent that by 1982, once the new citizenship law was drawn, this minority became de facto stateless as the government set as many hazards as possible for them to demonstrate that they had rightfully been dwellers of Myanmar. Ever since, this ethnicity has lacked governmental protection, and thus been prevented from accessing to minimum life standards, such as education, the exercise of a professional career, the access to private property or even more basic rights such as freedom of speech or worship.

Since the 1980´s, governments have sought to continue with their hostility against this community as it was a guarantee for maintaining the general support of the Burmese society, headed by the Nationalist Buddhist elites. The escalation of the crackdowns against the Rohingya has led to physical and mental attacks, including torture, rape, unlawful arrest and detention as well as restriction of movement. This long-lasting persecution has led many believe that the final objective of this silent ethnic cleansing is to eliminate the Rohingya population: a “final solution”. 


The intensity of these crackdowns has forced many Rohingyas to fly the country, in a desperate attempt to find a better place to live. According to UNHRC, it is esteemed that the number of Rohingyas that have abandoned Myanmar in the last 40 years amounts to over 1 million people (UNHRC, 2015). Such a sum depicts the magnitude of this humanitarian crisis.

Regarding the legal framework, Rohingyas are stateless people. They are thus recognized as illegal immigrants by many governments, a condition that is used to justify the denial of asylum. This is the case in Bangladesh, one of the countries which has hosted these refugees in the last decades. As this country has not signed the 1957 Refugee Convention nor the 1967 Protocol, nor has a national legislation to deal with refugees, Rohingya have either been repatriated to Myanmar, or fall into a legal limbo that confines them in refugee camps.

Even though many activists, NGO's and grassroots movements have raised their voice to claim for a solution to one of the most severe humanitarian crisis of the twenty first century, the bureaucratic blockade and the colliding political interests have impeded the development of an effective solution for Rohingya people.

Given the dire current situation, is there still a room for hope for the Burmese Apartheid?


María Carmen Martín Palacios is a senior studying Business Administration and International Relations at the University of Pontificia Comillas (Madrid, Spain). She is the blogger for Southeast Asian Affairs for the SIR Journal.


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UNHCR. (2015). Bangladesh: Analysis of Gaps in the Protection of Rohingya Refugees. United Nations Refugee Agency.