Backgrounder: the Rohingya of Myanmar

September 19, 2012

Zachary J. Rose

Minorities of Myanmar 


The  are an ethnic and religious minority of South Asia, mostly living in Myanmar. Their numbers are disputed, as are their origins in the region, but traditional animosities between the Rohingya and other ethnic groups, the Buddhist majority of Myanmar in particular, have resulted in considerable conflict over the years. A renewed wave of violence towards the Rohingya began in the summer of 2012, raising the international profile of this troubled region. According to the United Nations, the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted groups in the world.

Culture and Demographics

Though organizations representing Rohingya interests claim that the Rohingya have existed in Myanmar since the early Middle Ages, the modern origins of Myanmar’s Rohingya community can be reliably traced to the late 19th century, when the British colonial government began to encourage Arab, Indian, and Bengali immigration as a source of inexpensive labour.


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  • shuja

    Very helpful article, thnaks

  • Habib Siddiqui

    Thanks to Zak Rose for a good analysis of the latest tragedy targeting the Rohingyas of Myanmar. The Burmese society has been and remains the worst racist society in our world. There is no place for non-Buddhists in that country. Thus, came all the laws and persecutions to marginalize or push them out. Naturally, there are almost 50% of the Rohingya population numbering close to two million that are now living as refugees outside.
    The total Rohingya population is a matter of guess given the fact that no census was conducted by the regime in decades. However, a credible estimate provided by Dr. Shwe Lu Maung, in his much researched work – The Price of Silence – puts the number at over 47% of the total population in the Rakhine (formerly Arakan) state of Myanmar.
    The latest crisis is claimed to be triggered by the alleged rape and murder of a Rakhine girl by a Rohingya. But that is an accusation, which was never proven. The alleged criminal was later claimed to have committed suicide in the prison cell. Knowing previous government schemes to stir up riots, one should not thus be surprised if the fact turns out that the Nasaka itself had committed the crime and then dumped the body bordering a Muslim and Buddhist area. Rohingya Muslims say that they did not commit the latest crime. It was all part of a calculated program initiated by RNDP, the extremist Rakhine Buddhists with full support of the central regime.

  • Joel

    Poorly done article.Bengalis a.k.a Rohingya are not Arabs,they are Bengalis from neighbouring country Bangladesh.Those Bengalis are not include in Myanmar’s 135 ethnic groups.FYI,Myanmar’s states and divisions are based on ethnicity,not religion.
    " leaders would permit separation of the Rohingya areas of Rakhine or some form of semi-autonomous self-governance."
    Above lines are promoted by rohongyas for decades.I’m just wondering whether this article is propaganda or just plain poor research.

  • Iftikhar

    What if rohingas are bangalis,not Arabs?you just can kill them and burn their house?Buddhist people have been living in Bangladesh peacefully for centuries,even the recent anomaly happened in coxbazar did not kill a single people.and Buddhist people of burma certainly came in burma from somewhere else,its the natural flow of history.the criminal government of Burma and whoever else is responsible for this atrocity must be brought before justice!

  • PJ.Shepe

    i dont think the writer meant to say that the Rohingya are arabs racially, just that they claim to have a historical connection to ancient arabs.

    either way as Iftikhar pointed out, who cares about their ethnicity? it’s a matter of human rights and their race or ethnic group is totally unimportant

  • Harry

    This background is missing a lot factors and appears very one sided. The Rohingya Solidarity Organization, is a significant militant group with documented associations with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It has military camps in Coxs Bazaar. When armed by the British during WWII, instead of fighting the Japanese they used the arms to massacre 20000 Arakans. Various Rohingya have been fighting for separation from Myanmar well before the Junta oppression started, for example the attempt to join East Pakistan. The Rohingya are treated very badly in Myanmar, however the conflict is not one sided.


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