Who Are the Rohingyas?

Rohingya Muslim refugees holds bags of goods as they reach Balukhali refugee camp by the field in Bangladesh's Ukhiya district on October 4, 2017. Thousands now cross the border each day. FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

They're considered to be among the most persecuted citizens in the world, yet they're not well known in many parts of the globe. "They" are the Rohingya, a group of Muslims who hail from northern Myanmar (formerly Burma) near the Bangladeshi border. Harassed, abused and exploited on and off for decades, today this community of some 2 million is scattered among several Asian countries. Most live in Myanmar and Bangladesh, but there are also 250,000 in Pakistan, 300,000 in Saudi Arabia, and 100,00 in Thailand, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates, collectively.

A fresh wave of violence against the Myanmar Rohingya began in August 2017, after Rohingya militant groups attacked some police posts in the Myanmar state of Rakhine. Infuriated, the Myanmar military lashed back at all Rohingya, expelling citizens from their homes, burning entire villages, raping and killing people. Some 370,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh in what U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein called "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing."

The reason for the Rohingyas' perennial persecution is layered and complex. The group traces its roots to Myanmar's Arakan region bordering Bangladesh, where their Arab, Bengali and Mughal ancestors settled in the 7th century C.E. The Rohingya's neighbors today are the Rakhine, Buddhists who trace their ancestry to Hindus and Mongols. The Rakhine are the ethnic majority in the Arakan region, while the Rohingya are the minority.

Seeds of conflict were first planted during World War II, when the British defeated the Japanese and reclaimed Burma in the process. The Brits promised the Rohingya they would create a separate Muslim state for them as thanks for their loyalty and assistance during their battle with the Japanese. But they never followed through.

A few years later, the Rohingya asked that their slice of northern Arakan be folded into a corner of the newly created country of Pakistan to create a homeland for their people. That didn't happen, either. Instead, the area of Pakistan that they were hoping would become their home became part of the new Bangladesh. More ominously, the Burmese government began to distrust the Rohingya, with their repeated attempts to secure a land of their own. Tensions also began brewing with their Buddhist neighbors.

Despite all of this, the Rohingya were still considered one of Burma's official indigenous ethnic nationalities. Rohingya served in the Burmese parliament and in other governmental positions, and overall life was not too bad. Until 1962. That year, Burma's military junta seized control of the country and life for the Rohingya began a downward spiral.

The government declared them foreigners in 1982 — the new citizenship law said there needed to be proof that a family had lived in Myanmar before 1948 and many Rohingya did not have any paperwork to prove it. In 1990 they were stripped of their right to vote. They also are restricted in where they can travel, move to, be educated, or even which health services they can access. Effectively, the Rohingya became strangers in their own country.

More recently, a nationalist movement among Myanmar's Buddhist community — 90 percent of the population is Buddhist — spurred deadly clashes between the Rohingya and their Buddhist neighbors in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017. Myanmar now says the Rohingya belong in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh government says they do not.

"It's pretty clear Myanmar is an anti-Muslim society," says Tim Seymour, a hedge fund manager and CNBC on-air commentator who does business in the southeast Asian country. "They're proud and nationalistic and don't make any bones about it."

One of the more puzzling pieces of the Rohingya story is Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi is head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party leading Myanmar's government. She's also a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Suu Kyi could do much to help the Rohingya, but she's been curiously silent as the humanitarian crisis unfolds. Experts say there could be various reasons behind her silence and inaction.

While Suu Kyi leads the country, she's not necessarily in control. She was under house arrest for 15 years while she fought the military junta for elections, and the armed forces are still around and still powerful. In addition, the party she represents has never made the Rohingya a priority. Although the group has lived in the country for centuries, the majority of NLD party members (and Myanmar's Buddhist citizens) consider them outsiders, and not true citizens of Myanmar.

Islamist political organizations in Bangladesh staged protests after the military crackdown against the Rohingya ethnic group in Myanmar. Protests took place in other parts of the world too.
Monirul Alam/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Then there's the notion of who is really at fault. Seymour says the main assertion he hears about the crisis when he visits Myanmar is that it's being perpetrated by radical Islamic terrorists from Bangladesh and the Middle East — not by Myanmar citizens or members of its government. "The other part [of what I hear] is that there are plenty of members of the opposition party who are very interested in creating this chaos and putting pressure on Suu Kyi, which has made her politically cautious." Suu Kyi first came to power in November 2015.

While some investors refuse to work in Myanmar until the Rohingya crisis is resolved, Seymour says others are moving forward; Myanmar is seen as "the new Vietnam," ripe for investment and development. With the international business community not expressing outrage, and with the heads of major foreign countries, including the U.S., declining to pressure Suu Kyi, her inaction is given some credibility. Yet the situation has tarnished her image as a heroine.

That's likely not much consolation to the Rohingya.