Even in a nation synonymous with ethnic strife, the Rohingya stand out as Myanmar’s most besieged group. So loathed in Myanmar is this Muslim minority of around 1.1 million people who live in Rakhine State that everyone from Aung San Suu Kyi down refuses to describe them as 'Rohingya'. Instead they are known as 'Bengalis', a reference to the widespread belief that they are simply illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Certainly, most Rohingya have darker complexions than their Buddhist neighbours and generally speak a dialect of the Bengali language readily understood in Chittagong, Bangladesh’s major seaport. But Rohingya scholars cite historical evidence – including the logs of European explorers – that suggests a Rohingya presence in Myanmar that dates back centuries.
Many Rohingya descend from families led to Myanmar in the 19th century by the British Empire. The British needed labour to colonise the newly conquered Burma, and many Muslims (Bengali and others) came to the country to build towns and cities, to work the ports and railways and to farm the fields. A large proportion of them stayed permanently.
For hardline Buddhist nationalists, the Rohingya are an undesirable outcome of colonial occupation that needs correcting. Myanmar’s current citizenship law, widely derided by global human-rights groups, seeks to deny citizenship to any group who arrived after (or because of) British invasion.
Violence between the Rohingya and the ethnic Rakhine has been flaring for decades, but riots in 2012 saw the conflict reach a new scale. Around 90,000 Rohingya were displaced, with most moved to squalid internally displaced person (IDP) camps. Sittwe, Rakhine's capital, is now an almost Muslim- and Rohingya-free zone.
The 2012 riots led to the formation of a Rohingya militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). In October 2016 and August 2017, ARSA launched a series of attacks against police outposts in Rakhine State close to the border with Bangladesh. On both occasions the Tatmadaw (Burmese military) responded with large-scale offensives that have led to an estimated 500,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh, reducing the number of Rohingya in Rakhine State to around 600,000.
Allegations of human-rights abuses – the systematic rape of Rohingya women, mass shootings of unarmed people, the burning and looting of Rohingya villages – have been made against the Tatmadaw by a number of organisations, including Amnesty International. In September 2017 the UN described the Tatmadaw operations as a 'textbook example of ethnic cleansing'.
The media and aid organisations have been barred from the area where the violence occurred, and the Myanmar government and military have denied any wrongdoing. Instead, they have claimed that ARSA and the Rohingya themselves were burning down their own villages before leaving for Bangladesh. The worldwide condemnation that followed the August 2017 violence has severely tarnished the reputation of both Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar itself.