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Factbox: Who are the Rohingya?

A village burns after sectarian violence in Myanmar. (Getty Images)

World News Australia – SBS

May 29, 2013

Rohingya is the name given to Sunni Muslims originating from the Arakan (now Rakhine) region of Myanmar. The name Rohingya dates back to around the 7th century, and was originally a term used to refer to people with dark skin.

Rohingya is the name given to Sunni Muslims originating from the Arakan (now Rakhine) region of Myanmar (formerly called Burma). The name Rohingya dates back to around the 7th century, and was originally a term used to refer to people with dark skin.

The UNHCR describes Rohingya as “virtually friendless” among Myanmar’s other ethnic and religious communities.

Dr Jonathan Bogais from the University of Sydney believes sectarian conflict between Muslim and non-Muslim people in Myanmar dates back to the early days of the British East India Company operating in Bangladesh.

Local workers were sent south to develop plantations to supply the company. There was no border between Bangladesh and Myanmar at the time. 

“As the Muslim population expanded, conflict developed,” says Dr Bogais. “Conflict had been going on for the better part of 200 years, but really emerged in the late 1800s and it never stopped.”

“[After] the British colonised Myanmar, the geopolitical division changed. A clear distinction between Bangladesh and Myanmar emerged, and, of course, the Rohingya people stayed there.”

It’s estimated around 850,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar today, which has a total population of about 50 million.

HISTORY OF CONFLICT

Persecution is a recurring theme for Rohingya people, says Dr Bogais. Animosity lingers, “mostly due to what the Buddhists look at as overpopulation of Muslim people.”

The Rohingya are not officially recognised by the Myanmar authorities, which has helped negative sentiment to grow. At times, state security forces have actively supported attacks, the aid organisation Human Rights Watch reported this year.

The same report noted the discovery of mass graves where men, women and children had been buried after a wave of sectarian violence that began in June, after a 28-year-old Arakanese woman was raped and murdered by three Muslim men. 

In 1978, around a quarter of a million refugees left Myanmar for Bangladesh, after the Rohingya were refused citizenship and officially designated a foreign population within the country. 

Another 250,000 fled in 1991-92 to escape persecution.