The Rohingya: Who are they? Why are they in Malaysia?

The solution to the plight of the long-suffering stateless Rohingya is plain and simple, writes Francis Loh.

by Francis Loh · 9 January 2015

There have been several newspaper reports about the Rohingya over the past months.

The Star caried three news items about the Rohingyas on 13 November 2014 alone. The first article ‘Groups want Myanmar govt to restore rights of the Rohingya’ (p 14) reported on the memorandum submitted by five civil society organisations to the 25th Asean Summit then taking place in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, to protest “the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority in Myanmar”. These five organisations called on the Myanmar government “to abide by the UN resolution to restore the citizenship status and rights of the Rohingya”. They were also critical of Asean’s lack of response to the violence and the violation of human rights committed against the Muslim minority by extremists in Myanmar.

The second item was headlined ‘Illegals may not be Rohingyas’ (p 6). The president of the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organisation Malaysia (Merhrom) reportedly clarified that his organisation “had no knowledge” about claims that there were 4,000 Rohingyas in Cameron Highlands and that the illegal immigrants hauled up for working on farms in the wake of devastating flash floods in the Highlands may not be Rohingya. “They could be Bangladeshi or those from other ethnicities from Myanmar,” he stated.

And the third item ‘Tales of terror from Myanmar folk: Gangs storm our houses, say foreigners’ (p 23) highlighted the fears of non-Muslim Myanmarese, probably Burmans (the dominant ethnic group in Burma), who have been fleeing from construction sites or farms in rural areas in Penang to seek refuge in the Dhammikarama Burmese Buddhist Temple in Pulau Tikus, Penang.

No doubt, the fact that some 20 Myanmar men had been murdered in Malaysia in recent months – in some cases headless and legless corpses bore witness to their grisly deaths – struck fear among Myanmar migrant workers in Malaysia. Some of them alleged that they had been chased out of their work sites by their Rohingya, Bangladeshi or Indonesian – i.e. Muslim – co-workers.

Conceivably, the hostility was due to jealousies resulting from job positions as well as animosity towards Myanmar Buddhists as a result of ethnic violence perpetrated against Muslims by Buddhists back in Myanmar. (See The Star, 12 November 2014, p. 3, ‘Myanmar seek refuge in temple’.)

Who are the Rohingya? Why are they in Malaysia? What is the nature of their problem? How can their problem be resolved, if at all?

Who are they?

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority forced to flee from Myanmar to Malaysia, among other neighbouring countries.

Nobody knows for certain the actual number of Rohingya in Malaysia. In 2009, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that there were 16,662 Rohingya individuals registered with his office in Malaysia. The total numbers in Malaysia ought to be higher.

The majority lived in the poorer parts of the Klang Valley, concentrated around Ampang, Klang, Cheras and Puchong. But. as recently reported, the Cameron Highlands could also be where some 4,000 Rohingyas are concentrated, while the NGOs in Penang that work with forced migrants also suggest that there are a few thousand of them in Penang.

Ethnic violence amidst poverty

There have been four rounds of exodus of the Rohingya from northern Arakan (now Rakhine state) over the past 70-80 years.

In 1942, when Japanese occupation first occurred, the Rohingya, who largely supported the British, were forced to flee to what is now Bangladesh.

A second round occurred in 1977-78 following the disenfranchisement of some 250,000 Rohingya due to an amendment to the Citizenship Law.

The third round occurred in the 1990s, after SLORC had taken over from Ne Win. The new Myanmar military sought ceasefires with the ethnic armed groups in certain areas but intensified its campaign against them in other areas. In the latter areas, ethnic minority people including the Rohingya were used as forced labour to build roads and military camps.

The fourth and latest exodus began in 2008 as political reforms were being proposed and initiated.

Each of these four rounds of exodus were preceded by policy changes increasingly discriminatory against the Rohingya (and sometimes other minority groups too), and were accompanied by incidences of serious ethnic violence, usually with the connivance of the military authorities and local officials.

Often, these incidences of ethnic violence simmer on, even after they have been brought under control by the authorities. So, fresh incidences can easily break out again, as in the current situation. In part, this is because the underlying issues have not been resolved, and the anti-Rohingya vitriol has continued, indeed worsened.

Another reason is simply that the country is exceedingly poor. Significantly, the Rohingya population is largely found in the northern part of Rakhine state (previously known as Arakan) which is the second poorest state in the country. Sadly, the violence often pitted poor ethnic Arakanese Buddhists against poor Rohingya, both finding it difficult to make a living, let alone look forward to a comfortable future.

In the current scenario, one of the major complaints of the ethnic Arakanese against the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is that it had favoured the Rohingya in the provision of food, shelter, medical and other emergency aid, while ignoring the plight of the Arakanese who, technically speaking, do not come under the purview of the UNHCR, because the Arakanese are not ‘refugees’, so to speak.

Seen through their lenses however, the Arakanese considered themselves to be as bad-off as the Rohingya, economically speaking; this was particularly so after Cyclone Narqis and then later again, when Cyclone Giri hit Myanmar in 2008 and 2010 respectively.

On its part, the UNHCR defends its ‘selective’ provision of humanitarian aid and protection for the Rohingyas on the grounds that they are ‘stateless persons’and so come under the ambit of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. The the Arakanese, on the other hand, even when threatened by natural disasters, do not come under the same 1951 Cponvention.

That said, the point is that enveloping all the violence and its persistence in northern Arakan is the persistence of serious poverty among both the Rohingya and the ethnic Arakanese.

Fresh ethnic violence amidst political reforms

Ironically, the current round of violence against the Rohingyas started in late 2007 as the Myanmar military regime began opening up and introducing political reforms. In mid-2007, large-scale demonstrations occurred in Yangon, Mandalay and other towns. Led by Buddhist monks, these protest demonstrations were referred to as the ‘Saffron Revolution’.

To deflect demands that constitutional democracy under civilian rule be restored, the military called for a referendum to adopt a long-delayed new semi-democratic Constitution (that would allow the military to continue to control the country). This was conducted in May. But, just before the referendum, Cyclone Nargis hit the low lying Irrawaddy delta areas on 2 May 2008, resulting in hundreds losing their lives and hundreds of thousands being displaced.

It was in the midst of these tumultuous events and shifts that the Rohingya in Rakhine state were attacked by local Arakanese Buddhists in northern Rakhine. Some Muslims who demonstrated and protested their discrimination after Friday prayers were then shot at by security forces, and several Rohingya were killed subsequently. Further protests by Muslims and non-Muslims resulted in shops being attacked, curfew being imposed, and police and Arakanese vigilante patrols over Rohingya villages.

So the Rohingya in the towns of Buthidaung, Maungdaw and Rathedaung in northern Rakhine state started fleeing across the border to Bangladesh, as they had done so many times before. Consequently, the UNHCR estimated that there were about 28,000 Rohingya living in refugee camps around Cox’s Bazaar and another 5,000 to 10,000 in makeshift camps in Teknaf in Bangladesh.

You might recall reading 2007 newspaper reports of the boat disasters and other incidents involving Rohingya people. Yes, the Rohingya attempted a new and dangerous move. The terrible living conditions in these camps and the general lack of prospects for the future on account of their statelessness led some 3,000 Rohingya to leave these camps in Bangladesh to seek asylum in Malaysia. Their assumption was that Malaysia would be sympathetic to their plight since they were fellow Muslims.

So, in late 2006 till April 2007, they climbed onto boats and braved the seas and weather to seek asylum in Malaysia. Alas, many of these boats were overloaded and not sea-worthy resulting in many deaths, while some boats got stranded in Thailand. In some cases the Thai navy towed them out to sea to ‘shoo them away’ without allowing them replenishment of food or water; consequently, a few of them ended up in Aceh. Those who succeeded in landing in Malaysia constituted the first group of Rohingya displaced people in Malaysia, I reckon.

Back in Myanmar, the alarming state of affairs worsened after another natural disaster occurred in October 2010. This time, Cyclone Giri hit Rakhine’s coastline, killing hundreds and leaving some 70,000 homeless. The economy of Rakhine was also devastated.

In 2011, ethnic violence once again flared as Buddhists confronted Muslims in this second poorest state in Burma. Muslim shops were attacked, protesters fired at. Curfew was imposed, and police and the so-called special forces ‘Luin Thuin’ patrolled the streets. According to official figures, some 110 Muslims were killed and 125,000 Muslim people were forced to flee from their homes in Buthidaung, Maungdaw and Rathedaung in northern Rakhine state.

The Muslims in Sittwe (previously known as Akyab), the capital of Rakhine state, were also attacked. In general, these Muslims were resettled in refugee camps located outside town limits. Following the violence, the lovely Jama Mosque built in 1859, on Sittwe’s Main Street, was shut and left disused.

A barbed-wire barricade now blocks its entrance and is guarded by police, apparently, to prevent more mischief.

The Aung Mingalar ward in the heart of Sittwe, previously domiciled by Muslims, nowadays resembles an ethnic ghetto.

Significantly, the violence against Muslims then spread outside of Rakhine state to Meikhtila, in Central Burma in March-April 2012. Video footage released by the BBC showed that the riots were led by Buddhist monks in saffron robes. There were also allegations that police asimply stood by rather than stop the violence. In June 2012, yet more violence occurred in Rakhine.

Arakan-Muslims in the pre-colonial era

In the past, the Rohingya were simply recognised as Arakan Muslims, descendants of Chittagong Muslims and Arakanese women, who lived in the Mayu region of Sittwe district in upper Arakan. In the 1930s, they accounted for about 41 per cent of all Muslims in Burma.

Muslim mercenaries helped an Arakan ruler to establish a new dynasty in Mrauk-U in 1430. Thereafter, Muslims served in the Arakan court during the 15th to 18th century, that is, until the takeover of Arakan by the Burma Konbaung rulers. A related group of Arakan Muslims were the Kaman, descendants of Shah Shuja, a son of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who had lost the throne to one of his brothers and fled to Mrauk-U in the 1660s.

As in other parts of Asia during pre-colonial times, the borders of a particular kingdom were always not well-defined and people crossed over from one kingdom to another easily, and at will. It is evident, however, that Rohingya migration into Arakan increased substantially after Burma was occupied by the British in three campaigns: 1824-26, 1852 and 1885.

It was after the first Anglo-Burma War in 1824, after Arakan fell and was annexed as part of British India, that large-scale immigration of Indians, including the Rohingya from Chittagong, began. Consequently large numbers of Rohingya settled in the coastal towns of Buthidaung, Maungdaw and Rathedaung, the more inland town of Kyauktaw, and in Sittwe (or Akyab) in northern Rakhine state.

Such migration and settlement is not surprising considering that Cox’s Bazaar in today’s Bangladesh is simply a short boat ride away from the coastal towns mentioned above, while the inner areas could be easily traversed, especially since for long periods, British Burma was ruled as a part of British India.

The point is that there has been a long-time presence of Muslims in Arakan, even in the courts of Mrauk-U. They constituted the forefathers of today’s Rohingya.

That said, the Rohingya is not recognised in the Constitution as one of the 135 national races who are accorded full and equal treatment in matters relating to birth and death registration, education, health and social affairs. Instead, they are regarded as a sub-group of the Bengali race and regarded only as permanent residents within Myanmar.

Although the Myanmar government and most Arakanese people regard these people as Bengali, the Bangladeshi government does not regard them as its own citizens. Put another way, the Rohingya are effectively ‘stateless’!

Earlier rounds of exodus and ethnic violence

Several other earlier rounds of anti-Rohingya (and more generally anti-Indian) violence in Burma have occurred prior to the latest round, which began in 2008 and has continued until now. As mentioned, immigration from British India including what is now Bangladesh was then relatively easy and encouraged by the British.

Although the vast majority of Rohingya (and Indians) were poor farmers, with small groups of petty traders, much economic resentment occurred because Indian traders, shopkeepers, and craftsmen, especially in the Irrawaddy delta region, had prospered at the expense of the Burmese peasants.

Many peasants lost their land as a result of the debts they could not repay to the Indians Chettiars. This unequal development under the British resulted in much resentment of the natives against the immigrants, as it also did in British Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia).

When the economy collapsed due to the world economic depression of the 1930s, anti-Indian riots occurred in Rangoon and other parts of the Irrawaddy Delta in 1930 and 1938. The Hsaya Hsan Uprising is well known not only as an uprising protesting British rule, but also as a protest movement against increasing Indian control of the rice economy.

Rohingya-Arakan relations in upper Arakan has also to be seen within this wider context of Indo-Burmese relations. Both sets of relations worsened as Independence approached.

In 1942, Rohingya-Burmese race riots occurred during the Japanese occupation, forcing thousands of Muslims to cross the border to Bangladesh. In general, the Rohingya (and the Arakanese too) were more pro-British while the Burmese collaborated with the Japanese invaders.

Abandoned Rohingya homes and lands were then taken over by Burmese. Rohingya who previously served in the colonial service were also replaced by Burmese during the Japanese era.

Much ill feeling arose and ethnic clashes broke out after the Japanese occupation when the Muslims returned and tried to reclaim their homes and lands. When these were not forthcoming, an armed rebellion led by the Mujahids arose to demand justice for Rohingya.

Some of the Mujahids called for the creation of a separate state for Muslims in upper Arakan, while others in the North Arakan Muslim League proposed in 1946 that the region become a part of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). These problems lasted into the 1950s.

Amidst all these problems, the Rangoon government introduced the National Registration Card (NRC) for foreigners in 1948 which the Rohingya boycotted because they considered themselves to be Burmese citizens. Hence, many Rohingya ended up without this NRC. On this basis they were later deprived of the possible benefit of being reconsidered for citizenship or to be given permanent residency.

In the event, U Nu’s government succeeded in bringing the Mujahid uprising to a close. He agreed to the formation of a separate district for Muslims to be placed under Rangoon’s direct administration. It was hoped that such direct administration by the centre would facilitate Muslim demands for better educational opportunities and for an improved standard of living, and allow them to bypass discriminatory practices by local Arakanese officers.

Unfortunately, U Nu’s civilian government was soon overthrown in a military coup led by General Ne Win in 1962.

State-sponsored persecution

It was under Ne Win’s military regime that state-sponsored persecution of Muslims (and of other non-Buddhist ethnic minorities) started. The military regime’s adoption of a religious ultra-nationalist ideology led to the exclusion of Muslims (and other non-Buddhists) from the upper echelons of the military and administration.

In 1977-78, under Operation Dragon or Nagamin, an effort to register citizens and screen out foreigners was launched. In February 1978, more than a thousand Muslims were arrested in Akyab. The protest by Muslims against the detention was brutally repressed, sending shockwaves among Muslims in Arakan.

In the event, with the enactment of the Burma Citizenship Law 1982, Rohingyas who could not prove that they were citizens were disenfranchised. Henceforth, they would be classified as ‘non-nationals’ or ‘resident aliens’. Most were denied access to agricultural land and evicted, subjected to extortions by officials and even restrictions on movement including travel from one village to another without permission.

Ultimately, more than 200,000 Rohingya who were not in possession of legal papers to prove that they were citizens were forced across the border. The squalid conditions of the refugee camps in Bangladesh resulted in international pressure on Yangon, which agreed to readmit Muslims who were in possession of the NRC document which, as mentioned earlier, most Rohingya had refused to apply for because they considered themselves to be Burmese citizens. (Also expelled during this period were tens of thousands of Bangladeshis, Nepali and Chinese.)

The third round of exodus in the 1990s followed after yet another round of repression against the Rohingya. It coincided with repression against rebels in minority areas, including in northern Arakan. During this period the military grew rapidly, and increasing numbers were sent into the minority areas where rebellions had broken out against Yangon.

It is now well documented that ethnic minorities were subjected to forced labour to open up new roads and build military camps. Arbitrary arrests, sexual abuse of women folk, extortion and other human rights abuses also took place.

To evade such discrimination and violence, the Rohingya fled once again into Bangladesh. By mid-1992, reportedly, 145,000 Rohingya had fled there.


No doubt, ethnic relations in Myanmar have worsened as a result of military rule since 1962. Its adoption of an ultra-nationalist ideology spearheaded by the dominant Burman ethnic group and anchored in Buddhism has resulted in discrimination of the ethnic minorities.

Like the Rohingya, many hundreds of thousands of these ethnic minority peoples have been turned into refugees living in squalid camps on the borders with Thailand, China, India and Bangladesh. At its peak, 16 armed groups of rebels were fighting against the military.

But the case of the Rohingya is essentially different. The crux of their problem is not that they have been in a war against the majority Burmans who run an ethnocratic state and have repressed them politically, economically and culturally. Rather, the Rohingya have been declared as aliens, perhaps given ‘alien residence’ or ‘permanent residence’, but ultimately denied citizenship.

Yet we live in a world of nations wherein the state’s primary obligations are towards its own citizens. But the Rohingya have been turned ‘stateless’. Consequently, the stateless Rohingya end up completely disenfranchised ‘from the national order of things’.

The plight of the Rohingya has been highlighted in many studies and international conferences. It has also attracted the attention of the UNHCR and other international organisations and leaders, most recently, President Obama.

In late 2013, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution urging Myanmar to give the stateless Rohingya equal access to citizenship.

In Nov 2013, Claus Sorrenson, the director-general of the European Union’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department, after the conclusion of a five-day visit, likened the lack of humanitarian aid and the restrictions on movement for displaced Rohingya to the situation in Apartheid-era South Africa, or Poland under Nazi occupation’ (The Myanmar Times, 2-8 December 2013, p 19).

Meanwhile, the democratic forces led by Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy has only protested against the violence perpetrated against the Muslims by fellow Buddhist Burmese. Poised to contest the 2015 elections for the president’s post (provided the present Constitution gets amended to allow her to do that), she appears reluctant to include the plight of the Rohingya as part of her democratic cause.

Precisely because someone as respected as her refuses to speak out on the discrimination of the Rohingya and to support their right to citizenship, the way has been opened for strident chauvinistic views, like those expressed by U Wirathu, the abbot of Ma Soe Yein monastery in Mandalay.

U Wirathu has launched the ‘9-6-9 campaign’ (which he claims is based upon the nine attributes of the Buddha, the six attributes of the Buddha’s teaching, and the nine attributes of the Sangha, hence 9-6-9) and calls upon Buddhists not to transact with Muslims economically or socially and to demarcate their houses and properties from Muslims by putting up the ‘969’ sticker.

His anti-Muslim sermons have also been circulated on Youtube and via DVDs. The danger is that anti-Muslim sentiments are being spread amongst the ordinary people. And some of these sentiments have been brought over to Malaysia as well, perhaps accounting for the grisly deaths that have been reported.

But it is not only Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi and the democratic forces in Myanmar who must speak out. The world community and Malaysians must do the same. At this point, the UNHCR can only provide relief; even less, the NGOs advocating the rights of refugees and forced migrants. All do not possess the capacity to redress their situation.

For the solution, plain and simple, is conferment of citizenship which can only be accorded by nation-states. Pressure should be applied on Myanmar. Perhaps neighbouring countries and neighbouring civil societies could assume some joint-responsibility to resolve the plight of the Rohingyas as well.


  • Abu Talib Ahmad ‘Rohinga, the State and Race Relationsin Arakan (Rakhine), 1948-1993’, unpublished manuscript
  • Avyanthi Azis (2012), ‘Finding Room for the Stateless: Locating the Rohingya in a Difficult World of Nations’ In The Work of the 2009/2010 API Fellows, Bangkok: The Nippon Foundation
  • Bonojit Hussain, ‘Burma: Lest we don’t see, a genocide is in the making’, in Aliran Monthly vol 33 no 5, 2013.
  • Thant Myint U (2006), The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Dr Francis Loh has been president of Aliran since 2011. He was formerly Professor of Politics at Universiti Sains Malaysia.