The Rohingya are Muslims native to the northern Arakan region of Burma, which borders Bangladesh. The name Rohingya is taken from "Rohang" or "Rohan," which was the name used for the Arakan region during the 9th and 10th centuries. According to Rohingya history, the group is descended from 7th century Arab, Mughal, and Bengali merchants who settled in Arakan territory. The Rohingya live alongside the Rakhine, a people descended from Hindus and Mongols who make up the ethnic majority in the region.
The Rohingya language is known as Rohingyalish and is linguistically similar to the Chittagonian language spoken in the southernmost area of Bangladesh bordering Burma. While the language has been successfully written in scripts including Arabic, Hanafi, Urdu, and Burmese, the modern adaptation uses a script based on the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet with two additional Latin letters.
By 1947, the group had formed an army and had approached President Jinnah of newly-formed Pakistan to incorporate northern Arakan into a part of the country that would later form Bangladesh. Experts believe that it was this action that led to eventual problems between the Rohingya and the Burmese government, who saw the group as untrustworthy.
When Burma declared independence in 1948, most Rohingya officials were replaced with Buddhist Arakanis who began to institute policies that many of the Muslim group considered unfair. Since that time, ethnic tensions have divided the two peoples.
Prior to 1962 the Rohingya community was recognized as an indigenous ethnic nationality of Burma, with members of the group serving as representatives in the Burmese parliament, as well as ministers, parliamentary secretaries, and other high-ranking government positions. But since Burma’s military junta took control of the country in 1962, the Rohingya have been systematically deprived of their political rights.
The Rohingya were declared “non-nationals” and “foreign residents,” according to a citizenship law established by the regime in 1982, and were denied the right to participate in multiparty elections held in 1990.
The Rohingya have been subjected to large-scale ethnic cleansing following the formation of an independent Burma. Since 1948, nearly 1.5 million Rohingya have been forced to leave their homeland to avoid this persecution. Many members of the group have fled to Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, but others communities can be found in the U.A.E., Thailand, and Malaysia.
Approximately 800,000 Rohingya still live inside Burma, while an estimated 600,000 live in Bangladesh, 250,000 live in Pakistan, and 300,000 live in Saudi Arabia. Around 100,000 other Rohingya make up parts of the population of the U.A.E., Thailand, and Malaysia.
Communal violence between Rohingya and ethnic Buddhists in Burma’s Arakan state, also called Rakhine, in 2012 left more than 200 dead and tens of thousands homeless, with the Rohingya bearing the brunt of the violence. Deadly clashes erupted again two years later, prompting calls by rights groups and the United Nations for investigations into the unrest.
Helped by human traffickers, hundreds of Rohingya meanwhile began to flee Burma by boat for Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia, leading to a surge of illegal migration by Rohingya and Bangladeshis in May 2015 that saw countries in the region turning vessels filled with hundreds if not thousands of sick and hungry passengers back at sea.