The Rohingya are a people without a country. Over the past two centuries in Rakhine, a Burmese state bordering Bangladesh, the local Muslims have developed a unique culture, drawing on both their Burmese and Bengali heritage. They view themselves as a distinct Burmese minority, but in the eyes of the Burmese military junta, they are merely illegal Bengali immigrants. Many flee the oppression, but cannot escape the label, and illegal immigrants are exactly what they become when they arrive in Bangladesh.
The British brought in Indian workers during their rule in Burma. After Burmese independence from Britain in 1948, discrimination continued against Muslims and people of Indian descent. The Rohingya’s post-independence demands for an independent state, or at least accession to East Pakistan, made them a target for further discrimination. Under current dictator Than Shwe, the Rohingya need permission to marry, to travel outside their villages or to repair their houses. The army uses them for hard labour, and extorts and punishes them severely and arbitrarily.
On two occasions since independence, the Rohingya have fled the junta’s persecution en masse: in 1978, 200,000 escaped after the state cracked down on what they viewed as illegal immigrants, and after the regime’s sham election in 1991, 250,000 Rohingya crossed into Bangladesh. Most of these refugees were repatriated, many of them forcefully. After returning to Burma and finding their land confiscated, the majority of them eventually trickled back into Bangladesh. In many cases, assimilation into local communities has worked well, but Bangladeshi authorities are unwilling to let this happen on a large scale. This past year, the message from the Bangladeshi government has been clear: Rohingya are not welcome.