The Rohingya are a largely Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar at the center of a humanitarian catastrophe, many of whom have ended up sheltering in makeshift camps in Bangladesh, telling tales of killings, rape, and massacres.
But the Myanmar government won’t even use the word “Rohingya,” let alone admit they’re being persecuted. Instead, the government calls them Bengalis, foreigners, or worse, terrorists. This difference between these two terms—Rohingya and Bengali—is crucial to understanding the crisis unfolding in Myanmar, where more than 500,000 Rohingya have recently fled following a government crackdown and which has been called a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing by the top United Nations human-rights official.
Before the massacres, there were thought to be around 1.1 million Rohingya living in the country. Indeed, the Rohingya have existed in Myanmar—a Buddhist majority country formerly called Burma—for centuries. The Rohingya had carved a place for themselves in Burma; with some serving in parliament and other high offices. Their ethnicity was included in the 1961 census.
The situation quickly deteriorated for the Rohingya, however, following the 1962 military coup, when the government refused to fully recognize new generations of the Rohingya population. In 1982, a new citizenship law was passed that prevented Rohingya from easily accessing full citizenship, rendering many of them stateless.
Since the late 1970s, nearly one million Rohingya are estimated to have fled Myanmar. In 2009, a UN spokeswoman described the Rohingya as “probably the most friendless people in the world”. Yet many Rohingya—collectively dubbed across international media as “boat people”—were stuck because they were turned away from a number of Southeast Asian countries where that had hoped to flee to.