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Explainer: Who are the Rohingya, and why are hundreds of thousands fleeing Myanmar?

According to the UN, 270,000 Rohingya have arrived in Bangladesh in the past two weeks.

New Rohingya refugees arrive near a makeshift Refugee Camp in Bangladesh
New Rohingya refugees arrive near a makeshift Refugee Camp in Bangladesh
Image: Mushfiqul Alam/PA

IN THE SOUTHEAST Asian nation of Myanmar, hundreds of thousands of the Rohingya minority have been fleeing across the border into nearby Bangladesh to escape ethnic violence, including torture and killings.

At least 1,000 people are known to have been killed, but the real figure is expected to be much higher.

The events have been branded a “genocide” by the Turkish president, but controversy has swirled after Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, said that a “huge iceberg of misinformation” was distorting the picture of what was happening.

Bangladesh: Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis A Rohingya woman carries her child in a sling while walks through in hill after crossing the border into Bangladesh Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

According to the UN, in the last two weeks an estimated 270,000 Rohingya refugees have arrived in Bangladesh, with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Duniya Aslam Khan saying that shelter capacity there is “exhausted”.

Refugees are now squatting in makeshift shelters that have mushroomed along the road and on available land in the Ukhiya and Teknaf areas.

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. There is an estimated 1.1 million of them in Myanmar, where the majority of its 52.9 million people are Buddhist.

Most of them live in the western coastal state of Rakhine.

They are denied citizenship in Myanmar, and are denied social and political rights including education and work. Their own language is not recognised by the state and they are left off a national list of 135 recognized ethnicities.

When Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948, they were able to apply for identity cards, which offered some rights. But this status was lost after a military coup in 1962, and they were considered foreigners and had foreign identity cards.

Myanmar attacks Houses on fire in Gawdu Zara village, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar Source: STR/PA

In 1982, the Rohingya were able to apply for citizenship if they could speak an officially recognised language and could prove their family lived there before independence. Most did not have the paperwork to prove this, effectively rendering them stateless.

In 2013, the UN described them as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.

While the majority of the world’s Rohingya are in Myanmar, significant populations can be found in countries like Pakistan, where are an estimated 200,000, and Malaysia, where there are an estimated 40,000. In the US, it’s estimated that there are around 12,000 Rohingya.

Bangladesh already hosts 400,000 Rohingya.

What’s happening to them?

While the Rohingya, viewed as illegal immigrants by many in the country, have frequently suffered violence and discrimination in the region, the violence has, in the past three weeks, become more severe and systemic.

Reports of rape, torture and killings have emerged from Myanmar, with Human Rights Watch releasing images of villages burnt to the ground and survivors in Bangladesh recounting stories of shootings and beheadings.

Many refugees been using makeshift boats to escape into Bangladesh, where many have drowned.

Bangladesh: Rohingya Crisis Rohingya people wait to cross the border into Bangladesh by boat across the Naf river in Mayanmar. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

A recent surge in violence by security forces against the Rohingya have lead to accusations of ethic cleansing from human rights groups.

The UN rights council agreed earlier this year to send a fact-finding mission to examine recent allegations of torture, murder and rape committed by troops.

The same group found today  that 270,000 had fled in just the past two weeks.

myanmar Many are using the Naf river to cross from Myanmar into Bangladesh Source: Google Maps

Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur on human rights for Myanmar, said today that at least 1,000 people had been killed in the violence over the past two weeks, though the figure is “very likely an underestimate” as Myanmar has blocked access to the area.

Figures are difficult to verify because of a lack of access to the affected areas.

Why is there controversy over Suu Kyi?

Suu Kyi has come under fire for essentially blaming fake news for these accounts. She said in a statement that misinformation was “calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities” and to promote “the interest of the terrorists”.

That kind of fake information which was inflicted on the deputy prime minister was simply the tip of a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists.

She had been criticised for not speaking out in defense of the Rohingya earlier with fellow peace prize winner Malala Yousafzai saying on Monday that the “world is waiting” for Suu Kyi to condemn the violence against the group.

Indonesia Myanmar Protest Muslim women hold posters of Suu Kyi at a rally against the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Indonesia Source: Binsar Bakkara/PA

In April, Suu Kyi denied that security forces were carrying out ethic cleansing.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu condemned Suu Kyi today, calling on her to speak out against the violence, referencing the “unfolding horror” and “ethnic cleansing” occurring.

Few world leaders have spoken publicly about the violence.

President of Turkey,  Tayyip Erdogan, said that a “genocide” was occurring.

They remain silent towards this… All those looking away from this genocide carried out under the veil of democracy are also part of this massacre

The leader of the majority-Muslim country pledged this week to send 10,000 tonnes of aid to Myanmar’s Rohingya and the first lady has visited refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Today, Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on foreign affairs, Seán Crowe, said the violence was clearly ethnic cleansing. He said he is going to arise the issue with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, “urging him to ensure that Ireland provides increased support to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh”.

Read: Aung San Suu Kyi finally speaks on Rohingya crisis, blames false information >

Read: Survivors of Myanmar violence say children were beheaded and men burnt alive >

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