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1065393Ending the Cycle_ A History of Rohingya Persecution and Analysis1.pdf
By Curtis T. Knie and Travis E. Pride, Naval Postgraduate School Monterey, California, September 2018

In August 2017, the forced mass migration of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in Myanmar, became world news after the country’s military began to drive thousands from their homes. Within months, an estimated 671,000 Rohingya had left the country, and today remain with over 200,000 previous refugees in overcrowded, underfunded camps in Bangladesh.

This thesis aims to investigate the root causes of Rohingya persecution by the government and military of Myanmar, the likelihood that this population will become radicalized, and possible solutions to the crisis. It uses a mixed method approach to examine these questions, including a qualitative look at the history of the Rohingya; visual analytic techniques to evaluate the international response to the 2017 Rohingya refugee crisis; and a game theoretic approach to better understand the possibility of a nonviolence solution that focuses on citizenship and regional autonomy for the Rohingya.

This thesis finds that the most recent wave of forced migration has placed the Rohingya at increased risk of radicalization and offers three recommendations for mitigating these risks: providing more international aid to sustain the refugees in Bangladesh; moving beyond simply repatriating the Rohingya; and creating incentives for Myanmar to recognize the Rohingya as citizens and give them greater autonomy in Rakhine State.


In August 2017, the mass migration of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority population in Myanmar (formerly Burma), became world news after the country’s military began to forcibly displace thousands from their homes. Within weeks, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya began spilling into Bangladesh seeking safety and recounting atrocities suffered at the hands of the Myanmar military. The Myanmar government blamed the forced migration on a fringe group, the self-styled Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY), or “Faith Movement,” which attacked multiple border checkpoints in the northern region of Rakhine State and killed 14 Myanmar security guards.1 Myanmar’s severe and disproportionate response prompted U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, to declare that, “the situation in northern Rakhine State constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.”2 Despite the media coverage and condemnation from multiple countries and the United Nations (UN), this incident of forced migration was not new; the Rohingya in Myanmar have been the subject of multiple waves of government and military-led persecution.

As of August 2018, the violence and mass migration has subsided, but over 900,000 Rohingya remain in Bangladesh and are confined to camps along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Bilateral talks between Bangladesh and Myanmar, aided by international organizations, have attempted to begin the repatriation process. However, short of a long-term solution to address the underlying causes of the mass migration, the cycle of violence and persecution will likely continue.

Furthermore, the massive forced migration and protracted persecution of the Rohingya raises concerns about the potential for substantial radicalization of this group, especially in Bangladesh. In September 2017, during a UN Security Council session discussing the Rohingya crisis, Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, warned that “the devastating humanitarian situation is not only a breeding ground for radicalization, it also puts vulnerable people–including young children–at risk of criminal elements including trafficking.”3 In response to the influx of refugees, Bangladesh increased security forces in the Cox’s Bazar district, and local officials expressed concern about the presence of insurgents intermingled with the refugees.4

This thesis aims to investigate the factors and conditions that have caused the repeated incidents of forced migration of Rohingya and the likelihood that they may turn towards radicalization. Additionally, this thesis aims to investigate possible solutions that would mitigate the underlying issues and decrease the likelihood of future incidents of forced migration.


This thesis aims to examine the following questions: What are the conditions that have caused the repeated incidents of forced migration of Rohingya from the country of Myanmar? Given the repeated incidents of discrimination and forced migration, what is the likelihood that the Muslim minority will turn towards radicalization? And, what are the conditions that would allow Myanmar and the Rohingya to reach an agreement that decreases the likelihood of future incidents of forced migration?


This thesis aims to answer these questions through three different methods. First, it examines these questions through qualitative methods, specifically by providing a historic overview of the Rohingya, the state of Myanmar, and five waves of forced migration (1963–1967, 1971–1979, 1988–1992, 2012–2013, and 2016–2017). It identifies competing narratives between the Rohingya and the government of Myanmar over the origins of the Rohingya and examines five major historical periods in Myanmar (pre-colonial, colonial, independence, authoritarian rule, and new democracy), with an emphasis on key events since Myanmar’s independence in 1948.

Second, the thesis uses visual analytic techniques to display critical risk factors for radicalization, specifically analyzing the size and density of refugee camps in Bangladesh, the sources of financial donations to the Rohingya crisis, and mapping the international community’s inconsistent behavior regarding the crisis. The technique consolidates data from many fields to help identify relationships between various factors.

Third, the thesis uses game theory to model the conflict between the Rohingya and the government of Myanmar to explore a way to achieve an agreement that could secure a lasting solution to the crisis. The thesis uses a sequential, two-person, partial conflict game with two strategies available to each player (violence or nonviolence) to model the conflict over Rohingya citizenship and regional autonomy in Rakhine State. From this game, the thesis identifies the need for a third-party guarantor to ensure cooperation from the players and applies an arbitration technique, known as the adjusted winner procedure, to fairly divide the contentious issue of citizenship between the two players.

The thesis draws from scholarly journals, reports from international organizations, government documents, and secondary literature to investigate the history of the Rohingya and response to the 2016–2017 wave of persecution.


This investigation yields three findings: First, an examination of the history of the Rohingya shows that their claimed origins and time of arrival in the region drastically differ from the belief held by the government of Myanmar. The Rohingya claim a pre-colonial history and a unique identity from neighboring Bangladeshis, despite sharing the same religion and speaking the same language. The government of Myanmar, by contrast, views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants brought in from Bangladesh by the British. This fundamental disagreement has contributed to the continued persecution of the Rohingya, including five waves of forced migration.

Second, drawing from a 2015 refugee radicalization assessment tool developed by the RAND Corporation, the thesis finds that the most recent wave of forced migration, which began in 2016, has placed the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh at an increased risk of future radicalization. Specifically, Bangladesh’s restrictive policies toward the Rohingya, limited humanitarian aid and funding, and the lack of pressure put on the government of Myanmar by regional and international actors are all factors that increase the risk of the Rohingya radicalizing. Additionally, the RAND framework notes that the duration of the crisis plays a critical role in the risk of radicalization. As of August 2018, the most recent crisis is entering its second year. The management of the Rohingya refugee crisis by Bangladesh and the international community is critical to reducing the likelihood of radicalization within the Rohingya population.

Furthermore, a small group of Rohingya have already demonstrated a willingness to use violence to change the status quo, specifically through the emergence of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), formerly HaY. ARSA was largely blamed for instigating the 2016 wave of persecution against the Rohingya after perpetrating an attack against over 30 Myanmar border checkpoints and an army base. ARSA has conducted only a few operations since 2017, and its total organizational strength is unknown, but it has demonstrated a moderate level of organization and lethality that is worth watching. Despite the efforts of Bangladesh to increase security measures, there are signs that ARSA has developed a presence in the camps.5While the fluid nature of the crisis has made measuring the presence of ARSA in the camps all but impossible, the 900,000 refugees in Bangladesh provide a vulnerable population in a fertile setting from which to recruit and grow the insurgent movement. Additionally, while ARSA has not adopted an overtly religious tone. the organization traces its origins to refugees in Saudi Arabia, and several Islamic clerics have issued fatwas (rulings by recognized Islamic authorities) that endorse their cause.Third, a game theory approach finds that a resolution to the crisis is possible if both sides compromise on key issues, specifically the conditions for citizenship and regional autonomy for the Rohingya. However, a significant impediment to a compromise in this situation is that neither actor is unified. This is certainly the case with the Rohingya, who do not have a mechanism in place to express a singular opinion on an issue nor do they have someone who can represent their collective interests. Myanmar also does not speak with one voice; it is a nascent democracy with a civilian head of state; however, the military retains substantial autonomy and decision-making authority in its operations.


In August 2017, the Rohingya became frontline news following a mass migration of an estimated 671,000 individuals from Rakhine State in Myanmar.7 However, this was not the first instance of forced migration by the government of Myanmar. Persecution and forced migration of the Rohingya has occurred in five distinct waves since Myanmar’s independence: as a result of economic policy from 1963–1967; during an aggressive census campaign from 1971–1979; as punishment for prodemocracy protests from 1988–1992; as a result of sectarian violence from 2012–2013; and as punishment for alleged terrorism from 2016–2017. Dr. Nasir Uddin, a professor of anthropology at the University of Chittagong, describes the history of the Rohingya since 1962 as one “rife with exploitation, persecution, and discrimination.”8

This chapter provides an overview of the Rohingya in Myanmar and an examination of their treatment at the hands of the government.9 It touches on competing narratives of the first Muslims to arrive in the region, explains the historical friction around the term Rohingya, and examines the influential events and waves of persecution, particularly those since Myanmar’s independence in 1948. This summary is intended to serve as a consolidated historical account of the Rohingya and provides detail that this thesis will use to examine the ongoing Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.


The origins of the Rohingya are debated in academia and particularly within the current state of Myanmar. Jacques Leider, chairman of the École Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO) in Bangkok and a Myanmar scholar, for example, contends that the name “Rohingya,” as a description of the Muslims living in Rakhine, lacks broad understanding and agreed upon meaning.10 In the simplest terms, some believe Rohingya are a distinct ethno-religious category indigenous to the Rakhine State and, as such, should be given full citizenship of Myanmar. Alternately, others, including the current government of Myanmar, claim the Rohingya are Bengali (Bangladeshi) immigrants that migrated under British rule, and therefore do not have the right to citizenship.

Most scholars agree that the first Muslims in Burma arrived during the Ninth Century in an area that first became known as Arakan, and were primarily seafarers, fisherman and traders.11 Dr. Moshe Yegar, a research fellow at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace and a former senior Israeli diplomat in Burma, describes that, after the ninth century, a significant wave of Bengali Muslims came into the area, around 1430, following the conversion of Bengal to Islam. He states, “Arakan served to a large extent as a bridgehead for Muslim penetration to other parts of Burma, although the Muslims never attained the same degree of importance elsewhere as they did in Arakan.”12 Yegar goes on to explain that Arakan developed close ties to Bengal and their Muslim communities as a result of the largely impassable mountains that geographically isolated Arakan from Burma.13 For this reason, when the Burmese Kingdom conquered the Kingdom of Arakan in the late 1800s, many thousands of Arakanese Muslims fled to Bengal to escape the violence.14 However, the Muslims who remained in Burma were a small minority population and the Burmese Kingdom, which was Theravada Buddhist, permitted them to practice their religion freely, intermarry, and participate in society.

It was during the 1800s that the term “Rohingya” was first used in the historical record. In 1799, Dr. Francis Buchanan, a British medical doctor and a member of the diplomatic mission in the region, published a report that identified three distinct dialects spoken in the Arakan region, one of which was, “spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves ‘Rooinga,’ or natives of Arakan.”16 This account is often used as evidence of Rohingya Muslims in pre-colonial times.17 However, Leider details the etymological and linguistic origins of the term “Rohingya” and concludes, “‘Rohingya’ does not refer to, or mean anything else, but ‘Rakhine’ in the local Muslim language,” and does not describe a distinct ethnic group.18 Leider further claims “Rohingyas conflate the history of all Muslims in Rakhine’s past with their own condition in Myanmar today and they hold the belief that ‘Rohingyas’ have existed in Rakhine for many generations.”19 This debate over the arrival and distinct origins of Rohingya Muslims would later have important implications for their citizenship in independent Myanmar. ##


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