The Rohingya: Survivors of Atrocity

After enduring decades of persecution, abuses, and ethnic violence, when will the Rohingya finally see justice and respect for their rights?

On the day of the massacre, Myanmar security forces surrounded 23-year-old Umma Salama’s  home and ordered her family to come out.

They hit Umma in the head with a gun and then took her away and tied her to a tree, shouting “Don’t cry… If you cry, you will be killed.” While she was tied up, Umma saw security forces set fire to her house, and her husband, brother-in-law, daughter, and son shot dead as they tried to run away. She witnessed several other villagers shot dead and a bullet grazed her leg. Hours later, Umma’s mother-in-law was able to untie her from the tree. They hid in the forest and then went to a neighboring village, where they met others from Chut Pyin village.

A week later, they began walking to Bangladesh.

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    Number of Rohingya forced to flee Myanmar as a result of 2017 violence.

A Targeted People

Myanmar is a diverse country with many ethnic groups, languages, and religions. Predominantly Buddhist, the Bamar ethnic group represents 60-70 percent of the population. Despite this multiplicity, many ethnic groups face violence and discrimination, including the Rohingya.

For centuries, Muslim Rohingya people have lived in Rakhine state on the western coast of Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country. Since the Myanmar military junta stripped the Rohingya of citizenship in 1982, the Rohingya have been stateless and subjected to decades of human rights violations, including arbitrary detentions and killings, forced labor, restricted access to health and education, limited political participation, restrictions on freedom of movement, forced displacement, and trafficking. 

A violent August 2017 crackdown led by the Tatmadaw (armed forces of Myanmar) on Rohingya people living in northern Rakhine state killed thousands and drove more than 740,000 people out of Myanmar. The campaign unleashed extreme acts of violence against Rohingya communities: entire villages were burned, residents beaten, raped, and mutilated, and children slaughtered. In 2018, the then United Nations special envoy on human rights in Myanmar said that the military’s ferocious assault against the Rohingya bore “the hallmarks of a genocide.”

An 18 year-old refugee in her tent in Thainkhali camp, Cox’s Bazar, September 2017. (Paula Bronstein Getty Images)

Those who survived were eventually rescued by relatives or managed to take refuge in the surrounding forests, farmlands, or villages. In some cases, local health workers denied survivors necessary medical treatment due to pressure from the Tatmadaw. Many survivors had heard that Myanmar authorities required doctors to report injured Rohingya to the authorities, and thus avoided seeking medical care. These delays in getting medical attention exacerbated injuries and increased complications, including infection, less recovery of limb function, and higher levels of immobility and disability among victims. Hundreds of thousands undertook a perilous journey to escape across the border into Bangladesh.

Today, nearly one million Rohingya are crowded into refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in the largest refugee settlement in the world. As a result of the violence, they are living with severe trauma, life-changing disabilities, and immeasurable loss. Moreover, those left behind in Myanmar continue to face grave risks. In September 2019, the UN’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar concluded that “the Rohingya people remain at serious risk of genocide under the terms of the Genocide Convention”.

Family members mourn next to the bodies of babies before the funeral after a boat sank in rough seas off the coast of Bangladesh carrying more than 100 people in September 2017. Seventeen survivors were found along with the bodies of 20 women and children with over 50 missing. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

On top of the risk of genocide and other mass atrocities, the Rohingya face new dangers from the COVID-19 pandemic: in March 2020, Myanmar recorded its first coronavirus cases, and in May, the first coronavirus case was found among Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. In crowded conditions and lacking access to basic services, the refugee populations – as well as others displaced inside Myanmar – remain at grave risk from the virus. Several Rohingya interviewed by PHR say they want to return to Myanmar but refuse to do so without credible guarantees that their rights will be respected. The government of Myanmar, which has steadfastly denied responsibility for the atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingya, has done nothing to reassure them that they will be safe in their own country if they return.

Documenting Evidence of Atrocities

For more than 15 years, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has exposed and denounced human rights abuses in Myanmar, with a focus on the persecution of and violence against ethnic minorities like the Rohingya.

Following the brutal attacks against the Rohingya in August 2017, PHR sent teams of doctors to refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar to medically document atrocities suffered by the Rohingya at the hands of Myanmar security forces and Burmese civilian villagers. PHR medical experts documented injuries resulting from the beatings, rapes, gunshot wounds, and burns suffered by the Rohingya, in order to corroborate their stories and help them seek justice. PHR’s research is detailed in several reports like “Please Tell the World What They Have Done to Us” and “Widespread and Systematic,” as well as “Shot While Fleeing,” which highlights long-term disabilities resulting from the attacks.

Since 2019, PHR’s research has focused on the experiences of health care workers treating Rohingya survivors of violence in Myanmar, specifically sexual and gender-based violence. In 2020, PHR published Sexual Violence, Trauma, and Neglect, which features interviews with health workers who have treated Rohingya survivors in Bangladesh and who corroborate allegations of sexual violence by Myanmar military.

PHR Medical Expert Dr. Rohini Haar examining a Rohingya refugee in Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh. He suffered nerve injury after being shot in the back while fleeing Myanmar security forces and can no longer perform basic tasks using his arm. Photo: Salahuddin Ahmed for PHR
This man, 23, was shot in the right lower leg while fleeing attacking security forces. The wound became infected while he was being carried to Bangladesh by relatives, requiring subsequent surgery and skin grafts. He continues to have severe pain, needs crutches and can walk only a few feet, and may have a chronic bone infection. Photo: Salahuddin Ahmed for PHR
Myanmar security forces killed this refugee’s husband and five of her six children in front of her before beating her, breaking her wrist, and raping her. The man who raped her sliced her neck in two places and left her to die. She has limited wrist function as a result of the fracture. Photo: Salahuddin Ahmed for PHR

A Long Road to Justice

The widespread and systematic violence perpetrated against the Rohingya in recent years may amount to some of the most serious crimes codified under international law. PHR has called for these atrocities to be investigated as crimes against humanity. Our documentation of the scope, scale, and patterns of attacks that took place against the Rohingya in late August 2017 has been submitted to the UN Human Rights Council and made available to the UN’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.

Accountability and justice for the crimes committed against the Rohingya are critical to any hopes for a sustainable peace in Myanmar and beyond.

The Myanmar government continues to deny that its military committed atrocities against the Rohingya and is unwilling and unable to allow for meaningful accountability for these crimes. Yet, while international criminal processes are underway – such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) hearing of The Gambia’s case against Myanmar for violating the Genocide Convention and the investigation of the International Criminal Court – reports of grave human rights violations continue to arise from across Myanmar.

PHR calls on the regional and international community to demand that Myanmar grant unrestricted access to United Nations agencies, officials, and international humanitarian and human rights organizations to provide essential services and conduct investigations into alleged human rights violations in Myanmar, especially in Rakhine state. Likewise, any discussion regarding the potential repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar can only proceed after guarantees are implemented for safe, dignified, and voluntary return in accordance with protections under international law.

It remains a stain on the UN Security Council’s record that it has disregarded the situation and has refused to take appropriate action. The impunity enjoyed by the Myanmar military, the continued violence against and forced displacement of civilians, and the government’s refusal to comply with international bodies warrant a series of measures to support human rights reforms in the country, including targeted sanctions, arms embargoes, and international support for accountability processes. Accountability and justice for the crimes committed against the Rohingya are critical to any hopes for a sustainable peace in Myanmar and beyond.

History of the Rohingya in Myanmar


The Muslim population in Arakan Kingdom triples and, by 1911, accounts for 94 percent and 84 percent of the population in the townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung, respectively. Muslims first settle in the Mrauk U area of Arakan, now Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The Muslim population in Arakan Kingdom triples between 1871 and 1911.


Burma achieves independence from Britain, and the Rohingya, an ethnic group comprising the majority of Muslims in Rakhine state, are considered citizens under the Constitution of 1948.


A new constitution transfers power from the armed forces to a People’s Assembly headed by former military leaders. The Rohingya lose citizenship rights.


Myanmar government persecution of the Rohingya causes 200,000 to flee to Bangladesh.


Myanmar’s Citizenship Act of 1982 strips the Rohingya of their citizenship rights by requiring that citizens belong to one of 135 recognized national races, or provide evidence of family lineage in Myanmar before 1823. The list excludes the Rohingya.


A nationwide pro-democracy “8888” movement by students is violently put down by government troops. By the end of the year, approximately 10,000 people have been killed in the crackdown. The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) is formed. 


SLORC arrests thousands of dissidents, changes Burma’s name to Myanmar, and places pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. All Burmese are required to apply for new citizenship cards stating ethnicity and religion. The Rohingya are not able to obtain cards.


More than 260,000 Rohingya flee to Bangladesh to escape human rights abuses by the Burmese military, including the confiscation of land, forced labor, rape, torture, and summary executions.


Violence erupts in Myanmar when a Rakhine Buddhist woman is raped and murdered, allegedly by Muslim Rohingya men. 


Violence continues with several attacks on Muslim villages that uproot 140,000 Rohingya, who became internally displaced people within Myanmar.


Myanmar’s first country census in 30 years does not include the Rohingya as a recognized ethnic group. Government initiates a citizenship verification program, whereby the Rohingya are instructed to register as “Bengali,” an ethnic group native to India and Bangladesh.


A new law is passed requiring political leaders to be citizens – thereby excluding Rohingya candidates – and Rohingya are barred from voting in the November elections. Myanmar government announces a new citizenship verification process and distributes National Verification Cards (NVCs); many Rohingya refuse to accept the NVC for fear of being registered as “illegal” and then expelled from Myanmar. 


The insurgent Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) attacks three Border Guard Police (BGP) outposts with swords, spears, and homemade weapons, killing nine officers. The Myanmar government labels ARSA “terrorists” and launches a military and BGP offensive that kills hundreds of Rohingya; some 87,000 flee to Bangladesh. The operations also recruit Rakhine Buddhist villagers in de facto state-sanctioned vigilante activities. 

March 2017

The United Nations Human Rights Council establishes a Fact-Finding Mission to investigate alleged human rights violations by military and security forces in Myanmar.





August 2017

The ARSA – armed primarily with knives and homemade bombs – raids 30 police outposts, killing 12 members of Myanmar’s security forces. With the help of Rakhine Buddhist civilians, Myanmar’s military unleashes a violent crackdown against the Rohingya, including arrests, disappearances, beatings, stabbings, mass shootings, rape and sexual violence, looting, and the burning of Rohingya villages. More than 740,000 Rohingya flee to Bangladesh.


September 2018

The UN Fact-Finding Mission releases its report, which states that the 2017 attacks against the Rohingya were widespread and systematic, and that the decades of anti-Rohingya violence served as a precursor to the attacks and mass exodus. Myanmar and Bangladesh begin talks to repatriate Rohingya refugees, amid calls that any repatriation be voluntary, safe, and dignified and that Myanmar restore full citizenship status to the Rohingya.


The UN Human Rights Council establishes the Independent Investigative Mechanism (IIM) for Myanmar, which will compile material evidence and witness testimony for the future prosecution of those responsible for crimes against the Rohingya. In December, the General Assembly formally welcomes the IIM for Myanmar.


In December, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) begins hearing the case of The Gambia v. Myanmar, which alleges that, in attacking the Rohingya, Myanmar violated its commitments under the Genocide Convention. In January 2020, the ICJ orders provisional measures requiring Myanmar to take actions to protect the Rohingya and in, July 2022, it dismisses Myanmar’s jurisdictional objections, finding that the Court can proceed to The Gambia’s claims on the merits.


In November 2019 the International Criminal Court (ICC) authorizes an investigation into the situation of the Rohingya related to crimes committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar and their forced displacement to Bangladesh. 


In March 2020, Myanmar records its first coronavirus cases. The Government of Bangladesh’s COVID19 restrictions adversely affect the provision of comprehensive health care for the Rohingya, including survivors of sexual violence. 


On February 1, 2021, the Tatmadaw initiate a coup in Myanmar, ousting the democratically elected government. The Tatmadaw begins a systematic crack down on human rights and initiates increasing attacks on health care. 


In November 2021, an Argentine appeals court approves the opening of an investigation into the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, under the principle of universal jurisdiction.  


In March 2022, the Biden administration formally announces its determination that violence committed against the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military (the Tatmadaw) amounts to genocide and crimes against humanity. 

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