The Rohingya: Resisting Annihilation

After enduring decades of persecution, abuses, and ethnic violence, when will the Rohingya see justice done?

The attacks typically came early in the morning, when the village was still quiet and people were at home.

Families awoke suddenly to the sound of gunfire, and of panicked shouting. Doors were broken down, and homes went up in flames. As the attackers stormed the villages, some wore the uniforms of the security forces; alongside them were civilians from neighboring villages.

People were forced out of their houses, rounded up, and beaten to the ground. Realizing their best chance for survival was to run to the nearby hills, many attempted to flee, struggling to carry infants while helping elderly relatives or the disabled. Many were gunned down as they ran. Others stepped on landmines or were hit by shrapnel from rocket launchers or grenades. Those unable to flee were brutally assaulted, and others raped at gunpoint. Women, men, and children were mutilated and permanently disfigured.

This is how it happened, survivors say.

This is how they tried to destroy us.

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

A Targeted People

For decades, the minority Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar have been stateless and subjected to a wide range 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 by the Myanmar military on Rohingya people living in northern Rakhine state killed thousands and drove more than 740,000 people from the country. The campaign unleashed extreme acts of violence against Rohingya communities, and seemed to clearly signal the intent to eradicate the Rohingya from the country: entire villages were burned, residents beaten, raped, and mutilated, and children slaughtered. The United Nations’ special envoy on human rights in Myanmar says the military’s ferocious assault against the Rohingya bears “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 many cases, local health workers denied survivors necessary medical treatment. 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 to 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.

Family members mourn next to the bodies of babies before the funeral after a boat sunk in rough seas off the coast of Bangladesh carrying over 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)

Refugees interviewed by PHR strongly voice their desire to return to Myanmar, but refuse to do so without credible guarantees that their rights will be respected and their citizenship restored. The government of Myanmar, which has steadfastly denied responsibility for the atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingya, has announced repatriation efforts, but has done nothing to reassure the Rohingya that they will be safe in their own country.   

Documenting Forensic Evidence

For more than 15 years, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has exposed and denounced human rights abuses in Myanmar.

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 forensically document atrocities suffered by the Rohingya at the hands of Myanmar security forces and their civilian accomplices, and to hear first-hand witnesses’ accounts of what happened.

PHR experts provided forensic documentation of the beatings, rapes, gunshot wounds, and burns suffered by the Rohingya, in order to corroborate their stories and help them seek justice. Our work, which uses three main research methods to document 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.

PHR’s research is detailed in our reports “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.

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 individual, 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

Awaiting Accountability

The targeted violence perpetrated against the Rohingya in recent years 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.

To date, Myanmar authorities have failed to conduct impartial and independent investigations into these events and have not fully cooperated with the UN and other bodies seeking to do so. 

PHR recommends that the United Nations Security Council implement the recommendations of the UN’s Independent International Fact-Finding mission on Myanmar, including referring the situation to the International Criminal Court or an ad hoc criminal tribunal. PHR also calls on UN member states that have publicly recognized the crimes against the Rohingya as genocide – including Canada and Malaysia –to file complaints to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for the Myanmar government’s violation of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (“Genocide Convention”) and to press the ICJ to seek reparations.

History of the Rohingya in Myanmar


Muslims first settle in the Mrauk U area of Arakan, now Myanmar’s Rakhine state. 


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.


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.


General Ne Win stages a coup and stifles minority demands for autonomy.


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.

The General Assembly formally welcomed the IIM for Myanmar in December.


In August, the Myanmar government announces new plans to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees to Myanmar.