February 19, 2010 / 8:12 AM / 10 years ago

Factbox - Myanmar's Rohingyas - who are they?

(Reuters) - Rohingya refugees who fled oppression in their native Myanmar are facing similar abuse at the hands of Bangladeshi authorities, who rights groups say are trying to drive them out of the country.

Tens of thousands of Rohingyas, who are not recognised in their homeland, live illegally in Bangladesh and face attacks by police and the destruction of their homes, according to medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).

Here are some facts about Myanmar’s Rohingya people.

— The Rohingyas are a Muslim minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, formerly Burma. The military government does not recognise them as one of the country’s roughly 130 ethnic minorities.

— Most Rohingyas come from Rakhine State, also known as Arakan State, in northwest Myanmar, abutting the border with Bangladesh.

Their roots are thought to date back to 1821, when Britain annexed the region as a province of British India and brought in large numbers of Bengali-speaking Muslim labourers, who later called themselves “Rohingyas.”

— When Burma won independence from Britain in 1948, the Bengali-speaking Muslim population near the border exceeded that of the Buddhists, leading to secessionist tensions.

This translated into harassment following a 1962 coup that has led to nearly five decades of military rule by the ethnic Burman majority. Thousands fled to Bangladesh to escape a 1978 military census of the Rohingyas called “Operation Dragon.”

— In 1991, another wave of refugees fled to Bangladesh, where the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR says 300,000 Rohingya now live a perilous, stateless existence.

— Rohingyas in northwest Myanmar are restricted from travelling inside the country, and those already in Bangladesh have little prospect of ever returning home as long as the army runs the country.

As a result, thousands have fled to try to start new lives, chancing their luck in rickety wooden boats they hope will get them to Malaysia, home to 14,300 official Rohingya refugees and maybe half as many again unregistered ones.

— The Rohingyas seldom hit the headlines. One exception was in April 2004, when a group armed with axes and knives burst into the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur, attacked embassy officials and set fire to the building.

— In January 2009, Thailand’s military was accused of towing 992 Rohingya boat people far out to sea before abandoning them to their fate with little food or water in boats without engines. The Thai government said its investigations were inconclusive.

A Rohingya human rights group and the testimony of survivors to Reuters in Aceh, Indonesia, and Indian police in the Andaman Islands suggested as many as 550 may have died.

Compiled by Ed Cropley; Editing by Martin Petty and Bill Tarrant

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