The Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Rakhine State, have been described as one of the most heavily oppressed groups in the world. Stripped of their citizenship in 1982, the Rohingya have long been discriminated against by members of the state’s majority Buddhist ethnic group, the Rakhine, and tensions have simmered for decades. They boiled over in June 2012 following the rape of a Buddhist woman, allegedly by three Muslim men. As homes and public buildings in northern Rakhine State were burned by Buddhists, dozens of Muslims were killed and around 75,000 people – the vast majority of them Rohingya – were driven into refugee camps. Further violence in October saw another 36,000 displaced, and hundreds of thousands more being cut off from essential services such as health care.
Many Buddhists in Myanmar, including pro-democracy campaigners and religious leaders, are vehemently anti-Rohingya and reject the use of the word Rohingya itself. They argue that the community has only a relatively short history of settlement in Myanmar, and that they are in fact Bengalis who belong in Bangladesh. Outsiders who have tried to work with the Rohingya refugees have faced opposition and intimidation from Buddhists, including monks. Many international commentators have expressed disappointment that Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to speak out in defence of the Rohingya, a stance that would be unpopular with many Myanmar voters.
At the time of research, much of the coastal area of Rakhine State was off-limits to tourists. It appears that when it reopens, it might (initially at least) be accessible only with a permit and licensed guide. The most interesting tourist destination in the closed area is Mrauk U, where hundreds of old temples coexist with a contemporary settlement. If the area is open then it can be reached by boat from the town of Sittwe, which is linked to both Yangon and Ngapali Beach by air, and to the latter by boat.