Document Type

Discussion Paper

Date of Paper

Summer 8-25-2023


While the United Nations describes Myanmar’s oppression of the Rohingya as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” (UN, 2017), the state maintains that the violence was idiosyncratic and not motivated by anti-Rohingya animus. We assemble existing and original large-sample data to evaluate these claims. First, we document systematic economic motives: violence against minority civilians increased in places suitable for rice cultivation when rice prices were high. Correspondingly, in an original representative survey of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh we find substantial losses of agricultural land, inputs, and inventories. Next, using a vector auto-regression approach, we find that state violence was consistent with Rohingya-specific animus. The state attacked substantially more than the Rohingya militia, targeted civilians disproportionately relative to other ethnic conflicts in Myanmar, and leveraged nationalist religious ideology. Finally, we document high rates of trauma exposure and depression among Rohingya refugees. Together, these results strongly rebut the government’s narrative and illustrate how quantitative tools can shed light on episodes of ethnic cleansing.


We thank seminar audiences at the Harvard Business School, the Yale Macmillan Center, the Midwest International Economic Development Conference, the Virtual Development Economic Seminar Series (VDEV), Loyola Marymount University, and UC Irvine for helpful comments and feedback. We are grateful for insightful suggestions from Christopher Blattman, Alexandre Debs, Saad Gulzar, Meg Rithmire, Gunnar Trumbull, Rawi Abdelal, Sam Bazzi, Gaurav Khanna, Daniel Ramos Menchelli, Michael Poyker, James Scott, Ajay Shenoy, Debraj Ray, Eoin McGuirk, and Elisabeth Wood. We also thank Hannah Moreno for excellent research assistance and Meghan Stempel for copy-editing. We received generous funding from the Yale Program on Refugees, Forced Displacement, and Humanitarian Responses (PRFDHR), the IPA Peace and Recovery Program, GAGE/ODI (UKAid), and the World Bank for funding.