Populations in Myanmar remain at risk of mass atrocity crimes perpetrated by the security forces and as a result of discriminatory laws and policies. The 2018 report of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Myanmar concluded that the military, as well as some civilians, have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states, as well as acts of genocide in Rakhine State.
Since the start of so-called "clearance operations" in Rakhine State on 25 August 2017, over 727,000 people – mostly ethnic Rohingya – have fled to Bangladesh, bringing the total number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to over 900,000 people. According to the FFM, the treatment of the Rohingya population by Myanmar's security forces amounts to four of the five prohibited acts defined in the Genocide Convention.
The FFM reported that Myanmar's civilian authorities, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, have not met their "responsibility to protect the civilian population" and have enabled the commission of atrocity crimes. The FFM found evidence of "genocidal intent," including policies designed to alter the demographic composition of Rakhine State and a premeditated plan for the destruction of Rohingya communities. The report listed alleged perpetrators of these atrocities, including Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing, and called for Myanmar's top military officials to be prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The FFM also called upon the UN Security Council (UNSC) to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or create an ad hoc international criminal tribunal.
The government of Myanmar has failed to create conditions conducive to the voluntary, safe and dignified repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh, including addressing key issues of citizenship and freedom of movement. Following a visit to the region, FFM experts noted that there was "no evidence that the Myanmar government is acting in good faith to resolve the crisis or facilitate the safe return of refugees."
Since November 2018 conflict has also flared in Rakhine State between Myanmar's military and the Arakan Army (AA), an armed group seeking greater autonomy for the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist population. Myanmar's security forces have shelled villages, blocked food supplies and arbitrarily detained civilians. On 3 April military helicopters bombed southern Buthidaung township in Rakhine State, reportedly killing approximately 30 civilians. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) condemned the incident and other recent attacks against civilians, stating that they may constitute war crimes. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 33,000 people have been displaced in Rakhine and neighboring Chin state since November.
Access to conflict-affected areas within Rakhine State has been denied to UN agencies and most humanitarian organizations since January.
The Rohingya, a distinct Muslim ethnic minority group of over 1 million people, have been systematically persecuted for generations. Myanmar's 1982 Citizenship Law rendered most of the population stateless. The Rohingya are also subject to severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, with more than 120,000 Rohingya confined to camps since 2012. The rights of the Rohingya are further limited by the so-called "Protection of Race and Religion" laws that place harsh restrictions on fundamental religious freedoms, as well as reproductive and marital rights. Despite Myanmar's partial transition to democracy, until discriminatory laws and policies are repealed or amended and perpetrators of atrocities are held accountable, the threat of further atrocities endures.
The failure of the UNSC to hold accountable those responsible for atrocities committed against the Rohingya has enabled the military to continue their attacks on other populations. Restricting access for UN agencies and humanitarian organizations undermines efforts to provide assistance to vulnerable civilians.
The government of Myanmar has manifestly failed to uphold its Responsibility to Protect the Rohingya and other minority groups, and bears responsibility for the commission of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
The only formal response of the UNSC to the situation in Rakhine State since 25 August 2017 has been the adoption of a Presidential Statement on 6 November 2017. That statement stressed the "primary responsibility of the Myanmar government to protect its population."
Since August 2017 the European Union (EU), Canada, United States, Australia and others have responded to atrocities in Rakhine State, including by suspending cooperation with Myanmar's military and imposing targeted sanctions on senior officers. During 2018 Canada's House of Commons and the United States House of Representatives both recognized the crimes committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar as genocide.
On 18 September 2018 the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, announced that her office was proceeding with a preliminary investigation into the alleged deportation of more than 700,000 Rohingya civilians from Myanmar to Bangladesh.
On 27 September 2018 the HRC adopted a resolution creating an "independent mechanism to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar." Discussions are also taking place about the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice under the genocide convention.
On 22 March the HRC extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar
for one year.
On 2 April five UN experts condemned the Indian government's decision to deport three Rohingya back to Myanmar, "where they face high risk of attacks, reprisals and other forms of persecution because of their ethnic and religious identity."
On 24-26 April the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, the Director General of the International Organization for Migration, António Vitorino, and the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, visited Bangladesh, calling upon the international community to continue supporting Rohingya refugees and host communities.
On 29 April the EU extended sanctions against Myanmar until 30 April 2020. The sanctions include an arms embargo and prohibit military cooperation with Myanmar's armed forces (Tatmadaw). The extension also applies targeted measures against 14 high-ranking officials from Myanmar's security forces for serious violations of human rights in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states. On 14 May the FFM urged the "financial isolation" of Myanmar's military to put an end to the violence.
All parties to the ongoing conflict in Rakhine State should ensure the protection of civilians and strictly adhere to international humanitarian and human rights law. Access for UN agencies and humanitarian organizations must be restored.
The international community should support the FFM's recommendations and ensure that those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes do not evade justice. Governments, regional organizations and the UNSC should impose targeted sanctions on all those responsible for atrocities, including General Min Aung Hlaing. All international trade and development programs in Rakhine State should be scrupulously reviewed to ensure that they do not reinforce discriminatory structures.
The UNSC should refer the situation in Myanmar to the ICC and impose an arms embargo on the country. The UNSC should demand immediate and unfettered access for humanitarian organizations, UN agencies and independent investigators.
Myanmar's government must create conditions for the voluntary, safe and dignified repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh. The government must repeal or amend all laws that systematically discriminate against the Rohingya, including the Protection of Race and Religion laws and the 1982 Citizenship Law.
Last Updated: 15 May 2019
The five most recent issues of R2P Monitor and Atrocity Alert are available in the side-bar. To see previous assessments of this country, please see R2P Monitor and Atrocity Alert on our Publications page. Myanmar has been featured in R2P Monitor since the March 2012 issue.