Security forces in Myanmar have committed mass atrocity crimes against the ethnic Rohingya community – including the unlawful killing of civilians, rape and the burning of nearly 400 villages – during so-called "clearance operations" that began in Rakhine State on 25 August 2017. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), over 723,000 people fled the violence, with the majority of refugees arriving in the first three months of the crisis. This has brought the number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to more than 900,000 people.
On 27 August 2018 the Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Independent International Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Myanmar reported that the treatment of the Rohingya by Myanmar's security forces amounts to four of the five prohibited acts defined in the Genocide Convention. The FFM found evidence of "genocidal intent," including discriminatory government policies designed to alter the demographic composition of Rakhine State, and a premeditated plan for the destruction of Rohingya communities.
According to the FFM, Myanmar's civilian authorities, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, have not met their "responsibility to protect the civilian population" and have played a role in the commission of atrocity crimes. The report listed alleged perpetrators of these atrocities, including military Commander-in-Chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, and called for Myanmar's top military officials to be prosecuted for genocide, as well as for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Kachin and Shan states. The FFM also called upon the UN Security Council (UNSC) to refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or to create an ad hoc international criminal tribunal.
The Myanmar authorities have consistently denied that atrocities have taken place, while systematically concealing evidence of crimes. Access to Rakhine State remains severely restricted for UN agencies and investigators, humanitarian organizations and the media. On 3 September a Myanmar court sentenced two Reuters journalists who were investigating a massacre of Rohingya villagers to seven years in prison for allegedly breaking the Official Secrets Act.
The Myanmar government have refused to recognize or cooperate with the FFM or other independent investigative mechanisms. In response to international pressure, the government established an "Independent Commission of Enquiry" on 30 July, but the commission has been widely criticized for lacking credibility. The FFM determined that "accountability at the domestic level is currently unattainable."
On 30 October 2018 Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to begin Rohingya repatriation during November. UNHCR has publicly stated that conditions in Rakhine State are not conducive for returns.
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.
Populations in other parts of Myanmar, particularly in Kachin and Shan states, also remain at continued risk of mass atrocity crimes. The Myanmar military has been at war with a number of non-state ethnic armed groups since the late 1940s. Following the 2011 breakdown of a ceasefire between the military and the Kachin Independence Army, clashes have been ongoing in Kachin State, with violence increasing during 2018. The FFM concluded that crimes against humanity and war crimes – including murder, torture, rape and enslavement – have been committed in Kachin and Shan states, principally by Myanmar's military.
There are currently more than 107,000 people in internally displaced persons camps in Kachin and Shan states, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. For nearly three years, the government of Myanmar has blocked the UN from areas controlled by armed groups and severely restricted humanitarian access in government-controlled areas.
Despite Myanmar's recent transition to democracy, until discriminatory laws and policies are repealed or amended and perpetrators of atrocities are held accountable, the threat of further atrocities will continue.
Restricting the access of UN agencies and humanitarian organizations to Rakhine State undermines efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and assess whether conditions are suitable for the return of refugees.
The failure of the UNSC to hold accountable those responsible for atrocities committed against the Rohingya has emboldened the military to intensify its campaign in Kachin and Shan states, posing an ongoing threat to vulnerable minority populations.
The government of Myanmar has not only manifestly failed to uphold its Responsibility to Protect the Rohingya and other minority groups, it 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 called for the implementation of the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State and stressed the "primary responsibility of the Myanmar government to protect its population."
Since August 2017 the European Union, Canada, United States, Australia and others have taken a number of measures to respond to atrocities in Rakhine State, including suspending cooperation with Myanmar's army and imposing targeted sanctions on senior military officers. On 20 September 2018 Canada's House of Commons recognized the crimes committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar as genocide and called for senior military officers to be investigated and prosecuted. Canada's Parliament has also formally stripped Aung San Suu Kyi of her honorary Canadian citizenship.
On 18 September the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, announced that her office was proceeding with a preliminary examination into the alleged deportation of more than 700,000 Rohingya civilians from Myanmar to Bangladesh. The Prosecutor noted that the preliminary examination may take into account acts "having resulted in the forced displacement of the Rohingya people, including deprivation of fundamental rights, killing, sexual violence, enforced disappearance, destruction and looting."
On 27 September 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" and extending the mandate of the FFM until the new mechanism is operational.
On 24 October 2018 Marzuki Darusman, the Chairperson of the FFM, briefed the UNSC, describing atrocities in Myanmar as "the most serious crimes of concern to the international community, threatening the peace, security and well-being of the world."
The international community should fully implement the FFM's recommendations and ensure that those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes do not evade justice. All UN member states should provide adequate resources to the HRC's independent investigative mechanism.
The UNSC should refer the situation in Myanmar to the ICC and impose an arms embargo on the country as well as targeted sanctions on all senior military officers with command responsibility for atrocities committed in Rakhine State. The UNSC should also demand immediate and unfettered access for humanitarian organizations, UN agencies and independent investigators to Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states.
Individual governments and regional organizations should suspend all cooperation and training programs with Myanmar's armed forces and impose targeted sanctions on those responsible for atrocities. All international trade
and development programs in Rakhine State should be scrupulously reviewed to ensure that they do not reinforce discriminatory structures.
Myanmar's 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. The government should take proximate steps towards building a more inclusive society in which the human rights of all of Myanmar's diverse populations are protected, regardless of religion, citizenship status or ethnicity. The government should engage in meaningful dialogue to end the conflict in Kachin and Shan states.
It is essential that any repatriation of Rohingya refugees is conducted on a strictly voluntary basis, in accordance with the 1951 Refugee Convention and the principle of non-refoulement. Repatriation should only occur following consultation with UNHCR on whether appropriate measures have been taken to ensure the security of returnees.
Last Updated: 15 November 2018
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.