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 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 perpetrated against the Rohingya minority in Rakhine State. The military units that perpetrated these crimes continue to operate in Myanmar.
Since 15 August fighting between the military and members of the Northern Alliance (a coalition of rebel groups) in Shan State has escalated, putting civilians and humanitarian workers at risk. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), an estimated 8,000 people have been displaced in northern Shan State.
Since November 2018 conflict has also been ongoing 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. Access to conflict-affected areas continues to be denied to UN agencies and most humanitarian organizations. On 3 September three UN Special Rapporteurs expressed "grave concern about the use of incommunicado detention by the military" following reports of deaths in custody of people alleged to be associated with the AA.
The latest conflict in Rakhine State ignited roughly a year after the government launched so-called "clearance operations" on 25 August 2017. Between August and December 2017 an estimated 720,000 people – the majority of the Rohingya population – were forced to flee, 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 enabled the commission of atrocities. On 22 August 2019 the FFM reported that sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls "was an indicator of the Tatmadaw's genocidal intent to destroy the Rohingya people in whole or in part."
On 15 August government officials from Myanmar and Bangladesh announced their intention to repatriate over 3,000 Rohingya who were "cleared for return" by Myanmar from a list of 22,000 refugees. The process was due to begin on 22 August, but none of the refugees agreed to return. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which was tasked with surveying the refugees, many feared for their physical safety and cited a lack of accountability for atrocities and the absence of guarantees regarding citizenship and civil rights.
The Rohingya, a distinct Muslim ethnic minority group in Myanmar, have been systematically persecuted for generations. Myanmar's 1982 Citizenship Law rendered most of the population stateless. The Rohingya are still 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.
The failure of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to hold accountable those responsible for atrocities committed against the Rohingya enables the military to continue their attacks on other populations and further delays the possible repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh.
Despite Myanmar's partial transition to democracy, until discriminatory laws and policies are repealed or amended, and the perpetrators of past atrocities held accountable, the threat of further atrocities endures. Few governments have imposed punitive measures against those responsible for atrocities, such as targeted sanctions. Regional governments have been especially reluctant to publicly rebuke Myanmar.
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 genocide against the Rohingya was 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, Canada, United States, Australia and others have responded to atrocities in Rakhine State, including by imposing an arms embargo as well as targeted sanctions on senior military officers. A number of countries have recognized the crimes against the Rohingya as constituting genocide. On 16 July the United States government became the first to sanction Myanmar's Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and three other senior military officials for "gross human rights violations" perpetrated against the Rohingya.
During 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."
On 31 May 2019 the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation urged its "ad hoc ministerial committee on human rights violations against the Rohingyas in Myanmar," led by The Gambia, to take a case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The Gambia has confirmed its intention to bring a case against Myanmar for failing to uphold its obligations under the Genocide Convention.
On 21 August the UNSC discussed the refugee repatriation plan in a closed session that included a briefing from UNHCR. On 23 August three Council members – Germany, Kuwait and Peru – hosted an Arria Formula meeting with a focus on accountability for mass atrocity crimes and other serious human rights violations in Myanmar.
While militarily confronting the AA and other armed groups, Myanmar's security forces must ensure the protection of civilians and strictly adhere to International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law. Access for UN agencies and humanitarian organizations should be restored to all conflict-affected areas.
The international community should adopt the FFM's recommendations and ensure that those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes do not evade justice. All investment in conflict-affected areas should be conducted in strict adherence with the UN's Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. The UNSC should refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court and impose an arms embargo. Myanmar should also be taken to the ICJ for breaching its obligations under the Genocide Convention.
Myanmar's government must create conditions for the voluntary, safe and dignified repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh, including by repealing or amending all laws that systematically discriminate against the Rohingya.
Last Updated: 15 September 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.