Populations in Myanmar remain at risk of mass atrocity crimes perpetrated by the security forces and as a result of discriminatory laws and policies. According to a Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated international Fact Finding Mission (FFM), the treatment of the minority Rohingya population by Myanmar's security forces amounts to four of the five prohibited acts defined in the Genocide Convention. Namely, "perpetrators have killed Rohingya, caused serious bodily and mental harm to Rohingya, deliberately inflicted conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction of Rohingya, and imposed measures intended to prevent births of Rohingya."
The FFM found evidence of "genocidal intent," including government policies designed to alter the demographic composition of Rakhine State, and a premeditated plan for the destruction of Rohingya communities. The FFM also concluded that crimes against humanity and war crimes have been committed in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan states, principally by Myanmar's military.
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 enabled 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, crimes against humanity and war crimes. 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 UN Secretary-General released a report during November 2018 on "children and armed conflict in Myanmar," which covered the period between 1 July 2017 and 31 August 2018. The report documented 1,166 grave violations against children across three northern townships of Rakhine State and highlighted displacement of approximately 48,000 children in Kachin and Shan states. Due to access restrictions, the actual numbers are likely much higher.
Since the start of so-called "clearance operations" on 25 August 2017, over 723,000 people – mostly ethnic Rohingya – have fled Rakhine State, with the majority of refugees arriving in Bangladesh during the first three months of the crisis. This brought the number of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to an estimated 900,000 people. Satellite images and other evidence reveal that over 300 Rohingya villages have been destroyed in Rakhine State.
Access to Rakhine State remains severely restricted for UN agencies and investigators, humanitarian organizations and the media. On 3 September 2018 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.
Since early December 2018 conflict has also flared in Rakhine State between Myanmar's military and the Arakan Army, an armed group that claims to represent the Buddhist Rakhine ethnic population. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), an estimated 5,000 people have been displaced.
Myanmar's military has been at war with a number of non-state ethnic armed groups since the late 1940s. In particular, populations in Kachin and Shan states remain at ongoing risk of mass atrocity crimes. Following the 2011 breakdown of a ceasefire between the military and the Kachin Independence Army, fighting has displaced more than 107,000 people in Kachin and Shan states, according to OCHA. On 21 December the military declared a unilateral four-month ceasefire in Kachin and Shan states aimed at reviving the peace process. However, clashes continue between rival armed groups in Shan State.
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 its campaign against other populations, posing an ongoing threat to vulnerable civilians.
Restricting the access of UN agencies and humanitarian organizations to Rakhine State undermines efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and assess local conditions. Without independent assessment, the proposed repatriation of refugees cannot be carried out in a safe and sustainable manner.
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 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 (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. 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 prosecuted.
On 18 September 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 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." The resolution extended the mandate of the FFM until the new mechanism is operational. During December the UN General Assembly approved the funding for the new mechanism.
On 13 December the United States House of Representatives adopted a resolution declaring the campaign against the Rohingya to constitute genocide.
On 22 December the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the "Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar," requesting the Secretary-General to extend the appointment of the Special Envoy on Myanmar.
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.
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. 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 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.
It is essential that any repatriation of Rohingya refugees is conducted on a strictly voluntary basis, in accordance with the principle of non-refoulement, and in consultation with the UN Refugee Agency.
Last Updated: 15 January 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.