Myanmar security forces have been carrying out "clearance operations" in Rakhine State since 25 August, after an armed group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) carried out coordinated attacks on multiple police posts and an army base. There have been widespread reports of the security forces imposing collective punishment upon the ethnic Rohingya community in northern Rakhine, including the unlawful killing of civilians, mass displacement, rape, the burning of villages as well as placing landmines along the border with Bangladesh to prevent fleeing Rohingya from returning. Access to northern Rakhine State remains severely restricted. Although the Myanmar government has claimed that, "no armed clashes have been reported since 5 September," fleeing refugees have alleged that widespread attacks on civilians are ongoing.
On 11 September the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein, said that actions taken by the Myanmar authorities during the "clearance operations" represent a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing." The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Committee on the Rights of the Child also said on 4 October that human rights violations against Rohingya women and children by Myanmar security forces may amount to crimes against humanity. On 11 October the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report based on interviews conducted with Rohingya refugees who arrived in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, from 14 to 24 September. The report found that the attacks carried out by Myanmar security forces were "well-organised, coordinated and systematic" in nature and were aimed to drive the Rohingya population out of Myanmar and to prevent their return.
The Myanmar authorities have evacuated some non-Muslim civilians from affected areas, but since 25 August, an estimated 536,000 refugees – mostly Rohingya – have fled across the border to Bangladesh to escape violence. This brings the total number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to approximately 800,000. On 2 October the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar announced establishment of a working group to plan the repatriation of Rohingya refugees. The details of the plan have not yet been made public.
The current crisis in Myanmar comes less than a year after the government conducted a four-month counter-insurgency operation in northern Rakhine state following attacks on border guard posts by armed militants. During the October 2016-February 2017 operation there were reports of mass arrests, torture, enforced disappearance, rape and other forms of sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, as well as widespread destruction of Rohingya homes and mosques, which the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights alleges may have amounted to crimes against humanity.
On 24 March the UN Human Rights Council mandated "an independent international fact-finding mission" into allegations of human rights violations and abuses by the security forces in Myanmar, particularly in Rakhine State. On 29 September Human Rights Council adopted a resolution, extending the mandate of the fact-finding mission until September 2018. The government has blocked the mission from entering Myanmar.
The Rohingya, a distinct Muslim ethnic minority group, have been systematically marginalized by discriminatory laws in Myanmar. The 1982 Citizenship Law does not recognize the Rohingya as one of Myanmar's "national races," rendering a population of over one million people stateless. Rohingyas are subject to severe restrictions on their freedom of movement as well as access to employment and education.
The Myanmar government denied Rohingyas the ability to self-identify on the 2014 national census, the first since 1983. Rohingyas were also largely disenfranchised in advance of Myanmar's historic November 2015 elections. Rohingyas' rights are further limited by the so-called Protection of Race and Religion laws, which were passed in 2015 by the previous government and place harsh restrictions on women and non-Buddhists, including on fundamental religious freedoms, as well as reproductive and marital rights.
Rohingyas and the other Muslim populations in Myanmar have also been the victims of inter-communal violence, often incited by Buddhist chauvinist groups. Clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in 2012 left nearly 200 people dead and 140,000 displaced.
The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, mandated by the government to provide recommendations on "measures for finding lasting solutions to the complex and delicate issues in Rakhine State," submitted its final report to the Myanmar authorities on 24 August. Led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the Commission offered practical recommendations to address the root causes of conflict in Rakhine, including through reforming the 1982 Citizenship Law.
Conflict is also ongoing in other parts of Myanmar. Despite the previous government signing ceasefire agreements with several ethnic armed groups, fighting in Kachin and Shan states has displaced an estimated 98,000 people according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The ongoing "clearance operations" pose an existential threat to the Rohingya population as the security forces impose collective punishment upon civilians for the actions of ARSA. These operations, including the use of landmines along the border with Bangladesh, are preventing the return of displaced Rohingya to their homes. To date, more than 200 Rohingya villages have been destroyed as part of the government's "clearance operations."
With violence ongoing in Rakhine State, it is essential that any potential repatriation of Rohingya refugees is conducted on a strictly voluntary basis, recognizing the 1951 Refugee convention and the principle of non-refoulement.
The rejection of the UN fact-finding mission is a setback regarding accountability for systematic violations and abuses of human rights. The government's refusal to end discriminatory state policies regarding the Rohingya has encouraged violations of their fundamental human rights and reinforced the dangerous perception of them as ethnic outsiders. The 1982 Citizenship Law and the Protection of Race and Religion laws are intended to eradicate the Rohingya's legal right to exist as a distinct ethnic group in Myanmar. The government has not taken any significant steps to repeal discriminatory laws and end anti-Rohingya policies.
The government of Myanmar is failing to uphold its primary Responsibility to Protect the Rohingya and other vulnerable ethnic and religious minority groups.
On 2 September UN Secretary-General António Guterres sent a letter to the President of the UN Security Council (UNSC), urging Council members to address the situation in Rakhine State and help prevent "a humanitarian catastrophe with implications for peace and security that could continue to expand beyond Myanmar's borders."
On 28 September, the UN Security Council (UNSC) held its first open meeting on Myanmar in eight years, with a briefing from Secretary-General Guterres. Despite the magnitude of the crisis, the meeting had no outcome. Previously, the UNSC discussed the situation under "any other business" on 30 August, 13 September and 26 September, with no outcome. On 13 October the UNSC held an Arria Formula Meeting with the former head of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, Kofi Annan.
During September, the United Kingdom suspended financial aid to the Myanmar military pending "an acceptable resolution to the current situation" in Rakhine State.
On 26 September seven UN Special Rapporteurs called on the Myanmar government to end the persecution of the Rohingya population.
On 2 October a group of foreign diplomats participated in a government-arranged trip to northern Rakhine State. Following the trip the group called upon the Myanmar authorities to allow unimpeded access to the area to humanitarian and media actors as well as to the UN Fact-Finding Mission.
The UN Security Council should urgently adopt a resolution to address the ongoing atrocities in Myanmar, including through imposing an arms embargo and targeted sanctions directed at senior military officers with command responsibility for forces engaged in ongoing ethnic cleansing. Individual governments and regional organizations should also impose targeted sanctions and suspend all bilateral aid and training programs with Myanmar's security forces.
The Myanmar authorities should permit the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Fact-Finding Mission to enter Rakhine State and expeditiously implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
The authorities should also permit humanitarian and human rights organizations unhindered access to vulnerable populations in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states.
The government must repeal or amend all laws and regulations that systematically discriminate against Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar, 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 rights of Myanmar's diverse populations are protected.
Last Updated: 15 October 2017