Populations at Risk Current Crisis

Myanmar (Burma)

Atrocities committed against the Rohingya minority constitute crimes against humanity under international law. These crimes may ultimately prove to be genocidal in intent.
Myanmar's security forces have carried out "clearance operations" in Rakhine State since 25 August, after an armed group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police posts and an army base. Since that date there have been widespread reports of the security forces imposing collective punishment upon the ethnic Rohingya community, including the unlawful killing of civilians, mass displacement, rape, and the burning of at least 354 villages.

According to research by Médecins Sans Frontières, at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in Rakhine State between 25 August and 24 September alone. On 10 January the Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar's armed forces, General Min Aung Hlaing, admitted in a statement that soldiers and local villagers had summarily executed 10 captured Rohingya and buried them in a mass grave outside Inn Din village in Maungdaw township. This is the first admission of wrongdoing by the army, which has previously exonerated itself regarding allegations of atrocities committed against the Rohingya.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported that more than 655,000 refugees – mostly Rohingya – have fled across the border to escape violence, bringing the total number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to nearly 870,000.

On 11 September the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein, said that actions taken by the Myanmar authorities represent a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing." On 11 October the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a report which found that the attacks carried out by Myanmar's security forces were "well-organised, coordinated and systematic" and were aimed at driving the Rohingya population out of Myanmar and preventing their return.

The Myanmar authorities continue to restrict or deny access to northern Rakhine State for international humanitarian and human rights organizations, independent media, as well as the Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Fact-Finding Mission. On 20 December the government of Myanmar informed the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, that she would be denied access to the country for the rest of her tenure.

On 23 November the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an "arrangement on return of displaced Myanmar persons sheltered in Bangladesh," which stipulated that returns would begin within two months. A number of governments, as well as humanitarian and human rights observers, expressed concern over the timetable and conditions for return, including the lack of guarantees that returnees will not be subjected to further violence and persecution.

The current crisis in Myanmar began less than a year after authorities concluded another "counter-insurgency operation" in northern Rakhine State. Between October 2016 and February 2017 there were similar reports of grave human rights violations against Rohingya civilians, which OHCHR said may have amounted to crimes against humanity.

The Rohingya, a distinct Muslim ethnic minority group of approximately 1 million people, have been systematically persecuted by discriminatory laws in Myanmar. The 1982 Citizenship Law does not recognize the Rohingya as one of Myanmar's "national races," rendering the population stateless. The Rohingya are also subject to severe restrictions on their freedom of movement as well as access to employment and education. The Myanmar government denied the Rohingya the ability to self-identify on the 2014 national census, the first since 1983. They were also largely disenfranchised in Myanmar's historic November 2015 elections. The rights of the Rohingya are further limited by the so-called Protection of Race and Religion laws, which were passed in 2015 and place harsh restrictions on women and non-Buddhists, including on fundamental religious freedoms, as well as reproductive and marital rights.

The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, mandated to provide recommendations on resolving recurring conflict 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 reforming the 1982 Citizenship Law.

Myanmar's security forces pose an existential threat to the Rohingya population as they impose collective punishment upon civilians for the actions of ARSA. With violence continuing in Rakhine State and no accountability for past atrocities, it is essential that repatriation of Rohingya refugees is conducted on a strictly voluntary basis, in accordance with the 1951 Refugee Convention and the principle of non-refoulement. The denial of access to the Fact-Finding Mission and the UN Special Rapporteur undermines efforts to independently investigate atrocities in Myanmar.

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 legal right of the Rohingya to exist as a distinct ethnic group in Myanmar. The democratically elected government has not taken any significant steps to repeal discriminatory laws and end anti-Rohingya policies, indicating that the persecution of the Rohingya will continue.

The government of Myanmar is failing to uphold its primary Responsibility to Protect the Rohingya and other vulnerable ethnic and religious minority groups.

On 28 September the UN Security Council (UNSC) held its first open meeting on Myanmar in eight years. Previously, the UNSC discussed the Rakhine situation under "any other business" on 30 August, 13 September and 26 September. On 13 October the UNSC held an Arria Formula Meeting with Kofi Annan in his capacity as Chair of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.

On 6 November, ten weeks after the beginning of "clearance operations," the UNSC finally adopted a Presidential Statement on the crisis. The statement condemned the widespread violence committed against the Rohingya, called for the implementation of the recommendations of the Rakhine Commission and stressed the "primary responsibility of the Myanmar government to protect its population including through respect for the rule of law and the respect, promotion and protection of human rights." The statement also requested a briefing by the UN Secretary-General, which was held on 12 December.

On 5 December the HRC held a special session on the human rights situation in Rakhine State. The Council adopted a resolution stating that systematic and targeted human rights violations and abuses in Rakhine State indicate "the very likely commission of crimes against humanity" and calling upon the government of Myanmar to grant unfettered access to the Fact-Finding Mission as well as to all relevant special procedure mandate holders. In his address to the HRC, High Commissioner Zeid said that "elements of genocide may be present" in relation to the Rohingya.

On 21 December the United States government announced that it was sanctioning Major General Maung Maung Soe, who oversaw the "clearance operations" in Rakhine State.

On 24 December the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling upon the Myanmar authorities to end military operations against the Rohingya and to grant them full citizenship rights. The resolution also requested the UN Secretary-General to appoint a Special Envoy to the country.

The UNSC should impose an arms embargo and targeted sanctions directed at all senior military officers with command responsibility for forces in Rakhine State, including General Min Aung Hlaing. The Council should also refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.

Individual governments and regional organizations should suspend all military aid and training programs with Myanmar's security forces. All international trade, aid and development programs in Rakhine State should be scrupulously reviewed. Myanmar's military and the local Rakhine authorities must not be allowed to profit from the expulsion of the Rohingya.

The UN Fact-Finding Mission and Special Rapporteur should be granted entry into Rakhine State to further investigate all atrocities committed by the security forces since October 2016. The Myanmar authorities should also allow humanitarian and human rights organizations unhindered access to vulnerable populations in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states. The international community should insist that the UN Refugee Agency is fully involved in any Rohingya repatriation efforts.

The government must demonstrate progress toward implementation of the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. The government must repeal or amend all laws and regulations that systematically discriminate against Rohingya and other minorities, 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 all of Myanmar's diverse populations are protected, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

Last Updated: 15 January 2018