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 – since so-called "clearance operations" began in Rakhine State on 25 August 2017. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), over 720,000 people have fled the violence, bringing the number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to more than 900,000 people.
The Myanmar authorities continue to deny that these atrocities have taken place. In particular, the military insists that it only carried out counter-insurgency operations after the so-called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) armed group attacked police posts and an army base. However, there is compelling evidence that the military made extensive preparations to attack the Rohingya population long before 25 August, including deploying additional troops to Rakhine State, arming local non-Rohingya villagers, and blocking the flow of humanitarian aid to Rohingya communities.
On 27 August 2018 the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Myanmar, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), released its final report. According to the FFM, the treatment of the Rohingya by Myanmar's security forces amounts to four of the five prohibited acts defined in the Genocide Convention. The report 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. The report also found that Myanmar's civilian authorities, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, have not met "a responsibility to protect the civilian population" and "have contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes."
The FFM 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, Rakhine, and Shan states.
Myanmar's authorities appear to have made a deliberate attempt to conceal evidence of atrocities, including by bulldozing mass graves and systematically clearing some Rohingya villages. On 30 July the government of Myanmar established an "Independent Commission of Enquiry" to "investigate the allegations of human rights violations and related issues, following the terrorist attacks by ARSA." The commission has been widely criticized for lacking independence and credibility.
On 3 September a Myanmar court sentenced two Reuters journalists to seven years in prison for breaking the Official Secrets Act. The reporters were investigating the massacre of Rohingya villagers by Myanmar's security forces at the time of their arrest in December 2017.
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 Kachin and Shan states also remain at continued risk of mass atrocity crimes. Clashes between the Myanmar military and Kachin Independence Army have been ongoing since a ceasefire broke down in June 2011, with violence increasing during 2018. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there are currently more than 106,000 people in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Kachin and Shan states as a result of the ongoing conflict. For more than two years, the government of Myanmar has blocked the UN from areas controlled by armed groups and has severely restricted humanitarian access in government-controlled areas. 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.
Despite the transition to democracy, Myanmar's security forces continue to pose an existential threat to the Rohingya population and other vulnerable ethnic minorities. Unless discriminatory laws and policies are repealed or amended and the citizenship of the Rohingya is restored, the threat of further atrocities will continue.
Restricting access to UN agencies and investigators, humanitarian organizations and the media undermines
efforts to investigate human rights abuses and provide humanitarian assistance.
The failure of the international community to hold accountable those responsible for atrocities committed against the Rohingya has emboldened the military to intensify its campaign against vulnerable populations in Kachin and Shan states.
The government of Myanmar has not only manifestly failed to uphold its Responsibility to Protect the Rohingya, it bears responsibility for the commission of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
The only formal response of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to the situation in Rakhine State since 25 August 2017 has been the adoption of a Presidential Statement on 6 November. 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." On 28 August 2018 the UNSC held an open briefing on the situation in Myanmar with no formal outcome.
On 26 April the European Union (EU) extended its arms embargo on Myanmar for a year, prohibited the export of goods and equipment that "might be used for internal repression," and banned military training and cooperation with Myanmar's army. On 25 June the EU and Canada imposed sanctions on seven senior members of Myanmar's military and police, including the former head of the army's Western Command, Major General Maung Maung Soe, who was also sanctioned by the United States in December 2017. On 17 August the United States government sanctioned four of Myanmar's police commanders "for their involvement in ethnic cleansing in Burma's Rakhine State and other widespread human rights abuses in Burma's Kachin and Shan States."
In its 27 August report the FFM listed some "alleged perpetrators of crimes under international law," including military Commander-in-Chief, General Min Aung Hlaing. The FFM called upon the UNSC to refer the situation in Myanmar to the ICC or to create an ad hoc international criminal tribunal.
On 27 August Facebook announced it was banning 20 individuals and organizations, including Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing. According to the social network, the action was taken to prevent these individuals from using Facebook "to further inflame ethnic and religious tensions."
On 6 September the Pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) decided that the Court "has jurisdiction over the crime against humanity of deportation allegedly committed against members of the Rohingya people."
The international community must uphold its responsibility to protect populations in Myanmar by fully implementing the FFM's recommendations and ensuring 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 committed in Rakhine State. The UNSC should also demand immediate 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.
The 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 must 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
Last Updated: 15 September 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.