Populations in Myanmar, particularly in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states, 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 UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Fact Finding Mission (FFM) for Myanmar concluded that the military, as well as some civilians, committed crimes against humanity and war crimes in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states, as well as acts of genocide in Rakhine State.
Since the start of so-called "clearance operations" in Rakhine State on 25 August 2017, over 723,000 people – mostly ethnic Rohingya – have fled to Bangladesh, bringing the total number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to an estimated 900,000 people. According to the 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 reported that 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 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 report listed alleged perpetrators of these atrocities, including 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 to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or create an ad hoc international criminal tribunal.
The government of Myanmar has so far failed to create conditions conducive to the voluntary, safe and dignified repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh, including addressing key issues of citizenship and freedom of movement. 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 (AA), an armed group that claims to represent the Buddhist Rakhine ethnic population. Myanmar's security forces have shelled villages, blocked food supplies and detained civilians for alleged ties to the AA. Reports indicate that the same military divisions involved in atrocities against the Rohingya were deployed to fight the AA. Access to conflict-affected areas within Rakhine State has been denied to UN agencies since January. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), an estimated 5,500 people have been displaced since December.
Following the 2011 breakdown of a ceasefire between the military and the Kachin Independence Army, fighting in Kachin and Shan states displaced more than 106,000 people who have been living in 172 camps, according to OCHA. On 21 December 2018 the military declared a unilateral four-month ceasefire. The UN has not been permitted to deliver assistance in areas beyond government control in Kachin and northern Shan states since June 2016.
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.
Restricting the access of UN agencies and humanitarian organizations to Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states undermines efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to vulnerable civilians. Without independent assessment of local conditions, repatriation of Rohingya 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. During 2018 Canada's House of Commons and the United States House of Representatives both recognized the crimes committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar as genocide.
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.
The UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, visited Myanmar from 18-29 January. Special Envoy Burgener briefed the UNSC on 28 February, calling for unfettered humanitarian access and appealing to all parties to uphold their obligations under international law.
On 15 February UN aid agencies and NGO partners launched the "2019 Joint Response Plan for Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis," seeking to raise $920 million address the refugee situation in Bangladesh and support host communities.
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. Governments and regional organizations should impose targeted sanctions on those responsible for atrocities.
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 demand immediate and unfettered access for humanitarian organizations, UN agencies and independent investigators to Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states. 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 (UNHCR).
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. All international trade and development programs in Rakhine State should be scrupulously reviewed to ensure that they do not reinforce discriminatory structures.
Last Updated: 15 March 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.