Populations in Myanmar 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 Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Myanmar concluded that the military, as well as some civilians, have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states, as well as acts of genocide perpetrated against the Rohingya minority in Rakhine State. Many of the military units that perpetrated these crimes continue to operate in Myanmar.
Since November 2018 conflict has flared in Rakhine State between Myanmar's military and the Arakan Army (AA), an armed group seeking greater autonomy for the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist population. Myanmar's security forces have shelled villages, blocked food supplies and arbitrarily detained civilians. On 7 June the Office of the President instructed the military to "to use all necessary force" against the AA. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 35,000 people have been displaced in Rakhine and neighboring Chin State since November. Access to conflict-affected areas has been denied to UN agencies and most humanitarian organizations.
On 29 May Amnesty International reported on war crimes and other human rights violations committed by the military since January, including by military units implicated in past atrocities. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, "many acts of the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army violate International Humanitarian Law and may amount to war crimes." Special Rapporteur Lee reported on indiscriminate attacks on villages, targeting of civilians and forced disappearances. Since 21 June the government has ordered an internet shut down in several townships in Rakhine and Chin states, limiting access to information on military operations.
The latest conflict ignited roughly a year after the government launched so-called "clearance operations" in Rakhine State on 25 August 2017. An estimated 745,000 people – mostly ethnic Rohingya – were forced to flee to Bangladesh, bringing the total number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to over 900,000 people. According to the FFM, the treatment of the Rohingya population by Myanmar's security forces amounts to four of the five prohibited acts defined in the Genocide Convention. 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 enabled the commission of atrocity crimes.
On 28 May the UN Refugee Agency and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) extended its Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the government of Myanmar. Despite the signing of the MoU last year, the government has 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.
The failure of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to hold accountable those responsible for atrocities committed against the Rohingya has enabled the military to continue their attacks on other populations.
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 still 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 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 potential genocide against the Rohingya was the adoption of a Presidential Statement on 6 November 2017. That statement stressed the "primary responsibility of the Myanmar government to protect its population."
Since August 2017 the European Union, Canada, United States, Australia and others have responded to atrocities in Rakhine State, including by imposing an arms embargo as well as targeted sanctions on senior military officers. A number of countries have recognized the crimes against the Rohingya as constituting genocide.
During September 2018 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."
On 31 May 2019 the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation urged its "ad hoc ministerial committee on human rights violations against the Rohingyas in Myanmar," led by The Gambia, to bring a case against Myanmar to the International Court of Justice. The Gambia has confirmed its intention to bring a case against Myanmar for failing to uphold its obligations under the Genocide Convention.
On 17 June UN Secretary-General António Guterres accepted an independent report prepared by Gert Rosenthal, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Guatemala, that evaluated the UN's role in Myanmar from 2010-2018. The report emphasized the UN's failure to adequately respond to warning signs of potential mass atrocities against the Rohingya population.
On 4 July the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) requested authorization to open a formal investigation into the alleged deportation of more than 700,000 Rohingya civilians from Myanmar to Bangladesh.
While militarily confronting the AA, Myanmar's security forces must ensure the protection of civilians and strictly adhere to International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law. Access for UN agencies and humanitarian organizations should be restored.
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, regional organizations and the UNSC should impose targeted sanctions on all those responsible for atrocities committed against the Rohingya. All international trade and development programs in Rakhine State should be scrupulously reviewed to ensure that they do not reinforce discriminatory structures. The UNSC should refer the situation in Myanmar to the ICC and impose an arms embargo.
Myanmar's government must create conditions for the voluntary, safe and dignified repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh, including by repealing or amending all laws that systematically discriminate against the Rohingya.
Last Updated: 15 July 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.