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. Since then 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 and the burning of villages. The authorities have evacuated some non-Muslim civilians from affected areas, but at the time of publication, more than 389,000 refugees – mostly Rohingya – have fled across the border to Bangladesh to escape violence.
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." There have been reports of the Myanmar authorities placing landmines along the border with Bangladesh to prevent Rohingya from returning. Meanwhile, a government spokesman declared on 13 September that the security forces have successfully emptied 176 Rohingya villages targeted during "clearance operations."
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. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights alleged that the "widespread and systematic" attacks against Rohingya during these operations may have amounted to crimes against humanity. The government has utilized several internal investigations to deny the allegations, but international observers have dismissed them for lacking impartiality and credibility.
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. The government has stated that it will not permit the mission to enter 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 that 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. The use of landmines along the border with Bangladesh, as well as the authorities requiring refugees reentering Myanmar to prove their nationality, is prohibiting the return of stateless Rohingya to their homes.
The rejection of the UN fact-finding mission is a further 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.
Following decades of military dictatorship, democratic reforms have contributed to rapprochement between Myanmar and the international community, including the lifting of sanctions.
Following a 12-day visit to Myanmar during July, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, highlighted the worsening human rights situation in the country and expressed disappointment that the policies of the current government are reminiscent of those of the previous military junta. On 31 August Special Rapporteur Lee called upon the government of Myanmar to allow humanitarian agencies access and urged authorities "to give equal protection to people from all communities."
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."
Despite the magnitude of the crisis, the UNSC has not issued a Presidential Statement nor adopted a resolution on the situation in Myanmar.
States should immediately suspend all formal collaboration and training programs with the Myanmar military and police who are conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State in direct violation of international law.
The UNSC should take meaningful action to help end atrocities in Myanmar, including by formally calling upon State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing to immediately stop the killings, and facilitate the safe voluntary return of displaced Rohingya civilians.
The Myanmar government should also 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 government 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 immediate action to halt hate speech against the Rohingya and other minorities and take proximate steps to build a more inclusive society.
Last Updated: 15 September 2017