Myanmar's 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) 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 288 villages.
At least 615,000 refugees – mostly Rohingya – have fled across the border to escape violence, bringing the total number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to more than 800,000. Myanmar's authorities have begun seizing Rohingya land across Rakhine State. Local government officials have indicated that confiscated land will now be reclassified for other purposes, and that Rohingya refugees will not necessarily be allowed to return to their previous villages. Local authorities have also begun harvesting crops left by fleeing Rohingya communities, with Rakhine Chief Minister U Nyi Pu claiming that the proceeds will "contribute to the national budget."
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.
Myanmar authorities continue to deny access to the UN Fact-Finding Mission mandated by the Human Rights Council to investigate "allegations of human rights violations and abuses by the security forces." On 27 October experts of the Fact-Finding Mission concluded a visit to Bangladesh, where they interviewed refugees and noted a "consistent, methodical pattern of actions resulting in gross human rights violations affecting hundreds of thousands of people."
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. 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 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 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 experienced inter-communal violence, often incited by Buddhist chauvinist groups. Clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya in 2012 left nearly 200 people dead and 140,000 displaced.
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 through reforming the 1982 Citizenship Law.
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. These operations, as well as the planting of landmines along the border with Bangladesh, are preventing the return of displaced Rohingya to their homes. With violence ongoing in Rakhine State, it is essential that any potential 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 UN Fact-Finding Mission 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 Rohingya's legal right to exist as a distinct ethnic group in Myanmar. The democratically elected government has not taken any significant steps to repeal discriminatory laws, end anti-Rohingya policies or halt atrocities which have caused more than 800,000 Rohingyas to flee the country.
The government of Myanmar is failing to uphold its primary Responsibility to Protect the Rohingya and other vulnerable ethnic and religious minority groups.
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."
On 28 September, the UNSC held its first open meeting on Myanmar in eight years. Previously, the UNSC discussed the 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 19 October the UN Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect issued a joint statement highlighting that despite warnings on the risk of mass atrocity crimes in Myanmar, the government and the international community have failed to uphold their responsibility to protect the Rohingya population.
During a pledging conference held on 23 October in Geneva more than $344 million was committed to fund relief programs for Rohingya refugees and host communities in Bangladesh.
On 6 November, ten weeks after the so-called "clearance operations" in Rakhine State began, the UNSC finally adopted a Presidential Statement on the crisis. The statement "strongly condemns the widespread violence" committed against the Rohingya, and calls for the implementation of the recommendations of the Rakhine Commission. The statement also emphasized that Myanmar's authorities have a responsibility to protect "its population including through respect for the rule of law and the respect, promotion and protection of human rights."
The UNSC must help halt ongoing atrocities in Myanmar and should impose an arms embargo and targeted sanctions directed at senior military officers with command responsibility for forces in Rakhine State.
Individual governments and regional organizations should also impose targeted sanctions and suspend all 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 and the seizure of their property.
The Myanmar authorities should permit the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Fact-Finding Mission to enter Rakhine and expeditiously implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. The authorities 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 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 November 2017