Ontario Centre for Policy Research Voice for Accountability and Justice


  The Rohingya Crisis

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in Myanmar that have primarily lived in Rakhine State bordering Bangladesh in western Myanmar for at least 200 years. The Myanmar government and others in the country refer to them as “illegal migrants” or “Bengalis,” invoking the nineteenth century migration of laborers and merchants from India under British colonial rule. The Rohingya were effectively stripped of citizenship under a law enacted in 1982, and for decades, they have suffered discrimination, forced labor, and campaigns of violence largely inflicted by government security forces and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.

Violence among radical Buddhists in Rakhine State and Rohingya Muslims flared in 2012 and 2013, resulting in over 200 deaths and around 170,000 persons internally displaced. Religious nationalist movements led by Buddhist monks enflamed tensions through hate speech against Muslim minorities. Many displaced Rohingya were confined to camps and villages where they were required to obtain a permit to leave or seek health care. In July 2012, a United Nations nutrition assessment found that 2,000 children in camps were at a high risk of mortality. A further 9,000 children needed supplementary feeding of some kind, and 2,500 were at risk of acute malnutrition if their needs were not met. Three months later, 2,900 children were estimated to be at a high risk of death, and 14,000 children aged 6 months to 59 months needed supplementary feeding.

Nearly two years later, in February 2014, the government banned Doctors Without Borders, the primary health care provider for the region’s one million Rohingya. The organization was forced to leave after assisting victims of a violent assault on a Rohingya village. A couple weeks later, radical Buddhists, claiming that humanitarian assistance organizations disproportionately favored the Rohingya, raided Red Cross and United Nations aid agencies, forcing over 300 foreign aid workers to evacuate. Some aid workers believed they had been expelled “so there are fewer witnesses to rampant mistreatment and occasional bloodletting.” Without outside assistance, speculation mounted that deaths in the displacement camps in particular had sharply increased.

Also in early 2014, the Myanmar government carried out its first census in three decades. Rohingya who wished to be counted were required to register as “Bengalis.” In October 2014, the government released its Rakhine State Action Plan, again insisting that Rohingya could apply for citizenship so long as they registered as Bengalis. Those who “refuse to be registered and without adequate documents” would be placed in camps. Most observers believed this Plan would “entrench discriminatory policies that deprive Rohingya Muslims in Burma of citizenship and lead to forced resettlement.” Meanwhile, thousands of Rohingya continued attempting to flee the country every year, often on rickety boats bound for Thailand or Malaysia. Some boats were pushed back to sea and at least hundreds of persons have drowned on the dangerous journeys, while those Rohingya that reached land are sometimes held in crowded detention centers.

The latest round of violence against the Rohingya was sparked on August 25, 2017, when the militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked 30 police posts and an army base in Rakhine State. ARSA first appeared in late 2016, when its October 9, 2016 attack on three border posts left nine security officers dead and provoked a counter-offensive that displaced around 100,000 people. Since the latest August 2017 attack and military counter-offensive, more than 730,000 Rohingya have fled the country and crossed into Bangladesh, joining more than 200,000 Rohingya who previously fled over the past three decades. An estimated 30,000 non-Muslim civilians were internally displaced within two weeks of the attack. Roughly half a million Rohingya are thought to remain in Myanmar, largely cut off from humanitarian assistance. Human rights organizations have documented the burning of Rohingya villages across three townships in Rakhine State. Many Rohingya have shared testimony of atrocities perpetrated by the Myanmar military and Rakhine Buddhist groups, including gang rapes and indiscriminate murder of men, women, and children. Throughout their time in Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees have had almost no access to jobs, services, or citizenship.

The last few years of persecution of and violence against the Rohingya have transpired in the context of significant national reform. After almost half a century of authoritarianism, the government ostensibly began a democratic transition in 2011. It allowed for parliamentary elections, released political prisoners including Nobel Laureate and political opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and restored some civil and political rights. The government also took steps to end armed conflict with some of the country’s largest ethnic groups. In April 2013, the European Union expressed its validation of these reforms when it lifted nearly all of its economic and individual sanctions against Myanmar. It kept in place an arms embargo, pending improvements in the treatment of minority Muslims. In October 2016, the U.S. also lifted most sanctions in order “to support efforts by the civilian government and the people of Burma to continue their process of political reform and broad-based economic growth and prosperity.” Foreign aid and investment, largely from within Asia, dramatically increased, and was valued at almost USD 2 billion in 2013.20 Investment from American and European companies has grown increasingly uncertain, however, partly as a result of large-scale violence in Rakhine and the increased willingness of the US and the EU to reimpose sanctions against military leaders.

In November 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory in the country’s first openly contested parliamentary elections in 25 years. Under the 2008 Constitution, a quarter of seats in Parliament are held by the military, enabling it to veto constitutional amendments. Because Aung San Suu Kyi has immediate family with non- Burmese citizenship – her sons are British citizens – she could not become president, though she has operated as the government’s de facto leader under the title of State Counselor. The military, which operates independently of the civilian government, retains control over the ministries of defense, border, and home affairs.

The post-August 2017 round of violence against the Rohingya, which is said to have caused the largest and fastest exodus of people since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, has attracted more international attention than past instances of persecution and displacement.22 On September 11, 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called this latest campaign a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” In October 2017, the United States government suspended military assistance to Myanmar units linked to violence against the Rohingya. The United Kingdom and European Union similarly reduced military relations with Myanmar at this time. Then U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that the international community could not “be witness to the atrocities that have been reported.” A U.S. State Department spokesperson stated that, “It is imperative that any individuals or entities responsible for atrocities, including non-state actors and vigilantes, be held accountable.” Also in October 2017, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland characterized the Myanmar government’s response as genocide. Together with the late U.S. Senator John McCain, Senator Cardin proposed legislation to impose sanctions and travel restrictions on senior Myanmar military officials deemed to be responsible for atrocities. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the legislation in February 2018 for consideration by the whole Senate. According to a December 2017 report, “Doctors Without Borders has called the camps in Bangladesh a ‘time bomb ticking toward a full-blown health crisis’ as sanitation and medical services and distribution of clean water have struggled to keep up with refugee arrivals.”

In December 2017, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on General Maung Maung Soe, who oversaw the military crackdown against the Rohingya minority. In June 2018, Canada and the European Union sanctioned seven senior military leaders.  The U.S. sanctioned four more commanders and two military units in August 2018. This decision almost coincided with the September 2018 release of a U.S. State Department report documenting widespread, systematic attacks and atrocities committed largely by the Myanmar military in the past two years. The report was based on an April 2018 survey of more than 1,000 Rohingya refugees living in camps in Bangladesh. Around the same time, an international independent fact-finding mission on Myanmar established by the United Nations Human Rights Council released its own report. Among its recommendations was a call for the United Nations to refer the situation of the Rohingya, as well as violence in Shan and Kachin States, to the International Criminal Court or other ad hoc international criminal tribunal. The report called for investigation and prosecution of senior military officials for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. The fact-finding mission’s detailed findings were published in a separate 444-page report. On September 6, 2018, in response to a request from the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to clarify the court’s scope of jurisdiction, ICC Pre-Trial Chamber I ruled that it could exercise jurisdiction with regard to crimes within its jurisdiction, such as deportation and other crimes against humanity, provided that they were committed on the territory of a State that is party to the Rome Statute, such as Bangladesh. The ruling prompted the Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to begin investigating whether evidence is sufficient to file charges against alleged perpetrators.

Please refer full paper for publication page, Title: Straining to Prevent the Rohingya Genocide: A Sociology of Law Perspective.