Atrocities against Burma's Rohingya Population
The Burmese military has targeted the Rohingya people because of their ethnic and religious identity—crimes that amount to genocide and crimes against humanity. For many Rohingya victims and survivors the future remains uncertain, as threats against their community continue.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group in Burma (also known as Myanmar). Considered one of the world’s most persecuted peoples, Burma's Rohingya population has faced a long history of severe discrimination and persecution, violence, denial of citizenship, and numerous restrictions at the hands of Burmese authorities. The Rohingya in Burma have been forcibly isolated1 , cut off from public goods and services, and subjects of hate speech from government actors and others.
Most recently, the Rohingya population has suffered mass atrocities—including crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled these crimes in Burma to neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017, where they live in overcrowded camps and face serious humanitarian needs. Many of those fleeing and crossing the border into Bangladesh have shared reports of mass killings, rape, and the burning of villages.
The Burmese government has established commissions to investigate the violence and to promote reconciliation between the Rohingya and those targeting them, but doubts remain as to the effectiveness of the investigations and whether the government is doing all it can to protect civilians at risk of violence. In fact, the Burmese government has done little to alleviate the plight of the Rohingya, and instead has enforced laws and policies aimed at making life unlivable for them.
Conditions in Burma remain too dangerous for the safe, voluntary returns of those who fled to Bangladesh. The Rohingya who would return to Burma, and those who still remain in the country, could again face the threat of genocide.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in Rakhine (also called Arakan) State, which borders Bangladesh and has a Buddhist majority that is ethnically Rakhine. Since Burma’s independence in 1948, the Rohingya have been subjected to periodic campaigns of violence. They continue to face various forms of official and unofficial persecution2 , including limits on the right to marry and bear children, limits on movement, forced labor, restrictions on access to health care and education, and forcible segregation.
Although Rohingya communities have resided in Rakhine for at least several centuries, Burma’s 1982 citizenship law3 does not include them among the country’s officially recognized ethnic groups, effectively denying them any right to citizenship. The Burmese government classifies the Rohingya as “Bengalis” and insists that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Anti-Rohingya Violence and Humanitarian Crisis
Though the Rohingya are particularly at risk, they are not the only ethnic or religious group that experiences discrimination in Burma. Other groups, including the Kachin, Shan, and Rakhine ethnicities, among others, have been targeted by Burma’s military. Rakhine State is one of Burma’s poorest states, and the Rakhine ethnic group has also long suffered from economic discrimination and cultural repression by the Burmese majority and central government.
Attacks in 2012
In June and October 2012, tensions between the Rohingya and Rakhine communities erupted into violence against Rohingya civilians that left hundreds dead and more than 140,000 displaced, the vast majority of whom were Rohingya. According to both Rakhine and Rohingya witnesses4 , Buddhist monks and local Rakhine politicians incited and led many of the attacks, with state security forces failing or refusing to stop the violence and sometimes participating in it. The violence forced the Rohingya to abandon many of their communities, where their homes, businesses, and property were then taken or destroyed by the government.
The displaced Rohingya still live in official and unofficial IDP (internally displaced persons) camps under deplorable conditions. Humanitarian aid workers have frequently been prevented from accessing these camps. At a press conference5 in June 2014, Kyung-Wha Kang, the UN’s Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, stated, “In Rakhine, I witnessed a level of human suffering in IDP camps that I have personally never seen before, with men, women, and children living in appalling conditions with severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, both in camps and isolated villages.”
Citing the need to maintain security, Burmese officials had essentially imprisoned much of the Rohingya population, using barbed wire and barricades to cordon off not only those in the camps but also thousands more in places where Rohingya communities were living. Often denied permission to exit, inhabitants of these camps6 face significant difficulties in accessing markets, schools, or health care facilities and are unable to pursue their livelihoods.
Attacks in 2016 and 2017
In October 2016, deadly attacks on police stations in northern Rakhine State—a predominantly Rohingya area—triggered a violent response by the Burmese military. The military pursued those who may have been responsible for the attacks in so-called “clearance operations,” but instead targeted the general Rohingya population. The military attacked men, women, and children, approximately 65,000 of whom were forced to flee into neighboring Bangladesh. In August 2017, following another attack on police posts, the Burmese military launched genocidal attacks on the Rohingya including mass killing, rape, torture, arson, arbitrary arrest and detention, and forced displacement of more than 700,000 people. A 2017 report issued by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Fortify Rights, “They Tried to Kill Us All” (PDF), documented these atrocities. Those Rohingya still in Burma remain vulnerable to further attack by the military, and face ongoing persecution, restrictions on basic freedoms, and hate speech. The persecution of the Rohingya has forced many to seek refuge in neighboring countries, often by means of risky journeys7 to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Many seeking asylum have been vulnerable to violence, human trafficking, and other abuses8 .
In March 2017, the United Nations Human Rights Council established9 a Fact-Finding Mission to investigate human rights violations committed by Burma’s military against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in the country. The Fact-Finding Mission released its final report10 in September 2018, finding that crimes against humanity had been committed in Rakhine, Shan, and Kachin States, and that there is “sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution” of senior military officials in order to determine their culpability for genocide. In September 2018, the US State Department issued the findings of a survey11 focused on the crimes committed in Rakhine State, which showed that the vast majority of Rohingya refugees who fled from Burma to Bangladesh had witnessed extreme forms of violence, and that the Burmese military was identified as the perpetrator in most cases. US officials had termed the violence “ethnic cleansing.”
Burma has an obligation, as a party to the Genocide Convention and under customary international law, to prevent genocide. The west African country The Gambia brought a case to the International Court of Justice concerning the Burmese government’s failure to uphold its obligations under the Genocide Convention. In January 2020, the Court ordered the Burmese government to take all measures to prevent the commission of genocide. To date, the Burmese authorities have not undertaken the necessary steps to reduce the risk of genocide to the Rohingya in Burma.
Critical Thinking Questions
- How might citizens and officials within a nation identify and respond to warning signs? What obstacles might be faced?
- How might other countries and international organizations respond to warning signs within a nation? What obstacles may exist?
- How can knowledge of the events in Germany and Europe before the Nazis came to power help citizens today respond to threats of genocide and mass atrocity?