Atrocities against Burma's Rohingya Population
The Burmese military has targeted the Rohingya people because of their ethnic and religious identity. The military’s actions constitute genocide and crimes against humanity. For many Rohingya victims and survivors, the future remains uncertain, as threats against their community continue.
Since Burma’s independence in 1948, the Rohingya have faced periodic cycles of violence and hate speech. They have also experienced official and unofficial persecution, including limitations on freedom of movement and the right to marry.
In August 2017, the Burmese military launched genocidal attacks against the Rohingya. These attacks included mass killings, rape, and the burning of villages. Since then, over 700,000 Rohingya have fled their homes.
A February 2021 military coup installed the perpetrators of the Rohingya genocide at the helm of the country. The estimated 600,000 Rohingya still in Burma remain at risk of genocide.
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 isolated, cut off from public goods and services, and subjects of hate speech from government actors and others.1
Most recently, the Rohingya population has suffered mass atrocities at the hands of the Burmese military. These atrocities include crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Since August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya have fled these crimes in Burma to neighboring Bangladesh. There, 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.
Prior to 2021, the Burmese government had established commissions to investigate the violence and to promote reconciliation between the Rohingya and those targeting them. However, these investigations were ineffective and lacked impartiality.
In February 2021, the Burmese military launched a coup that installed the perpetrators of the Rohingya genocide at the helm of the country. Since then, the future of the Rohingya has become even more uncertain.
Both before and after the coup, Burma’s leaders have done little to alleviate the plight of the Rohingya. Instead they have enforced laws and policies aimed at making life unlivable for them. Conditions in Burma remain too dangerous for those Rohingya who fled their homes to return safely. The Rohingya who would return to Burma, as well as those who still remain in the country, remain at risk 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 persecution.2 This persecution includes 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 State for at least several centuries, Burma’s leaders have not recognized the Rohingya as an official ethnic group. Instead, many in the Burmese government incorrectly classify the Rohingya as “Bengalis” and insist that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The implementation of Burma’s 1982 citizenship law effectively denies the Rohingya the right to Burmese citizenship.3
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. The Rakhine ethnic group has also long suffered from economic discrimination and cultural repression by the Burman ethnic majority and central government.
Anti-Rohingya Violence and Humanitarian Crisis
Attacks in 2012
In June and October 2012, tensions between the Rohingya and Rakhine communities erupted into violence against Rohingya civilians. This violence left hundreds dead and more than 140,000 displaced. The vast majority of these people were Rohingya. According to both Rakhine and Rohingya witnesses,4 Buddhist monks and local Rakhine politicians incited and led many of the attacks. State security forces failed or refused to stop the violence and sometimes even participated in it. The violence forced the Rohingya to abandon many of their communities. Their homes, businesses, and property were then taken or destroyed by the government.
The displaced Rohingya still live in official and unofficial internally displaced persons (IDP) camps under deplorable conditions. Humanitarian aid workers have frequently been prevented from accessing these camps. At a press conference 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.5
Citing the need to maintain security, Burmese officials essentially imprisoned much of the Rohingya population. They used barbed wire and barricades to cordon off not only those in the camps but also thousands more Rohingya 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. They 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.” In actuality, these attacks 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. These attacks included mass killing, rape, torture, arson, arbitrary arrest and detention, and forced displacement of more than 700,000 people. These atrocities were documented in a 2017 report issued by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Fortify Rights entitled “They Tried to Kill Us All” (PDF). Those Rohingya still in Burma remain vulnerable to further attack by the military. They 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 abuses.8
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. The mission determined that crimes against humanity had been committed in Rakhine, Shan, and Kachin States. It found 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 survey.11 The survey focused on the crimes committed in Rakhine State. It 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. At the time, US officials termed the violence “ethnic cleansing.” On March 21, 2022, Secretary of State Antony Blinken came to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to announce the US government’s determination that the military’s crimes amounted to genocide and crimes against humanity (Remarks; external link).
As a party to the Genocide Convention and under customary international law, Burma has an obligation to prevent genocide. The Gambia, a west African country, 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 taken the necessary steps to reduce the risk of genocide to the Rohingya in Burma.
Continued Risk of Genocide
August 25, 2021 marked the fourth anniversary of the Burmese military’s genocidal attacks on the Rohingya population. The anniversary was solemnly commemorated by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide with a virtual discussion about the continued challenges facing the Rohingya community. The event was preceded by a USHMM press statement: Rohingya Remain at Risk of Genocide on Fourth Anniversary of Military’s Attacks.
Critical Thinking Questions
- How might civilians 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?
Ibrahim, Azeem. The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide. London: Hurst, 2016.