Burnt down houses in northern Rakhine State, September 2017
|Date||25 August 2017– present|
|Location||Northern Rakhine State, Myanmar|
|Type||Genocide, ethnic and religious persecution|
|Theme||Military crackdown by Myanmar's army and police on Rohingya Muslims|
|Publication bans||Media access in northern Rakhine State heavily restricted by the Myanmar government.|
The 2017 Rohingya persecution in Myanmar began on 25 August of that year when the Myanmar military forces and local Buddhist extremists started attacking the Rohingya people and committing atrocities against them in the country's north-west Rakhine state. The atrocities included attacks on Rohingya people and locations, looting and burning down Rohingya villages, mass killing of Rohingya civilians, gang rapes, and other sexual violence.
Using statistical extrapolations (based on six pooled surveys conducted with a total of 2,434 Rohingya refugee households in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh,) Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) estimated in December 2017 that during the persecution, the military and the local Buddhists killed at least 10,000 Rohingya people. At least 392 Rohingya villages in Rakhine state were reported as burned down and destroyed, as well as the looting of many Rohingya houses, and widespread gang rapes and other forms of sexual violence against the Rohingya Muslim women and girls. The military drive also displaced a large number of Rohingya people and made them refugees. According to the United Nations reports, as of September 2018[update], over 700,000 Rohingya people had fled or had been driven out of Rakhine state who then took shelter in the neighboring Bangladesh as refugees. In December 2017, two Reuters journalists who had been covering the Inn Din massacre event were arrested and imprisoned. Foreign Secretary Myint Thu told reporters Myanmar is prepared to accept 2,000 Rohingya refugees from camps in Bangladesh in November 2018.
The 2017 persecution against the Rohingya Muslims and non-Muslims has been termed as ethnic cleansing and genocide by various United Nations agencies, International Criminal Court officials, human rights groups, and governments. British Prime Minister Theresa May and United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called it "ethnic cleansing" while the French President Emanuel Macron described the situation as "genocide". The United Nations described the persecution as "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing". In late September that year, a seven-member panel of the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal found the Myanmar military and the Myanmar authority guilty of the crime of genocide against the Rohingya and the Kachin minority groups. The Myanmar leader and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi was again criticized for her silence over the issue and for supporting the military actions. Subsequently, in November 2017, the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a deal to facilitate the return of Rohingya refugees to their native Rakhine state within two months, drawing a mixed response from international onlookers.
In August 2018, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, reporting the findings of their investigation into the August–September 2017 events, declared that the Myanmar military—the Tatmadaw, and several of its commanders (including Commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing)—should face charges in the International Criminal Court for "crimes against humanity", including acts of "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide," particularly for the August–September 2017 attacks on the Rohingya. On 24 September 2018, Jeremy Hunt, the British Foreign Secretary, held a meeting with some other foreign ministers on the sideline of the United Nations General Assembly to discuss the crisis in Rohingya.
As early as 2015, the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School found "strong evidence that genocide is being committed against Rohingya." After eight months of analyzing whether the persecution of the Rohingya in Rakhine State satisfy the criteria for genocide, the study found that Burmese government with the help of extremist Buddhist monks were responsible for ethnic cleansing and genocide against the Rohingya.
The government announced on 25 August 2017 that 71 people (one soldier, one immigration officer, 10 policemen and 59 insurgents) had been killed overnight during coordinated attacks by up to 150 insurgents on 24 police posts and the 552nd Light Infantry Battalion army base in Rakhine State. The Myanmar Army stated that the attack began at around 1:00 AM, when insurgents armed with bombs, small arms weapons and machetes blew up a bridge. The army further stated that a majority of the attacks occurred around 3:00 AM to 4:00 AM. The ARSA claimed they were taking "defensive actions" in 25 different locations and accused government soldiers of raping and killing civilians. The group also claimed that Rathedaung had been under a blockade for more than two weeks, starving the Rohingya, and that the government forces were preparing to do the same in Maungdaw. According to Yanghee Lee, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Myanmar, at least 1,000 people had been killed in the violence since 25 August. She added that the figure is "very likely an underestimate". She also downplayed the chance that Myanmar generals will ever see the inside of the International Criminal Court due to ''powerful international defenders.''
Soon after the attack on security forces, the Myanmar military responded with "heavy counter-offensive", and supported by Buddhist militia, started "clearance operations" against the Rohingya people. In the first week, at least 130 Rohingya people were killed. To save lives, the Rohingya people started fleeing Myanmar in large numbers, and tried to take shelter in the neighboring Bangladesh. The Myanmar military often opened fire with mortar shells and machine-guns on the fleeing Rohingya women and children, and dead bodies of many Rohingya people began to be washed ashore from the drowned boats as they attempted to cross the Naf River to enter Bangladesh. By the second week, at least 1000 Rohingya were killed. During the military operations, the Myanmar military burnt down and destroyed hundreds of Rohingya villages, killed thousands of Rohingya civilians, raped and sexually abused Rohingya women, and committed other crimes against humanity.
In August 2017, A Rohingya armed group brandishing guns and swords potentially massacred up to 99 Hindu women, men, and children and perpetrated unlawful killings and abductions of Hindu villagers.
In December 2017, Médecins Sans Frontières estimated that more than 10,000 Rohingya people were killed by the Myanmar military since the "clearance operations" started on 25 August 2017. Earlier, it was also reported that at least 6,700 to 7,000 Rohingya people including 730 children were killed in the first month alone since the crackdown started. The majority of them died from gunshot while others were burned to death in their homes. The sources described their killings as "violent deaths". There were also reports of mass killings of Rohingyas by the military and Buddhist vigilantes in Chut Pyin village near Rathedaung. Lewa stated that they had received reports of 130 being killed in the village. On September 7, 2017, The Guardian reported a mass killing of Rohingyas at the Tula Toli village, referred as Tula Toli Massacre. According to AP reporting, evidence has been uncovered of likely mass graves which includes time stamped mobile phone metadata indicating an August 27 date.
In February 2018, news agency Reuters uncovered a massacre event that took place in the Rakhine state's Inn Din village on 2 September 2017. It is known as Inn Din massacre. Ten Rohingya men, who were captured from the Rohingya villagers of Inn Din, were massacred by the members of Myanmar army and the Buddhist villagers who formed an "informal militia" to attack the Rohingya villages. The victims were taken from the hundreds of Rohingya villagers who gathered near a beach to seek safety. Reuters was able to identify all the ten victims: five of the men were fishermen, two were shopkeepers, one was an Islamic teacher, and the last two were high school students.
In September 2018, the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar released a report stating that at least 392 Rohingya villages in Rakhine state had been razed to the ground since 25 August 2017. Earlier, Human Rights Watch in December 2017 said it had found that 354 Rohingya villages in Rakhine state were burnt down and destroyed by the Myanmar military. These destructions included thousands of structures, mainly homes used by the Rohingya Muslims. Chris Lewa, director of The Arakan Project, has blamed the security forces of burning village after village in a systematic way while also blaming Rohingya arsonists of burning the Buddhist village of Pyu Ma. A video provided to ABC News by a human rights monitor purportedly shows the village burning and in another clip of freshly dug earth mound, allegedly graves of those killed.
Before the Inn Din massacre in early September 2017, members of Myanmar military and the Buddhist villagers of Inn Din looted the Rohingya hamlets in the Inn Din village and then burned down the Rohingya houses. Several Buddhist villagers later confessed to Reuters that they set fire to the Rohingya houses with kerosene, and also took part in the massacre on 2 September. The 33rd Light Infantry Division of Myanmar Army, the 8th Security Police Battalion, and the Buddhist villagers took part in the looting which included Rohingya property, goats, cows, cattle, and motorcycles. Thant Zin Oo, the commander of the 8th Battalion, later sold the cows and the cattle in exchange for money.
In November 2017, both the UN officials and the Human Rights Watch reported that the Armed Forces of Myanmar were committing widespread gang rapes and other forms of sexual violence against the Rohingya Muslim women and girls for the last three months. Alongside the Armed Forces, the Myanmar Border Guard Police and Buddhist militias of Rakhine were also involved in these atrocities. HRW stated that these gang rapes and sexual violence were committed as part of the military's ethnic cleansing campaign while the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten stated that the Rohingya women and girls were made the "systematic" target of rapes and sexual violence because of their ethnic identity and religion. Other forms of sexual violence included sexual slavery in military captivity, forced public nudity, and humiliation. Some women and girls were raped to death while others were found carrying raw wounds and being traumatized after they had arrived in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch reported of a 15-year-old girl who was ruthlessly dragged on the ground for over 50 feet and then was raped by 10 Myanmar soldiers.
In February, it was reported that the Myanmar authority was bulldozing and flattening the burnt Rohingya villages and mass graves in order to destroy the evidence of atrocities committed by the Myanmar military. These villages had been inhabited by the Rohingya people before they were burnt down by the Myanmar military during the 2017 crackdown. Some intact villages which had been emptied of their Rohingya inhabitants because of the military crackdown were also bulldozed.
Since the 25 August incident, Myanmar has blocked media access and the visits of international bodies to the Rakhine state. Near Rangoon on 12 December 2017, two Reuters journalists who had been covering the refugee story were charged and imprisoned by the police for violating a 1923 colonial law related to secrecy. On 1 February 2018, a Myanmar court denied bail for the two Reuters journalists. Upon this, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed his concern and called for the release of the two journalists.
According to the Mission report of OHCHR (released on 11 October 2017 by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights), the Myanmar military in early August 2017 began a "systematic" process of driving hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar. The report noted that "prior to the incidents and crackdown of 25 August, a strategy was pursued to:
Since 25 August 2017, a large number of Rohingya people was displaced and became refugees as a result of the military crackdown. According to the United Nations reports, as of January 2018[update], nearly 690,000 Rohingya people had fled or had been driven out of Rakhine state who then took shelter in the neighboring Bangladesh as refugees. Earlier, it was estimated that around 650,000 Rohingya Muslims had fled Myanmar, as of November 2017[update]. In November 2017, the government of Bangladesh signed a pact with their Myanmar counterparts to return the Rohingya refugees to their homes in the Rakhine territory. The deal arose following a diplomatic meeting on the matter between Aung San Suu Kyi and Abul Hassan Mahmud Ali, the foreign minister of Bangladesh. The accord was viewed by international commentators as a conscious effort by the Myanmar leader to address criticism over her lack of action in the conflict. This decision, coming after both the United Nations and Rex Tillerson, US Secretary of State, declared that the actions undertaken by the Burmese army against the Rohingya refugees constituted ethnic cleansing, was met with hesitation and criticism by aid groups. In August 2017, Thailand announced that it was 'preparing to receive' Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar. In September 2017, Nepal increased surveillance at its border with India to prevent more Rohingya refugees from entering the country. A small community of Rohingya refugees live in the capital, Kathmandu.
The 2017 persecution against the Rohingya people garnered strong criticism from all across the world, and created grave concern about the human rights issues. International communities and human rights officials have described the violence as ethnic cleansing and genocide. Soon after the security forces and Buddhist militia started "clearance operations", the world leaders warned the Myanmar authority to avoid civilian casualties. In late September, a seven-member panel of the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal accused Myanmar of conducting genocide against the Rohingya and the Kachin minority groups. The verdict came after a five-day trial, held at the law faculty of the University of Malaya, which examined various documentaries, expert views, and the testimony of the victims of atrocities. The tribunal also made 17 recommendations including demilitarization of the Rakhine state and the end of the discriminatory citizenship law. The United Nations' human rights chief Zeid bin Ra'ad described the persecution as "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing". Later, on 5 December 2017, he announced that the Rohingya persecution may constitute genocide under international human rights laws. In November, British prime minister Theresa May and United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described the situation as "ethnic cleansing" while the French President Emanuel Macron called it genocide.
After a two-year investigation into the plight of the Rohingya ethnic minority, the human rights group Amnesty International in their report described the restricted situation of the Rohingya people as "an open-air prison" as they are under a "vicious system of institutionalised discrimination and segregation" which is limiting their human rights, their freedom of movement, and their access to food, healthcare, and education. In the report, Amnesty International mentions that the Rohingya minority are confined to their villages, to townships, and to shabby camps which are cut off from the rest of Myanmar, and travel between their own villages is seriously restricted. Travel between townships is subject to a complicated process of obtaining permission, and even then those permitted to travel are routinely harassed, physically tortured or arrested. All these "systematic" discrimination and persecution amount to apartheid, the rights group said.
As in the 2016 incident of Rohingya persecution, the Myanmar leader and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi was again criticized her silence over the issue and for supporting the military actions. She has been stripped of her 1997 Freedom of Oxford award over "inaction" in handling the raging violence. Others argue that since the military retains significant autonomy and power in the government, she may be powerless to control them. Her inaction, on behalf of the Rohingya, brought a plea for action from fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai. Numerous people have called for Suu Kyi's Nobel Prize to be revoked. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu also criticized Suu Kyi's stand to defend the military actions. The Economist criticised Suu Kyi's stance, arguing: "the violence in Rakhine has reached such an unconscionable level that there can be no justifying continued passivity."
Direct sanctions against the Myanmar military and penalties for firms that do business with companies linked to it, as were in place by America and other countries in the past, have been suggested as the best response to the violence. According to The Economist, "The Burmese army is not easy to influence, but economic and diplomatic isolation do seem to have played a part in persuading it to surrender power in the first place."
At the Vatican, Sunday, August 26, 2017, Pope Francis referred to "sad news about the persecution of the religious minority of our Rohingya brothers," adding that he was praying that they would receive "full rights". The pope undertook a diplomatic visit to the afflicted area in late November 2017, demanding that the international community "take decisive measures to address this grave crisis."
Protests erupted against the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta, with a petrol bomb being thrown towards it. Indonesian president Joko Widodo sent foreign minister Retno Marsudi for "intensive communications" in September 2017, mentioning that concrete actions are required. Aid in form of tents, basic food and sanitation supplies were dispatched to refugee camps in Bangladesh through four Indonesian Air Force Lockheed C-130 Hercules.
China's commercial and strategic involvement with the Myanmar government have complicated its role in the 2017 events. As part of its "One Belt, One Road" program of regional expansion, China has made heavy investments in Rakhine state—including development of China's strategically and economically critical first-ever seaport on the Indian Ocean, in the predominantly-Rohingya coastal Rakhine township of Maungdaw—providing a much-shorter route to the sea for land-locked Central and Western China. China also has indicated intentions to "develop" Rakhine state commercially in other ways. With China's engagement in Rakhine state requiring cooperation with the Myanmar military and government, China has used its veto power in the U.N. Security Council to protect them from any forceful U.N. action over the Rohingya issue—and has argued that the "solution" to the Rohingya crisis is, instead, more "development" in Rakhine state.
On 17 November 2017, China announced that it is sending its Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Myanmar and Bangladesh in a bid to shore up Beijing's influence in the region and mediate in the deepening Rohingya refugee crisis .
On September 12, 2018, the OHCHR Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar published its report to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Following 875 interviews with victims and eyewitnesses since 2011, it concluded that "the (Myanmar) military has consistently failed to respect international human rights law and the international humanitarian law principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution." Even before the most recent incident of mass Rohingya displacement began in 2011, the report found that the restrictions on travel, birth registration, and education resulting from Rohingya statelessness violated Rohingya human rights. During the mass displacement of almost 725,000 Rohingya by August 2018 to neighboring Bangladesh, as a result of persecution by the Tatmadaw, the report recorded "gross human rights violations and abuses" such as mass rape, murder, torture, and imprisonment. It also accused the Tatmadaw of crimes against humanity, genocide, and ethnic cleansing.
All NGOs and humanitarian agencies, including UN agencies, are bound by the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence. As the 2018 Independent Fact-Finding Mission Report highlighted, UN agencies have been aware of Rohingya persecution for almost three decades, with five consecutive Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Myanmar having been appointed since 1992. However, the Independent Fact-Finding Mission Report noted: "While Myanmar was repeatedly identified as a crisis situation requiring a human rights-driven response by the "whole of the United Nations", this approach was rarely, if ever, taken. Rather, many United Nations agencies have continued to prioritize development goals, humanitarian access and quiet diplomacy. That approach has demonstrably failed; and the United Nations as a whole has failed adequately to address human rights concerns in Myanmar. Even now, the approach taken displays few signs of any lessons learned, with human rights missing from agreements recently signed with the Government."
The UN's continued attempts to cooperate with the Myanmar Government, despite the Government's unwillingness to acknowledge or address the Tatmadaw's persecution of the Rohingya, has allowed the humanitarian crisis to worsen. Although this approach complies with the common interpretation of other humanitarian principles, such as neutrality and impartiality, it neglects the core humanitarian principle of humanity. For example, a suppressed internal UN report heavily criticized the UN Country Team for ineffectively focusing on development and investment rather than on addressing the root causes of the persecution. Moreover, a September 2017 BBC investigation reported that, in attempt to attract investment into Myanmar, UN officials prevented human rights activists traveling to Rohingya areas, attempted to shut down public advocacy on the subject, and isolated staff that warned of ethnic cleansing. Despite these criticisms of the UN's approach, in June 2018 the UNDP and UNCHR entered a MoU with Myanmar Government providing for the reparation of Rohingya to Myanmar. On November 13, 2018, the plan to repatriate an initial 2,200 Rohingya was abandoned due to protests by Rohingya refugees.
In December 2017, a coalition of 69 human rights non-governmental organizations, including Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch, called upon the UN Security Council to take "immediate action" in response to the humanitarian crisis by exploring "all avenues for justice and accountability, including through international courts." The coalition also called for arms embargoes and targeted sanctions.
The distinct OHCHR-appointed Independent Fact-Finding Mission 2018 Report similarly recommended that the UN Security Council issues a Chapter VII referral to the International Criminal Court, or, in the alternative, establishes an ad hoc international criminal tribunal. They also recommended: "enhanced monitoring, documentation, analysis and public reporting on the situation of human rights", the allocation of appropriate resources, repatriation "only when safe, voluntary and dignified with explicit human rights protections in place", termination of operational support for Tatmadaw until genuine commitment to reform and cooperation is secured, and the establishment of a trust fund for victims.
Most recently, the Washington-based Public International Law & Policy Group concluded in their December 2018 report, based on more than 1,000 interviews with Rohingya refugees, that there are "reasonable grounds" to believe that crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide have been committed by the Tatmadaw against the Rohingya population. In turn, they recommended "that a criminal tribunal should be established or granted jurisdiction to further investigate international crimes committed in Rakhine State and prosecute those responsible" and "the urgent establishment of an accountability mechanism or an immediate referral of the situation to the ICC."
The ASEAN member states have upheld a principle of non-interference in intra-ASEAN relations. A day before the 30th ASEAN Summit was held on April 26, 2017, Reuters reported on the Myanmar military's operations on the Rohingya in November 2016. Nonetheless, the Rohingya crisis was not on the official agenda in the Summit.
However, leaders of ASEAN countries have begun concerns on the issue. In a meeting with other ASEAN foreign ministers on December 19, 2016, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman called for a collective effort to resolve the crisis. In addition, in the 30th ASEAN Summit, Indonesian President Joko Widodo discussed the issue of the Rohingya crisis with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanma de facto leader. He was said to stress the importance of stability in Myanmar for the wider regional security.
The ASEAN states' hesitance to comment on the issue may be explained by a concern that the rise of China and its influence in Myanmar could risk ASEAN's interest in the country. Azeem Ibrahim, the author of The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar's Hidden Genocide, noted, "Myanmar's interactions with ASEAN are perhaps indicative of its wider approach to international relations." While ASEAN member states welcome economic opportunities with China's rise, they fear its growing influence. It has been suggested that ASEAN criticism of Myanmar's domestic crisis will lead to closer ties between China and Myanmar.
According to Matthew Smith of the NGO Fortify Rights, "We can now say with a high level of confidence that state-led security forces and local armed residents have committed mass killings." Smith accused the Burmese military of trying to expel all Rohingyas from the country.
Muslim protests were held in various capital cities in Asian countries in late November 2016. Protests were held on September 8, 2017 across Asia in Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Pakistan in solidarity of the Rohingya people. Protests were also held by Rohingya people in Melbourne, Australia in early September 2017. Additional protests were held in the same month in Washington DC in the United States, Cape Town in South Africa, and Jammu and Kashmir in India. A protest was also planned in Hong Kong.