In February 2017, the United Nations accused Myanmar security forces of engaging in crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in the Rakhine province. Myanmar is not a war zone. In fact, Myanmar is a newly established democracy as of 2015, and their de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is a nobel laureate. The population is majority Buddhist. However, the country struggles with nationalist attitudes, post-colonialist ethnic grudges, religious intolerance, and imperfect development that have been channeled into violence against a long persecuted minority population living along the Bangladeshi border.

Rohingya in Myanmar

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in Myanmar. They compose one third of the population of the Rakhine State and number 1.1 million in Myanmar. Despite their numbers, they hold limited rights within Myanmar with governmental restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religion, and freedom of movement. Officially, the Rohingya are not even citizens of Myanmar. According to Myanmar’s citizenship laws, only those of the recognized ethnicities living in Myanmar in 1948 qualify for citizenship. Although the Rohingya have lived in the country for generations, Myanmar regards the Rohingya as Bengali immigrants who settled in the country while it was under British colonial control.

In the 1990s, the Rohingya held temporary identification cards that allowed them limited rights in Myanmar. However, growing country-wide anti-muslim sentiment led to the abandonment of the program. The Buddhist majority in Rakhine believe the Rohingya, practicing Muslims, unfairly use Buddhist land and appropriate their rights. The tensions are only aggravated by the lack of development in Rakhine, where 78% of the population lives in poverty. At its worst, economic competition combined with ethnic and religious tensions between the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya escalated to violence by Buddhist nationalists in 2012.

The 2012 Attacks

The 2012 attacks were organized by political and religious leaders with the intent to drive the Rohingya from the Rakhine. Public statements by local leaders and pamphlets encouraged expulsion and extermination of the Rohingya. Local religious leaders and Buddhist monks supported the radical claims as mobs and various branches of security carried out indiscriminate attacks against the Rohingya then disposed of bodies in mass graves. Satellite images revealed 27 unique zones of destruction including 4,862 decimated mosques and homes over 348 acres of land. National Security forces were not directly involved but made no effort to prevent the violence.

Since 2012, nearly 120,000 Rohingya have been internally displaced. Legally, they are prohibited from from leaving internal displacement camps, and are provided limited healthcare, education, food, and livelihoods in the camps. Nearly 150,000 Rohingya were entirely dependent on humanitarian aid for basic services in 2015. However, local animosity and lack of government leadership often inhibited the delivery of aid and UN access.

October 2016 Crackdown

In 2016 there was a notable increase in violence against the Rohingya after a government crackdown in Rakhine. Myanmar officially claims that security operations in the Rakhine are anti-terrorism efforts against militant groups, following an attack against nine police officers on October 9th, 2016 carried out by militant members of Harakat Al-Yaqin, a Rohingya dominated organization. The attack prompted the government to tighten security forces in Rakhine, and enact a curfew. Myanmar then proceeded to suspend international aid and limit access by journalists and other non-national personnel in the area, specifically refusing UN access to the affected areas in Rakhine.

Investigations by the UN in Bangladesh found that security forces have engaged in a litany of human rights violations against the Rohingya population in Rakhine as a collective punishment for the October 9th attack. The violence by security forces actively violated several standards of the United Nations Genocide Convention. Government-authorized security forces claiming to be responding to insurgents devastated the area using excessive force in a systematic pattern of violence, consistent with ethnic cleansing. These actions included using random firing to kill victims while fleeing, physical assault, subjection to cruel or inhuman punishment, beating, and physiological torture. Military grade weapons were used to raze entire villages, mosques, food, and food sources, the results of which are visible through satellite imagery. Men between the ages of 17 and 45 and local leaders were arbitrarily detained or disappeared to unknown detention centers. Of 101 women interviewed by the UN, more than half were subjected to rape or sexual violence. The Rohingya were further denied medical treatment and access to markets and farmland after the attacks and many were externally and internally displaced.

The government of Myanmar denies the ethnic cleansing, human rights violations, and genocide. A state commission established to investigate the events in October 2016 concluded there was not enough evidence to convict. Furthermore, de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi claimed ethnic cleansing was too strong an expression for the events. An advisory committee to resolve ethnic violence was established, the findings of which have yet to be determined.

Rohingya Refugees

Even though Myanmar denies the UN accusations, neighboring countries have seen a notable increase in Rohingya fleeing Myanmar. In the last five years alone 168,000 Rohingya have fled their homes. Bangladesh, directly across the border from Rakhine, takes in the most refugees. Though Bangladesh officially stopped registering refugees in 1992, and their official policy prevents immigrants from even entering the country, they have relaxed restrictions, particularly for women and children. Prior to 2016, Bangladesh, directly across the border from Rakhine, housed 33,000 Rohingya refugees in two UNHCR camps, and several thousand others in makeshift villages. Since October, an estimated additional 66,000 Rohingya have crossed the border.  

Myanmar’s neighbors refuse to grant refugee status or provide humanitarian assistance to displaced Rohingya out of fear that their assistance would encourage more refugees to enter their country. Bangladesh has even been known to push Rohingya across the border or return them to Myanmar. Forcing refugees fleeing persecution back into harmful situations is in direct violation of non-refoulement principles established by UN to prevent persecuted individuals from suffering additional harm after fleeing the situation. Even when Bangladesh allowed some aid stations to be established, refugees fleeing deportation avoided the assistance for fear of persecution. Instead many choose to risk living in unofficial camps or local villages where they are at acute risk for starvation and exposed to unsanitary conditions and flooding during the rainy season. The nearly 112,500 displaced Rohingya who risked smugglers’ boats across the Bay of Bengal to Malaysia were often arrested due to efforts by Malaysia and Thailand to crack down on maritime smuggling. Even those who reached Malaysia often found themselves in detention centers without release or access to basic supplies.

Myanmar and Bangladesh recently stated they would be entering talks to create a plan for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh. However, Myanmar does not accept the Rohingya as actually being citizens of their country, and stated that they would only allow Myanmar nationals back into the country.

International Response

Invisible and without legal rights both at home and abroad, the Rohingya are slowly being forced to either live as illegal residents in deteriorating conditions or withstand deliberate abuse by their own government. Myanmar is potentially committing genocide and definitely engaging in human rights abuses and ethnic cleansing. Yet ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Myanmar’s closest regional organization, refuses to intervene. In accordance with their non-interference principles, neighboring countries have only expressed concern over the Rohingya. The United States only urged Myanmar to follow international law with no follow up. Even the UN launched a flash report condemning the actions of security forces that failed to prompt further action.  

Myanmar is a newly democratic country with a nobel laureate as their de facto leader. The US led the world in relaxing international sanctions on Myanmar in 2015 after democratic elections. While preventing genocide and condemning human rights abuses remain important, the world is more interested in stabilizing democracy in Myanmar, making sanctions unlikely. Yet international condemnation seems to have only slowed the process, not prevented further violence, especially under the guise of anti-terrorism efforts. Additionally, UNHCR simply does not have the resources to handle another major refugee crisis if the host countries are reluctant to even grant refugee status.

In the case of Myanmar, international actors must look beyond issuing sanctions and condemnations, especially if they hope to solve more than the violence against the Rohingya.

The situation combines policy concerns about refugees, development, ethnic divisions, postcolonial legacies, anti-terror actions, and ultra-nationalist policy in a new democracy. While the world cannot extinguish the hatred and rhetoric that allowed ethnic cleansing to occur, the tensions in the Rakhine can be alleviated by humanitarian assistance and diplomatic action that extend beyond the standard response of condemnation.  

Looking Beyond Sanctions

The Rakhine suffers limited development that aggravates tensions between the Buddhist and Rohingya population. While the hatred and anti-muslim sentiment may remain in the Buddhist population, the economic situation can be alleviated. The US and other actors should invest in developing the Rakhine province to create conditions for the Rohingya to develop a livelihood. Especially considering the aftermath of the October destruction, the Rohingya are economically vulnerable and reliant on aid. Humanitarian agencies assisting the population must aware that their assistance in the short term is vital, but the government of Myanmar was able to easily separate the Rohingya from aid sources in 2016. If conditions were better in Rakhine, and fewer Rohingya were dependent on aid, it is unlikely security forces would have been able to deprive the Rohingya of food sources so easily. Creating conditions that would allow the Rohingya to be self-sufficient can fortify the population against government abuse and alleviate tensions with the Buddhist populations.

In this situation, governments who participated in discrimination and destruction of property would typically develop a reparations system for the affected population. Myanmar is unlikely to be able to afford reparations for the Rohingya or pass the legislation in the current political atmosphere. Buddhist Nationals in Rakhine are already protesting the limited aid that the Rohingya have received. They are unlikely to allow their government to issue reparations. Global involvement may be more effective than challenging Myanmar to immediately develop a reparations system to assist the population.  

For international actors to provide development and humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya, Myanmar must allow international actors back into the Rakhine. ASEAN and actors like the United States in the short term must convince Myanmar to suspend military operations and open the area to the press. While ASEAN stands by principles of non-interference, the increasing presence of refugees and violence has already prompted several members to speak out. It is in their best interest and the international community’s to bring stability back into area, before violence further escalates or spreads.

Stabilization of the area may also need to include non-government security forces, or an assurance of protection for the Rohingya. Protests of aid and attacks by locals mean the Rohingya may not be entirely safe even with increased international assistance. Developing a system both agreeable to Myanmar and feasible for international actors will be a difficult process and likely to require more time to develop.

Ideally, Myanmar would open their borders to the press and suspend military personnel involved in the process of carrying out attacks in the Rakhine. However, that scenario is highly unlikely and few actors have the authority to force Myanmar to take those actions. Instead, Myanmar recently created a new council aimed at evaluating conditions in the Rakhine. The council should be urged by the United Nations and the the United States to allow an independent investigation overseen by the UN into the Rakhine to document and report on the incidents of 2016. The report can be used to evaluate future policy options for Myanmar and provide information for the UN. The council is already in place in Myanmar; it only requires that the Rakhine be opened to the independent investigation.

A Question of Citizenship

The fundamental struggle of the Rohingya is lack of citizenship. As undocumented immigrants in surrounding nations and supposed immigrants in their home country, they are assured no legal status or means to make a livelihood. They are not even ensured basic human rights or an avenue to petition the government. Myanmar is unlikely to alter their citizenship laws for the Rohingya. However, the US and other countries must assist Myanmar in finding a path to citizenship for the Rohingya to provide them with some legal protection and recognition. The situation of partial citizenship or ID cards is not ideal, but allowing the Rohingya a right to vote in elections and legal protections can alleviate some of the pressure the population faces and give them a route to potentially challenge government abuse.

Providing for Refugee Populations

Beyond Myanmar, Bangladesh and the surrounding states cannot forcibly repatriate Rohingya, especially those who have suffered trauma or lack a home to return to in Myanmar. ASEAN does not recognize the 1951 Convention on Refugees. The organization lacks a framework to handle large refugee population in member states. They have no way of sharing the burden, establishing refugee rights, or providing for refugees individually or as a group. Whereas organizations like the EU have protocols for refugees and the 1951 convention as guidance, allowing them to work cooperatively on refugee issues, ASEAN does not.

The US and the UNHCR must coordinate with countries like Bangladesh to  develop a framework to account for refugees. Unregistered Rohingya refugees must be registered for refugee status and granted humanitarian aid without fear for deportation. Otherwise, they risk suffering the same exploitation in their host country as they did in Myanmar. Additionally, the countries need a plan for the refugees returning home and those remaining in the host nation. ASEAN is unlikely to simply ratify the 1951 Convention, but another agreement with standards that still protect and provide for refugee populations is an agreeable approach.

The new plan of action for refugees should include participation by NGOs beyond the UNHCR in hopes that aid will not be limited by the UNHCR’s limitations and lack of funding during the ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East and Africa. Other NGOs may also be more comfortable dealing with local populations and continuing support for refugee populations into the near future.


Ultimately, US interference cannot solve the anti-muslim sentiment in Myanmar, force the country to provide citizenship, bring security forces to justice, return refugees home, or uphold a democracy. However, the world cannot tolerate another long standing refugee population or impoverished minority. The newly elected Government of Myanmar has only been in power since 2016, and while denial of the ethnic cleansing sets a dangerous precedent for how the new democracy will handle human rights abuses, international response to the issue and realistic help for Myanmar to prevent an escalating genocide is crucial.

Former US Ambassador the UN Samantha Power spoke of the Responsibility to Protect: the idea that protecting people against crimes against humanity overrides national interest and other policy objectives. The Trump Administration has not been outspoken about human rights around the world, and has been opposed to refugees in the US. However, the politics of an administration cannot override the responsibility of countries to react. If Myanmar is a warning about ultra-nationalist sentiment, or ethnic divides, the story should not be allowed to advance to a genocide without legitimate international action to the contrary. If development, legal process, international pressure, transparency, and humanitarian aid can save a group of people, does the US have an excuse to turn away in favor of our own national interests?

The header photo comes from the Telegraph.