Rohingya persecution in Myanmar (2016–present)

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2016–17 Rohingya persecution in Myanmar
File:Rakhine State in Myanmar.jpg
Location of Rakhine State in Myanmar
Date 9 October 2016 (2016-10-09) – present
Location Rakhine State, Myanmar
Theme Military crackdown by army and police on Rohingya Muslims
  • Wide-scale human rights violations at the hands of security forces and local Buddhist militants
  • Historical mistreatment of the Rohingya by the government and Buddhist population
Deaths 2,000+[1][2]
Publication bans Media access in northern Rakhine State heavily restricted by the Burmese government.

The 2016–17 Rohingya persecution in Myanmar refers to the ongoing military crackdown by Myanmar Army and police on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State in the country's northwestern region. The crackdown was in response to attacks on Burmese border posts in October 2016 by Rohingya insurgents. The Burmese army have been accused of wide-scale human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, gang rapes, arson and infanticides, claims which the Burmese government dismisses as "exaggerations".[3][4]

The military crackdown on the Rohingya people has drawn criticism from the United Nations (which cited possible "crimes against humanity"), the human rights group Amnesty International, the U.S. Department of State, the government of neighboring Bangladesh, and the government of Malaysia (where many Rohingya refugees have fled to). The de facto head of government of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, has particularly been criticized for her inaction and silence over the issue and for doing little to prevent military abuses, although actions from her government towards the military may resume longtime tensions between the Burmese Military and Suu Kyi.


Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist (88%–90% of the population), with small minorities of other faiths, including a small minority of Muslims (4%), most of whom are forbidden to vote and denied citizenship (with the exception of the Kamans).[5] The nation is dominated by its ethnic Bamar (or Burman) majority (68%), most of whom are Buddhist.[6][7] Several other ethnic groups suffer discrimination, abuse and neglect by the government; in the western coastal province of Rakhine State, it is the predominantly Buddhist Rakhine (4%, about 2 million people) and the predominantly Muslim Rohingya (2%, about 1 million people) that have suffered at the hands of the government. Tensions between Buddhist and Muslim communities have also led to violence, with nationalist Buddhists often targeting Rohingyas.[8] The Rohingya are a distinct ethnicity with their own language and culture, but claim a long historical connection to Rakhine State.[6][7]

The Rohingya people have been described as "amongst the world's least wanted"[9] and "one of the world's most persecuted minorities."[10] The Rohingya are deprived of the right to free movement and of higher education.[11] They have been denied Burmese citizenship since the Burmese nationality law was enacted.[5] They are not allowed to travel without official permission and were previously required to sign a commitment not to have more than two children, though the law was not strictly enforced. They are subjected to routine forced labour where typically a Rohingya man will have to give up one day a week to work on military or government projects and one night for sentry duty. The Rohingya have also lost a lot of arable land, which has been confiscated by the military to give to Buddhist settlers from elsewhere in Myanmar.[12][5]

The Rohingya describe themselves as descendants of Arab traders who settled in the region many generations ago.[13] Scholars have stated that they have been present in the region since the 15th century.[14] However, they have been denied citizenship by the government of Myanmar, which describes them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.[13]

In modern times, persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar dates back to the 1970s.[15] Since then, Rohingya people have regularly been made the target of persecution by the government and nationalist Buddhists.[8] The tension between the various religious groups in the country was often exploited by the past military rulers of Myanmar.[13] According to Amnesty International, the Rohingya have suffered from human rights violations under past military dictatorships since 1978, and many have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh as a result.[16] In 2005, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had assisted with the repatriation of Rohingyas from Bangladesh, but allegations of human rights abuses in the refugee camps threatened this effort.[17] In 2015, 140,000 Rohingyas remain in IDP camps after communal riots in 2012.[18]

Before the most recent violence, in its 17 March 2016 Atrocities Prevention Report,[19] the U.S. Department of State summarized:

Attacks by Rohingya insurgents

According to Myanmar state reports, on 9 October 2016, armed individuals attacked several border police posts in Rakhine State, leaving nine police personnel dead.[20] Weapons and ammunitions were also looted. The attack took place mainly in Maungdaw Township.[21] A newly formed insurgent group, Harakah al-Yaqin, claimed responsibility a week later.[22] [23][24]

Clashes between insurgents and the military continued in 2017.[23][24]

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.[25][26][27] The Myanmar Army stated that the attack began at around 1:00 AM, when insurgents armed with bombs, light 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.[28] 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.[29] 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".[30]


Following the border police incidents, the Myanmar army began a major crackdown in the villages of northern Rakhine state. In the initial operation, dozens of people were killed and many were arrested.[31] As the crackdown continued, the casualties increased. Arbitrary arrest, extrajudicial killings, gang rapes, brutalities against civilians, and looting were reportedly carried out.[32][33][34] According to media reports, hundreds of Rohingya people had been killed by December 2016, and many had fled Myanmar as refugees to take shelter in the nearby areas of Bangladesh.[35][8][36][37][31]

In late November, Human Rights Watch released satellite images which showed that approximately 1,250 Rohingya houses in five villages had been burned down by the security forces.[37][33] The media and the human rights groups frequently reported intense human rights violations by the Myanmar military.[31][33] During one incident in November, the Myanmar military allegedly used helicopters to shoot and kill the villagers after some villagers joined the insurgents in an ambush which killed a senior army officer. The army confirmed that two helicopters mounted with guns dispersed the crowd but denied they shot at civilians.[8][32][36][38] As of November 2016, Myanmar had yet to allow the media and human rights groups to enter the persecuted areas.[8] Consequently, the exact figures of civilian casualties remained unknown. The Rakhine State was termed an "information black hole".[33]

Those who fled Myanmar to escape persecution reported that women had been gang raped, men killed, houses torched, and young children thrown into burning houses.[39][40][41] The boats carrying Rohingya refugees on Naf River were often gunned down by the Myanmar army.[42]

On 3 February 2017, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report based on interviews with more than 200 Rohingya refugees, which said that the abuses included gang-rape, mass killing, and killing children.[43][44][45] Nearly half of the interviewees stated that family members of theirs had been killed.[43] Half of the women interviewed stated that they had been raped or sexually assaulted: the report described the sexual violence as "massive and systematic".[44] The army and police were stated to have burned "homes, schools, markets, shops, and mosques" belonging to or used by the Rohingya people.[43][46][47]

In March 2017, a police document obtained by Reuters listed 423 Rohingyas detained by the police since 9 October 2016, 13 of whom were children, the youngest being ten years old. Two police captains in Maungdaw verified the document and justified the arrests, with one of them saying, "We the police have to arrest those who collaborated with the attackers, children or not, but the court will decide if they are guilty; we are not the ones who decide." Myanmar police also claimed that the children had confessed to their alleged crimes during interrogations, and that they were not beaten or pressured during questioning. The average age of those detained is 34, the youngest is 10, and the oldest is 75.[48][49]

On August 25, 2017 Roginya militants attacked the government forces, and the government in response attacked the civil population, forcing dozens of thousands of Roginya to flee to Bangladesh.[50] Human Rights Watch in August 2017 said that satellite images showed widespread burning in 10 areas in northern Rakhine. While the causes of the fires could not be determined, the group said that it "compared the locations of these fires with witness statements it has collected and media reports, and found a correlation with some reported incidents where residences have allegedly been deliberately burned."[51] 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.[52] 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. 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.[53] The military's response has been to claim that the Rohingya are burning down their own villages.[54] This is something which the Rohingya have denied.[55]

Refugee crisis

File:Kutupalong Refugee Camp (John Owens-VOA).jpg
Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Bangladesh. (Photo taken in March 2017 by John Owens/VOA)

As a result of the the Autumn 2017 military "clearance operations" and reprisals, as of mid-September, 2017, about 400,000 mostly-Rohingya refugees (about a third of the Rohingya population) have fled, or been driven out of, Rakhine -- most fleeing to Bangladesh.

An estimated 92,000 Rohingya people had been displaced because of the violence by January 2017;[56] around 65,000 had fled from Myanmar into neighboring Bangladesh between October 2016 and January 2017,[57][58] while 23,000 others had been internally displaced.[56]

Tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingya have fled Myanmar, many crossing by land into Bangladesh, while others take to the sea to reach Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.[59]

In February 2017, the government of Bangladesh announced that it planned to relocate the new refugees and another 232,000 Rohingya refugees already in the country to Thengar Char, a sedimentary island in the Bay of Bengal.[57][60] The island first appeared around 2007, formed from washed down silt from the Meghna River.[57][60] The nearest inhabited land, Hatiya Island is around 30 km away.[57] News agencies quoted a regional official describing the plan as "terrible".[60] The move has received substantial opposition from a number of quarters. Human rights groups have described the plan as a forced relocation.[60][57] Additionally, concerns have been raised about the living conditions on the island, which is low-lying and prone to flooding.[60][57] The island has been described as "only accessible during winter and a haven for pirates".[60][43] It is nine hours away from the camps in which the Rohingya refugees currently live.[60][57]

On April 30, 2017, Sri Lanka intercepted and detained an India-origin boat of 32 Rohingya refugees off its northern coast after it entered Sri Lankan waters.[61][62]

In May 2017, Bangladesh detained 12 Rohingya people and 2 people smugglers who attempted to leave the country by boat for Malaysia.[63]

On August 14, 2017, India announced that it was to deport an estimated 40,000 Rohingya refugees including 14,000 of those registered with the U.N. refugee agency as well.[64] In the months leading up to the announcement, a string of anti-Rohingya protests had been held in the country.[65]

Related incidents

In January 2017, at least four police officers were detained by government authorities after a video emerged online of security forces beating Rohingya Muslims in November 2016. In the video, Rohingya men and boys were forced to sit in rows with their hands behind their head, while they were beaten with batons and kicked. This was the first incident in which the government punished its own security forces in the region since the beginning of the crackdown.[66][67]

On 21 January 2017, the bodies of three Rohingya men were found in shallow graves in Maungdaw. The men were locals who had worked closely with the local administration, and the government believes they were murdered by Rohingya insurgents in a reprisal attack.[68]

On 4 July 2017, a mob of at least a hundred Rakhine Buddhists in Sittwe attacked seven Rohingya men from Dapaing camp for internally displaced persons with bricks,[69] killing one and severely injuring another. The Rohingya men were being escorted by police to Sittwe's docks to purchase boats, but were attacked despite armed guards being present nearby.[70][71][72] According to a spokesman for the Burmese Ministry of Home Affairs, an unarmed junior policeman was with the Rohingya men at the time of the attack, but was unable to stop the attackers.[69] One man was arrested in relation to the attacks on 26 July 2017.[73]

International protests

International protests
Protest Rally Held in Tehran in Support of Muslims in Myanmar.
Protesters in Cape Town, South Africa calling for the protection of the Rohingya people.

Muslim protests were held in various capital cities in Asian countries in late November 2016.[74] Protests were held on September 8, 2017 across Asia in Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Pakistan in solidarity of the Rohingya people.[75] Protests were also held by Rohingya people in Melbourne, Australia in early September 2017.[76] Additional protests were held in the same month in Washington DC in the United States, Cape Town in South Africa,[77] and Jammu and Kashmir in India. A protest was also planned in Hong Kong.[78][79][80]


The military crackdown on Rohingya people drew criticism from various quarters. Human rights group Amnesty International and organizations such as the United Nations have labeled the military crackdown on the Rohingya minority as crimes against humanity and have said that the military had made the civilians a target of "a systematic campaign of violence".[36][81][82][13]


United States

The U.S. Department of State has also expressed concern about the violence in Rakhine State and the displacement of Rohingyas.[8]


In November 2016, Bangladesh summoned the Myanmar envoy in its country to express "tremendous concern" over the Rohingya persecution.[83]


In Rakhine State, with ongoing protests in the country. In a protest rally in early December, Malaysia's prime minister Najib Razak criticized the Myanmar authority for military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, and described the ongoing persecution as "genocide".[84][85] Earlier, terming the violence against Rohingya Muslim minority as "ethnic cleansing", Malaysia said 'the issue was of international concern'.[86] Malaysia also cancelled two football matches with Myanmar in protest of the crackdown.[87][35]

United Nations

In August 2016, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was invited to head a nine-member commission in addressing human rights violations in Rakhine.[88][13][89][90][91][92] After a week-long visit in the Rakhine state, expressed deep concern about reports of human rights violations in the area.[88]

In November 2016, a senior United Nations official, John McKissick, accused Myanmar of conducting ethnic cleansing in the Rakhine state to free it from the Muslim minority.[8][86] McKissick is the head of a UN refugee agency based in the Bangladeshi town Cox's Bazar.

In December 2016, the United Nations strongly criticized the Myanmar government for its poor treatment of the Rohingya people, and called its approach "callous".[41][93] The United Nations also called on Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor of Myanmar (de facto head of government) and a Nobel laureate, to take steps to stop violence against the Rohingyas.[34][40] In its report released in February 2017, the UN stated that the persecution of the Rohingya had included serious human rights violations. The UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Raad Al Hussein stated "The cruelty to which these Rohingya children have been subjected is unbearable – what kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother's milk?"[43][44] A spokesperson of the government stated that the allegations were very serious, and would be investigated.[43]

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized in particular for her silence and lack of action over the issue, as well as for failing to prevent human rights abuses by the military. Numerous people have called for her Nobel prize to be revoked.[31][8][13] She stated in response: "show me a country without human rights issues."[34]

In August 2017, Aung San Suu Kyi defended the government's actions, stating the government "...had already started defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible and expressed that there should be no misinformation to create trouble between the two countries."[94] She denied that the security services were systematically abusing the Rohingya, claiming instead that they are simply trying to hunt down organised and violent Rohingya militants.[95] Her response was later criticised by leaders such as Desmond Tutu.[96] 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."[95]

Myanmar military

On 23 May 2017, a report released by the military rejected the allegations made by the OHCHR in February, stating that, "Out of 18 accusations included in the OHCHR report, 12 were found to be incorrect, with the remaining six accusations found to be false and fabricated accusations based on lies and invented statements."[97]

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.[95] 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."[95]


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.[98]


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