Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are one of many ethnic minorities in Myanmar. Rohingya Muslims represent the largest percentage of Muslims in Myanmar, with the majority living in Rakhine state. They have their own language, culture, and history. Rohingya are believed to be descendants of labourers from Bangladesh and India, who migrated to the area when Myanmar was administered as a province of India- internal movement at the time. However, following independence from the British Crown, the Myanmar government viewed this migration as illegal. This was the beginning of the wedge that would come to divide the Rohingya Muslims from the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar state.


What is the Crisis?

In 2016, the persecution of Rohingya escalated. Myanmar Armed Forces, as well as the state police, started a major crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, in the northwestern region of Myanmar. The United Nations, The International Criminal Court, and Human Rights groups have accused the Myanmar armed forces of ethnic cleansing and genocide in the region. Myanmar’s military and government have vehemently denied genocide. They claim that the Rohingya, whom they regularly refer to as “illegal Bengali immigrants,” instigated the violence by attacking security forces and then burning their villages to the ground. The government, as led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has stated that the actions of the armed forces were an appropriate response to “terrorists.”

Following the release of a report into the atrocities in Rakhine state- including forced displacement of more than 700,000 Rohingya; mass rape; infanticides; arbitrary detention; murder- the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called the case a:

“ textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”


Further, the Independent Fact-finding Mission on Myanmar called for senior army officials to be investigated and prosecuted on charges of genocide. The investigation named six suspects, including Commander in Chief, Min Aung Hlaing. They concluded:


“The gross human rights violations committed . . . are shocking for their horrifying nature and ubiquity” and “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law.”


UN investigators were denied access to Myanmar by the government but managed to interview about 875 witnesses who had fled to nearby Bangladesh.


What is being done ?

The UN mission called for Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, to be investigated by the international criminal court (ICC). However, the country is not a signatory of the Rome Statute and therefore does not come under the jurisdiction of the court. ICC prosecutors are, therefore, deliberating whether they can investigate the violence in Rakhine. The UN report has also criticised Suu Kyi’s passive role since the crisis began and also calls for the imposition of an arms embargo.


What has the international community done ?

The UN Security Council has appealed to Myanmar to stop the violence but no sanctions have been imposed. The US has urged Myanmar’s troops to respect the rule of law and stop the violence. China has asked the international community to support the efforts of the government of Myanmar in handling the crisis. The UK has pledged £59m in aid to support the refugees and has also suspended training courses for the Myanmar army.



Image courtesy of Roger Arnold at UNHCR

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