2016 Rohingya persecution in Myanmar

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2016 Rohingya persecution in Myanmar
Rakhine State in Myanmar.jpg
Location of Rakhine State in Myanmar
Date 9 October 2016 (2016-10-09) – January 2017
Location Rakhine State, Myanmar
Type
Theme Military crackdown by Myanmar's armed forces and police on Rohingya Muslims
Cause
  • Attacks on Burmese border police posts by unidentified insurgents
  • Historical mistreatment of the Rohingya by the government
  • Existing tensions between Buddhist and Muslim communities
Outcome
  • Wide-scale human rights violations at the hands of security forces
  • Mass displacement of refugees
  • Forced relocations
Deaths 1,000+[1][2]
Publication bans Media access in northern Rakhine State heavily restricted by the Burmese government.

The 2016 Rohingya persecution in Myanmar occurred in late 2016 when Myanmar's armed forces and police started a major crackdown on Rohingya people in Rakhine State in the country's northwestern region. The Burmese military have been accused of ethnic cleansing and genocide by various United Nations agencies, International Criminal Court officials, human rights groups, journalists, and governments including the United States.[3][4][5][6][7][8] The United Nations[9][10][11] has found evidence of wide-scale human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, gang rapes, arson and infanticides, which the Burmese government dismisses as "exaggerations".[12][13]

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). The Myanmar leader and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has particularly been criticized for her inaction and silence over the issue and for doing little to prevent military abuses.

Background[edit]

The Rohingya people have been described as "amongst the world's least wanted"[attribution needed][14] and "one of the world's most persecuted minorities".[attribution needed][15] The Rohingya are deprived of the right to free movement and of higher education.[16] They have been denied Burmese citizenship since the Burmese nationality law was enacted.[17] 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 labor 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.[18][17]

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a country in Southeast Asia, bounded by the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh and India to the west, and China, Laos and Thailand to the east. Democracy only recently emerged in Myanmar by arrangement with the military, who permitted a free election on 8 November 2015, which elevated Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to power after years of house arrest.[19]

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). The nation is dominated by its ethnic Bamar (or Burman) majority (68%), most of whom are Buddhist.[20][19]

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.[21] The Rohingya are a distinct ethnicity with their own language and culture, but claim a long historical connection to Rakhine State.[20][19]

The Rohingya describe themselves as descendants of Arab traders who settled in the region many generations ago.[22] Scholars have stated that they have been present in the region since the 15th century.[23] However, they have been denied citizenship by the government of Myanmar, which describes them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.[22]

In modern times, persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar dates back to the 1970s.[24] Since then, Rohingya people have regularly been made the target of persecution by the government and nationalist Buddhists.[21] The tension between the various religious groups in the country was often exploited by the past military rulers of Myanmar.[22] According to Amnesty International, the Rohingya have suffered from human rights violations under past military dictatorships since 1978, and many have fled to neighboring Bangladesh as a result.[25] 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.[26] In 2015, 140,000 Rohingyas remain in IDP camps after communal riots in 2012.[27]

Before the most recent violence, in its 17 March 2016 Atrocities Prevention Report,[28] the U.S. Department of State summarized:

The situation in Rakhine State is grim, in part due to a mix of long-term historical tensions between the Rakhine and Rohingya communities, socio-political conflict, socio-economic underdevelopment, and a long-standing marginalization of both Rakhine and Rohingya by the Government of Burma. The World Bank estimates Rakhine State has the highest poverty rate in Burma (78 percent) and is the poorest state in the country. The lack of investment by the central government has resulted in poor infrastructure and inferior social services, while lack of rule of law has led to inadequate security conditions.[28]

Members of the Rohingya community in particular reportedly face abuses by the Government of Burma, including those involving torture, unlawful arrest and detention, restricted movement, restrictions on religious practice, and discrimination in employment and access to social services. In 2012, intercommunal conflict led to the death of nearly 200 Rohingya and the displacement of 140,000 people. Throughout 2013–2015 isolated incidents of violence against Rohingya individuals continued to take place.[28]

Initial border incidents[edit]

According to Myanmar state reports, on 9 October 2016, armed individuals attacked several border police posts in Rakhine State, leaving nine police personnel dead.[29] Weapons and ammunitions were also looted. The attack took place mainly in Maungdaw Township.[30] A newly formed insurgent group, Harakah al-Yaqin, claimed responsibility a week later.[31]

Crackdown[edit]

Following the police camp incidents, the Myanmar military began a major crackdown in the villages of northern Rakhine state. In the initial operation, dozens of people were killed and many were arrested.[32] As the crackdown continued, the casualties increased. Arbitrary arrest, extrajudicial killings, gang rapes, brutalities against civilians, and looting were carried out.[33][34][35] 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.[36][21][37][38][32]

In late November, Human Rights Watch released satellite images which showed that about 1,250 Rohingya houses in five villages had been burned down by the security forces.[38][34] The media and the human rights groups frequently reported intense human rights violations by the Myanmar military.[32][34] During one incident in November, the Myanmar military used helicopter gunships to shoot and kill the villagers.[21][33][37] As of November 2016, Myanmar had yet to allow the media and human rights groups to enter the persecuted areas.[21] Consequently, the exact figures of civilian casualties remained unknown. The Rakhine State was termed an "information black hole".[34]

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 military.[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]

Refugee crisis[edit]

Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. (Photo taken in March 2017 by John Owens/VOA)

An estimated 92,000 Rohingya people had been displaced because of the violence by January 2017;[50] around 65,000 had fled from Myanmar into neighboring Bangladesh between October 2016 and January 2017,[51][52] while 23,000 others had been internally displaced.[50]

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.[51][53] The island first appeared around 2007, formed from washed down silt from the Meghna River.[51][53] The nearest inhabited land, Hatiya island is around 30 km away.[51] News agencies quoted a regional official describing the plan as "terrible".[53] The move has received substantial opposition from a number of quarters. Human rights groups have described the plan as a forced relocation.[53][51] Additionally, concerns have been raised about the living conditions on the island, which is low-lying and prone to flooding.[53][51] The island has been described as "only accessible during winter and a haven for pirates".[53][43] It is nine hours away from the camps in which the Rohingya refugees currently live.[53][51]

On 30 April 2017 Sri Lanka intercepted and detained an India-origin boat of 32 Rohingya refugees off its northern coast after it entered Sri Lankan waters.[54][55]

In May 2017, Bangladesh detained 12 Rohingya people and 2 people smugglers who attempted to leave the country by boat for Malaysia.[56]

On 14 August 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. In the months leading up to the announcement, a string of anti-Rohingya protests had been held in the country.[57]

Related incidents[edit]

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.[58][59]

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.[60]

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,[61] 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.[62][63][64] 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.[61] One man was arrested in relation to the attacks on 26 July 2017.[65]

On 30 July 2017, packages of high energy biscuits aided from the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) were discovered in a terrorist hideout in the Mayu mountain range in Maungdaw Township. The Rakhine State Government and WFP investigated the discovery of the biscuits for whether it represented a misuse of food assistance.[66] On 31 July 2017, three decapitated bodies were found in Rathedaung Township. According to a government official, they were murdered by Rohingya insurgents.[67] On 3 August 2017, bodies of six ethnic Mro farmers, reportedly killed by Muslim militants were found in Maungdaw Township.[68][69]

Criticism[edit]

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".[37][70][71][22]

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.[32][21][22] She stated in response: "show me a country without human rights issues."[35] The former head of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, after a week-long visit in the Rakhine state, expressed deep concern about reports of human rights violations in the area.[72] He was leading a nine-member commission which was formed in August 2016 to look into and make recommendations on improving the situation in the state.[72][22]

The U.S. Department of State has also expressed concern about the violence in Rakhine State and the displacement of Rohingyas.[21] The government of Malaysia has condemned the crackdown 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".[73][74] Earlier, terming the violence against Rohingya Muslim minority as "ethnic cleansing", Malaysia stated the situation was of international concern.[75] Malaysia also cancelled two football matches with Myanmar in protest of the crackdown.[76][36]

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.[21][75] McKissick is the head of a UN refugee agency based in the Bangladeshi town Cox's Bazar. Later that month, Bangladesh summoned the Myanmar envoy in its country to express "tremendous concern" over the Rohingya persecution.[77]

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][78] 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.[35][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]

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."[79]

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