Over the past many decades, the country of Myanmar, also known as Burma, has confronted no shortage of compelling human rights and humanitarian issues that have merited the deep concern of the international community. Fleeing past oppression, more than 100,000 refugees from Myanmar continue to live in Thailand, and another 100,000 are displaced within Myanmar’s Kachin and Shan states. A broad array of other pressing concerns remain within Myanmar, such as arrest and censoring of journalists, restrictions on religious freedom, and serious abuses, including war crimes, in the context of clashes in Kachin and Shan states, among other issues.
The focus of this policy brief, however, is the Myanmar government’s treatment of the minority Muslim Rohingya population. In short, the Government of Myanmar has created one of the most protracted and brutal displacement crises in the world as well as one of the world’s largest stateless populations. Over the past several decades, more than one million minority Muslim Rohingya have fled persecution in Myanmar, fleeing to Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other countries, while another million continue to live unrecognized as citizens and with heavily restricted rights in Myanmar, including 120,000 residing in squalid displacement camps.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that since 2012, more than 168,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar, mostly seeking protection in Bangladesh and Malaysia. The full extent of the long suffering of the Rohingya people in Myanmar captured the world’s attention – albeit only briefly – in early 2015, when thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants and asylum-seekers crammed into rickety boats and were abandoned at sea by smugglers. Mass graves of Rohingya refugees were subsequently discovered in Thailand and in Malaysia. And in late 2016, violence and persecution in Rakhine state caused large-scale flight of tens of thousands of Rohingya.
Ongoing restrictions of humanitarian aid have led to extreme food insecurity. Recent reports by the UN and independent human rights groups of arbitrary killings, mass rape, and wholesale destruction of villages prompted the UN Human Rights Council in March 2017 to call for an “independent international fact-finding mission” to “establish the facts and circumstances” of human rights abuses surrounding the Rohingya, but the Government of Myanmar has refused to permit a visit by members of the team appointed by the President of the UN Human Rights Council.
The humanitarian stakes are difficult to overestimate. As indicated in the February 2017 Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Flash Report after a mission to Bangladesh to interview Rohingya, attacks against the Rohingya “have been widespread and systematic, indicating the very likely commission of crimes against humanity.” The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Early Warning Project, citing treatment of the Rohingya, continues to place Myanmar among the countries at greatest risk of state-led mass killings.