Persecution of the Rohingya in Burma/Myanmar and the Responsibility to Protect
After more than fifty years of military rule, in 2011 Burma/Myanmar embarked upon a historic transition with the new civilian government, led by President Thein Sein, undertaking a series of significant political and economic reforms. Since then, Burma/Myanmar has been lauded by the international community for its attempt to end gross human rights abuses and establish a more tolerant and peaceful society.
However, Burma/Myanmar’s democratic transition has also caused insecurity. Although the government has permitted greater freedom of expression and allowed for political debate, Buddhist chauvinists have also been able to exploit this newly-opened democratic space. In particular, long-standing discrimination against Rohingya Muslims has fuelled prejudice and incitement against them.
During June and October 2012 inter-communal violence in the country’s western Arakan/Rakhine state left at least 200 people dead and 120,000 displaced, most of whom were ethnic Rohingyas. Largely unchecked by the government, anti-Rohingya sentiments continued to spread, and violence affected the broader Muslim community. Following deadly clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Meikhtila during March 2013, antiMuslim rhetoric and sporadic attacks have persisted.
Today nearly 140,000 people remain segregated in squalid internally displaced person (IDP) camps, where the government has been accused of blocking access to healthcare and other vital assistance.
While the government has continued to insist that it seeks reconciliation between all the country’s ethnic communities, it has undertaken several measures that have systematized the persecution, segregation and disenfranchisement of Rohingyas. During 2014 the human rights situation for the Rohingya dramatically worsened. The then-UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, remarked in April that recent developments marked “the latest in a long history of discrimination and persecution against the Rohingya community which could amount to crimes against humanity.”
The government of Burma/Myanmar bears the primary Responsibility to Protect all populations within its borders, regardless of ethnicity or religion, from mass atrocity crimes. Yet, it is failing in this responsibility.
Despite an enduring risk of mass atrocities, the international community has continued to praise the progress made by President Thein Sein’s administration, rewarding the government with renewed diplomatic engagement and direct foreign investment, as well as by lifting decades-long bilateral sanctions. Unless the international community presses the government to take meaningful remedial action, enduring ethnic conflicts and persecution will continue to endanger vulnerable populations and imperil the country’s stability.