In a statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned what he called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim population. The U.N. now estimates that over 370,000 Rohingya have fled the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State since August 25, when attacks by militants against thirty police posts led to the current operation against the minority Muslim group by government forces. Humanitarian groups and news agencies report that these forces have burned villages and conducted extrajudicial killings, including the shooting of fleeing civilians. In addition, the Myanmar military has allegedly planted antipersonnel landmines, which are banned under international law, along its border with Bangladesh in what apparently amounts to a deliberate targeting of Rohingya refugees.
The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, described the response of government forces as “clearly disproportionate and without regard for basic principles of international law.” He warned that the systematic attacks on the Rohingya population potentially amount to crimes against humanity and urged the Myanmar government to grant unfettered access to U.N. investigators. Human Rights Watch also called on the U.N. and other multilateral organizations to press the Burmese authorities to allow humanitarian aid, most of which has been suspended in Rakhine State, to reach Rohingya Muslims. This was echoed by Amnesty International, who have called for access for the U.N. to investigate the “widespread and systematic violations” that have taken place in the country.
The revelation by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights that actions against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims likely amount to ethnic cleansing demands a swift international response. It is vital that the U.N. and humanitarian organizations are granted access to investigate reported atrocities and provide assistance to the hundreds of thousands of refugees. The government of Myanmar should also cease the forcible and violent relocation of these peoples and move towards a long-term solution in dealing with the crisis. A well-elaborated policy program that ensures the protection of all religions is necessary, coupled with concrete plans for economic and social development across the nation that can serve to renew popular confidence in the ability of the state to look after their interests.
Furthermore, the Rohingya Muslim population in Buddhist-majority Myanmar have long been targeted by religious nationalists who fear the decline of Buddhism in the nation. Many Buddhist nationalist organizations, such as the Association for Protection of Race and Religion (known locally as MaBaTha), enjoy widespread grassroots-level support, not only for their avowed desire to promote Buddhist values and culture, but also through a range of social and educational programs. The basic premise of these organizations’ platforms, however, is opposition to Islamic influence in the country, which they consider a vital threat to the Buddhist faith. Since the 1960’s Rohingya’s have progressively been stripped of basic rights by successive governments. After a 1982 law stripped all Rohingya of their citizenship, determining them to be refugees from Bangladesh, they have come to constitute one of the largest stateless populations in the world. As well, despite a transition to democratic rule in 2011 the Rohingya people continue to be discriminated against with explicit state support.
The reports and evidence regarding the current operation against the Rohingya minority by Myanmar government forces must be taken seriously by the international community. Ethnic cleansing, the forced removal of an ethnic group from a particular area, is a serious and violent act that must be condemned and prevented. It can also potentially fall within the meaning of the U.N. Genocide Convention and thus be punishable under international law. With that said, it is paramount that the Rohingya Muslim population is afforded humanitarian assistance by all able governments.