Myanmar Is on Trial for Its Rohingya Campaign. Here’s Why

(Bloomberg) -- Since 2017, some 740,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh. The mass exodus was provoked, in the words of United Nations investigators, by security forces practicing “ethnic cleansing” and “crimes against humanity” with “genocidal intent.” Now two international tribunals are investigating Myanmar for atrocities committed against the Rohingya, who have lived uneasily among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority since the country’s independence from British rule seven decades ago.

1. Who is investigating?

The International Court of Justice, the UN’s highest tribunal, is considering accusations that Myanmar conducted a campaign of genocide using so-called “clearance operations” that began in earnest in 2017, resulting in the deaths and rapes of thousands of Rohingya living in western Rakhine state. The case was brought by the tiny country of Gambia on behalf of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation. While it’s adjudicated, the court said in a Jan. 23 order, Myanmar must enact emergency measures to protect the Rohingya. Separately, the International Criminal Court, established by a global treaty in 2002, has opened its own investigation into atrocities committed in Rakhine state.

2. What powers do the courts have?

The International Court of Justice has no powers of enforcement. However, a UN member nation can seek action from the Security Council based on the court’s rulings. The International Criminal Court can try individuals for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and it can imprison those who are convicted. However, it relies on member states to make arrests, and Myanmar is not a member.

3. What does Myanmar say?

A government-appointed inquiry concluded on Jan. 20 that war crimes as well as serious violations of human rights and domestic law had taken place during security operations in August and September of 2017. However it said there was no evidence of genocidal intent. Similarly, Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi acknowledged in an oped in the Financial Times that war crimes “may have been committed,” but she told the International Court of Justice such violations “cannot be considered as genocide.” Suu Kyi’s failure to defend the Rohingya has tarnished the reputation of a Nobel laureate once seen as a human rights campaigner and an icon of democracy.

4. What sparked the violence in 2017?

On Aug. 25 that year, a militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked some 20 police and army posts in Rakhine state, killing a dozen security officials. The military responded with what it calls “clearance operations.” The organization Doctors Without Borders estimated that at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the early days. Survivors told of mobs led by soldiers and Buddhist monks setting entire villages on fire, shooting to kill and maim, and conducting mass rapes, provoking the exodus to Bangladesh. The military’s response was similar to its reaction after an ARSA operation in October 2016. An estimated 87,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar then.

5. Who are the Rohingya?

Many, though not all, of the Muslims living in the northern part of Rakhine identify as Rohingya. (The word is derived from the name of the state.) Their numbers were estimated at over 1 million before the exodus in 2017, and their origins are hotly debated. The Rohingya stress the fact that a Muslim community existed in the state, the site of independent kingdoms since antiquity, before Myanmar took control of Rakhine in 1784. Nationalists describe the Rohingya as foreign interlopers and emphasize that during British colonial rule, starting in the 1820s, workers from Bengal, in what is now Bangladesh, arrived in Rakhine and the Muslim community grew significantly. Myanmar’s government refuses to use the word Rohingya, as that might imply the Muslims of Rakhine are a distinct ethnic group, deserving of recognition. A minority of Rohingya are Hindus.

6. How were they treated over the years?

Myanmar’s authorities have progressively denied the Rohingya rights and, along with vigilantes sometimes led by Buddhist monks, persecuted them, driving them from their homes and into neighboring countries, mostly Bangladesh. In 1982, the government stripped the Rohingya of citizenship. In the name of bringing order to Rakhine, the army launched an operation in 1991 featuring forced labor, rape and religious suppression. The Rohingya face numerous legal restrictions. Couples need government permission to marry and to travel beyond their home town or move to a new one. Those in two of Rakhine’s cities are limited to having two children.

7. How threatening are Rohingya militants?

While Myanmar’s Rohingya don’t have a history of radicalization, the attacks starting in 2016 marked the emergence of a new insurgency. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army is a relatively small group. Its support is difficult to gauge, but the vast majority of Rohingya are believed to be opposed to violence.

8. How have other countries responded?

Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya has undercut the goodwill the country earned after transitioning in 2012 to democracy from rule by a military junta, which detained Suu Kyi for most of the period between 1989 and 2010. Sanctions against Myanmar were dropped after she was freed for the last time, but U.S. and European countries have imposed new ones on the country’s military leaders in response to the Rohingya crisis. After rising fairly steadily since 2012, foreign direct investment dropped precipitously from $4 billion in 2017 to $1.3 billion in 2018, according to the World Bank.

The Reference Shelf

  • A record of hearings at the International Court of Justice and the court’s order to Myanmar.
  • The report of the inquiry commissioned by Myanmar’s government.
  • The 2018 report of a United Nations fact-finding mission on Myanmar.
  • Council on Foreign Relations brief on the Rohingya crisis.
  • A Human Rights Watch report on the situation in Myanmar.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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