Who is to Blame for the Humanitarian Crisis in Myanmar?

John McKerron

October, 2017

Taung Paw Camp in Rakhine State - Burma

Taung Paw Camp in Rakhine State - Burma


In what has been described by human rights experts as a 'textbook' example of ethnic cleansing, a significant majority of the Rohingya – a stateless, Muslim community residing inside the borders of Myanmar – have had no recourse but to flee across the border into neighbouring Bangladesh.

The United Nations estimates 582,000 Rohingya have been forcibly displaced since this most recent wave of violence broke out late this summer.Mounting tensions culminated in an attack on August 25th on military and police forces located in Myanmar’s coastal Rakhine State. Carried out by Rohingya insurgents, that attack resulted in the deaths of 12 police officers.

The relatively small insurrection was met by a disproportionate response by security forces of Myanmar. Unconfirmed reports indicate that in excess of 1,000 Rohingya villagers have been killed and some 15,000 homes destroyed since the conflict erupted. Refugees arriving at Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh describe a campaign of mass killings and rape carried out by security forces of Rakhine.

The devastation wrought by Myanmar’s military, and the arrival of thousands more Rohingyas at the Bangladesh border seeking safety each week, forces us to ask who should ultimately be held responsible for this preventable humanitarian crisis.

Government officials in Myanmar will be swift to pin responsibility on the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) for escalating the regional conflict. ARSA has been widely labelled as an extremist organization determined to build a new Islamic state inside Myanmar. Not only did the ARSA orchestrate the initial outbreak of violence on August 25th, it was responsible for similar attacks in fall 2016.

However, experts with knowledge of the ARSA have challenged the extremist label. Maung Zarni, advisor to the European Center for the Study of Extremism (ECSE), contends that ARSA's actions are driven by the desire to achieve “peace and ethnic equality” for Rohingyas living in Myanmar.

The passage of a restrictive citizenship test in 1982 effectively stripped the Rohingya of their claims to Myanmarese citizenship. Despite long-standing ties to their communities in Rakhine, the “nationless” Rohingya face rejection and ongoing repression by Myanmar’s Buddhist majority; a report published in2014 by the non-profit human rights organization Fortify Rights exposed wide-ranging evidence that the government in Myanmar “strips Rohingya of fundamental rights simply because they are Rohingya.” Restrictions include on movement throughout the country, on marriage and education, and even on the ability to repair local buildings and construct places of worship, are controlled through the government’s policy of exclusion. Given these cruel and inhumane limitations enforced by the state, it is hardly surprising that members of Myanmar’s Rohingya community have looked to protect themselves in recent years.

Member states of the United Nations and other international organizations have expressed widespread disapproval at the response of the country’s de facto Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, whose inaction in the face of what many are calling crimes against humanity by Rakhine State security forces has made the Rohingya even more vulnerable.

Suu Kyi's government publicly welcomed the findings of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, whose recent report called for a “calibrated approach” and coordinated political, developmental, security and human rights responses to aid Rohingya (and Buddhist) communities living in Rakhine. But Suu Kyi's decision to abandon her visit to the UN General Assembly in New York last month, followed by a speech which failed fully to address local security forces’ reprehensible actions contradict her administration’s professed commitment to aid the Rohingya.

Despite its criticism of Suu Kyi, the UN is also – at least partially – accountable for the extent of Rohingya suffering. The most senior UN official in Myanmar, a Canadian named Reneta Lok-Dessallien, is now facing accusations that she not sought to prevent human rights activists from travelling to Rohingya communities and also isolated staff who warned of potential ethnic cleansing in these areas.

The World Food Programme, an aid agency of the UN, also withdrew its July 2017 assessment, which warned that over 80,000 Rohingya children under the age of 5 were suffering from rapid weight loss, after Myanmar’s government demanded it be taken down. Western nations have proven reluctant to criticize Myanmar’s failure to address the Rohingya’s vulnerable situation out of fear of disrupting the country's progress towards democracy.

Regardless of the self-evident mistakes made during this violent conflict, the UN and its member states may still have the opportunity to redeem themselves in this troubled region through continuing their efforts to deliver humanitarian aid to Rohingya refugees in the weeks and months ahead. Once the crisis stabilizes, it will be imperative to exert international pressure on Myanmar to ensure that Rohingya people have a realistic path to citizenship in the foreseeable future.