Violence against the Rohingyas in Myanmar’s Rakhine state

Published: 27 October 2017 Author: Stefan Talmon

The Muslim Rohingya are an ethnic minority who have lived for centuries in Myanmar’s western state of Rhakine. The Rohingya are denied citizenship in mainly Buddhist Myanmar and have been the object of repeated violent attacks by Buddhist nationalists and the State security forces. In a report released on 24 August 2017, the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan identified the issue of citizenship rights as “a broad concern, and a major impediment to peace and prosperity in Rakhine.”

On 25 August 2017, Rohingya militants attacked police and army posts in the border region with Bangladesh killing several members of the security forces. These attacks led to a fresh outbreak of violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine state which caused hundreds of thousands of them to flee their homes and cross the border into Bangladesh. The government of Myanmar said it was fighting insurgents but those who fled said troops and Rakhine Buddhists are conducting a brutal campaign to drive them from their homes. They accused local Buddhist mobs, backed by government forces, of burning their villages. Myanmar’s government, on the other hand, claimed that the Rohingyas were burning their own homes.

Ob 6 September 2017, Germany condemned the violence in Myanmar and called for the repatriation of refugees as soon as possible. In a statement the Government said:

“Germany condemns the attacks on 25th August 2017 on Police, Border Guard and Military posts in Rakhine and is deeply concerned by the subsequent violence. Perpetrators must be brought to justice according to the rule of law.

With a view to recent reports, we call upon all sides to exercise restraint, to de-escalate tensions and to fully observe international human rights law. All sides must refrain from any violence against unarmed civilians.

We call on the Myanmar government to guarantee unlimited access to aid workers and humanitarian organizations in order to prevent further deterioration of the already highly serious humanitarian situation. The number of refugees constitutes a serious humanitarian challenge to neighbouring Bangladesh, which has provided generous support and shelter to many thousand people who have crossed over into the country. Germany calls on Myanmar to repatriate all refugees as soon as possible.

Reports of arson, crimes against humanity are most worrysome [sic]. An independent verification of these allegations is not possible due to lack of access. Germany, already supporting the Fact Finding mission, appointed by the Human rights council after October 2015 events [sic] in Rakhine, is calling to widen the mandate of the mission to include the allegations of the now ongoing conflict.

Germany welcomes the recommendations of the final report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State and asks the Myanmar government to start the implementation with determination and without delay. Germany and the EU stand ready to support Myanmar in its efforts for a sustainable solution in Rakhine.”

Two days later, when the number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh had swollen to well over 200,000, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel issued the following statement:

“I am very concerned about the most recent outbreak of fighting in Rakhine State in Myanmar which was triggered by attacks on military and police posts and has prompted another large wave of people to flee to Bangladesh.

I call upon all sides to work towards de-escalation and protect the civilian population.

The priority must now be to alleviate the suffering of the people affected. The Myanmar Government therefore needs to allow aid agencies and humanitarian organisations unrestricted access to the affected areas. I welcome the fact that the Myanmar Government, the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have agreed that the ICRC will be responsible for ensuring the provision of humanitarian assistance in the next two weeks. Over the past few days we actively lobbied the Myanmar Government on this issue.

The high number of refugees, well over 200,000 according to the information we have, is putting great pressure on the neighbouring country of Bangladesh. We expressly welcome the generosity shown by Bangladesh in taking in and providing care for the refugees. Germany, too, is involved in humanitarian assistance for those affected in Bangladesh through the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF).

The renewed crisis in Rakhine shows how important it is to improve the situation in the state in the long term. To this end, the Federal Government supports the recently published recommendations by the Rakhine Advisory Commission headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which provide a good starting point.

I appeal to Aung San Suu Kyi and the Government of Myanmar to implement the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission immediately and thoroughly. Germany and the EU are willing to support Myanmar in this endeavour.”

Asked to comment on the statement of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein that the situation in Rakhine state “seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, the German Government spokesperson said on 11 September 2017:

“We are following the developments in Myanmar with great concern. The reports from the region speak of widespread human rights violations, of a high number of dead and injured, of many refugees, of many displaced persons. This is a very dramatic picture. When the UN says that in the last two weeks alone 290,000 people – mostly members of the Muslim Rohingya minority – have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, this shows the drama of the situation.

We call on all parties to the conflict to seek a peaceful solution. We call on the government of Myanmar to live up to its responsibility for all population groups in the country, and we are particularly expecting this from Nobel Peace Prize laureate and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.”

The spokesperson for the Federal Foreign Office added that there were no plans to impose sanctions on Myanmar or to freeze development aid. Germany’s approach was to talk to the government and to make it clear that certain things happening in a part of the country were “not acceptable”. He said:

“By the way, this applies to both sides. There are also Rohingya rebels who have taken up arms to fight against the central government. For that reason, from the very beginning, we have called on all sides to avoid further bloodshed and try to find a political solution to a difficult situation of a religious minority.”

During the 36th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, the German representative said on 12 September 2017:

“Germany is deeply worried about the escalating human rights situation in Myanmar. Since the attacks of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on the military – which the international community swiftly and unambiguously condemned – the population of Northern Rakhine State has suffered from widespread violence and severe human rights violations.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been forced to flee from the violence. Many of them have found refuge across the border in Bangladesh. We highly appreciate the willingness of Bangladesh to offer temporary shelter to refugees from Myanmar. For many years, those who now cross the border have already endured appalling discrimination and a deprivation of their most basic rights. During the current escalation, the situation has worsened to a point where they were forced to leave their home country.

We call on Myanmar to end the military campaign against the civilian population, to adequately protect those who suffer from violence and abuses, and to bring to justice those responsible for the recent atrocities – thereby creating the conditions to stop a further flow of refugees. To halt the humanitarian disaster in the region, the government must allow unrestricted access for humanitarian aid.

To find a sustainable peace, the perspective of neutral observers on the ground is of paramount importance. We therefore call upon the government to enable and support the work of the Fact Finding Mission established by this Council. It is in the interest of all parties that the Fact Finding Mission has full access to the conflict area, in order to get a comprehensive impression of the situation.”

On 2 October 2017, the German ambassador to Myanmar, together with 48 other foreign diplomats and UN officials, visited Northern Rakhine at the invitation of the Myanmar government. In a joint statement on the diplomatic trip, it was said: “We saw villages which had been burned to the ground and emptied of inhabitants. The violence must stop. The security forces have an obligation to protect all people in Rakhine without discrimination and to take measures to prevent acts of arson.” Referring to her aerial trip over Rakhine, the German ambassador said on 25 October 2017:

“The humanitarian and human rights situation in Rakhine state is extremely serious and deeply worrying. […] When we looked at the burned villages from the helicopters it appears to be very systematic burning […] there must have been a lot of intimidation for 600 000 people to flee their homes.”

In this context, the German ambassador also underlined that crimes against humanity have consequences.

It seems that Germany considered Myanmar to be under international law obligations to refrain from any violence against unarmed civilians, to allow aid agencies and humanitarian organisations unrestricted access to the affected areas, and to repatriate all refugees as soon as possible. While voicing the latter demand, Germany was not very hopeful that Myanmar would comply. On 1 October 2017, the German Ambassador to Bangladesh said with regard to repatriation the Rohingyas to Myanmar: “I don’t think these people will have the chance to go back to Myanmar. We have seen reluctance of taking [sic] them back over the years.” More generally, Germany regarded Myanmar as having the responsibility to protect (R2P) all sections of its population against ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

The German statement that “reports of arson, crimes against humanity are most worrisome” seems to imply that Germany considers the mass arson of Rohingya villages driving people from their homes as crimes against humanity. Such acts can constitute a “forcible transfer of population” which, if committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against the civilian population, with knowledge of the attack, meet the requirements of a crime against humanity.

Categories: Armed conflict and international humanitarian law, international criminal law

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  • Stefan Talmon

    Stefan Talmon is Professor of Public Law, Public International Law and European Union Law, and Director at the Institute of Public International Law at the University of Bonn. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and practices as a Barrister from Twenty Essex, London. He is the editor of GPIL.

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