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Many hoped that the November 2015 general election would be a tipping-point in Burma’s ‘democratic transition’, which began in 2011. The new National League for Democracy (NLD) government took office in April 2016 in an atmosphere of hope – but the honeymoon has turned out to be brief. The limits of Aung San Suu Kyi’s power have been exposed by her inability to control the actions of the security forces in Rakhine State, where they stand accused of committing serious human rights abuses against the Muslim Rohingya, triggering a massive flow of refugees into neighbouring Bangladesh. Her international reputation has been badly damaged. The international humanitarian response is scaling up but the monsoon season is coming soon. There have been moves by western governments to reintroduce some sanctions.

The Rohingya crisis

The first few months in office were relatively – and deceptively – calm for the NLD. But it all began to change in October 2016, when Rohingya who had organised themselves into an armed group carried out small-scale attacks against the Burmese security forces near the border with Bangladesh in northern Rakhine State.  During 2017, these forces became known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

These attacks provoked strong counter-action by the military under army chief General Min Aung Hlaing, over which Aung San Suu Kyi has only limited control. Human rights groups accused the military of further serious human rights abuses against Rohingya communities. As was the case in the past when violence escalated in Rakhine State, significant numbers of Rohingya fled into Bangladesh.

Although tensions remained high, there was a relative lull in the situation in northern Rakhine State for several months during mid-2017. But many analysts assessed that it was only a matter of time before there was another upsurge in violence – and so it proved.

On 25 August 2017 ARSA launched another round of attacks on police posts in Rakhine State, as well as one on an army base. Earlier in the month, it had warned the army to demilitarise northern Rakhine State. The army responded with massive military force, launching ‘clearance operations’, which rapidly escalated into systematic burnings of villages and abuses against civilians both by its own personnel and by Rakhine Buddhist vigilante groups. This triggered an unprecedented wave of displaced Rohingya, most of whom crossed the border into Bangladesh.

Senior UN and US officials have declared what has happened ‘ethnic cleansing’. There have also been claims that it might amount to genocide. Aung San Suu Kyi has rejected claims that ethnic cleansing has taken place, insisting that army operations concluded in early-September 2017.

There is growing evidence that the Burmese army did not simply respond to ARSA’s renewed attacks in late-August 2017, but that it had been preparing for a brutal and disproportionate assault on Rohingya during the months beforehand – for example, by mobilising and arming local Buddhist vigilante groups. In January 2018 there were also clashes between the security forces and Buddhist Rakhine protesters opposed to improving Rohingya rights. Allegations of human rights abuses continue and the situation in Rakhine State remains highly volatile. To date, the Burmese authorities have refused to cooperate with UN human rights officials trying to conduct investigations, refusing them permission to enter the country.

On 23 November 2017 Burma and Bangladesh agreed an ‘Arrangement on the Return of Displaced Myanmar Persons Sheltered in Bangladesh’. However, Rohingya refugees fear that ‘resettlement’ could turn out to mean de facto internment in military-run camps and the UN and western governments have argued that conditions are not yet conducive to voluntary repatriation. In January 2018, Bangladesh suspended the repatriation process indefinitely.

Although the scale has reduced significantly since November 2017 (about 500 people a week are reportedly crossing currently), by the end of February 2018 the total number of Rohingya refugees that had fled Rakhine State into Bangladesh since August 2017 had reached 688,000. Combined with those who were already there as a result of previous outbreaks of violence, there are now well over one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Over the last six months, considerable progress has been made in providing humanitarian assistance for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees that are currently living in Cox’s Bazaar on the Bangladeshi side of the border.

However, many challenges remain – the sheer congestion is perhaps the single biggest problem – and the monsoon rains will come soon, potentially leading to another acute phase of the humanitarian crisis, in which much good work may quickly be undone.

Bangladesh has made some land available that is safely above sea-level but it is widely agreed that it is unlikely to be enough to meet needs. There also continues to be concern about preparatory work by the Bangladeshi authorities on an island 21 miles away from the mainland, Bhasan Char, that may be used for upwards of 100,000 refugees but which international agencies have had no access to and which most impartial observers believe could be unsuitable for accommodating them.

Overall, the international response to the Rohingya crisis has stepped up since September 2017– although critics argue that it remains insufficient. On 16 March 2018, a ‘Joint Response Plan’ for the period March-December 2018 was published which requests US$951 million to provide life-saving assistance to 1.3 million people, including Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar to Bangladesh and local host communities. The priority needs in the plan include food, water and sanitation, shelter, and medical care. Meanwhile, western governments have begun to reintroduce some sanctions that had previously been relaxed, including against senior military officers.

Other developments

Despite the Rohingya crisis absorbing much of its time and energy, the NLD Government has sought to keep the peace process with ethnic minority armed groups moving forward through what is called the ‘21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference’.

A ‘National Ceasefire Agreement’ (NCA) was signed in October 2015, just before elections in the following month, by the then military-led government under Thein Sein, but a significant number of ethnic armed groups did not put their names to it. 

Two sessions of the peace conference have been held since August 2016. The next session was originally due to take place in January but is now set to take place in May. While participants have so far agreed some general principles and there were two new NCA signatories in February, few expect the conference to quickly produce peace.

Economic growth in Burma has been strong since 2011 but there are growing fears that it may now begin to slow. While the Rohingya crisis may deter some foreign investment, any slowdown will also reflect structural economic weaknesses – not least, the country’s poor infrastructure.

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