Ethnic Cleansing In Myanmar: The Rohingya Crisis And Human Rights

Considered to be a perfect illustration of “ethnic cleansing”, The Rohingya Crisis has become a buzzword in the eyes of the International law. The persecution which dates back to the 1970s started culminating to a massive showdown from June 2012, which resulted to the highly reprimanded military retaliation from October 2016 to January 2017 and thus further ongoing to the present times.

As a human being, everybody has certain inherent and inviolable rights accessible to them regardless of social constructs and categorizations such as sex, status, nationality, color and so on which has been duly recognized by the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948. [1] But however these basic rights, fundamental to one’s existence was not available for the Rohingyas residing in Myanmar. According to the reports, roughly 25,000 Rohingyas were murdered, 19000 raped, 36000 were thrown into fire, 116, 000 beaten up by the authorities and 120, 000 houses burnt to ashes in the Rakhine state of Myanmar.[2] Presently, approximately more than 700,000 Rohingya have fled from Myanmar to the neighboring countries, mainly Bangladesh duly earning the title of one of the “world’s worst humanitarian and human rights crisis” from the UN Secretary General in its Security Council briefing. [3]

Thus at the backdrop of this genocide, it becomes important to understand in what way are their human rights being infringed upon and what could be the possible remedies and suggestions which the International Law can provide to this crisis.


Even though the term “Rohingyas” has become a known buzzword, but still many people aren’t familiar with their background. Myanmar, (previously known as Burma), which is a predominantly Buddhist majority nation has Rohingyas as one of the various small minority group residing over there. Believed to be occupying 4% of the total population of Myanmar, Rohingyas are a Muslim ethnic minority following a Sufi-influenced form of Sunni- Islam. Occupying majorly the Rakhine State of Myanmar, the Rohingyas have their own culture and language distinct from the others spoken in the nation.

The presence of the Rohingyas can be detected way back to early 12th Century, when Arab traders came to the formerly known Arakan Kingdom. But certain other conflicting reports state that they have been a part of Myanmar since the early 9th or 10th Century. Many others arrived when Rakhine was under the British colonial rule. Thus these evidences conclude us with a fact that Rohingyas have existed in Myanmar since thousands of years, evolving to what we know for today.



As both religions have a longstanding heritage of peace and cooperation, the Rohingya crisis cannot be termed just as a theological conflict between Islam and Buddhism. It’s also not just a case of Buddhist persecution of Muslims, as supporters of Rohingya crisis say. Rather, it’s a case of Burmese Buddhist nationalist racism, which runs counter to Buddhism’s core teachings. [4] Myanmar is a Buddhist majority country which has a firm belief that the Rohingyas have descended from Bengali residents of Chittagong District, who after the Britishers annexed Arakan in 1824-26, migrated there. As a result, they are not recognized as a valid Burmese ethnic group.

The Rohingyas were hence termed as “Bengalis”, “propaganda-spreader” in Myanmar, and the people of Myanmar were systematically brainwashed into thinking that these people were in pursuit of their lands and they would steal it for generations to come. They were termed as “illegal immigrants” who were enemy of the state, with the sole motive of occupying their lands. This divide -and rule policy helped the military to create a clash between the Arakan Burmese and The Rohingyas, leading to eviction of the latter, and occupancy of the land by the former.

The delegitimisation of Rohingyas started from General Ne- Wims regime which constituted the Socialist Republic of Myanmar and the Emergency Immigration Act of 1974, which led to an ethnic based citizenship. This further culminated to the 1982 Burmese Citizenship law, stripping the Rohingyas of their Myanmar citizenship as they were required to show proof that they had settled here before 1823.  They received their final blow on 2015, when due to the mounting pressure of the Ma Ba Tha monks, the then Thein Sein Government nullified the “white cards”, which were basically temporary household identification cards issued to the Rohingyas. When these 400,000 white cards were rebutted, The Rohingyas got stuck in a limbo, where their own homeland did not want to recognize them.  

Myanmar had an estimated population of 51 million and 135 official ethnic groups according to the 2015 Census, and The Rohingyas were deliberately excluded from this on the grounds that they were Bengalis who migrated from Bangladesh, turning them into the only “stateless people” in Southeast Asia.


In August 2017, tensions simmered in Rakhine after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) accepted blame for attacks on police and army posts. ARSA was deemed a terrorist group by the government, and the military launched a crusade of terror that ravaged hundreds of Rohingya villages and compelled nearly 700,000 Rohingya residents to evacuate Myanmar. More than 6700 Rohingyas were killed in the first month of the strike, (August 2017 to September 2017). Myanmar’s military forces are also accused of firing on escaping civilians and deploying land mines at border crossings used among Rohingya people who were escaping to Bangladesh.

Myanmar officials were shown to have cleared deserted Rohingya settlements [PDF] and farmlands in order to construct residences, military bases, and facilities since early 2018. The government insists that such changes are being made in readiness for the resettlement of refugees, but rights advocates fear that they are being made to appease communities other than the Rohingya in Rakhine. Many have questioned if the government’s strategies were in retaliation to the ARSA assaults, as evidences were discovered that the army started enforcing its strategies nearly a year before the ARSA assault. Communal strife is not new to Rakhine State: security operations in the last five years, especially in 2012 and 2016, have compelled huge numbers of Rohingya to flee for their lives from their own homelands to the nearby countries and live as refugees in conditions unspeakable.


Considered to be the least wanted as well as the most persecuted group of people, state-sponsored ethnic prejudice, imprisonment, harassment, and oppression have been perpetrated against Rohingya people for decades. Regardless of the fact that the Rohingya have existed in Myanmar for ages, the country’s military dictatorship passed laws restricting their travel as well as access to higher education, employment opportunities and citizenship. Forced labor, unlawful imprisonment, property confiscation, and displacement have all been perpetrated against Rohingya citizens. Such constraints have culminated in highly restricted availability of essential healthcare services as well as a lack of political representation over time.

The burning of their houses and farms, beatings, mass killings, sexual assault, killings, dumping of remains in mass graves, and other mass crimes were portrayed by refugees as part of an orchestrated, systemic, and brutal evacuation drive. Many Rohingya refugees arrived with bullet and machete injuries, burns, landmine wounds, sexual abuse injuries, and severe other injuries suffered in their homelands and on the journey to Bangladesh. The Myanmar government has refused any wrongdoing in the massacres, alleging that the Rohingya migrated under their own will, torching their homes and concocting abuses. As of June 2019, 750,000 Muslims believed to have lived in Myanmar prior to August 2017 had fled to Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazaar area. These people now reside in the world’s largest refugee settlement. Women suffered breast mutilation and rapes by both the military men as well as common civilians.

With the fear of being attacked, many health care professionals denied them treatment, which further worsened their situation. In December 2019, Michelle Bachalet, UN high commissioner for Human rights pointed out how the atrocities had still not stopped despite being asked on avoiding a possible genocide.


The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide better known as the Genocide Convention was ratified in 1948 with the motive of never repeating the atrocities of the past. Its implementation was indeed a watershed moment in the evolution of international human rights and criminal law as we know it today.[5]

The Article II of the Genocide Convention lays forward which acts are considered to be “genocide”. In the present Convention, genocide is described as any of the following acts committed with the motive to eliminate a national, ethnical, racial, or religious sect in whole or in portion:[6]

(a) Murdering members of the tribe;

 (b) Inflicting severe bodily or mental damage on members of the group;

(c) Intentionally inflicting on the group life conditions estimated to cause its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Enforcing measures to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly moving children of the group to some other group.[7]

Article III of the Same Convention[8] states all the acts which are punishable namely:

(a) Genocide;

(b) Conspiracy to commit genocide;

(c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;

(d) Attempt to commit genocide;

(e) Complicity in genocide. [9]

Myanmar being a signatory to the UN’s 1948 Genocide Convention is bound to adhere to the rules and regulations laid forward by this very convention. Thus, ultimately, in 2019 Gambia filed a case in International Court of Justice against Myanmar[10]. In its appeal, Gambia accused Myanmar of breaching the Genocide Convention and asked the Court to issue provisional steps “to guard against further, irreversible damage to the interests of the Rohingya group.” The International Court of Justice (ICJ) bench, comprised of 17 judges (one each appointed by Gambia and Myanmar), after two month, released a unanimous ruling ordering Myanmar to take at least four preventive steps to avoid the genocide of Rohingya Muslims. They require Myanmar to avoid genocidal attacks in total, to guarantee that military and police forces don’t really execute genocidal activities in addition, to protect all proof of mass atrocities, and to report to the ICJ on adherence with these steps. [11]


What can a practical approach entail? To begin, it must ensure the safety of all marginalized people in Rakhine, not only Rohingya. Buddhists in Rakhine must also be reassured that they will be protected from Muslim rebels (a less covered but equally important issue inside Myanmar). That implies enabling some impartial checks in Rakhine to scrutinize on the government’s military previously violent counterinsurgency strategy. Second, a reconciliation agreement would need to provide for the mutual reunification of these two estranged families, as division would only increase the likelihood of possible conflict. [12]

The presence of China, India, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries in repatriating Rohingyas in Myanmar is significant. Myanmar’s close allies, namely China, India, and Russia, must quit supporting the Myanmar government over this grave issue on humanitarian grounds rather than economic grounds. The participation of UK, USA in the safe repatriation of the Rohingyas is also of crucial importance. [13]

The role of these countries also becomes significant to create accountability of Myanmar government as well as the military so that such mass atrocities are not repeated anytime in the future. Ultimately, there needs to be an International system built which favors the refugees and caters to their needs. In order to restore peace in Rakhine State, parties will need to see the broader context and continue to participate in peaceful dialogues as it is only through these negotiation and mediations can this issue bring a fruitful result to both the parties and help the Rohingyas in the near future. Even though all these solutions are not possible to be implemented immediately but as time passes, once these solutions are put on the map, these would help the Rohingyas to get their much needed justice.


Even though The Rohingyas fills up all criteria’s under the Genocide Convention of 1948, it is refrained from terming it as “genocide” only because there is a lack on one act of complete brutal violence as the case of gas chambers during the Second World War. However, in all previous situations, the ultimate height of aggression is just the clear tip of an iceberg. And the ultimate outcry happens only after the political atmosphere has made it unthinkable. The state’s open oppression of Rohingyas is already a well-known reality. Regardless of political pressure from the international community and local civil rights groups urging the state to end the violence, no indications of even a conclusion to the brutality have appeared.[14]

The refugees continue to live in harsh, overcrowded and unhygienic conditions. They continue to thrive and fear the consequences, continually encumbered by the despondency of losing their status, the pain of being lawless, the sorrow of having no secure home, and the torment of dealing with grief. Four years after their exile, no consensus on their safe return to their country has been achieved. In an effort to halt the transmission of the Novel Coronavirus (Covid19) governments in most countries have instituted lockdowns, closed markets, closed colleges, and prohibited all sporting interaction and social gatherings since early 2020. When the huge percentage of the worldwide people have restricted themselves to their households, introducing new standards such as “social distancing” and “sanitizing,” one might seriously wonder how a refugee, residing in heavily populated camps, implement these new social procedures into their everyday life. [15]

Aside from having restricted access to medical care, refugees face various challenges, including a shortage of supply such as drugs, face masks, and gloves. Charitable organizations are facing a financial and distribution scarcity as the global economy struggles in the aftermath of the pandemic. Even though up till now only 400 active cases and 10 deaths have been reported from the refugee camps in Bangladesh for which the exact reasons are still not clear, COVID-19 manages to pose the greatest threat to the fragile Rohingya refugees. The camps’ existing framework is undesirable for preserving “social distance,” and the refugee’s lack of hygiene standards makes it even more challenging to combat the virus. Furthermore, the population’s lack of proper education and insufficient awareness make these camps a perfect breeding ground for COVID-19 propagation. Overall, we anticipate rising cases and grim situation inside refugee centers, not just in Cox’s Bazaar, but in the whole world.[16]

To summarize it all in a crux, The Rohingyas have had a very burdensome existence being discriminated and attacked through the ages, but the current is worse than ever. No human should ever suffer any atrocity because of the ethnicity he identifies himself with and this is exactly what the Rohingyas are suffering. The International community and NGO’s need to look into the situation and help them against the backdrop of this pandemic and the International Law should bring justice to this least wanted minority group and provide them with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Author: Astha Bhattacharya

[1] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, available at: (last visited on 11 April, 2021).

[2] “Killing of Rohingyas: Death toll could be up to 25,000” The Daily Star (August 18, 2018).

[3] “Myanmar’s Refugee Problem among World’s worst humanitarian, Human Rights Crisis, Secretary General says in briefing to Security Council”, United Nations August 28, 2018).

[4] Imtiyaz Yusuf, “Three faces of the Rohingya Crisis: Religious Nationalism, Asian Islamophobia, and delegitimizing citizenship” 25 Studia Islamika 503 (2018).

[5] Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, United Nations Human Rights, available at (last visited on 16 April, 2021).

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid.

[10] Gambia v. Myanmar (Preliminary objections) [2019] ICJ.  

[11] Nadira Kourt, “The Rohingya Genocide and The ICJ: The role of the International community, Just Security, available at: (last visited on 16 April, 2021)i

[12] “A roadmap for sustainable solution to the Rohingya Crisis”, The Daily Star (April 16, 2021).

[13] “UNHCR: Rohingya Crisis needs lasting solutions”, UNHCR (April 16, 2021).

[14] “Solving Rohingya Crisis will require International Pressure”, DW (April 16, 2021).

[15] Amit Barua and Rutu Hitesh Karia, “Challenges faced by the Rohingya Refugees in the COVID-19 pandemic” 86 Annals of Global Health (2020).

[16] ibid.

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