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 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. Her international reputation has been damaged and there is now talk of reintroducing sanctions.Jump to full report >>
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 have become better 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, triggering a renewed wave of displacement. 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. In February 2017, the UN published a report which claimed that the security forces had acted with “devastating cruelty” towards the Rohingya since October 2016.
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. By the end of September, the number of new Rohingya refugees that had arrived in Bangladesh since late-August had reached over 500,000.
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 was taking place, insisting that army operations had concluded in early-September.
On 23 November 2017 Burma and Bangladesh agreed an ‘Arrangement on the Return of Displaced Myanmar Persons Sheltered in Bangladesh’, reducing tensions between the two countries over the Rohingya crisis, at least in the short-term. But many have argued that expecting Rohingya refugees to return voluntarily is unrealistic for some time to come. There are fears amongst many that ‘resettlement’ might turn out to mean de facto internment in military-run camps.
In recent weeks, some have argued that 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 in northern Rakhine State during the months beforehand – for example, by mobilising and arming local Buddhist Rakhine militia.
The latest total for the number of Rohingya refugees that have fled Rakhine State into Bangladesh since August 2017 is 655,000. 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. In mid-December 2017, the humanitarian group Médecins sans frontières said that more than 6,700 Rohingya had been killed during the first month of violence from late-August 2017.
International action on the Rohingya crisis has begun to step up since September 2017– although critics argue that it remains insufficient. There is a real prospect that Western sanctions may be reintroduced. Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation has been badly damaged around the world. The UK Government has been criticised by the Foreign Affairs Committee for not taking a clear or strong enough position on “atrocity crimes” – genocide, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
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 conference have been held since August 2016. A third is scheduled for later this month. While participants have agreed some general principles, there have not yet been any new signatories to the NCA. Few expect the 21st Centry Panglong Union Peace Conference to quickly produce peace. Some fear that it lost momentum during 2017.
Economic growth has been strong since 2011 but there are growing fears that it may now begin to slow. While the Rohingya crisis may well deter investment (particularly if sanctions are re-imposed), such a slowdown will also reflect structural economic weaknesses – not least, the country’s poor infrastructure.
Note: For more on Bangladesh’s actions and perspectives on the Rohingya crisis, see our briefing Bangladesh: October 2017 update.
Commons Briefing papers CBP-7901
Authors: Jon Lunn; Daniel Harari