Protecting the Rohingya: crisis in Rakhine and efforts to end ethnic cleansing

Violent ethnic cleansing in Rakhine has forced over 600,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh Violent ethnic cleansing in Rakhine has forced over 600,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh © Noor Alam for the Guardian

a personal reflection by Hugh Pennicook
In devising strategies to end the atrocities in Rakhine, the international community must be mindful of the challenges that Myanmar’s socio-political context presents for civilian protection.

In the few years since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in the 2015 parliamentary elections, any hopes the international community held for a rapid transition to a peaceful and prosperous Myanmar have been replaced by disenchantment at a reality of ongoing conflict, internal power struggles, and troubling reports of violent ethnic cleansing. International adulation for Myanmar’s deified leader has swiftly transformed into pointed criticism of her handling of the situation in Rakhine State, even culminating in calls to revoke her Nobel Peace Prize. As the world watches the atrocities unfolding in Rakhine and calls for an end to the violence, it is worth examining the factors that have allowed this extraordinary humanitarian tragedy to take place and the unique challenges that Myanmar’s particular socio-political context presents for civilian protection. This article argues that a more nuanced understanding of the drivers of Myanmar’s political and military actors, and the legal and political factors that constrain them, may be key to better contextualising and enhancing the effectiveness of international efforts aimed at protecting the Rohingya.

Conflict in Rakhine

On 25 August 2017, Rohingya militants carried out armed attacks on a number of police and military outposts across Rakhine. Government forces answered the attacks with a military campaign that has driven more than 600,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh[1]. While authorities have restricted international access to the region, credible reports have emerged of a systematic campaign of extrajudicial killing, sexual violence and other grave violations of human rights. Analysis by Human Rights Watch indicates over 350 villages have been either partially or completely destroyed[2], while estimates from Médecins Sans Frontières put the numbers of Rohingya killed in excess of 6,700[3]. Government sources in Bangladesh have also reported that Myanmar has been laying landmines along the border, speculating that they are intended to prevent the return of Rohingya refugees[4]. While Myanmar authorities have claimed that the military is conducting a clearance operation aimed at rooting out the Rohingya ‘terrorists’ responsible for the 25 August attacks, the UN has labelled the clearly disproportionate government response as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.[5]

This latest violence against the Rohingya is no isolated incident, but rather the latest episode in a long history of discrimination and persecution of the Muslim minority group. Regarded as illegal Bengali immigrants and largely despised by Myanmar’s majority Buddhist population, the Rohingya have been denied a separate ethnic identity and refused the rights of citizenship, effectively rendering them stateless. Many Rohingya have been forced to live in camps, segregating them from the rest of the Rakhine Buddhist population[6]. A report by the International State Crime Initiative at the Queen Mary University of London concludes that the Rohingya have already suffered the first four stages genocide – stigmatisation and dehumanisation; harassment, violence and terror; isolation and segregation; and, systematic weakening.[7]

While violence against the Rohingya is not new, the unprecedented scale on which it is now occurring has propelled the issue into global headlines. Spurred into action, the UN Security Council has called upon Myanmar to allow the displaced Rohingya to return to their homes, “to ensure no further excessive use of military force in Rakhine state, to restore civilian administration and apply the rule of law.”[8]

Amidst the tragedy, one fact stands out. All of this suffering is occurring not under the notorious military Junta, but under Aung San Suu Kyi’s new democratic order. In her first public statement since the violence started, Aung San Suu Kyi failed to condemn, or even explicitly acknowledge, the military’s violent campaign against the Rohingya. She instead questioned why so many Rohingya were fleeing, despite the fact that there had been no ‘clearance operations’ since 5 September and that “more than 50 per cent of the villages of Muslims are intact”.[9] Favouring the term ‘Muslims in Rakhine State’, her speech served to again deny the Rohingya’s ethnic identity.[10] Aung San Suu Kyi’s unwillingness to take a strong stance in defence of the Rohingya has attracted fierce international criticism, and raised questions about whether she is complicit in, or at least indifferent to, the violence. There have even been calls to revoke her Nobel Peace Prize.[11] As international pressure mounts on Aung San Suu Kyi to end the violence, it must be asked how such atrocities could be allowed to occur in the first place, and how they could elicit such a weak response from one of the world’s most revered Nobel Peace Laureates.

Giving context to the violence: social, legal and political challenges to civilian protection in Rakhine

Myanmar’s particular social, legal and political context presents unique challenges for the protection of the Rohingya. First and foremost is the fact that Myanmar’s civilian government has no control over the military. The independence of the military is a fundamental principle of Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution, and the Commander-in-Chief of the military is designated as the supreme commander of all the armed forces.[12] The Constitution also grants the military a leading role in the affairs of state, with one quarter of the seats in both houses of the national parliament reserved for military appointees.[13] Importantly, this provides the military with veto power over any constitutional amendments, which require more than 75 per cent of the votes in the national parliament.[14] The military’s influence also extends into the executive, with the Ministries of Defence, Home Affairs and Border Areas all reserved for serving military officers.[15] Further, military representatives dominate membership of the secretive National Defence and Security Council, with six seats over the five civilian members[16]. The Council exercises significant powers under the Constitution, and, notably, plays a key role in any declaration of a state of emergency, which results in all legislative, executive and judicial powers being transferred to the Commander-in-Chief.[17] The Constitutional powers and protections afforded to the military allow it to operate with near total independence and impunity.

For the military, the situation in Rakhine is a public relations dream. Any campaign to drive the Rohingya from Myanmar is likely to be actively supported, or at least tolerated, by the majority Buddhist population. Portraying itself as the defender of Buddhist Myanmar is a huge boost to the public image of the organisation, which continues to have a strained relationship with the general population following the decades of military dictatorship.[18] It also highlights an ongoing role for a strong and independent military, which may increasingly struggle for relevance should peace negotiations with the country’s numerous armed ethnic groups yield results. Further, the campaign against the Rohingya strengthens the military’s position vis-à-vis Aung San Suu Kyi. Her landslide election victory surprised the military leadership[19], and the current campaign could be viewed as a strategic effort to undercut her support base, both international and domestic. If that is the case, it is certainly working. As Myanmar’s de facto leader, international criticism has focussed almost exclusively on Aung San Suu Kyi, despite the fact that she has no control over the military’s actions. If she answers the international community’s calls to speak out in Defence of the Rohingya, she risks alienating her domestic support base.

Understanding this context helps shed light on the political calculation that Aung San Suu Kyi must make in responding to the Rohingya crisis. She must weigh the expectations that the international community holds of a Nobel Peace Laureate against complex domestic political necessities.[20] Her choice is clear. Her failure to condemn the violence against the Rohingya evinces a prioritisation of her relationship with the military. Andrew Selth offers the following on her reasoning:

“Given the power sharing arrangement forced upon her by the 2008 constitution, a modus vivendi between the civilian administration and armed forces is essential for the government to function effectively. Should it break down, Aung San Suu Kyi’s chances of achieving a nation-wide peace agreement with the ethnic minorities would be even slimmer, and the enormous obstacles she faces in implementing the NLD’s reform program would increase markedly.”[21]

Faced with an unenviable decision, Aung San Suu Kyi has chosen to prioritise her long-term domestic reform agenda, even if it means staying silent in the face of ethnic cleansing and irreparably damaging her relationship with the international community. A careful reading of Aung San Suu Kyi’s public address on the Rohingya supports this assessment. She emphasises the multitude of problems the country faces:

“As we concentrate on problems in the Rakhine State, I would also like to take this opportunity to remind you that there are [other] problems as serious for us as what is happening in the west of our country. We have been trying to build peace out of internal strife… We would like you to think of our country as a whole. Not just as little afflicted areas. It is as a whole only that we can make progress…

We are a young and fragile democracy facing many problems, but we have to cope with them all at the same time… We cannot just concentrate on a few.”[22]

It is a safe bet that Aung San Suu Kyi views herself as her country’s best hope for achieving peace and prosperity. After a lifetime of opposition to the military Junta, she is in this fight for the long-term and will be extremely cautious about jeopardising her power base. With little to be gained domestically from defending the Rohingya, she has made a pragmatic political decision to prioritise the long-term interests of the many over the immediate interests of the few. It is important to remember that Aung San Suu Kyi is a politician; idolised by the international community and elevated to an almost saint-like status, her years of isolation under house arrest also allowed the world to project on her their own ideals.[23] It has shocked some to be reminded that she is in fact not a saint, but rather a politician who would at some stage be “forced to choose sides between contending factions, and make hard decisions about contentious issues, in ways that would leave some of her admirers dissatisfied”.[24] It is one thing to oppose a dictatorship, but another to run a country, let alone one as troubled and complex as Myanmar.

However, saint or not, the world deserves better from its leaders. Political expediency cannot dictate when they choose to defend human rights. It cannot be an excuse to remain silent on ethnic cleansing. To allow otherwise undermines the universal and normative value of human rights. In an open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu articulates it best - “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep”.[25]

Contextualising international efforts to protect the Rohingya

Aung San Suu Kyi must do more to protect the Rohingya, and calls for her to bring her enormous moral influence to bear in ending the violence have much merit.  They must, however, be “understood within the wider context of her limited power and the political tightrope she must walk”.[26] What then, does this mean for the international community? Blind criticism focussing solely on Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership, and demands to revoke her Nobel Peace Prize, ignore Myanmar’s complex socio-political dynamics and are unlikely to be effective in ending the violence. Pressuring Aung San Suu Kyi to denounce the military’s actions in Rakhine may even cause greater harm over the long term.

In devising strategies to bring an end to the violence, the international community must be mindful of the motivations of Myanmar’s political and military actors, and the legal and political factors that constrain them. It must be remembered that Myanmar’s government is not monolithic, but rather comprises two distinct and oft conflicting elements – the military, and the civilian administration. Whether it be through political pressure, UN action, or multilateral sanctions, the international community must ensure that the strategies it pursues are cognisant of this distinction, and are targeted appropriately. A more nuanced understanding of the social, political and legal challenges to civilian protection in Myanmar will allow the international community to better contextualise its efforts to end the violence. It is indeed key to the effectiveness of any efforts to save the Rohingya.


1. Agence France-Presse, ‘UN increases pressure on Myanmar to end violence against Rohingya’, The Guardian (Online), 7 November 2017 <>.

2. Michael Safi, ‘Myanmar burned Rohingya villages after refugee deal, says rights group’, The Guardian (Online), 19 December 2017                                                <>.

3. Poppy McPherson, ‘6,700 Rohingya Muslims killed in one month in Myanmar, MSF says’, The Guardian (Online), 15 December 2017  <>  

4. Krishna N Das, ‘Exclusive – Myanmar laying landmines near Bangladesh border: government sources in Dhaka’, Reuters, 6 September 2017 <>.

5. Simon Lewis and Stephanie Nebehay, ‘UN brands Myanmar violence a ‘textbook’ example of ethnic cleansing’, Reuters, 11 September 2017 <>.

6. Penny Green, Thomas MacManus and Alicia de la Cour Venning, ‘Countdown to Annihilation: Genocide in Myanmar’ (Report, International State Crime Initiative, 2015) 15-16.

7. Ibid.

8. Agence France-Presse, ‘UN increases pressure on Myanmar to end violence against Rohingya’, above n 1.

9. Mizzima, ‘Aung San Suu Kyi calls on world community in helping find peace for Myanmar’, Mizzima (Online), 19 September 2017 <>.

10. Green, MacManus and de la Cour Venning, ‘Countdown to Annihilation: Genocide in Myanmar’, above n 6, 15-16.

11. Agence France-Presse, ‘Rohingya crisis: 365,000 sign petition calling for Aung San Suu Kyi to be stripped of Nobel Peace Prize’, The Telegraph (Online), 7 September 2017 <>.  

12. Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (2008) art 20.

13. Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (2008) arts 109, 141.

14. Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (2008) art 436.

15. Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (2008) art 232.

16. Ye Tun, ‘Taming the defence and security council’, Myanmar Times (Online), 5 April 2016 <>.

17. Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (2008) arts 417-18.

18. Liam Cochrane, ‘Myanmar: How he military still controls the country, not Aung San Suu Kyi’, ABC News (Online), 24 September 2017 <>.

19. ABC News, ‘Myanmar elections: Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy on track for landslide election victory’, ABC News (Online), 10 November 2015 <>.

20. Anne Barker, ‘Rohingya refugees: Was Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech too little, too late?’, ABC News (Online), 20 September 2017 <>.

21. Andrew Selth, ‘The Fallen Idol: Aung San Suu Kyi and the Politics of Personality’, ABC News (Online), 12 September 2017 <>.

22. Mizzima, ‘Aung San Suu Kyi calls on world community in helping find peace for Myanmar’, above n 9.

23. Selth, ‘The Fallen Idol: Aung San Suu Kyi and the Politics of Personality’, above n 21.

24. Ibid.

25. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, ‘An open letter from Desmond Tutu to Aung San Suu Kyi’, IOL (Online), 7 September 2017 <>.

26. Cochrane, ‘Myanmar: How the military still controls the country, not Aung San Suu Kyi’, above n 18.

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