Violence in Rakhine State and the UK’s response Contents

2Violence in Rakhine State

3.The Rohingya are a mostly Muslim ethnic minority living mostly in the north-western Rakhine State in Burma. There were until recently an estimated 1–1.5 million Rohingya living in Burma, of a total population of around 53 million,3 as well as several thousand living in Bangladesh and other neighbouring states.4 The history and naming of this minority is disputed and controversial in Burma.5 The Rohingya are not recognised as citizens or as one of Burma’s ethnic minorities, and are often referred to as ‘Bengalis’ in official Burmese Government statements and news reports.6 Our witnesses told us that although many ethnic groups in Burma have been subject to repression, this statelessness is unique to the Rohingya and means they “face a particular, virulent form of discrimination”.7 Tensions between the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist Rakhine majority in Rakhine state have existed for decades and there have been several outbreaks of serious violence in Rakhine, including most recently in 2012 and 2016, both of which resulted in the displacement of tens of thousands of people.8

4.Burma has suffered from multiple armed insurgencies involving different ethnic groups, but the Rohingyas in northern Rahkine have not historically been one of the major armed groups. However, on 25 August 2017, a small and relatively unknown armed group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)9 attacked thirty police outposts in northern Rakhine State, killing 12 soldiers. The attacks came amid increased tension in the state, following earlier ARSA attacks in October 2016 and a subsequent security campaign that had already been strongly criticised by the UN.10 The August 2017 attacks were acts of terror but this cannot justify the unprecedented response from Burmese security forces who launched “clearance operations” against the terrorist group and the Rohingya villages where they were believed to live.11

5.Numerous accounts have emerged from NGOs and within the press about the ARSA attacks and the Burmese army’s offensive, and their consequences for the civilian population. We received from NGOs and UN agencies deeply distressing reports of human rights violations, including allegations of murder, sexual violence and rape (including of children), indiscriminate and devastating violence against civilians, the destruction of hundreds of villages and placement of landmines along the border.12 These were based on refugee accounts, medical personnel testimony and satellite imagery. Burma Rohingya Campaign UK Director, Tun Khin, attended the Committee having just returned from Bangladesh and told us that the refugees he had met had “seen whole villages burned down and hundreds of people being killed in front of them”.13 NGO and media reports have since provided further accounts of such mass violence.14

6.Over 620,000 refugees have fled to Bangladesh since 25 August, most of whom have sought shelter in established refugee camps along the border and makeshift camps near the border town of Cox’s Bazar.15 This constitutes more than half of the Rohingya population in Burma, which is a compelling sign of a desperate population. November appears to have seen a decrease in the number of new arrivals but at its height Bangladesh received more refugees in three weeks than mainland Europe received from across the Mediterranean in the whole of 2016.16 In addition to the 300,000 Rohingya refugees that had already sought shelter across the border before August 2017, this makes almost one million Rohingya displaced to Bangladesh. There are also thought to be tens of thousands more displaced within Rakhine State.17

Humanitarian response

7.The situation in the camps is reportedly very poor. The UNHCR told us this was “the fastest growing refugee emergency in the world, and the humanitarian needs of those displaced in the Cox’s Bazar region of Bangladesh are overwhelming.”18 There are multiple humanitarian organisations providing vital food, sanitation and medical support in the camps, several of which gave valuable evidence to this inquiry.19 They told us that there are growing fears of a disease epidemic; and inadequate safeguarding of vulnerable people. Save the Children described the situation as “primarily a children’s emergency”, noting that almost 60% of Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh are under 18.20 More than half of Rohingya refugees reaching Bangladesh are women and children, including newborn babies.21 Several organisations also highlighted that UN agencies and other humanitarian aid organisations have been forced to stop humanitarian aid to northern Rakhine. We understand that this is causing severe suffering in Burma, in an area that was already dependent upon humanitarian aid.22

8.An international pledging conference in Geneva in October was relatively successful; substantial pledges were made of $360m, but this falls short of the full call of $434m. The UK was by far the largest donor, pledging $63m.23 The Government has since pledged a further £12 million, warning that international funding will start to run out in February 2018.24 Save the Children told us that “The UK can be proud of its humanitarian response to this crisis, showing global leadership in providing rapid humanitarian aid, complimented by significant public generosity”.25 Bangladesh has acted responsibly and with generosity in opening its border to hundreds of thousands of refugees. Its actions thus far should be supported with rapid and sustained help from the international community for both the refugees and the local population. The UK Government deserves credit for its own quick and generous provision of humanitarian support.

3 World Bank, ‘Country Profile: Myanmar,’ accessed 30 November 2017

4 Numbers are unclear in part because they were excluded from the latest census. See also: The Republic of the Union of Myanmar, ‘The 2014 Myanmar Population and Housing Census: Highlights of the Main Results’, accessed 30 November 2017; United Nations Population Fund Press Release, 23 November 2017 (note on ‘non-enumeration’); Guardian, Burma census is not counting Rohingya Muslims, says UN agency, 2 April 2014; Burma Campaign UK, (BUR0022) para 26.

5 See, for example: Mr Derek Tonkin, (BUR0009); Correspondence from the Ambassador of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, dated 6 October 2017, page 3; .Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies, (BUR0006)

6 The Rohingya were rendered stateless by a 1982 citizenship act, which did not recognise them as an official ethnic group of Burma. See, for example: Q18; Financial Times, Pope avoids word ‘Rohingya’ as he calls for peace in Myanmar, 28 November 2017;Time Magazine, Why Burma Is Trying to Stop People From Using the Name of Its Persecuted Muslim Minority, 9 May 2016

7 Q34 [Dr Champa Patel]. See also: Q33 [Dr Lee Jones]; Christian Solidarity Worldwide, (BUR0014) para 5; Middlesex University (Prof Brad Blitz), (BUR0021) para 34; Dr Eglantine Staunton (BUR0015) para 4.5.2.

8 See, for example: Middlesex University (BUR0021) para 9–19; Dr Lee Jones (BUR0027) para 2. International State Crime Initiative School of Law Queen Mary University of London (BUR0010). See also: Wade, Francis, Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’ (Croydon, 2017), pp 98–122, 262–6

9 Also known as Harakah al-Yaqin. 

10 See, for example: “UN report details ‘devastating cruelty’ against Rohingya population in Myanmar’s Rakhine province”, UN News Centre, 3 February 2017

11 See, for example: “Myanmar army battles Rohingya insurgents; thousands flee”, Reuters, 28 August 2017. We note also allegations that the operations began before this date [see: Q4; Burma Campaign UK (BUR0022) paras 4-15; Dr Eglantine Staunton (BUR0015) para 2.4]

12 See: Human Rights Watch (BUR0024) paras 2–41; Save the Children (BUR0025) paras 2.1–2.8; UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency (BUR0016); ActionAid UK (BUR0031); Fortify Rights (BUR0026) paras 8–23; Christian Solidarity Worldwide, (BUR0014) para 4. See also Mission report of OHCHR rapid response mission to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh 13–24 September 2017

13 Q4 [Tun Khin]

14 See Fortify Rights (BUR0026) paras 14–16; Human Rights Watch (BUR0024). See also Amnesty International, ‘My World is Finished’: Rohingya targeted in crimes against humanity in Myanmar; BBC News, Rohingya Muslims: Tales of horror from Myanmar, 7 September 2017; Guardian, Massacre at Tula Toli: Rohingya recall horror of Myanmar army attack, 7 September 2017.

15 Inter Sector Coordination Group, Situation Update: Rohingya Refugee Crisis, 23 November 2017

16 UNHCR figures state that 362,753 people arrived by sea in 2016. Between 25 August and 15 September, 409,000 were estimated to have arrived in Bangladesh from Burma (Inter Sector Coordination Group, Situation Report: Influx (August 2017), 15 Sept 2017). See also: HL Deb 26 October 2017, cols 1035–6

17 HL Deb 26 October 2017, col 1040

18 UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency (BUR0016) para 3

19 Including Save the Children (BUR0025), and UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency (BUR0016)

20 Save the Children (BUR0025) para 2.6

21 UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency (BUR0016) para 13. See also ActionAid UK (BUR0031) para 7

22 See, for example, Fortify Rights (BUR0026) para 20; Overseas Development Institute (BUR0019) para 7; Save the Children (BUR0025) para 2.1-2.14; and Médecins Sans Frontières, Myanmar: International humanitarian access to Rakhine State must urgently be permitted, 18 September 2017.

23 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Pledging Conference for the Rohingya Refugee Crisis, accessed 4 December 2017

24 Department for International Development, ‘Penny Mordaunt: Extra UK aid gives a future to persecuted Rohingya’, 27 November 2017

25 Save the Children (BUR0025) para 3.1. . See also ActionAid UK (BUR0031) para 9

8 December 2017