Humanitarian crises monitoring: the Rohingya Contents


64.The origins of this crisis lie in Myanmar where the Rohingya lack citizenship rights and have suffered a long history of persecution and violence. This has caused waves of migration from Rakhine State to Bangladesh, but the majority of the 855,000+ Rohingya currently living in camps in the Cox’s Bazar District, migrated since the escalation in violence in August 2017.

65.DFID is one of the largest donors in Rakhine State and provides communities there with humanitarian and development assistance, including education, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), nutrition, livelihoods, and health services.69

UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar

66.In March 2017 the United Nations Human Rights Council launched an Independent International Fact-Finding Mission (IIFFMM) to establish the facts and circumstances of the alleged human rights violations by military and security forces in Myanmar.70 In August 2018 the Mission called for justice for victims of sexual and gender-based violence, before publishing its full findings of “extreme violence perpetrated against the Rohingya”,71 in September 2018 and set out recommendations to the UN, the international community and to the Government of Myanmar.

67.In October 2019, the final report of the IIFFMM concluded that the 600,000 Rohingya who remain inside Myanmar face systematic persecution and live under the threat of genocide.72 The “harsh persecution of the Rohingya community in Myanmar continues unabated in defiance of the international community.”73 It found that the situation for Rohingya who remained in Myanmar had worsened:

they endure another year subjected to discrimination, segregation, movement restrictions and insecurity, without adequate access to livelihoods, land, basic services, including education and health care, or justice for past crimes committed against them by the Tatmadaw.74

68.Most Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar express a desire to return to Myanmar eventually, but this will be impossible unless Myanmar can establish and guarantee the conditions required for their voluntary, safe and dignified return.75 In recent months, the ongoing conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army in Rakhine State has been intensifying, making the prospect of a safe return ever more distant.

69.On 29 April 2020, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, warned that Myanmar’s military might still be committing crimes against humanity in Rakhine State. She called for an investigation into allegations of ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Rakhine and Chin states, to ensure perpetrators are held to account. She also urged the UN to increase protections for civilians and for the international community to prevent further atrocities.76

IDP Camps

70.There are numerous internally displaced person (IDP) camps around Myanmar, housing hundreds of thousands of its ethnic minorities who have been displaced by decades of conflict. This includes around 128,000 Rohingya in central Rakhine State.77 The camps have been widely criticised by the humanitarian community for their cramped conditions, with poor sanitation facilities and lack of access to human rights. Most agencies that have access to the camps in Rakhine State, limit their involvement to urgent humanitarian relief to avoid inadvertently supporting the ongoing use of such facilities.

71.The Government of Myanmar has launched the National Strategy on Closure of IDP Camps, which it presented as a roadmap for IDPs to resume ‘normal lives’ where they are ‘free of dependence on humanitarian aid’.78 The Government declared three camps in central Rakhine State ‘closed’ and housed the residents in permanent shelters it had constructed on or close to the existing camp.79 However, we received evidence that this did not lead to any significant improvement to the Rohingya’s freedom of movement, access to non-segregated health and education services, or opportunities to raise a livelihood. Therefore, they remain dependent on humanitarian aid.80 The Rohingya in Bangladesh have been closely following whether these internally displaced Rohingya are able to return to their places of origin with freedom of movement, to see how they might be treated upon their return.81 The approach adopted by the Myanmar authorities has cemented the impression that it is not taking their priorities into account and will entrench the separation of Rohingya from neighbouring Rakhine communities, which could exacerbate discrimination and exclusion.82


72.According to World Health Organization figures, there were 187 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Myanmar on 18 May 2020, including 6 deaths.83 There are serious concerns about what the impact would be if there was a widespread outbreak in the country, and warn that its weak health systems would not cope. However, there is particular concern for people living in the overcrowded and unsanitary displacement camps around the country.

73.In a press release dated 7 May 2020, the Myanmar Embassy in the UK said the Ministry of Social Welfare and Resettlement has held video conference on 27 March 2020 with UN agencies, to discuss Covid-19 preparedness and response measures in IDP camps. Following the video conference, the Ministry adopted an Action Plan for the Control of Covid-19 in IDP Camps across the country, which is based on the principle of “no one is left behind”.84 The Action Plan includes information dissemination, provisions of protective materials, sanitation and hygienic facilities, establishing quarantine areas, monitoring mechanisms for camp management committees, special healthcare services for vulnerable groups, and transferring suspected cases to nearest health care centres.85

74.However, the Myanmar authorities restrict access to Northern Rakhine State, which limits the services that NGOs can provide there. There are fears these restrictions will only increase due to Covid-19 and under the smokescreen of the global pandemic, the military could increase atrocities in the area without it being widely reported.86

Internet blackout

75.Similarly to Bangladesh, the authorities in Myanmar have imposed an internet blackout in Rakhine State which affects the Rohingya, as well as ethnic Rakhine and others living in the area. Burma Campaign UK said the mobile internet ban was initially put in place in response to the conflict between the military and the Arakan Army, to prevent information about human rights violations being reported to the outside world.87 Now the ban is preventing those living in Rakhine State from accessing vital information about Covid-19 and how to stay safe.

76.In February 2020, 29 organisations called on the Government of Myanmar to lift the mobile internet ban.88 The Department for International Development told us that in January 2020, the British Ambassador to Myanmar met with the Myanmar Minister for International Cooperation, U Kyaw Tin, and encouraged the government to lift the internet shutdown in Rakhine State and southern Chin State.89 Our evidence was clear that the Myanmar authorities must lift the internet ban urgently, to ensure that the Rohingya can access information relating to the Covid-19 pandemic.

77.Burma Campaign UK said the Myanmar Government is also blocking access to ethnic media websites. These websites are useful for sharing information about human rights violations but could also be used to disseminate valuable information about Covid-19 and how to prevent its spread, to Myanmar’s ethnic minorities.90 Online access to information is likely to prove a vital resource for staying safe and healthy during the pandemic in Myanmar as elsewhere.

Aung San Suu Kyi

78.Aung San Suu Kyi was once seen as a beacon of democracy in Myanmar, and it was hoped she would use her position to protect Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, when she became the country’s de facto leader in 2016. However, she appears to have been powerless to prevent the military from continuing to commit the extensive human rights abuses set out in the UN IIFFMM reports.

79.Burma Campaign UK point out that she does not control the military, however her government continues to implement policies that negatively affect the Rohingya, such as keeping in place restrictions on humanitarian access to IDP camps in Rakhine State and denying formal education to children in those camps. Nor has it changed the Citizenship Law to enable formal recognition of the Rohingya in Myanmar.91 DFID told us that on 23 January 2020, Minister Wheeler met the Myanmar Minister for Education in London and highlighted the need for inclusive education in Rakhine State.92

International Court of Justice

80.On 11 November 2019, The Gambia instituted proceedings against Myanmar before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), alleging violations of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, through “acts adopted, taken and condoned by the Government of Myanmar against members of the Rohingya group”. 93 The Gambia argued that:

from around October 2016 the Myanmar military (the ‘Tatmadaw’) and other Myanmar security forces began widespread and systematic ‘clearance operations’–the term that Myanmar itself uses–against the Rohingya group. The genocidal acts committed during these operations were intended to destroy the Rohingya as a group, in whole or in part, by the use of mass murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as the systematic destruction by fire of their villages, often with inhabitants locked inside burning houses. From August 2017 onwards, such genocidal acts continued with Myanmar’s resumption of ‘clearance operations’ on a more massive and wider geographical scale.94

81.The Gambia contends that these acts constitute violations of the Genocide Convention and that it has made its claims known to Myanmar since September 2018, but Myanmar has continued to deny any wrongdoing.95

82.In December 2019 Aung San Suu Kyi appeared in person at the International Court of Justice to defend the Myanmar military. In January 2020 the Court indicated provisional measures against Myanmar, including to take all measures within its power to prevent acts against the Rohingya, as set out under Article II of the Genocide Convention, and to preserve evidence related to acts of genocide. Myanmar must also submit a report to the Court on all measures taken within four months and thereafter every six months, until a final decision on the case is rendered by the Court.96

83.DFID told us it is advocating directly with the Myanmar government on these issues and encouraging Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to set out an action plan for how they will deliver on the measures indicated by the ICJ, in addition to recommendations put forward by the Rakhine Advisory Commission and the domestic Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE).97

Peace process

84.The Peace Process in Myanmar was launched in August 2011 to bring Myanmar’s many ethnic armed groups to the negotiating table, to end what has been described as the longest civil war in the world. However, numerous groups never signed the ceasefire agreement and, in many areas, fighting and human rights violations seem to have increased since its inception.

85.During our predecessor Committee’s inquiry into DFID’s work on Bangladesh, Burma and the Rohingya Crisis, some witnesses expressed doubts about the peace process. David Baulk from Fortify Rights said:

The Myanmar military would like to see peace across Myanmar, as long as it is a peace that allows them to control every square foot of the country, which makes no space for the demands of ethnic nationality populations.98

86.Along with other donors, the UK Government provides political and financial support to the peace process through the Joint Peace Fund.99 Our predecessor Committee asked the Minister of State, The Rt Hon Alistair Burt about the UK’s support for the peace process during a follow-up evidence session on Bangladesh, Burma and the Rohingya crisis, in September 2018. Minister Burt said:

In terms of the peace process, we are concerned about the slow progress being made. The third Panglong peace conference took place in July, but only after repeated postponements. None the less, we know that these processes are often slow and that we have to be both patient and persistent.100

87.In its written evidence DFID told us the UK is discussing options with other members of the multi-donor Joint Peace Fund to pivot funding to focus on Covid-19. Due to the outbreak, the Government and ethnic armed groups have delayed peace talks.101

Vacant, Fallow and Virgin (VFV) Lands Management Law

88.In September 2018 the Myanmar Parliament, which has a National League for Democracy (NLD) majority, passed an amendment to the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law that required anyone living on land that is categorised as “vacant, fallow, and virgin” to apply for a permit by 11 March 2019, to continue using it for the next 30 years.102 Estimates based on government data, show that 30 per cent of Myanmar’s land area could be affected by the law, three-quarters of which is home to ethnic minorities.103

89.Many people who live in the affected areas are illiterate or do not understand Burmese and would be unlikely to be able to receive notice about its provisions coming into force. Land-rights activists say it could criminalise millions of farmers and lead to unchecked land seizures by the government, the military and private companies.104

90.DFID told us it is particularly concerned about the potential negative impact the law could have on land use and tenure security for smallholder farmers. The UK is an active participant in the Myanmar Land Co-ordination group which is chaired by the Swiss, and comprised of stakeholders from across the sector. The group advocates for changes to the law with the Myanmar authorities.105 The Department also told us about its concerns for the impact this will have on important aspects of the National Land Use Policy:

The UK is concerned that without proper consultations with affected populations key elements of the National Land Use Policy (NLUP), such as customary land use rights of ethnic nationalities and restitution rights of displaced persons, could be negatively affected by the VFV.

The UK believes that the amended VFV Land Law should be suspended until its intent and objectives are clarified in line with a National Land Law that is to be developed by the National Land Use Council (NLUC).106

91.DFID calls for the relevant institutions to develop a roadmap to strengthen land administration mechanisms and develop procedures in line with the NLUP and international best practice. The UK continues to participate in the multi-donor Livelihoods and Food and Security Fund (LIFT), which the UK Government says it is committed to using to resolve the VFV land issues. DFID says it is implementing a pilot, “to test novel and innovative approaches for re-distributing and registering land” and “aims to provide the Myanmar authorities with the right tools to address land tenure issues, particularly for VFV”.107 This approach contrasts to Germany which has suspended all development cooperation with Myanmar until it can ensure the safe repatriation of refugees.

70 United Nations Human Rights Council, Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, webpage

72 United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, Myanmar’s Rohingya Persecuted, Living under Threat of Genocide, UN Experts Say, news item, 16 September 2019

74 Ibid

79 Ibid

80 Ibid

83 World Health Organization, Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Situation Report – 11, 18 May 2020

84 Embassy of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Prevention, control and response actions against COVID-19 at the IDP camps, Myanmar update #15, 7 May 2020

85 Ibid

94 Ibid

95 Ibid

98 Oral evidence: DFID’s work on Bangladesh, Burma and the Rohingya crisis, 14 March 2018, Q160

100 Oral evidence: Bangladesh, Burma and the Rohingya crisis follow-up, 12 September 2018, Q55

103 Ibid

104 Ibid

106 Ibid

107 Ibid

Published: 22 May 2020