Updated: Jul 10, 2021
This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the Conflict
The Rohingya people are an ethnic minority who live in the northern part of Myanmar, called Rakhine (formerly Arakan) state. They have been described as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities (Ponniah 2016). During World War II, in then Burma, the Rohingya Muslims allied with the British in exchange for the promise of a Muslim state. They fought alongside the British against the Rakhine Buddhists who aligned with the Japanese. When the British administration withdrawing and the Japanese invasion unfolding on ground, tensions escalated in Arakan state.
These tensions were exacerbated during the war, which led to inter-communal conflicts between the Arakanese Muslims and Buddhists. The British made unofficial promises to the Rohingya community, suggesting that they would give them a “Muslim National Area” in present-day Maungdaw District. Given that they did not want a Buddhist-dominated government in the future, this promise encouraged them to support the British (Yegar 2002). In the 1950s, Muslims mobilized to create a political and militant movement to establish an autonomous Muslim zone. They used the term “Rohingya” to identify themselves – which has been considered the modern origins of the term (Leider 2013).
The post-independence government accused the mujahideen of encouraging illegal immigration of many thousands of Bengalis from East Bengal into Arakan – which has remained a highly disputed claim as it is often weaponized to question the legitimacy of the Rohingya as natives of Arakan (Yegar 1972). There was a mass exodus into erstwhile East Pakistan in the 1970s (Leider 2013). In the years that followed independence, the Rohingya Muslims were denied citizenship and discriminated against. In response, the Rohingya mujahideen fought government forces, demanding that the Rohingya-majority region in Rakhine state (then northern Arakan) would gain autonomy or secede, with the aim of annexing it to modern-day Bangladesh (Yegar 1972). In the years that followed, several operations were launched by the Burma Army against the mujahideen in Arakan, some of which were successful.
By the end of the 1950s, the Rohingya mujahideen lost its momentum and support – and surrendered by 1961 (Kaung 1992). The government began to implement various policies to enable reconciliation in Arakan, and engaged in negotiations with the government of Pakistan to identify ways to deal with the mujahideen at their border. On May 1, 1961, the Mayu Frontier District was established in Arakan to appease the Rohingya (The Stateless, 2016).
In February 1978, the government began a massive military campaign called Operation Nagamin in northern Arakan, to expel the “foreigners” – namely the Rohingya Patriotic Front and its insurgents and sympathizers from the region before the national census. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas crossing into Bangladesh in pursuit of refuge (The Stateless, 2016). On October 15, 1982, the Burmese Citizenship Law was introduced. Except for the Karman community, all Muslims in the country were no longer legally recognized and were denied Burmese citizenship (Forbes 2016). Several years of violence followed – mostly in the form of operations and exchange of fire.
In early August 2017, the Myanmar military began to implement "clearance operations" in northern Rakhine State. This worsened the humanitarian crisis in the country.
Over 600,000 Rohingya refugees had fled to Bangladesh by October 2017 (CBS News 2017). Large swathes of agricultural land abandoned by Rohingya refugees were seized by the government (New Straits Times 2017).
The Prevalence of Sexual Violence
While it is definitely known that conflict-related sexual violence was systematically carried out on ground, it is hard to draw out a concrete estimate given that documentation of sexual violence targeting the Rohingya community has not been undertaken on a comprehensive and wide-ranging basis. Rape and sexual violence took place before, during, and after the clearance operations in August 2017, with some women and girls targeted multiple times across the continuum. Most perpetrators were the armed forces, border guard police, and Buddhist militias. Myanmar soldiers stripped, raped, and sexually assaulted women in repeated cycles of violence that began well before the military operations began.
The first detailed reports of sexual violence and gang rapes targeting emerged from the UN Officials and the Human Rights Watch which had each reported the prevalence of widespread gang rapes and other forms of sexual assault and violence targeting Rohingya women and girls. The sexual violence and rape “were not just the sum of individual sexual assaults by disparate, coincidental decisions of individual soldiers” (Packer 2019).
Human Rights Watch indicated (2017) that both the armed forces and the border guard police in Myanmar, as well as the Buddhist militias in Rakhine targeted women and girls with sexual violence. The reports suggested that the Rohingya women and girls were targeted with gang rapes, sexual slavery in military captivity, forced public nudity, humiliation, and murder. There were instances where women had to travel long distances with – untreated – to reach a refugee camp, and even faced brutalities of a horrific kind on the way.
The Strategic Use of Sexual Violence
Conflict-related sexual violence in the context of the Rohingya community is centered on a systematic process to target and drive out hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people. The massive number of instances of conflict-related sexual violence was carried out by the security sector – specifically the army and the police – and targeted women and girls, but also in several instances, men and boys, too. The intention was to deploy sexual violence as a means to humiliate the population so that they would never return, while also instilling a sense of fear and intimidating them by threatening dire consequences if they chose to return. The targeted violence against the Rohingya community is in itself a case of ethnic cleansing and genocide, and a large part of both campaigns of systemic violence was the deliberate and systematic use of sexual violence.
Kevin Ponniah (5 December 2016). "Who will help Myanmar's Rohingya?". BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-38168917
Yegar, Moshe (2002). Between Integration and Secession: The Muslim Communities of the Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, and Western Burma/Myanmar. Lexington Books. pp. 33–35.
Leider, Jacques (2013). Rohingya: the name, the movement and the quest for identity. Myanmar Egress and the Myanmar Peace Center. pp. 208
Yegar, Moshe (1972). Muslims of Burma. Wiesbaden: Verlag Otto Harrassowitz. p. 98–101.
Pho Kan Kaung (May 1992). The Danger of Rohingya. Myet Khin Thit Magazine No. 25. pp. 87–103
"Mr Sultan Mahmud and Statehood of Arakan | The Stateless Rohingya". http://www.thestateless.com/2016/08/mr-sultan-mahmud-and-statehood-of-arakan.html
"Secret 1978 Document Indicates Burma Recognized Rohingya Legal Residence." https://www.forbes.com/sites/anderscorr/2016/12/29/secret-1978-document-indicates-burma-recognized-rohingya-legal-residence/?sh=346b5eb35a79
"$340M pledged to help Rohingya refugees, U.N. says". 23 October 2017. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/united-nations-pledges-money-to-help-rohingya-crisis/
"Myanmar harvests abandoned Rohingya fields, raising fears for return". New Straits Times. 29 October 2017. https://www.nst.com.my/world/2017/10/296491/myanmar-harvests-abandoned-rohingya-fields-raising-fears-return
John Packer, “Genocide is an act of state, and demands a response by other states”; May 10, 2019, OpenGlobalRights, https://www.rohingyatoday.com/en/genocide-act-state-and-demands-response-other-states.
“‘All my Body was in Pain:’ Sexual Violence against Rohingya Women and Girls in Burma,” Human Rights Watch, November 16, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/02/06/burma-security-forces-raped-rohingyawomen-girls
“Devastating cruelty against Rohingya children, women and men detailed in UN human rights report.” https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21142&LangID=E