The Continuing Perilous Flight of Rohingya

March 7th, 2020  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  8 minute read
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The threat of arrest and imprisonment is not the only problem that fleeing Rohingya must navigate. The rickety, ill-equipped boats that undertake the extremely perilous journey sometimes do not make it, and instances of Rohingya drowning are common.

As the Myanmar[1] government stalls on its obligations to take provisional measures to protect the Rohingya population from further acts of genocide, as stipulated by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling, groups of Rohingya are taking desparate measures to escape the ongoing persecution and apartheid conditions in Rakhine State.

Radio Free Asia published information from a Myanmar naval officer that detailed the 250 Rohingya who have sought to escape Rakhine State in 2020. The state-sponsored persecution, apartheid conditions, and very serious threat of a repeat of the waves of horrific violence committed by the Myanmar military in 2016 and 2017 loom over the remaining 600,000 Rohingya people in Rakhine. Those who seek to leave pay extortionate fees to traffickers who try and get them to places such as Malaysia. Some leave by land while others by sea. Myanmar authorities, however, arrest and prosecute Rohingya who are caught trying to escape. It is important to remember that among the plethora of restrictions that the Myanmar state places on Rohingya people – such as on marriages, access to healthcare, education and the number of children they can have – also includes very tight travel restrictions. Rohingya are barely allowed to move from village to village without permission, never mind leaving Rakhine State. Thus, leaving the country altogether is unthinkable, as seen by those who are caught, such as the 70 Rohingya who were caught in Hlegu Township, Yangon Region on February 20-21. They have been arrested, detained, and will likely face at least 2 years imprisonment under the 1949 immigration Act. This is in addition to the 96 Rohingya caught at sea in November 2019 off Pathein Township, who have been arrested and charged under the same Immigration Act.

The threat of arrest and imprisonment is not the only problem that fleeing Rohingya must navigate. The rickety, ill-equipped boats that undertake the extremely perilous journey sometimes do not make it, and instances of Rohingya drowning are common. It is not just Rakhine State that Rohingya try to escape from, but it is also the desperate, sprawling, overcrowded, and underfunded refugee camps in Bangladesh, as evidenced by the 15 people who drowned off the coast of Bangladesh in February 2020. The boat was designed to carry 50 people, but nearly 140 were onboard.

The desperate and dangerous attempts to flee the persecution in Rakhine State and the precarity in Bangladesh demonstrates the urgency with which the plight of the Rohingya must be addressed. This includes Myanmar making substantive progress on the decision by the ICJ for the Government to “take all measures within its power to prevent the commission of all acts within the scope of Article II of this [Genocide] Convention.” People risking drowning or arrest does not reflect well on the implementation of these provisional measures, about which Myanmar will have to submit a progress report to the ICJ in May 2020. In a welcomed development to the case at the ICJ, the Maldives has officially submitted a declaration of intervention the aim of which is “to extend its support for the efforts to seek accountability for the acts of genocide committed against the Rohingya people.”

Rather than lifting the many apartheid-like restrictions on the lives of the Rohingya, the Government has sought to muddy the waters with its own deeply flawed Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE). This body, which the Government touts as the answer to the problems in Rakhine State is blighted with problems, and it’s partially released findings are a non-too subtle strategic move to coincide with the ICJ’s ruling in January. For the sake of transparency, it must release the full report. Other problems include the issue of one of the ICOE’s members also acting as the coordinator of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement, and Development in Rakhine State (UEHRD), which the UN-mandated international Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar stated is consolidating the “consequences of war crimes” by taking land of the Rohingya people for ‘development.’ Furthermore, the ICOE Secretariat head was part of the Myanmar State defence team at the ICJ proceedings in December. Lastly, as ICOE Chairperson, Rosario Manaolo stated that there would be no ”finger-pointing” or “blaming anybody.” What kind of accountability mechanism finds accountability without pointing the finger at who committed the crimes it is supposed to investigate? The ICOE is nothing more than a smokescreen with the sole aim of deflecting international efforts at accountability and should be treated as such.

Despite the ICOE lacking legitimacy, effectiveness and independence, its partially released findings did accept that crimes did take place in Myanmar which would mount to serious international crimes. However, the domestic justice system has proven time and time again to fail to address such crimes. The Myanmar military’s latest announcement of initiating a courts-martial process for soldiers involved in massacres in Maung Nu and Chut Pyin villages is simply a charade. The ultimate arbiter of the Myanmar military’s court martial system is the Commander-in-Chief, Min Aung Hlaing, the same person who presided over and gave the orders for the genocidal violence committed in 2016 and 2017. A previous courts-martial of soldiers involved in the Inn Din Village massacre resulted in a discrete pardon just a few months after they were found guilty. Additionally, this case raised many doubts as there was no publicly disclosed information of who they were, where they were imprisoned, or whether they were really imprisoned. Thus it is vital that the Myanmar government welcomes the UN-mandated Independent International Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) to access the country and carry out investigations, starting with those cases that the Myanmar ICOE has already reported in their report.

The plight of the Rohingya remains desperate, and is catalyzing perilous attempts at escape. The Myanmar government has not undertaken any genuine attempt to realize the provisional measures ordered by the ICJ, and its ongoing attempts to muddy the waters of accountability, such as the ICOE report and the military courts martial should not be given any credence.The international community must make concerted efforts and take concrete steps by placing appropriate diplomatic pressure and targeted economic sanctions on the Myanmar military. More countries must join the Gambia, Maldives and Argentina to take active and concrete actions and show an unwavering stand on justice and accountability for the victims and survivors of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.


[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

Resources from the past week


Statements and Press Releases

Ending Impunity and Discrimination Against Minorities in Myanmar

By Amnesty International

Release Four Activists Jailed for Peaceful Protest

By Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Civil Rights Defenders

Statement of Gratitude to The Maldives

By Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK

AA Kidnap Ethnic Chin Village Administrator in Rakhine State’s Myebone Township

By Chin Human Rights Organization

600 Flee Into Paletwa Town As Entire Village Moves Due to Safety Concerns As Fighting Between Arakan and Army Injures 3

By Chin Human Rights Organization

Free Rohingya Coalition Call for an Independent Review of BBC World Service Burmese Language Programme

By Free Rohingya Coalition

HRC 43 Oral Statement Item 2: Interactive Dialogue on the High Commissioner’s Report on Rohingya and Other Minorities in Myanmar


Human Rights Council Holds Interactive Dialogue on the Situation of the Rohingya and Other Minorities in Myanmar

By Human Rights Council

Myanmar: Why Law Reform Is Urgent and Possible (UN Statement)

By International Commission of Jurists

The Republic of Maldives to File Declaration of Intervention in Support of the Rohingya People, at the International Court of Justice

By Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Maldives

High Commissioner Report on Rohingya and Other Minorities in Myanmar: Human Rights Council 43rd Session

By Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Hundreds of Villagers Forced to Build New Burma Army Tactical Command Base East of Lashio Near Salween River

By Shan Human Rights Foundation

HRC 43 – Interactive Dialogue with the High Commissioner on Her Report on the Situation of Human Rights of Rohingya Muslim Minority and Other Minorities in Myanmar – EU Intervention

By The European Union



၂၀၁၉ ခုနှစ် လွတ်လပ်စွာထုတ်ဖော်ပြောဆိုခွင့်အခြေအနေ

By Athan – Freedom of Expression Activist Organization

Southeast Myanmar Field Report: Militarisation, Environmental Pollution And Sexual Violence Against Children, July to December 2019

By Karen Human Rights Group

Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”