Special Briefing: Myanmar's Massive Refugee Crisis

Rohingya refugees abandon ship after sailing from Myanmar to Dakhinpara, Bangladesh. Recent reports estimate that some 370,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar after violence erupted in Rakhine state.
SourceDan Kitwood/Getty

Special Briefing: Myanmar's Massive Refugee Crisis

By OZY Editors


What happens when much of the world is focused elsewhere?

By OZY Editors

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead. 


What’s happening in Myanmar? While the world was focused on those fleeing their homes in Houston, Florida and the Caribbean in response to hurricanes Harvey and Irma, more than 370,000 refugees were being driven from theirs in Myanmar in what a top human rights official at the United Nations calls “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The U.N. Security Council met to discuss the crisis today, but so far without any resolution. 

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Rohingya refugees are transported to a camp in the back of a lorry after arriving from Myanmar on Sept. 13, 2017, in Kutupalong, Bangladesh.

Source Getty

Who are the Rohingya? A large Muslim minority population living in the northwest of predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, the Rohingya number around 1 million. Despite having lived in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) for generations, they are denied citizenship and are regarded by many as illegal immigrants. 

What caused the current crisis? The persecution of the Rohingya has led to an armed resistance movement, which attacked several military outposts in Rakhine state on Aug. 25. Myanmar’s military responded by burning entire Rohingya villages. The nation’s government and its de facto leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, have declined Rohingya appeals for a cease-fire, saying they do not “negotiate with terrorists.” 


A humanitarian disaster. Prejudice and violence against Rohingya Muslims, often referred to as fleas or dogs in the nation’s press, run deep in Myanmar, but the current crisis is unprecedented. At least 176 Rohingya villages have now been abandoned and, according to Amnesty International, the government is planting land mines in the path of fleeing refugees. Myanmar has blocked relief agencies from delivering food and water, and neighboring Bangladesh is struggling to provide relief for Rohingya refugees, about 60 percent of whom are children.

Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar’s state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi arrives in Beijing for a trade summit in May 2017.

Source Han Haidan/Getty

A precarious balance of power. Myanmar was governed by a powerful military junta for half a century before free elections in 2015, when democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi, 72, came to power as the nation’s “state counselor” as part of a delicate power-sharing arrangement. The military still controls a number of key ministries, however, including defense, limiting Suu Kyi’s ability to intervene.

Conspicuous silence. Suu Kyi, who canceled a planned appearance at the U.N. General Assembly next week, has defended her government’s actions and declined to speak out regarding the treatment of the Rohingya. “There is fear on both sides,” she has said previously.

Eminent condemnation. Suu Kyi’s inaction has drawn criticism from a number of quarters, including her fellow Nobel laureates. Archbishop Desmond Tutu called the violence against the Rohingya a “slow genocide,” and Malala Yousafzai wrote on Twitter that the world was “waiting for” Suu Kyi to speak out. The Dalai Lama told reporters that “Buddha [would have] definitely helped those poor Muslims.”

Who will act? Despite the chorus of condemnation, the U.N. Security Council is unlikely to intervene in Myanmar. Russia and China have blocked international action there in the past, and the U.S. seems unlikely to do anything that could undermine Suu Kyi’s weak, but democratic, government. One group that has vowed action: al-Qaida, who have promised to support their fellow Muslims in Myanmar with aid and “military support.” 



Stop Looking to Suu Kyi for a Solution — She’s the Problem, by Emma Richards at Asian Correspondent

As we find ourselves facing the reality of mass displacement, burning villages and the ethnic cleansing of a whole group of people, you have to wonder, what has happened to Suu Kyi’s thirst for freedom and justice?

The Gray Area in Myanmar’s Rohingya Conflict, by Rodion Ebbighausen at Deutsche Welle

Those who are genuinely interested in a peaceful resolution to the crisis must take into account the complexity of the protracted conflict and avoid hasty judgments.”


‘Endless Stream’ of Rohingya Flee Military Offensive

I’ve covered refugee crises before and this was by far the worst thing that I’ve ever seen.” — New York Times reporter Hannah Beech

Aung San Suu Kyi: No ethnic cleansing of Myanmar Muslim minority 

It is not just a matter of ethnic cleansing as you put it — it is a matter of people on different sides of the divide, and this divide we are trying to close up.”

Watch on BBC 


The ethnic crisis in western Myanmar is also part of a broader geopolitical struggle over who will profit from economic development in a region that is of strategic importance to the two world powers it sits between: India and China. The Rohingya’s home state of Rakhine has already been the site of several large infrastructure projects, including Chinese-built pipelines and Indian-built ports and highways.