The Myanmar Military's Legacy of Impunity

How the Rohingya Crisis Fits a Historical Pattern

Rohingya refugees rebuild their makeshift house, which was destroyed by Cyclone Mora, at the Kutupalang Makeshift Refugee Camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, June 2017. Mohammad Ponir Hossain / REUTERS

“The voice of the gunfire woke everyone. While we were running, we saw a lot of dead bodies, blood, and bullet casings on the road. We lived in plastic tents with 60 other families.... Even though they live on the border, they are always looking back toward their homeland.”

This could easily have been the story of one of Myanmar’s nearly 650,000 Muslim Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh since August, following a brutal campaign against them by the country’s military, the Tatmadaw. But this tale is, in fact, six years old. It belongs to Teehseng, a member of the Shan ethnic minority in Myanmar, who was twice displaced by the army: first internally in 1996 and then to Thailand in 2002, where he remains today. His experience is a reminder that the atrocities committed against the Rohingya are part of a greater historical pattern of behavior by the Tatmadaw.

The result is a refugee crisis spanning Myanmar’s eastern, western, and northern perimeters. Today, hundreds of thousands of lives continue in limbo along these borders, a foreshadowing of the exile that could await the Rohingya. Meanwhile, the army denies all allegations of abuse. The United States has accused Myanmar’s military of committing ethnic cleansing against the Muslim minority, while UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein recently said that “elements of genocide” could be present.

Although the tactics used by security forces against the Rohingya in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State have shocked the world, they are not new. A scorched-earth policy, gang rape, and extrajudicial killings have long been documented military practices throughout the country. It is the alarming pace and scale at which these atrocities have been committed, the apparent intent to remove the Rohingya from the country, and the widespread popular prejudice against them that differentiates this crisis from others in Myanmar. The groundwork for the current catastrophe, however, had already been laid. Since the 1970s, the Tatmadaw has carried out with impunity a “Four

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