May 3, 2018 Reading Time: 7 minutes
This commentary looks at the recent humanitarian crisis involving Myanmar’s Rohingya community from a Sri Lankan perspective. In particular, it considers implications of the crisis for Sri Lanka. The article suggests that the crisis requires Sri Lanka to formulate a national policy on refugees, in its drive to become a better ‘regional citizen.’ In addition, the author argues that the deteriorating situation in Myanmar serves as an implicit warning for Buddhist-Muslim relations in Sri Lanka.
The Rohingya are a largely Muslim ethnic minority concentrated in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, (historically referred to as the Arakan State). They make up about 3% of the population in a country where Buddhists constitute nearly 90%.1
The origins of the Rohingya are contested; they have been variously described as indigenous inhabitants of Rakhine state, or—in the explanation prefered by the government of Myanmar—as settlers in Rakhine after 1823.2 Despite their roots in the Rakhine state, the Rohingya are not recognised by the Myanmarese government as citizens of the country and are considered stateless people.3 The Rohingya have also suffered from systemic sectarian violence since at least 20124 at the hands of Buddhist Myanmarese.
Since 2017, the violence against the Rohingya has escalated to include repeated violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, such as extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, destruction of property, torture, rape, other forms of sexual violence, and forced labour. Myanmar’s military has further been implicated in conducting “clearance operations” in over 300 Rohingya villages,5 resulting in the complete destruction of these villages. According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), since 2017, over 671,0006 Rohingya have crossed from Myanmar into Bangladesh, joining approximately 135,000 others7 who fled in earlier waves of displacement. A United Nations Fact-Finding Mission, whose final report will be published at the end of 2018, is expected to emphasise not only the widespread nature of the violence against Rohingya communities, but also the inadequate response of Myanmar’s government in protecting Rohingya civilians from human rights abuses.8
The violence towards the Rohingya stems from three widespread perceptions9 among the Buddhist Myanmarese. Firstly, they believe that the Rohingya population in Myanmar is growing exponentially, at a rate that will make Buddhists a minority. Secondly, it is believed that Bangladesh is sending their ‘extra’ citizens to the Rakhine state, further bolstering the Muslim population there. Thirdly, Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar claim that the Rohingya do not have the right to live in the Rakhine state, as it belongs to the ‘original’ Buddhist Myanmarese.
Looking forward, Sri Lanka should not hesitate to condemn any systematic violence in Myanmar, and ensure the well-being of Rohingya people in Sri Lanka’s jurisdiction. It should form a national policy on refugees and asylum-seekers in view of the suffering and human rights of these persons. The current impunity of instigators of sectarian violence in Sri Lanka must also be dealt with through an efficient and impartial application of existing laws. This is particularly important, given Sri Lanka’s problematic history and recent experience of ethnic relations, and the continued struggles of refugee returnees to the country.
1 United Nations Statistics Division. (2017). UNSD Demographic Statistics. Available at http://data.un.org/Data.aspx?d=POP&f=tableCode%3A28.
2 Long, Kate. (2013). Dynamics of State, Sangha and Society in Myanmar: A Closer Look at the Rohingya Issue. Available at: http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=3&sid=2d38c2e3-648a-474f-b2f7-bbfccd27fc23%40sessionmgr102.
3 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (2017). Rohingya emergency. Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/rohingya-emergency.html.
4 BBC. (2014). Why is there communal violence in Myanmar? Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-18395788.
5 United Nations Human Rights Council. (2018). Statement by Mr. Marzuki Darusman, Chairperson of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, at the 37th session of the Human Rights Council. Available at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/Pages/NewsDetail.aspx?NewsID=22798&LangID=E.
6 Inter Sector Coordination Group. (2018). JRP for Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis: March – December 2018. Available at: https://reliefweb.int/report/bangladesh/jrp-rohingya-humanitarian-crisis-march-december-2018-0.
8 United Nations Human Rights Council. (2018). Statement by Mr. Marzuki Darusman, Chairperson of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, at the 37th session of the Human Rights Council. Available at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/Pages/NewsDetail.aspx?NewsID=22798&LangID=E.
9 South China Morning Post. (2017). Why the Rohingya? Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing is driven by an irrational fear of Muslims becoming the majority. Available at: http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2110764/why-rohingya-myanmars-ethnic-cleansing-driven-irrational.
10 Ministry of Finance, Sri Lanka. (2017). Statement by the Minister of Finance and Media, Hon. Mangala Samaraweera, MP., on the Rohingya Refugees in Sri Lanka. Available at: http://www.treasury.gov.lk/article/-/article-viewer-portlet/render/view/statement-by-the-minister-of-finance-and-media-hon-mangala-samaraweera-mp-on-the-rohingya-refugees-in-sri-lanka.
11 Daily FT. (2017). No Rohingya refugees in Sri Lanka: Govt. Available at: http://www.ft.lk/news/No-Rohingya-refugees-in-Sri-Lanka–Govt-/56-639900.
13 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (2018). Sri Lanka. Available at
14 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (2017). UNHCR Submission on Sri Lanka: UPR 28th Session. Available at http://www.refworld.org/docid/5a12ae1f2.html.
15 The Sunday Times. (2017). Syrians seek refuge in Sri Lanka. Available at: http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170813/news/syrians-seek-refuge-in-sri-lanka-254499.html.
16 Hewage, Senal et al (2018). International Reactions to Anti-Muslim Riots in Sri Lanka. Available at: http://www.lki.lk/blog/international-reactions-to-anti-muslim-riots/.
17 Reuters. (2017). UNHCR alarmed at violence against Rohingyas in Sri Lanka. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-rohingya-sri-lanka/unhcr-alarmed-at-violence-against-rohingyas-in-sri-lanka-idUSKCN1C22A7.
18 Daily FT. (2017). No Rohingya refugees in Sri Lanka: Govt. Available at: http://www.ft.lk/news/No-Rohingya-refugees-in-Sri-Lanka–Govt-/56-639900.
19 South China Morning Post. (2017). Hardline Buddhist monks storm UN ‘safe house’ in Sri Lanka to attack Rohingya refugees. Available at http://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/2112971/hardline-buddhist-monks-storm-un-safe-house-sri-lanka.
20 UN High Commissioner for Refugees. (1994). The Principle of Non-Refoulement as a Norm of Customary International Law. Available at http://www.refworld.org/docid/437b6db64.html.
21 Groundviews. (2017). World Refugees Day and refugees from and to Sri Lanka. Available at: http://groundviews.org/2017/06/21/world-refugees-day-and-refugees-from-and-to-sri-lanka/.
22 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (2018). Sri Lanka – Fact Sheet.
Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/protection/operations/561681326/sri-lanka-fact-sheet.html.
23 The Government of Hong Kong. (2012). Making a Claim for Non-refoulement Protection in Hong Kong. Available at
24 United Nations. (2013). 10 Top Questions on Refugees and Asylum-Seekers answered by UNHCR’s Representative in Sri Lanka Michael Zwack on World Refugee Day, 2013. Available at: https://lk.one.un.org/news/10-top-questions-on-refugees-and-asylum-seekers-answered-by-unhcrs-representative-in-sri-lanka-michael-zwack-on-world-refugee-day-2013/.
25 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (2015). Sri Lankan
Refugee Returnees in 2015. Available at: http://unhcr.lk/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Sri-Lankan-Refugee-Returnees-in-2015-Results-of-Household-Visit-Protection-Monitoring-Interviews-Tool-Two.pdf.
26 Ministry of Prison Reforms, Rehabilitation, Resettlement, and Hindu Religious Affairs. (2016). National Policy on Durable Solutions for Conflict-Affected Displacement. Available at: http://resettlementmin.gov.lk/site/images/stories/pdf/final%20policy.pdf.
*Divya Hundlani is a Research Associate at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI). The author wishes to thank Barana Waidyatilake, Dinusha Panditaratne and Senal Hewage at LKI for their assistance; all remaining errors being the author’s. This commentary was originally published in the Daily FT (Sri Lanka) on 3 May 2018. The opinions expressed in this article are of the author and not of LKI. They do not necessarily reflect the position of any other institution or individual with which the author is affiliated.