BACKGROUND: Outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence that first began over a year ago in Burma/Myanmar continue to put minority populations at imminent risk of mass atrocity crimes. On 29 September inter-communal violence broke out between Buddhist and Muslim residents of several villages in Arakan/Rakhine state. After three days of fighting at least 5 people were killed, while 480 people were displaced and 110 homes, mostly belonging to Muslims, were burned down. This follows numerous incidents of violence that began on 20 March. During two days of clashes which engulfed the town of Meikhtila in the Mandalay region, an estimated 40 people were killed and 12,000 displaced. Local reports described mobs of Buddhist extremists attacking Muslim homes, businesses and mosques.
Sporadic attacks against Muslims have recurred since June and October 2012 when clashes broke out between Arakanese/Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Arakan/Rakhine state, killing nearly 200 people. Some security forces tasked with restoring order committed killings and other abuses themselves. State media published anti-Rohingya accounts of the events, encouraging further persecution. The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, reported on 23 September 2013 that 140,000 people remained displaced as a result of this violence.
Rohingya Muslims continue to face discriminatory state policies, including the denial of citizenship and a two-child limit for families. During June 2012 President Thein Sein asserted that Burma/Myanmar will not take responsibility for Rohingya because they are "not our ethnicity." Buddhist monk organizations have called for their deportation and have attempted to block the delivery of humanitarian aid to displaced Rohingya in Arakan/Rakhine state. This persecution has led thousands of Rohingyas to attempt to seek protection in neighboring countries. On 3 November a boat carrying over 70 Rohingya refugees capsized off the coast, with only 8 survivors.
On 29 April the government-appointed Rakhine State Conflicts Investigation Commission released its report on the 2012 violence, calling upon the government to increase support to IDP camps and ensure that the rights of all groups are protected. However, the Commission also referred to the Rohingya as "Bengalis," reinforcing the prejudice that they are ethnic outsiders. Following a visit from 11 to 21 August, Special Rapporteur Quintana expressed concern over the "increasingly permanent" segregation of communities in Arakan/Rakhine state, with many Muslims confined to IDP camps and denied their fundamental human rights.
Government security forces have consistently failed to adequately protect Muslims during these outbreaks of violence and in some cases have been complicit in attacks. For example, police failed to intervene to protect victims during a 21 March massacre of over 30 Muslim students and teachers in Meikhtila despite witnessing the attack. However, in a positive development, on 14 July President Thein Sein announced the disbandment of the Nasaka, a border security force that has previously committed grave abuses against Rohingya.
Conditions for Burma/Myanmar's other minorities also remain grave. After 60 years of civil war, the government has reached ceasefire agreements with several ethnic armed groups. Despite this, fighting continues in Kachin, Karenni/Kayah, Karen/Kayin, Chin and Shan states. During 2012 the UN recorded violations committed by the government's armed forces (Tatmadaw) including extrajudicial killing, sexual violence and the recruitment of child soldiers, possibly amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Office of the UN Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs has said the government continues to block parts of Kachin and Shan states from access to humanitarian relief for those affected by the fighting.
ANALYSIS: While the government has been credited with introducing extensive democratic reforms, widespread abuses against several of Burma/Myanmar's minorities continue. What began as attacks upon the Rohingya population in Arakan/Rakhine state is now directed at the broader Muslim community. Anti-Muslim violence has spread and is evidence of a dangerous communal fracture that the government is failing to adequately address.
In particular, the government has taken little action towards improving the plight of the Rohingya. The government's refusal to grant them citizenship and failure to restrict anti-Rohingya hate speech and deadly violence enables ongoing violations of their rights.
Attacks by the Tatmadaw also pose a grave threat to civilians, particularly in Kachin state, and indicate that the military's commitment to reform remains questionable. With a pervasive culture of impunity, the military has not been held accountable for previous mass atrocity crimes. The government of Burma/Myanmar must undertake immediate measures to uphold its Responsibility to Protect.
INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE: Following decades of political isolation and military dictatorship, democratic reforms have contributed to rapprochement between Burma/Myanmar and the international community, including the lifting of sanctions and cancellation of bilateral debt by a number of countries.
On 19 June UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged the government to halt ongoing human rights violations and discrimination against the Rohingya.
On 1 July Malaysia urged Burma/Myanmar to take stronger action to prevent the persecution of Muslims. On 11 July Indonesia urged the government to address the citizenship status of Rohingya so they can obtain the same legal rights as "the rest of their countrymen."
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Inter-Parliamentary Caucus and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have condemned violence against Rohingya. The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights group said in a 27 August statement that the government of Burma/Myanmar is not doing enough to reduce inter-communal tensions and prevent anti-Muslim violence. The OIC visited Arakan/Rakhine state on 15 November.
In his 19 August report on the "Situation of human rights in Myanmar," the UN Secretary-General raised concern over human rights violations against the Rohingya and the plight of the wider Muslim community. He called upon the government to address the issue of Rohingya citizenship and hold accountable those disseminating hate literature or responsible for deadly violence.
On 5 November UN High Commissioner for Refugees deplored the loss of life in the Rohingya boat tragedy and said, "it is unacceptable that people are driven by such desperation into life-risking journeys."
NECESSARY ACTION: The government of Burma/Myanmar must uphold its Responsibility to Protect all populations, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.
The government must end endemic discrimination against Rohingya, including the denial of citizenship. It must hold accountable those who commit abuses, including those who incite ethnic and religious violence. In Arakan/Rakhine state, the government must facilitate the safe, voluntary return of IDPs to their communities. Neighboring countries should offer protection to Rohingya asylum seekers.
The government must allow unhindered humanitarian access to those affected by violence in Arakan/Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states.
The international community must press the government of Burma/Myanmar to prioritize the development of a comprehensive plan to engage ethnic minorities in an inclusive reconciliation process. Remaining sanctions should only be lifted following a demonstrable improvement in the welfare of ethnic and religious minorities.
A central component of the government's reform process must include constitutional reform that addresses the needs of ethnic minorities, as well as developing an independent judiciary as a means of safeguarding human rights and tackling the culture of impunity regarding mass atrocity crimes.
Last Updated: 15 November 2013