The situation in Arakan/Rakhine state in northwest Burma/Myanmar has deteriorated significantly following a series of attacks on border guard posts on 9 October, when nine police officers and eight unidentified attackers were killed. The government declared a state of emergency in Maungdaw and three other townships and immediately deployed security forces to the area. Reports of mass arrests and extrajudicial killings of Rohingya have surfaced since a joint army-police operation began on 10 October.
Discriminatory state policies and systematic persecution in Burma/Myanmar threaten the existence of the more than 1 million stateless Rohingya, a distinct Muslim ethnic minority group. On 20 June the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein, released a report on the human rights situation of the Rohingya in Burma/Myanmar, detailing a "pattern of gross human rights violations," including discriminatory practices targeting Rohingya on the basis of their identity. These "widespread and systematic" abuses amount to crimes against humanity.
Rohingyas were largely disenfranchised in advance of the 8 November 2015 elections and continue to be denied citizenship and other fundamental human rights. The National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi has publicly stated that the new government will not use the term "Rohingya," cautioning against "emotive" and "controversial" terms.
An estimated 120,000 people, mostly Rohingyas, remain segregated in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps as a result of 2012 inter-communal violence. After visiting Rohingya displacement camps during February 2016, the Director of Operations for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), John Ging, described the "appalling" conditions and appealed for an end to the "discriminatory and repugnant policies" of segregation and disenfranchisement. The cumulative impact of deteriorating living conditions, combined with ongoing persecution, has led tens of thousands of Rohingyas to flee to neighboring countries, where they are often subject to further abuse, human trafficking and refoulement. Many Rohingyas in Arakan/Rakhine state also face the ongoing threat of recurring violence at the hands of Buddhist extremists who reject their right to exist in Burma/Myanmar.
In March 2015 the former government invalidated the identification cards held by many Rohingyas, forcing them to apply for citizenship as "Bengalis," suggesting their illegal migration from Bangladesh. This follows the government denying Rohingyas the ability to self-identify on the national census of March 2014, the first since 1983. On 21 July 2016 the government finally released census figures on ethnicity and religion, which showed that Buddhists make up 90 percent of the population of 51 million. The UN Population Fund acknowledged that the exclusion of the Rohingya represented "a serious shortcoming of the census and a grave human rights concern." The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has previously highlighted the "right of the Rohingya to self-identification according to international human rights law."
Former President Thein Sein signed into law the last of four so-called "Protection of Race and Religion" bills in August 2015. These discriminatory laws place harsh restrictions on women and non-Buddhists, including on fundamental religious freedoms, as well as reproductive and marital rights. The laws were supported by a radical Buddhist chauvinist organization Ma Ba Tha, which has been accused of anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya hate speech. On 18 September the Rakhine State's Security and Border Affairs announced intention to demolish Muslim homes, schools and mosques, claiming that the structures were built illegally. An estimated 3,000 buildings could be subject to removal, including more than 2,500 houses in the Muslim-majority townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung.
On 23 August the office of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi announced the establishment of a high-level advisory commission, headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to find solutions to "the complex and delicate issues in the Rakhine state." The commission convened its first meeting on 5 September in Yangon.
The country's military forces (Tatmadaw) pose an ongoing threat to other ethnic groups in Burma/Myanmar. While the previous government signed a ceasefire agreement on 15 October with eight ethnic armed groups, conflict between the Tatmadaw and several other groups continues. The NLD government held a peace conference – the 21st Century Panglong - with ethnic armed groups from 31 August to 3 September. The conference did not lead to major outcomes, but was seen as a step toward resolving decades of ethnic conflict. However, shortly after the conference fighting resumed or intensified in several locals, including in northern Shan, Kachin and Karen states.
The recent violence in northwest Arakan/Rakhine state represents a dangerous potential escalation of the conflict between state security forces and the Rohingya minority. The previous government's refusal to grant the Rohingya access to citizenship or end discriminatory state policies encouraged violations of their fundamental human rights and reinforced the dangerous perception of the Rohingya as ethnic outsiders. The Protection of Race and Religion bills were intended to eradicate the Rohingya's legal right to exist as a distinct ethnic group in Burma/Myanmar.
While the NLD government made some progress towards democracy and human rights, it has yet to repeal existing discriminatory laws and anti-Rohingya policies. Disenfranchisement, combined with years of persecution, exclusion and poverty, has caused Rohingyas to flee from Burma/Myanmar, despite the refusal of several countries in the region to offer asylum. The NLD government has a historic opportunity to end discriminatory policies and drastically improve the plight of the Rohingya, including by utilizing the recently established high-level advisory commission.
With a pervasive culture of impunity, the military has not been held accountable for previous mass atrocity crimes, and there are grave fears for the safety of vulnerable Rohingya civilians as the security forces increase operations in Arakan/Rakhine state after the recent border post attacks.
Despite some positive signs, the government of Burma/Myanmar is still failing to uphold its primary Responsibility to Protect with regard to the Rohingya.
Following decades of military dictatorship, democratic reforms have contributed to rapprochement between Burma/Myanmar and the international community, including the lifting of sanctions by a number of countries. [For responses prior to March 2016, see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation of the Rohingya and Anti-Muslim Violence in Burma/Myanmar.]
On 23 March the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution expressing serious concern over human rights violations, particularly against the Rohingya, and urged the government to repeal discriminatory legislation. On 20 June High Commissioner Zeid urged the NLD to end systemic discrimination and ongoing human rights violations against the Rohingya and other minorities.
On 7 July the European Union (EU) Parliament passed a resolution calling upon the government to abolish discriminatory policies and restore the Rohingya's citizenship. Citing progress on human rights under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, the EU announced on 16 September that it would not be submitting a UN General Assembly human rights resolution on Myanmar for the first time since 1991.
Following a 14 September meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi in Washington, on 7 October President Barack Obama formally announced that the United States is lifting its remaining sanctions on Myanmar because of the country's progress towards democracy.
While responding to the recent border post attacks, the NLD government must ensure that all security operations conducted by the police and Tatmadaw in Arakan/Rakhine state are fully compliant with international human rights and humanitarian law.
The government of Burma/Myanmar must uphold its Responsibility to Protect all populations, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. While it is important to support positive initiatives made by the new NLD government, it should immediately abolish the Rakhine Action Plan and end institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya, including the denial of citizenship. The government must prohibit hate speech and hold accountable all those who commit human rights abuses, including Ma Ba Tha. The government should collaborate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and open an OHCHR office in Myanmar, as promised in 2012 by then President U Thein Sein.
In Arakan/Rakhine state the government must facilitate the safe, voluntary return of IDPs to their communities. Countries that receive Rohingya asylum seekers should offer them protection and assistance. The NLD government should urgently address the announcement made by Rakhine State's Minister of Security and Border Affairs to demolish buildings belonging to Muslim communities and prevent any such action.
The high-level advisory commission should investigate the systematic persecution of the Rohingya in Arakan/Rakhine state.
Last Updated: 14 October 2016