BACKGROUND: 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. Despite the historic 8 November democratic elections, Rohingyas were largely disenfranchised in advance of the vote and continue to be denied citizenship and other fundamental human rights. While the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won the elections, it did so while excluding all Muslims as candidates. A spokesman for the party said in November that the Rohingya's plight was not an NLD priority.
The former UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has said that the government's failure to address the ongoing human rights situation in Arakan/Rakhine state "will ultimately mean the extermination of the Rohingyas."
On 31 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 31 August Burma/Myanmar's former President, Thein Sein, signed into law the last of four so-called "Protection of Race and Religion" bills. These discriminatory laws place harsh restrictions on women and non-Buddhists, including on fundamental religious freedoms, as well as reproductive and marital rights.
More than 140,000 people, mostly Rohingyas, remain segregated in IDP camps as a result of previous inter-communal violence, where "conditions remain abysmal and access to adequate basic services severely limited," according to an October 2015 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee. After visiting during February, the Director of Operations for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, John Ging, described the "appalling sanitation conditions" in Rohingya displacement camps and appealed for an end to the "discriminatory and repugnant policies" of segregation and disenfranchisement.
While the former government lifted the state of emergency in Arakan/Rakhine state on 29 March 2016 – imposed during the 2012 inter-communal violence – the new government has expressed no intention to ensure the IDPs' freedom of movement or access to food, water, healthcare and other vital humanitarian assistance. Many Rohingyas in Arakan/Rakhine state also face the ongoing threat of violence at the hands of Buddhist extremists who reject their right to exist in Burma/Myanmar.
The cumulative impact of deteriorating living conditions, combined with ongoing persecution by the government and some Buddhist chauvinist groups, has led tens of thousands of Rohingyas to flee to neighboring countries, where they are often subject to further abuse, human trafficking and refoulement. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that at least 32,600 people, mostly Rohingyas, fled during 2015, approximately 370 of whom died in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.
The country's military forces (Tatmadaw), which have previously perpetrated atrocities against several ethnic minority groups, also pose an ongoing threat. While the previous government signed a ceasefire agreement on 15 October with eight armed ethnic groups, conflict between the Tatmadaw and several other groups continues, including in Kachin and Shan states. On 12 January representatives from the army, parliament and ethnic armed groups gathered for five days of political dialogue at the Union Peace Conference.
On 28 January Burma/Myanmar's parliament passed the "Former Presidents' Security Law," which could grant amnesty to former presidents for crimes under international law, including serious human rights violations. Burma/Myanmar's new parliament convened for the first time on 1 February. Elected by parliament on 15 March, U Htin Kyaw, a confidant of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, began his term as president on 1 April. On 6 April parliament created the position of State Counselor for Aung San Suu Kyi.
ANALYSIS: The current government's refusal to grant the Rohingya access to citizenship or end discriminatory state policies, as well as its failure to restrict hate speech, encourages ongoing violations of their fundamental human rights and reinforces the dangerous perception of the Rohingya as ethnic outsiders. Government initiatives, including the Protection of Race and Religion bills, appear to be intended to eradicate the Rohingya's legal right to exist as a distinct ethno-religious group.
The 8 November elections have legitimized a state that denies the Rohingya their most fundamental human rights. As a result of the government curtailing their voting rights and barring many Muslim candidates, Rohingyas have also lost political representation. Disenfranchisement, combined with years of persecution, exclusion and poverty, is causing Rohingyas to flee from Burma/Myanmar, despite the refusal of several countries in the region to offer asylum.
There is an urgent need for the NLD government to protect the human rights of all populations in Burma/Myanmar. The NLD government has an opportunity to reverse discriminatory policies and drastically improve the plight of the Rohingya, but currently appears unwilling to do so.
The country's constitution still exempts the Tatmadaw from prosecution for any act carried out "in the execution of their respective duties." On 25 June the military-dominated parliament defeated a bill that would have abolished the Tatmadaw's veto power over constitutional amendments. With a pervasive culture of impunity, the military has not been held accountable for previous mass atrocity crimes.
The government of Burma/Myanmar is failing to uphold its primary Responsibility to Protect with regard to the Rohingya.
INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE: 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 October 2015, see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation of the Rohingya and Anti-Muslim Violence in Burma/Myanmar.]
On 4 November the UN Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect released a statement expressing concern that the electoral process has resulted in "further marginalization of religious minorities," highlighting "decades of institutionalized discrimination in law, policies and practice" against Rohingyas.
On 23 December the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution regarding the Rohingya and "other minorities subject to marginalization and instances of human rights violations and abuses." The resolution called upon Burma/Myanmar to protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all individuals, including Rohingyas, facilitate the safe and voluntary return of IDPs to their communities and ensure unhindered access to humanitarian assistance.
In her 18 March report, Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee called upon the NLD "to take immediate steps to put an end to the highly discriminatory policies and practices against the Rohingya and other Muslim communities."
On 23 March the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution expressing serious concerns over human rights violations, particularly against the Rohingya, and urged the government to repeal discriminatory legislative and policy measures, to lift restrictions on movement, and to intensify its efforts to address discrimination.
NECESSARY ACTION: The newly-elected government of Burma/Myanmar must uphold their Responsibility to Protect all populations, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. The NLD government should immediately abolish the Rakhine Action Plan and end institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya, including the denial of citizenship. It must hold accountable all those who commit human rights abuses, including inciting ethnic and religious intolerance and violence.
In Arakan/Rakhine state the government must facilitate the safe, voluntary return of IDPs to their communities. Neighboring countries should offer protection and assistance to Rohingya asylum seekers.
The international community must urge the new NLD government to develop a comprehensive reconciliation plan, including establishing a commission of inquiry into crimes committed against the Rohingya in Arakan/Rakhine state. The new government must demonstrably improve the welfare of ethnic and religious minorities and repeal laws and discriminatory practices that pose an existential threat to the Rohingya community.
A central component of the new government's reform process must include constitutional reform that addresses the needs of ethnic minorities, as well as the development of an independent judiciary as a means of safeguarding human rights and tackling the culture of impunity regarding past mass atrocity crimes.
Last Updated: 15 April 2016