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.
Despite the historic 8 November 2015 democratic elections, Rohingyas were largely disenfranchised in advance of the vote and continue to be denied citizenship and other fundamental human rights. While the National League for Democracy (NLD) won the elections, it did so while excluding all Muslims as candidates. 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. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that at least 32,600 people, mostly Rohingyas, fled Burma/Myanmar during 2015.
On 29 March 2016 the former government lifted the state of emergency in Arakan/Rakhine state, but the new government has done little to ensure access to vital humanitarian assistance or freedom of movement, with several townships remaining under curfew. 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.
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 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. Several government officials, including the Union Religious Affairs Minister, Thura U Aung Ko, have recently spoken out against Ma Ba Tha, threatening to sanction the group.
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. Fighting between the Tatmadaw and Kachin Independence Army over the past five years has displaced nearly 100,000 civilians.
The new government held a peace conference - the 21st Century Panglong - with ethnic armed groups from 31 August to 4 September. The Panglong conference could be a significant symbolic step towards more formal negotiations between the new government and ethnic armed groups.
On 14 September Aung San Suu Kyi met with United States President Barack Obama in Washington. Following the meeting President Obama indicated that the United States would soon lift its remaining sanctions on Burma/Myanmar.
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.
While the NLD government inherited these discriminatory laws and anti-Rohingya policies, it has yet to demonstrate willingness to repeal them. 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. 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.
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.
Special Rapporteur Lee concluded a 12-day visit to the country on 1 July, calling upon the government to "demonstrate that instigating and committing violence against an ethnic or religious minority community has no place in Myanmar."
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.
The high-level advisory commission should investigate the systematic persecution of the Rohingya in Arakan/Rakhine state. The government of Burma/Myanmar must uphold its 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 prohibit hate speech and hold accountable all those who commit human rights abuses, including Ma Ba Tha.
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.
A central component of the NLD 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 September 2016