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. On 20 June the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 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. The former UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has said that a failure to address the ongoing human rights situation in Arakan/Rakhine state "will ultimately mean the extermination of the Rohingyas."
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 opposition 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 government will not use the term "Rohingya," cautioning against "emotive" and "controversial" terms.
An estimated 120,000 people, mostly Rohingyas, remain segregated in IDP camps as a result of 2012 inter-communal violence. After visiting during February 2016, the Director of Operations for OCHA, John Ging, described the "appalling" conditions in Rohingya displacement camps and appealed for an end to the "discriminatory and repugnant policies" of segregation and disenfranchisement.
On 29 March 2016 the former government lifted the state of emergency in Arakan/Rakhine state – imposed during 2012 amidst inter-communal violence – but the new government has done little to ensure freedom of movement or access to vital humanitarian assistance, while the Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships remain 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 Myanmar government finally released census figures on ethnicity and religion, which showed that Buddhists make up 90 percent of the population of 51.48 million. A UN Population Fund statement 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" in her reports.
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 12 July 2016 the state Buddhist authority, Sangha Maha Nayaka, issued a statement declaring that Ma Ba Tha had no lawful status as a Buddhist organization. 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 if it continues to use hate speech or incite violence, but Ma Ba Tha's activities have not yet been restricted.
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. UNHCR reported that at least 32,600 people, mostly Rohingyas, fled Burma/Myanmar during 2015.
The country's military forces (Tatmadaw) also 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.
ANALYSIS: 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 appeared to be 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 demonstrated no willingness to repeal them. The 8 November elections legitimized a state that continues to deny the Rohingya their most fundamental human rights. 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, but currently appears unwilling to do so.
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 March 2016, see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation of the Rohingya and Anti-Muslim Violence in Burma/Myanmar.]
In her 18 March 2016 report, Special Rapporteur 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 concern over human rights violations, particularly against the Rohingya, and urged the government to repeal discriminatory legislation.
On 20 June the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 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 EU Parliament passed a resolution calling upon the government to abolish discriminatory policies and restore the Rohingya's citizenship.
NECESSARY ACTION: 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 speak out against hate speech and hold accountable all those who commit human rights abuses, including Ma Ba Tha 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 and assistance to Rohingya asylum seekers.
The international community must urge the 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 government must demonstrably improve the welfare of ethnic and religious minorities and repeal discriminatory laws that pose an existential threat to the Rohingya community.
A central component of the 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 August 2016