BACKGROUND: Despite the historic 8 November democratic elections, discriminatory state policies and systematic persecution in Burma/Myanmar threaten the ongoing existence of the Rohingya, a distinct Muslim ethnic minority group. Rohingyas were largely disenfranchised in advance of the election and continue to be denied citizenship and other fundamental human rights by the government. Many Rohingyas in Arakan/Rakhine state also continue to be restricted to IDP camps and face the ongoing threat of violence at the hands of Buddhist extremists who reject their right to exist in Burma/Myanmar.
On 29 September 2014 at the UN General Assembly, the government announced the "Rakhine Action Plan," requiring Rohingyas to accept ethnic reclassification as "Bengali" in order to obtain citizenship or be forced into detention camps. On 31 March 2015 the government invalidated the identification cards held by many Rohingyas, forcing them to apply for citizenship as "Bengalis," suggesting their illegal migration to Burma/Myanmar 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 President Thein Sein signed into law the last of four 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.
The former UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has said that previous violence against the Rohingya could amount to crimes against humanity and warned on 30 May 2014 that the government's failure to address the human rights situation in Arakan/Rakhine state "will ultimately mean the extermination of the Rohingyas."
The negative 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. UNHCR reported that at least 31,000 people fled during the first half of 2015, over 1,100 of whom died from the voyage or mistreatment. During May mass graves containing the bodies of Rohingyas were discovered at human trafficking camps in Thailand and Malaysia.
An estimated 139,000 people, mostly Rohingyas, remain segregated in IDP camps due to inter-communal violence and attacks against the minority Muslim community that occurred between June and October 2012, when clashes in Arakan/Rakhine state killed nearly 200 people. The government continues restrict the IDPs' movement and block access to food, water, healthcare and other vital humanitarian assistance.
The country's military forces (Tatmadaw), which have previously perpetrated atrocities against several ethnic minority groups, also pose an ongoing threat. While the 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 state.
ANALYSIS: The 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. Recent 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 and threatens the continued existence of the Rohingya community.
The 8 November elections have legitimized a government that denies the Rohingya their fundamental human rights. As a result of the government curtailing their voting rights and barring many Muslim candidates, Rohingyas have also lost political representation in Arakan/Rakhine state. Disenfranchisement, combined with years of persecution, exclusion and poverty, is causing unprecedented numbers of Rohingyas to flee from Burma/Myanmar, despite the refusal of several countries in the region to offer asylum.
The country's constitution still exempts the Tatmadaw from prosecution for any act carried out "in the execution of their respective duties." With a pervasive culture of impunity, the military has not been held accountable for previous mass atrocity crimes. On 25 June the military-dominated parliament defeated a bill that would have abolished the Tatmadaw's veto power over constitutional amendments.
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 July 2015, see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation of the Rohingya and Anti-Muslim Violence in Burma/Myanmar.]
The UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on 1 July, condemning systematic violations of human rights committed against Rohingyas and urging the government of Burma/Myanmar to grant the Rohingya citizenship and end growing prejudice against Muslims.
On 16 October the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Parliamentarians for Human Rights released a report warning that the region risks another major refugee crisis as a result of the persecution of the Rohingya and urged the Burma/Myanmar government and ASEAN states to address the situation.
On 4 November the UN Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and R2P 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.
NECESSARY ACTION: The incumbent and newly-elected government of Burma/Myanmar must uphold their Responsibility to Protect all populations, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. The incoming government should 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 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 government to develop a comprehensive reconciliation plan, demonstrably improve the welfare of ethnic and religious minorities, and end discriminatory practices 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 November 2015