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. Reports of mass arrests, rape, and extrajudicial killings of Rohingya – a distinct Muslim ethnic minority group - have surfaced since a joint army-police operation began on 10 October. Since 23 October army officers have forcibly removed more than 2,000 villagers from their homes. The army deployed helicopter gunships to several Rohingya villages on 12 and 13 November, resulting in the death of 2 soldiers and at least 25 civilians. Arakan/Rakhine state government officials have announced they will start recruiting and arming local citizens for an auxiliary police force, which Rohingya are ineligible to join.
Discriminatory state policies and systematic persecution in Burma/Myanmar continue to threaten the existence of the more than 1 million stateless Rohingya. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein, has reported on the human rights situation of the Rohingya in Burma/Myanmar, detailing 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 Burma/Myanmar's historic 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 her 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 in Arakan/Rakhine state 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, appealed for an end to the "discriminatory and repugnant policies" of segregation and disenfranchisement. The World Food Programme has reported that government authorities continue to deny humanitarian access to parts of Arakan/Rakhine state.
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. The UN Special Rapporteur for 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.
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. On 18 September Arakan/Rakhine state's Minister for Security and Border Affairs announced plans to demolish thousands of Muslim homes, schools and mosques, claiming that the structures were built illegally.
The country's military forces (Tatmadaw) also pose an ongoing threat to other ethnic groups in Burma/Myanmar. While the previous government signed ceasefire agreements with several ethnic armed groups, conflict continues. The NLD government held a peace conference – the 21st Century Panglong - with ethnic armed groups from 31 August to 3 September. However, shortly after the conference fighting resumed in several states, including in northern Shan, Kachin and Karen.
The recent violence in northwest Arakan/Rakhine state represents a dangerous escalation of the conflict between state security forces and the Rohingya minority, also potentially exacerbating tensions between Buddhist and Muslim communities across Burma/Myanmar.
The previous government's refusal to end discriminatory state policies against Rohingyas 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 has made some progress towards democracy and advancing human rights, it has yet to repeal existing discriminatory laws and anti-Rohingya policies. The NLD government has an opportunity to 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.
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.
On 7 July the European 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 European Union (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 meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi in Washington, on 7 October United States President Barack Obama formally announced that the United States is lifting its remaining sanctions on Myanmar because of the country's progress towards democracy.
On 14 October the high-level advisory commission on Rakhine state issued a statement "strongly [deploring] the violent attacks perpetrated in northern Rakhine State." On 24 October Special Rapporteur Lee – together with four other UN Special Rapporteurs – issued a joint statement condemning human rights violations in Burma/Myanmar, calling upon the government to undertake thorough investigations of all alleged abuses during Army operations and prevent incitement against the Rohingya.
While responding to the recent border post attacks, the NLD government must ensure that all security operations in Arakan/Rakhine state are fully compliant with international law. Authorities should ensure that humanitarian aid can reach vulnerable populations in Arakan/Rakhine state, including the Rohingya.
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. The government must prohibit hate speech and hold accountable all those who commit human rights abuses. The government should collaborate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to open a UN human rights office in Burma/Myanmar.
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 halt any proposed action to systematically demolish buildings belonging to Muslim and Rohingya communities in Arakan/Rakhine state.
The high-level advisory commission should investigate the systematic persecution of the Rohingya.
Last Updated: 15 November 2016