Populations at Risk
Despite political reforms implemented by the government, ethnic and religious minorities in Burma/Myanmar, especially stateless Rohingya and other Muslims, continue to face a serious risk of mass atrocity crimes.
BACKGROUND: Outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence that first began in mid-2012 in Burma/Myanmar continue to put minority populations at serious risk of mass atrocity crimes. Sporadic attacks against Muslims have recurred since June and October 2012 when clashes broke out between Arakanese/Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Arakan/Rakhine state, killing nearly 200 people. Some 140,000 people remain displaced as a result of this violence.
Between 9 and 13 January 2014 at least 40 Rohingya Muslims were attacked and killed by local Buddhist residents and state security forces in Maungdaw Township, Arakan/Rakhine state. Officials then issued a blanket order for the arrest of all male Rohingya. The central government has since denied any deaths of Rohingya.
Rohingya Muslims face discriminatory state policies, including the denial of citizenship and a two-child limit for families. During June 2012 President Thein Sein asserted that Burma/Myanmar will not take responsibility for Rohingya because they are "not our ethnicity." The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has expressed concern over the "increasingly permanent" segregation of communities in Arakan/Rakhine state, with many Muslims confined to internally displaced persons camps and denied their fundamental human rights. Buddhist monk organizations have called for the deportation of Rohingya and have attempted to block the delivery of humanitarian aid to those displaced by violence. Persecution has led thousands of Rohingyas to seek protection in neighboring countries.
Government security forces have consistently failed to adequately protect civilians during outbreaks of violence and in some cases have been complicit in attacks. For example, police failed to intervene to protect victims during a 21 March 2013 massacre of over 30 Muslim students and teachers in Meikhtila, despite witnessing the attack.
Conditions for Burma/Myanmar's other minorities also remain grave. After 60 years of civil war, the government has reached ceasefire agreements with several ethnic armed groups. Despite this, fighting continues in Kachin, Karenni/Kayah, Karen/Kayin, Chin and Shan states. The government's armed forces (Tatmadaw) have committed violations including extrajudicial killing, sexual violence and the recruitment of child soldiers, possibly amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affarirs has said the government continues to block parts of Kachin and Shan states from access to humanitarian relief for those affected by the fighting.
ANALYSIS: While the government has been commended for introducing extensive democratic reforms, widespread abuses against several of Burma/Myanmar's minorities continue. Anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim violence has spread and is evidence of a dangerous communal fracture that the government is failing to adequately address. In particular, the government has taken little action towards improving the plight of the Rohingya. The government's refusal to grant them citizenship and failure to restrict anti-Rohingya hate speech enables ongoing violations of their rights.
Attacks by the Tatmadaw also pose a grave threat to civilians, particularly in Kachin state, and indicate that the military's commitment to reform remains questionable. 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 Responsibility to Protect.
INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE: Following decades of political isolation and military dictatorship, democratic reforms have contributed to rapprochement between Burma/Myanmar and the international community, including the lifting of sanctions and cancellation of bilateral debt by a number of countries.
Since the outbreak of anti-Muslim violence in June 2012, the UN, regional organizations and individual states have censured the government for failing to protect civilians from attacks. [For responses prior to August 2013, see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation of the Rohingya and Anti-Muslim Violence in Burma/Myanmar.]
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Inter-Parliamentary Caucus and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation have condemned violence against Rohingya. Burma/Myanmar currently holds the chairmanship of ASEAN for 2014.
The UN General Assembly's Third Committee adopted a resolution on 19 November urging the government to address the root causes of attacks against Muslims and to grant the Rohingya equal access to citizenship. The appeal was rejected by Burma/Myanmar's Permanent Representative to the UN, who said the government does not recognize the term "Rohingya" and has a sovereign right to deny citizenship to those ineligible under its existing laws.
Following the events in Maungdaw Township, several UN officials, including Special Rapporteur Quintana, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Humanitarian Affairs Coordinator, condemned the violence and called for an impartial investigation. The government denied access to the area and claimed to conduct its own investigation, reporting "no evidence" of the killings of Rohingya.
NECESSARY ACTION: The government of Burma/Myanmar must uphold its Responsibility to Protect all populations, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.
The government must end endemic discrimination against Rohingya, including the denial of citizenship. It must hold accountable all those who commit abuses, including inciting 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 to Rohingya asylum seekers.
The government must allow unhindered humanitarian access to those affected by violence in Arakan/Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states.
The international community must urge the government of Burma/Myanmar to prioritize the development of a comprehensive plan to engage ethnic minorities in an inclusive reconciliation process. Remaining sanctions should only be lifted following a demonstrable improvement in the welfare of ethnic and religious minorities.
A central component of the government's reform process must include constitutional reform that addresses the needs of ethnic minorities, as well as developing an independent judiciary as a means of safeguarding human rights and tackling the culture of impunity regarding mass atrocity crimes.
Last Updated: 14 February 2014