Following a series of attacks on border guard posts by armed militants on 9 October 2016, the Myanmar authorities launched a joint army-police counter-insurgency operation in northern Rakhine state. During the four-month operation there were reports of mass arrests, torture, enforced disappearance, rape and other forms of sexual violence, forcible removal, extrajudicial killings, as well as widespread destruction of Rohingya homes and mosques. Access to northern Rakhine state by humanitarian and human rights actors as well as media was severely restricted during the operation and remains so to date. On 11 August 2017 the army sent hundreds of soldiers to Rakhine state in response to a deterioration in the security situation following the killing of Buddhist and Muslim civilians by unidentified men believed to be insurgents.
On 3 February the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report detailing "widespread and systematic" attacks against the Rohingya during the counter-insurgency, which may amount to crimes against humanity. On 6 August an internal "Investigation Commission," led by former military general and now Vice President Myint Swe, released its final report, which rejected OHCHR findings and concluded that no crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing have occurred in Rakhine state. Internal investigatory bodies, established by Myanmar authorities to investigate 9 October 2016 attacks and the subsequent "clearance operations" conducted by the security forces, have been dismissed by international observers for lacking impartiality and credibility.
On 24 March the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution mandating "an independent international fact-finding mission" into allegations of human rights violations and abuses by
the security forces in Myanmar, particularly in Rakhine state. The government disassociated itself from the resolution and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has stated that Myanmar "will not accept" the mission. On 29 June the Foreign Ministry stated that it ordered Myanmar embassies to deny entry visas to members of the fact-finding mission. Although barred from entering the country, the fact-finding mission began its work remotely during August and is due to give an oral update to the Human Rights Council in September.
The Rohingya, a distinct Muslim ethnic minority group, have been systematically marginalized by discriminatory laws in Myanmar. During March 2015 the former government invalidated the identification cards held by many Rohingyas, forcing them to apply for citizenship as "Bengalis," implying 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.
Rohingyas were also largely disenfranchised in advance of Myanmar's historic November 2015 elections and continue to be denied citizenship and other fundamental human rights. Former President Thein Sein signed into law four so-called "Protection of Race and Religion" bills that place harsh restrictions on women and non-Buddhists, including on fundamental religious freedoms, as well as reproductive and marital rights.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) there are currently an estimated 120,000 Rohingya internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Rakhine state. On 25 April the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) criticized the government's plan to relocate those whose homes have been destroyed to 13 "model villages," instead of allowing them to voluntarily return to their communities. On 2 July the Rakhine state government also announced the closure of three IDP camps in Kyaukphyu, Pauktaw and Ramree townships. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, criticized lack of facilitation for the displaced to return to places of origin.
The cumulative impact of deteriorating living conditions in Rakhine state, 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. According to UNHCR, there are over 420,000 Rohingya refugees in the region.
Inter-communal tensions and religious violence, primarily directed at the Muslim minority, also remain a concern across the country, particularly in Rakhine state. On 13 August Buddhist monks and members of the Rakhine ethnic group held demonstrations in 15 towns across Rakhine state, accusing the UN and other international organizations of favoring the Rohingya and demanding they leave the state.
Despite the previous government signing ceasefire agreements with several ethnic armed groups, ongoing fighting in Kachin and Shan states has displaced an estimated 98,000 people according to OCHA. On 14 June Amnesty International issued a report detailing serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, which may amount to war crimes, in Kachin and northern Shan states.
Following a 12-day visit to Myanmar during July, the Special Rapporteur Lee highlighted a worsening human rights situation in the country and expressed disappointment that the policies of the current government are reminiscent of the previous military government.
The previous government's refusal to end discriminatory state policies regarding the Rohingya encouraged violations of their fundamental human rights and reinforced the dangerous perception of them 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 Myanmar.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) government has yet to take significant steps towards repealing discriminatory laws and ending anti-Rohingya policies. Moreover, the authorities continue to disregard credible allegations regarding atrocities committed against the Rohingya, leaving populations in Rakhine state at risk of further crimes. The rejection of the UN fact-finding mission is a further setback regarding accountability for systematic violations and abuses of human rights.
More than a year after the NLD formed the country's first civilian government in half a century, democracy in Myanmar still faces many challenges. Constitutionally the government does not control the security forces, which pose a threat to vulnerable civilians and have not been held accountable for previous mass atrocity crimes. The government has also failed to adequately address hate speech and incitement to violence directed against Muslim populations by Buddhist chauvinist groups.
The government of Myanmar is failing to uphold its primary Responsibility to Protect the Rohingya and other vulnerable ethnic and religious minority groups.
Following decades of military dictatorship, democratic reforms have contributed to rapprochement between Myanmar and the international community, including the lifting of sanctions. Citing progress on human rights by the NLD government, during 2016 the European Union did not submit a UN General Assembly resolution on Myanmar for the first time since 1991.
On 6 February the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, stated that alleged crimes detailed in the OHCHR report "could amount to crimes against humanity" and "be a precursor of other egregious international crimes."
On 4-11 July the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, visited Myanmar, Thailand and Bangladesh. During a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, the High Commissioner highlighted the need to address displacement and statelessness in Rakhine state.
On 10 July Ambassador of the United States to the UN H.E. Ms. Nikki Haley issued a statement calling upon the Myanmar government to grant access the fact-finding mission.
On 3 August the Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, H.E. Dr. Yousef bin Ahmad Al-Othaimeen, called upon the government of Myanmar to uphold human rights of the Rohingya, including by granting them citizenship, and urged authorities to work with countries in the region to address the refugee issue.
On 11 August Special Rapporteur Lee released a statement in response to the deployment of troops in Rakhine state, urging the government "to ensure that security forces exercise restraint in all circumstances and respect human rights in addressing the security situation."
States and organizations with significant political and economic ties to Myanmar should urge the government to accept the Human Rights Council-mandated fact-finding mission and allow for the establishment of an OHCHR office in the country. The government should also permit humanitarian and human rights organizations unhindered access to populations in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states.
The Myanmar authorities should allow IDPs and refugees the option of returning to their places of origin and not be forced to remain in displacement camps or relocate to so-called "model villages." Countries that receive Rohingya asylum seekers should offer them protection and assistance.
The government must repeal or amend all laws and regulations that systematically discriminate against Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar, including the four Protection of Race and Religion laws and the 1982 Citizenship Law. The government should take immediate action to halt hate speech against the Rohingya and other minorities and take proximate steps to build a more inclusive society.
Last Updated: 15 August 2017