The government of Myanmar announced the termination of a four-month "clearance operation" in northern Rakhine state on 16 February. The joint army-police operation began following a series of attacks on border guard posts by a non-state armed group on 9 October 2016. During the "clearance operation" there were reports of mass arrests, torture, enforced disappearance, rape and other forms of sexual violence, forcible removal, extrajudicial killings and widespread destruction of Rohingya homes and mosques.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a 3 February report based upon interviews with civilians who have fled from Myanmar since October, detailing "widespread and systematic" attacks against the Rohingya. The report states that government forces have very likely perpetrated crimes against humanity. Based on victim and eyewitness accounts, Human Rights Watch also presented findings on 6 February indicating that government forces committed rape and other sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls in a "coordinated and systematic" manner. On 28 February the military's chief of general staff, General Mya Tun Oo, said that an internal investigation conducted by the military failed to find evidence that widespread human rights violations against the Rohingya had taken place.
The Rohingya, a distinct Muslim ethnic minority group, have been systematically disenfranchised and marginalized under 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.
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. Rohingyas were largely disenfranchised in advance of Myanmar's historic November 2015 elections and continue to be denied citizenship and other fundamental human rights.
On 29 January one of Myanmar's most prominent Muslim lawyers and adviser to the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, U Ko Ni, was murdered outside Yangon International Airport. The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, called for an urgent investigation, noting "this appears to be another shocking example of a reprisal against those speaking out on behalf of the rights of others." U Wirathu, a monk known for his anti-Muslim hate speech, thanked the murder suspects on social media.
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 OCHA, an estimated 73,000 civilians have fled Rakhine state to Bangladesh since October. During January the government of Bangladesh announced its intention to transfer Rohingya asylum seekers to an island in the Bay of Bengal before returning them to Myanmar.
While the previous government signed ceasefire agreements with several ethnic armed groups, conflict continues in other parts of Myanmar. Intensified conflict between Myanmar's military forces (Tatmadaw) and ethnic armed groups in Kachin and Shan state has resulted in a deteriorating humanitarian situation. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as of March an estimated 10,500 people remain displaced as a result of fighting in Kachin and northern Shan states since November 2016.
The previous government's refusal to end discriminatory state policies against 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 NLD government has yet to take steps towards repealing discriminatory laws and anti-Rohingya policies.
The military's disregard for credible allegations by OHCHR and other international observers regarding atrocities committed against the Rohingya leaves populations in Rakhine state at ongoing risk of further crimes. Domestic commissions, controlled by the military, continue to deny that human rights violations have been committed by the security forces.
The killing of U Ko Ni, who was in the process of drafting a new constitution, compounds the challenges facing democracy in Myanmar. It appears that the NLD government is unable to control the security forces operating in Rakhine state, threatening the safety of vulnerable Rohingya populations and other civilians. With a pervasive culture of impunity, the Tatmadaw has not been held accountable for previous mass atrocity crimes.
The government of Myanmar is 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 Myanmar and the international community, including the lifting of sanctions. Citing progress on human rights under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, the European Union 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, resulting in the closure of the office of the Special Adviser of the UN Secretary-General on Myanmar.
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. "
From 9-20 January Special Rapporteur Lee conducted her fifth official visit to Myanmar. Special Rapporteur Lee noted allegations of ongoing human rights abuses and raised alarm regarding widespread fear amongst civilians of potential reprisals as punishment for speaking out. Special Rapporteur Lee also visited Bangladesh from 20-23 February and met with Rohingya asylum seekers, as well as government officials.
On 13 March Special Rapporteur Lee presented a report to the UN Human Rights Council, calling for the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry to investigate systematic, institutional discrimination and persecution of the Rohingya and other minorities in Rakhine state, "which may amount to crimes against humanity."
The government should support an independent investigation into possible crimes against humanity committed by the security forces in Rakhine state and must hold perpetrators accountable. The UN Human Rights Council should approve the establishment of an international Commission of Inquiry on the situation in Rakhine state.
The government must facilitate the safe, voluntary return of internally displaced persons and refugees to their communities in Rakhine state. The government should allow humanitarian and human rights organizations access to populations in Rakhine state. Countries that receive Rohingya asylum seekers should offer them protection and assistance. Members of the Association of Southeast Asian States and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, as well as the UN, should continue to urge the government of Myanmar to address humanitarian concerns regarding the Rohingya.
The government must repeal or amend all laws and regulations that discriminate against Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar, including the four "Protection of Race and Religion" laws and the 1982 Citizenship Law. The government must 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 March 2017