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, which lasted for four months. During the 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. 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, which may amount to crimes against humanity.
On 24 March the Human Rights Council passed a landmark resolution ordering "an independent international fact-finding mission" into allegations of human rights violations by the security forces in Myanmar, and in particular in Rakhine State, with a view to ensure full accountability for perpetrators. The Myanmar government disassociated itself from the resolution and has indicated its opposition to the mission. The government previously established domestic commissions, controlled by the military, that have denied that the security forces committed human rights violations and have been discredited by international observers for their lack of independence and impartiality.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), humanitarian access for international staff remains severely restricted in northern Rakhine state despite the termination of the counter-insurgency operation in February. An estimated 124,000 people remain displaced throughout Rakhine state, with the vast majority being ethnic Rohingya. On 11 April Myanmar National Security Advisor Thaung Tun announced that the government had initiated the process of closing down some displacement camps, but did not provide any specifics as to where the inhabitants would go.
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.
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 also largely disenfranchised in advance of Myanmar's historic November 2015 elections and continue to be denied citizenship and other fundamental human rights.
On 15 March the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, which was established by the government in August 2016 to "identify the factors that have resulted in violence, displacement and underdevelopment" in Rakhine state and is led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, issued an interim report with 12 recommendations. These include calling on the Myanmar government to allow full access to humanitarian organizations and media to Rakhine state, prepare a comprehensive strategy for closing all displacement camps, urgently providing human rights training for the security forces, and to address the issue of Rohingya statelessness.
Despite the previous government signing ceasefire agreements with several ethnic armed groups, conflict continues in other parts of Myanmar. Intensifying conflict between Myanmar's military forces and ethnic armed groups in Kachin and Shan state has resulted in a deteriorating humanitarian situation. According to OCHA, as of April an estimated 98,000 people remain displaced in Kachin and Shan states.
The Human Rights Council-mandated fact-finding mission is a positive step towards addressing allegations of systematic human rights violations in Rakhine state. The findings could help ensure accountability for perpetrators and help institute much needed reforms regarding the plight of the Rohingya. It remains unclear whether the government and the military will cooperate with the fact-finding mission and allow it access to Rakhine state.
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 National League for Democracy (NLD) government has yet to take steps towards repealing discriminatory laws and anti-Rohingya policies.
One year after Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD party was sworn in as country's first elected government in half a century, democracy in Myanmar faces many challenges. It appears that the NLD government is unable to control the security forces, who continue to pose a threat to vulnerable civilians. With a pervasive culture of impunity, the military has not been held accountable for previous mass atrocity crimes. 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 government of Myanmar is failing to uphold its primary Responsibility to Protect to 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 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.
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 widespread fear amongst civilians of potential reprisals for speaking out. Special Rapporteur Lee also visited Bangladesh from 20-23 February and met with Rohingya asylum seekers.
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."
The government and the military of Myanmar should fully support the Human Rights Council-mandated fact-finding mission, including by granting unfettered access to 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 unlimited access to populations in Rakhine state. Countries that receive Rohingya asylum seekers should offer them protection and assistance.
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: 14 April 2017