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. Humanitarian access to northern Rakhine state was severely restricted during the operation. 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. Following their own investigation, on 23 May the Myanmar army rejected conclusions of OHCHR's February report, calling some findings "incorrect" and others "false and fabricated." All internal investigations have been discredited by international observers for lacking independence and impartiality.
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 Myanmar government disassociated itself from the resolution and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi said on 2 May that the government "will not accept" the mission. It remains uncertain whether and to what degree the Myanmar authorities will cooperate with the investigation. Authorities in neighboring Bangladesh, on the other hand, welcomed the mission and indicated that they would grant necessary access if required.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 168,500 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar since 2012, including 44,000 in 2016. On 25 April UNHCR criticized the government's plan to relocate returnees whose homes have been destroyed to 13 "model villages," instead of allowing them to voluntarily return to their communities. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), while humanitarian access to affected areas in Rakhine state has improved in recent months, it remains more strictly regulated than before October 2016. Tropical Cyclone Mora, which swept through parts of Bangladesh and Myanmar on 30 May, damaged or fully destroyed thousands shelters accommodating Rohingya IDPs and refugees.
Since April, the government has also begun the process of closing three internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps in central Rakhine state, pursuing different approaches for each camp. According to OCHA, Muslims in Kyein Ni Pyin camp, including the Rohingya, were told that the authorities would provide housing for them where they are currently displaced rather than in their place of origin. The closure of the three camps would only constitute resettlement of 1.4 percent of the 120,000 of IDPs in Rakhine state.
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 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.
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.
Despite the previous government signing ceasefire agreements with several ethnic armed groups, conflict also continues in other parts of Myanmar. Ongoing fighting between Myanmar's military forces and ethnic armed groups in Kachin and Shan states has displaced an estimated 98,000 people according to OCHA. In late May, a video surfaced online showing personnel in military uniform torturing and threatening to kill men in civilian clothing in northern Shan state. On 14 June Amnesty International issued a report, detailing serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law in Kachin and northern Shan States, which may amount to war crimes.
The second round of the 21st-Century Panglong Conference between the government, armed forced and ethnic armed groups, took place from 24-29 May in Nay Pyi Taw. Participants were able to reach agreement on 37 "principles" that are expected to form part of a future peace accord. The principles include a guarantee of equal rights of all ethnic groups and a provision for the state to become a federal democracy.
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. Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi's rejection of the Human Rights Council-mandated 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 continue to pose a threat to vulnerable civilians and have 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 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, the European Union announced last year that it would not be submitting a UN General Assembly 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."
On 15 May European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides announced new aid worth €12 million, with over €9 million for direct humanitarian assistance to conflict-afflicted areas, including Rakhine, Shan, and Kachin states.
On 30 May the President of the Human Rights Council announced the appointment of three members of the Fact-finding Mission, which is scheduled to present an oral update to the Council in September.
States with significant political and economic ties to Myanmar should put diplomatic pressure on the government to accept the Human Rights Council-mandated fact-finding mission. The government should also allow humanitarian and human rights organizations unhindered access to populations in Rakhine state.
The Myanmar authorities should present IDPs and returnees with an option of returning to their places of origin and not be forced to remain in the area of their current displacement or to relocate to the 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 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 June 2017