Stateless Rohingya in Myanmar (Burma) face systematic persecution that poses an existential threat to their community. The current counterinsurgency operation and ongoing human rights violations against the Rohingya amount to possible crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
The situation in Rakhine state in northwest Myanmar remains dire following a series of attacks on border guard posts on 9 October 2016 by what appears to be a newly established armed group. Since the joint army-police counterinsurgency operation began on 10 October, there have been widespread reports of mass arrests, rape, forcible removal, extrajudicial killings and the widespread destruction of Rohingya buildings and mosques. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), as of January 2017 more than 23,000 people remain displaced in Maungdaw township as a result of the October attacks and subsequent security operations.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a 3 February report based upon interviews with civilians who fled from Myanmar since 9 October 2016, detailing "widespread and systematic" attacks against the Rohingya, including extrajudicial and summary executions, enforced disappearance, torture, as well as rape and other forms of sexual violence. The report reiterates that government forces have very likely perpetrated crimes against humanity. Based on additional victim and eyewitness accounts, Human Rights Watch presented findings on 6 February indicating that Myanmar government forces committed rape and other sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls in a "coordinated and systematic" manner.
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 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."
The Rohingya, a distinct Muslim ethnic minority group, have been systematically disenfranchised and marginalized under discriminatory laws in Myanmar. In 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.
The cumulative impact of deteriorating living conditions, 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 69,000 civilians have fled Rakhine state to Bangladesh since October. During January the government of Bangladesh announced its intention to transfer Rohingya refugees 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 resulted in deteriorating humanitarian situation. As of January, there are 87,000 IDPs in Kachin state and 11,000 in Shan state.
ANALYSIS: 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, which has been in power for over a year, has yet to take any steps towards repealing discriminatory laws and anti-Rohingya policies.
The government's disregard for recent allegations by OHCHR and other international observers regarding government forces perpetrating atrocities against the Rohingya ensures that populations remain at risk in Rakhine state. The government's intention to investigate OHCHR's allegations through the local investigation commission, led by the retired army general and current Vice President Myint Swe, is problematic. International observers have deemed the commission not credible after interim findings published in January rejected overwhelming evidence of human rights abuses.
The killing of U Ko Ni, who was in the process of drafting a new constitution for the country, compounds the challenges facing democracy in Myanmar as his death could impede constitutional reform. With a pervasive culture of impunity, the Tatmadaw has not been held accountable for previous mass atrocity crimes. It appears that the NLD government is unable or unwilling to control the security forces operating in Rakhine state, threatening the safety of vulnerable Rohingya populations and other civilians.
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 19 January the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) convened an Extraordinary Session in Malaysia regarding the situation of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar. The group released a Communiqué calling upon the OIC Secretary General to coordinate with the Myanmar government to allow a high-level OIC delegation to visit Rakhine state and requesting OIC representatives to engage with the UN and other international organizations regarding the Rohingya.
From 9-20 January Special Rapporteur Lee conducted her fifth official visit to Myanmar. At the conclusion of her visit Special Rapporteur Lee noted allegations of ongoing human rights abuses and raised alarm regarding widespread fear amongst civilians of potential reprisals by the government as punishment for speaking out. Special Rapporteur Lee will present a report about her visit to the Human Rights Council on 13 March.
On 6 February the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, reinforced that alleged crimes detailed in the OHCHR report "could amount to crimes against humanity" and "be a precursor of other egregious international crimes."
On 8 February Pope Francis made a statement in support of the Rohingya, who he said have suffered for years "simply because they practice their own traditions, their own Muslim faith."
The government must support the establishment of an independent, international Commission of Inquiry into the allegations of the commission of crimes against humanity by the security forces in Rakhine state.
While responding to the border post attacks, the NLD government and security forces must prioritize protection of civilians and ensure that all security operations in Rakhine state are fully consistent with international law. The government must expand accountability measures for human rights abuses committed by the security forces.
In Rakhine state the government must facilitate the safe, voluntary return of IDPs to their communities. All restrictions on access by humanitarian and human rights actors to Rakhine state must be lifted. Countries that receive Rohingya asylum seekers should offer them protection and assistance. ASEAN and OIC members should continue to urge the government of Myanmar to address immediate humanitarian concerns as well as the root causes of the crisis.
Last Updated: 15 February 2017