The present report is submitted pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution 29/21, which requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights to report on the “human rights violations and abuses against Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar, particularly the recent incidents of trafficking and forced displacement of Rohingya Muslims”.
The report is based on information received by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) from various sources, including the Government of Myanmar, United Nations entities, the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission and civil society. It also considers reports of the Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Myanmar (Special Rapporteur) since 1992. The report takes into account written and oral comments received from the Government of Myanmar.
Myanmar is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Asia, with 135 recognized “national ethnic groups” as per the 1982 “Citizenship Law” (Citizenship Law), categorized into eight major “national ethnic races”: Bamar (approximately two-thirds of the population), Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan. An estimated 90 per cent of the population are Buddhists, four per cent Muslims, four per cent Christians and under two per cent Hindus. Most Christians belong to ethnic minorities, including Chin, Kachin and Kayin. Some Muslim communities are officially recognized as a distinct ethnic group (like the Kaman), others are known as “Bamar Muslims”, “Chinese Muslims” or “Indian Muslims”.
Rohingya Muslims represent the largest percentage of Muslims in Myanmar, with the majority living in Rakhine State. They self-identify as a distinct ethnic group with their own language and culture, and claim a longstanding connection to Rakhine State. Successive governments have rejected these claims and Rohingya were not included in the list of recognized ethnic groups. Most Rohingya are stateless.
In 2014, the Government conducted the first census in 30 years. A directive prohibiting Rohingya from identifying as such led to their de facto exclusion from the official count. Data on ethnicity and religion are yet to be released. Data gaps, combined with lack of access to parts of the country, pose significant challenges in analyzing the situation of minorities.
Ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar have a complex and contested history. The 1947 Panglong Conference envisaged the creation of a federal union based on voluntary association and political equality. Yet, upon independence in 1948, Myanmar became a quasi-federal union largely dominated by the Bamar ethnic group. Subsequent claims by ethnic minorities for self-determination, greater autonomy and an equitable share of power and resources have driven non-international armed conflicts, varying in scope and intensity. Following military assumption of power in 1962, ethnic minorities were increasingly excluded from positions of authority facing restrictions, inter alia, in education, use of languages and religious freedom.
Myanmar is undergoing significant transformation. In 2011, the Government embarked on wide-ranging reforms, including opening up democratic space after decades of military control. This culminated in historic elections on 8 November 2015, and the transfer of power to a civilian Government on 31 March 2016. Yet, the military retains 25 per cent of seats in Parliament, giving it a de facto veto on any Constitutional amendment. Moreover, the Commander-in-Chief appoints key Ministers: Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defence.
In May 2015, 700,000 individuals from minority communities were disenfranchised. Muslim candidates were disqualified from standing for election, and the current Parliament does not count any Muslim member.
On 15 October 2015, the Government and eight of the over 20 ethnic armed groups in Myanmar signed a nationwide ceasefire agreement. Yet, armed conflict persists in Kachin and northern Shan States, along with sporadic skirmishes including in Chin, Kayin and Rakhine States. The new Government – the most ethnically diverse Government in decades – has proposed a “21st century Panglong Conference” to advance the peace process.
Rakhine State is one of the poorest states in Myanmar, with limited access to basic services and livelihood opportunities for all inhabitants. There are long-standing grievances between Rohingya Muslims (population of just over one million) and Rakhine Buddhists (hereinafter “Rakhine”) (around two million), and both communities and Bamar-majority-led central governments. Many Rakhine contest the Rohingya’s claims of distinct ethnic heritage and historic links to Rakhine State. They view the Rohingya as “illegal immigrants” (“Bengali”), with no cultural, religious or social ties with Myanmar. Some Rakhine also perceive that international assistance has focused on the Rohingya at their expense. The Rakhine have been subject to longstanding discrimination by past military governments. Kaman Muslims from Rakhine State are an officially recognized ethnic group. Yet, they also face entrenched discrimination and other human rights violations (A/HRC/28/72, para. 41). Since 2012, incidents of religious intolerance and incitement to hatred by extremist and ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups have increased across the country. Rohingya and other Muslims are often portrayed as a “threat to race and religion”.
Against this backdrop, tensions have occasionally erupted into violence. The last major outbreak occurred in June and October 2012, causing hundreds of deaths, injuries, destruction of property and the ultimate displacement of 140,000 people (A/67/383, paras. 56–58; A/HRC/22/58, paras. 47–48). Around 120,000 individuals remain in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in central Rakhine State, with ongoing segregation between Rakhine and Rohingya communities.
Systemic human rights violations and lack of opportunities have triggered irregular migration flows of Rohingya from Rakhine State to Thailand and Malaysia, in the same boats as irregular migrants from Bangladesh. Trafficking and smuggling networks have facilitated these flows. Over 94,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis are believed to have departed since early 2014, with a peak of 31,000 in the first half of 2015. In May 2015, Thailand and Malaysia cracked down on international smuggling networks, and 5,000 irregular migrants were abandoned at sea. Malaysia and Indonesia ultimately offered temporary shelter to migrants affected by the Andaman Sea crisis, provided the international community grant resettlement and repatriation within one year. Many of those rescued at sea remain detained in shelters, camps or immigration detention, facing uncertain futures. The policies and practices of discrimination against Rohingya, a key root cause of irregular migration from Rakhine State, remain to be addressed as part of larger reforms to protect all minorities in Myanmar.
Meanwhile, access to justice for victims of human rights violations and abuses has been severely lacking. The military and other security forces have generally enjoyed impunity. Endemic corruption and limited capacity and will to conduct effective investigations and prosecutions add to a general lack of public trust in the administration of justice. Structural issues impacting on the independence of the judiciary and legal profession remain. Judicial independence has been further undermined by the executive branch’s undue influence and interference in politically sensitive cases. Social and cultural stigma prevents victims of sexual and gender based violence from reporting. Minorities face additional obstacles further limiting their access to justice, including language, geography and fears of reprisal.
In his inaugural address, President U Htin Kyaw outlined four main priorities for the new Government: national reconciliation, peace, a Constitution that will lead to a democratic federal union, and improved quality of life. In April 2016, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi reiterated the importance of national reconciliation and the rule of law for all citizens. Recent steps taken by the Government include the establishment of a Ministry of Ethnic Affairs and the transformation of the Myanmar Peace Centre into the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre. According to the new Government, addressing the situation in Rakhine State has been “one of the highest priorities on its agenda” and it calls for “more time to find durable solutions”. On 30 May 2016, the Government formed the “Central Committee on the Implementation of Peace, Stability and Development of Rakhine State” with the State Counsellor as its Chairperson. The objectives of the Committee are to “bring peace, stability and development to all people in Rakhine State”.
Key to Myanmar’s transformation is the need to address ongoing and past human rights violations, which may otherwise undermine the transition. The present report identifies patterns of entrenched discrimination against minorities and suggests measures to address them. This will be a challenging process that will require resolve, resources, and time. Specific constraints include the continued influence exercised by the military in critical areas of governance. In Rakhine State, this is further complicated by the highly politicized and polarized environment, including tensions between political parties and continued activity by armed groups. Yet, the new Government has a unique opportunity to create positive momentum by taking crucial steps to halt discrimination against minorities in law and practice.