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 the conclusions of the OHCHR report, calling some findings "false and fabricated." The internal investigation by the Myanmar army has been dismissed by international observers for lacking impartiality and credibility.
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 government disassociated itself from the resolution and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has stated that Myanmar "will not accept" the mission. On 29 June the Foreign Ministry confirmed that it denied entry visas to members of the fact-finding mission.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) there are currently an estimated 120,000 Rohingya internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Rakhine state. On 25 April the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) criticized the government's plan to relocate those whose homes have been destroyed to 13 "model villages," instead of allowing them to voluntarily return to their communities. On 2 July the Rakhine state government also announced the closure of three IDP camps in Kyaukphyu, Pauktaw and Ramree townships. Tropical Cyclone Mora, which swept through parts of Bangladesh and Myanmar on 30 May, also damaged or destroyed thousands of shelters accommodating Rohingya IDPs and refugees.
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. According to UNHCR, there are over 420,000 Rohingya refugees in the region, with 168,500 having fled Myanmar since 2012.
In addition to threats directed at the Rohingya, on 15 June the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, briefed the UN Human Rights Council, expressing concern regarding "incitement of inter-communal tension and religious violence" in the country, particularly threats directed at the Muslim minority.
Despite the previous government signing ceasefire agreements with several ethnic armed groups, ongoing fighting in Kachin and Shan states has displaced an estimated 98,000 people according to OCHA. On 14 June Amnesty International issued a report detailing serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, which may amount to war crimes, in Kachin and northern Shan states.
The second round of the 21st-Century Panglong Conference between the government, armed forces 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 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. 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 rejection of the UN 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 pose a threat to vulnerable civilians and have not been held accountable for previous mass atrocity crimes. The government has also failed to adequately address hate speech and incitement to violence directed against Muslim populations by Buddhist chauvinist groups.
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 the European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, Christos Stylianides, announced a new aid package for Myanmar worth 12 million euros, with over 9 million euros 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.
On 4-11 July the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, visited Myanmar, Thailand and Bangladesh. During a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, the High Commissioner highlighted the need to address displacement and statelessness in Rakhine state.
States with significant political and economic ties to Myanmar should call upon the government to accept the Human Rights Council-mandated fact-finding mission and allow for the establishment of an OHCHR office in the country. The government should also permit humanitarian and human rights organizations unhindered access to populations in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states.
The Myanmar authorities should allow IDPs the option of returning to their places of origin and not be forced to remain in displacement camps or relocate to 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 systematically 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: 17 July 2017