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Populations at Risk: Myanmar’s Rohingya


BACKGROUND: Discriminatory state policies and systematic persecution in Burma/Myanmar threaten the ongoing existence of the Rohingya, a distinct Muslim ethnic minority group. Despite the historic 8 November democratic elections, Rohingyas were largely disenfranchised in advance of the vote and continue to be denied citizenship and other fundamental human rights. While the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won the elections, it did so while excluding all Muslims as candidates. A spokesman for the party said in November that the Rohingya’s plight was not an NLD priority.

On 29 September 2014 at the UN General Assembly, the outgoing government announced the “Rakhine Action Plan,” requiring the estimated 810,000 stateless Rohingyas in Burma/Myanmar to accept ethnic reclassification as “Bengali” in order to obtain citizenship or be forced into detention camps. Many Rohingyas in Arakan/Rakhine state also face the ongoing threat of violence at the hands of Buddhist extremists who reject their right to exist in Burma/Myanmar.

An estimated 140,000 people, mostly Rohingyas, remain segregated in IDP camps as a result of previous inter-communal violence, where “conditions remain abysmal and access to adequate basic services severely limited,” according to the last report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee. The government continues restrict the IDPs’ movement and block access to food, water, healthcare and other vital humanitarian assistance.

On 31 March 2015 the government invalidated the identification cards held by many Rohingyas, forcing them to apply for citizenship as “Bengalis,” suggesting 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. On 31 August Burma/Myanmar’s outgoing President, Thein Sein, signed into law the last of four so-called “Protection of Race and Religion” bills. These discriminatory laws place harsh restrictions on women and non-Buddhists, including on fundamental religious freedoms, as well as reproductive and marital rights.

The former UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has said that previous violence against the Rohingya could amount to crimes against humanity and warned that the government’s failure to address the ongoing human rights situation in Arakan/Rakhine state “will ultimately mean the extermination of the Rohingyas.”

The cumulative impact of deteriorating living conditions, combined with ongoing persecution by the government and some Buddhist chauvinist groups, 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 UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that at least 31,000 people fled during the first half of 2015, over 1,100 of whom died from the voyage or mistreatment. During May mass graves containing the bodies of Rohingyas were discovered at human trafficking camps in Thailand and Malaysia.

The country’s military forces (Tatmadaw), which have previously perpetrated atrocities against several ethnic minority groups, also pose an ongoing threat. While the government signed a ceasefire agreement on 15 October with eight armed ethnic groups, conflict between the Tatmadaw and several other groups continues, including in Kachin and Shan states. On 12 January representatives from the army, parliament and ethnic armed groups gathered for five days of political dialogue at the Union Peace Conference.

Burma/Myanmar’s new parliament convened for the first time on 1 February. Parliament will begin the election of a new president on 17 March before the NLD government officially begins its term on 1 April. On 28 January the outgoing parliament passed the “Former Presidents’ Security Law,” which could grant amnesty to former presidents for crimes under international law, including serious human rights violations.

ANALYSIS: The current government’s refusal to grant the Rohingya access to citizenship or end discriminatory state policies, as well as its failure to restrict hate speech, encourages ongoing violations of their fundamental human rights and reinforces the dangerous perception of the Rohingya as ethnic outsiders. Recent government initiatives, including the Protection of Race and Religion bills, appear to be intended to eradicate the Rohingya’s legal right to exist as a distinct ethno-religious group.

The 8 November elections have legitimized a state that denies the Rohingya their most fundamental human rights. As a result of the government curtailing their voting rights and barring many Muslim candidates, Rohingyas have also lost political representation in Arakan/Rakhine state. Disenfranchisement, combined with years of persecution, exclusion and poverty, is causing unprecedented numbers of Rohingyas to flee from Burma/Myanmar, despite the refusal of several countries in the region to offer asylum.

There is an urgent need for the incoming NLD government to respect the human rights of all populations in Burma/Myanmar. The incoming NLD government has an opportunity to reverse discriminatory policies and drastically improve the plight of the Rohingya, but currently appears unwilling to do so.

The country’s constitution still exempts the Tatmadaw from prosecution for any act carried out “in the execution of their respective duties.” On 25 June the military-dominated parliament defeated a bill that would have abolished the Tatmadaw’s veto power over constitutional amendments. With a pervasive culture of impunity, the military has not been held accountable for previous mass atrocity crimes.

The government of Burma/Myanmar is failing to uphold its primary Responsibility to Protect with regard to the Rohingya.

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE: Following decades of military dictatorship, democratic reforms have contributed to rapprochement between Burma/Myanmar and the international community, including the lifting of sanctions by a number of countries. [For responses prior to July 2015, see GCR2P’s Timeline of International Response to the Situation of the Rohingya and Anti-Muslim Violence in Burma/Myanmar.]

On 16 October the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Parliamentarians for Human Rights released a report warning that the region risks another major refugee crisis as a result of the persecution of the Rohingya and urged the Burma/Myanmar government and ASEAN states to address the situation.

On 4 November the UN Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect released a statement expressing concern that the electoral process has resulted in “further marginalization of religious minorities,” highlighting “decades of institutionalized discrimination in law, policies and practice” against Rohingyas.

On 17 November the UN Secretary-General congratulated the NLD for its success in the elections, but stressed that “cooperation and inclusive dialogue involving all stakeholders, including those representing ethnic groups, religious minorities as well as civil society,” was essential.

NECESSARY ACTION: The newly-elected government of Burma/Myanmar must uphold their Responsibility to Protect all populations, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. The incoming NLD government should immediately abolish the Rakhine Action Plan and end institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya, including the denial of citizenship. It must hold accountable all those who commit human rights abuses, including inciting ethnic and religious intolerance and violence.
In Arakan/Rakhine state the government must facilitate the safe, voluntary return of IDPs to their communities. Neighboring countries should offer protection and assistance to Rohingya asylum seekers.

The international community must urge the new NLD government to develop a comprehensive reconciliation plan, including establishing a commission of inquiry into crimes committed against the Rohingya in Arakan/Rakhine state. The new government must demonstrably improve the welfare of ethnic and religious minorities and end discriminatory practices that pose an existential threat to the Rohingya community.

A central component of the new government’s reform process must include constitutional reform that addresses the needs of ethnic minorities, as well as the development of an independent judiciary as a means of safeguarding human rights and tackling the culture of impunity regarding past mass atrocity crimes. The NLD should revoke the Former Presidents’ Security Law and end impunity for grave and systematic human rights abuses.

Last Updated: 15 February 2016