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Atrocities Prevention Report: Targeting of and Attacks on Members of Religious Groups in Burma

By U.S. Department of State  •  March 17, 2016

The Situation in Burma

The situation in Rakhine State is grim, in part due to a mix of long-term historical tensions between the Rakhine and Rohingya communities, socio-political conflict, socio-economic underdevelopment, and a long-standing marginalization of both Rakhine and Rohingya by the Government of Burma. The World Bank estimates Rakhine State has the highest poverty rate in Burma (78 percent) and is the poorest state in the country. The lack of investment by the central government has resulted in poor infrastructure and inferior social services, while lack of rule of law has led to inadequate security conditions.

Members of the Rohingya community in particular reportedly face abuses by the Government of Burma, including those involving torture, unlawful arrest and detention, restricted movement, restrictions on religious practice, and discrimination in employment and access to social services. In 2012, intercommunal conflict led to the death of nearly 200 Rohingya and the displacement of 140,000 people. Throughout 2013-2015 isolated incidents of violence against Rohingya individuals continued to take place.


Discrimination and Attacks by Non-State Groups

There is little public support for the rights of members of the Rohingya population, including among members of other ethnic minorities. Even the term “Rohingya” is disputed, and a source of tension and mistrust. In addition, U Wirathu, and several other monks and Buddhist leaders, inflame anti-Muslim sentiment through hate speech, and call for protecting the country’s Buddhist identity by limiting the population growth and rights of Muslims.

There have been numerous acts of violence against Rohingya over the last few years. For example, in late September and early October 2013 in Thandwe Township, Rakhine State, mobs inflamed by Buddhist extremist hate speech surrounded and attacked Muslim villages following a private dispute between individuals of different faiths that escalated rapidly into mob violence against Muslims. Ensuing attacks reportedly left between five and seven dead, a roughly equivalent number injured, and destroyed more than 100 homes, businesses, and religious buildings. In the months leading up to the violence, some Buddhist Rakhine in Thandwe Township reportedly called for boycotts of Muslim businesses and issued warnings to Muslims to leave their villages or face serious repercussions.

Government Discrimination

Government discrimination against members of the Rohingya population has also contributed to their vulnerability and enabled discrimination and targeting of members of the Rohingya population. Rakhine State authorities and security officials impose severe and disproportionate restrictions on Rohingya villagers and IDPs, including those living in officially recognized camps and settlements. Government policies restrict IDPs’ freedom of movement and limit the ability of members of the Rohingya population to exercise other fundamental freedoms and access vital services, such as healthcare and education. State and government authorities also restrict access for humanitarian agencies providing life-saving services to the various IDP camps and communities. The government has not yet established a voluntary path to citizenship or restored the previous citizenship status for stateless persons, including Rohingya, that does not require them to identify as members of an ethnic group or nationality to which they do not believe they belong. In 2015, the government announced plans to return or relocate 40,000 of the roughly 140,000 people displaced by violence in 2012. In 2015 more than 1,800 households were returned to single-family homes in their villages of origin. The government is allocating funding to assist some IDPs to build new homes, and the government has launched some initiatives to address poverty and underdevelopment in Rakhine and Rohingya communities. While tensions between communities are far from resolved, there are signs that many community leaders recognize the need to work together through quiet dialogue to end the current impasse in their own community’s interest.

In 2015, the Government of Burma invalidated the legal identity document (often called a “white card”) held by the majority of Rohingya. This document had previously conferred temporary legal status, access to some social services, and allowed card holders to vote in the 2008 constitutional referendum and the 2010 nationwide election. In 2015, the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that temporary registration card holders could not legally vote. Analysis of official voter lists from 2010 and 2015 suggests that at least 418,000 Rohingya who participated in previous elections were removed from voter lists by the Union Election Commission and disenfranchised during the November 2015 elections. Local election officials also rejected the applications of virtually all Rohingya political candidates.

The Government of Burma continues to require all Rohingya applicants for citizenship to identify as “Bengali” as a condition to participate in the process, an identification that is unacceptable to most Rohingya. Despite Rohingya objections to the term “Bengali”, the government initiated a pilot “citizenship verification process” for Rohingya and other Muslim minorities in Myebon Township, Rakhine State, in June 2014 and launched the verification process throughout Rakhine State in January 2015. As of September 2015, the government had verified the full or naturalized citizenship of 937 of the 1,300 applicants in the pilot process. In addition, more than 650 minors between the ages of 10 and 18 years of age automatically acquired naturalized citizenship through their parents who qualified under the verification process. Civil society organizations point out that recipients of naturalized citizenship are ineligible to participate in some political activities and some professions due to restrictions in Burma’s legal code, which distinguish between naturalized and full citizens. The Government of Burma has not yet allowed those who have received citizenship status to freely move out of internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, although they allowed some of these citizens to vote in the 2015 election.

In 2015, the Government of Burma adopted four laws purportedly designed to “protect race and religion” that could be used to infringe on the human rights, including religious freedom, of members of minority groups, including Rohingya. Implementation of these laws remains unclear; while some charges have been made against individuals violating the laws, none thus far have occurred in Rakhine State. The Population Control Law authorizes the government to enact population control measures in specially designated emergency health zones that would require the promotion of a 36 month interval between childbirth. Separately, a local order exists in two townships in northern Rakhine State that allows Rohingya only to officially register the births of two children, although its enforcement has also been inconsistent. Government restrictions also impede the ability of Rohingya to construct houses or religious buildings, and local authorities require members of the Rohingya population to obtain special permission to marry.

Rule of law in Rakhine State is generally poor, and police reportedly failed to investigate crimes motivated by intercommunal tension and in some instances allegedly discouraged family of victims from pursuing legal action in Rakhine State. The government did not grant access to independent forensic experts to examine the scene after military, police, and paramilitary security forces allegedly killed dozens of individuals for the death of a police officer in early 2014. This made a credible, independent investigation into this purported event impossible.

Reports of abuses are often connected to the presence of security checkpoints in Northern Rakhine State. For example, on December 7, 2015, the Border Guard Police (BGP) allegedly shot and killed Mohammed Musa (aka Maung Maung), a 25-year-old Rohingya male, in Buthidaung Township, Rakhine State, after he and two passengers reportedly refused to stop their vehicle at a checkpoint. According to credible reports, one BGP officer shot Mohammed Musa in the head after he resisted paying a bribe. The two passengers and the BGP officer were detained, and the BGP officer was charged with causing death by negligence.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there have been 160,000 Rohingya maritime departures to neighboring countries since 2012, and this group remains exceedingly vulnerable to human trafficking. Experts report that the networks facilitating these migrations, often in collusion with local authorities, include Rakhine and Rohingya.

We assessed that the 2012 intercommunal violence targeted against the Rohingya civilian population resulted in approximately 200 deaths and over 140,000 displaced. We remain concerned about current acts that constitute persecution of and discrimination against members of the Rohingya population in Burma. The Department of State will continue to investigate and assess information as it becomes available.

U.S. Government Responses

The Atrocities Prevention Board, consistent with its mandate to coordinate the U.S. Government’s efforts on atrocity prevention and response, has studied and issued recommendations on both of these cases, as have other interagency policy committees. Relevant lines of effort include the following:

Response to the Situation in Burma:
The U.S. Government remains gravely concerned about ongoing violations and abuses of human rights in Rakhine State. To respond to the situation effectively, the Government of Burma will have to meet the political, social, and economic challenges facing Rakhine State through a framework that stresses respect for human rights for all equally as essential to achieving the common security, economic progress, and social stability to which all individuals and communities are entitled. The U.S. Government has regularly urged the Government of Burma to pursue comprehensive and just solutions to the problems of Rakhine State. This includes addressing human rights abuses, upholding rule of law, ensuring and facilitating humanitarian access, promoting voluntary resettlement of IDPs, ensuring access to life-saving basic services, protecting religious expression, guaranteeing freedom of movement, non-discrimination between people on the basis of race or religion, and implementing socio-economic plans that benefit all people of Rakhine State. It also includes developing a voluntary path to citizenship or restoring citizenship for stateless persons, including Rohingya. The U.S. Government has also advocated for an end to racially and religiously motivated discrimination, and for the Government of Burma to take steps to bring those responsible for violence to justice under the law.

The position of the U.S. Government on these issues has been consistent and clear. The resolution of these issues in Rakhine State is a critical component of Burma’s transition to a stable, inclusive democracy, and the U.S. government regularly raises these concerns at the highest levels of the Burmese government.

Diplomatic Response
: The U.S. Government has been consistent in applying diplomatic and public pressures to urge the Government of Burma to comply with its international human rights commitments. The United States, along with other members of the diplomatic community, regularly engages with leaders within the Government of Burma, as well as a range of Rakhine and Rohingya community leaders, to urge them to seize the opportunity to address the problems of Rakhine State proactively, justly, and through dialogue in the interest of all people in the state.

During the second U.S.-Burma Human Rights Dialogue in January 2015, the Government of Burma acknowledged the importance of implementing a comprehensive, transparent, and inclusive reconciliation process in Rakhine State. The Government of Burma and the U.S. Government acknowledged that this process should prioritize equal protection for all under domestic laws and respect human rights. We encourage the Government of Burma to implement these commitments.

Engagement has come from all levels of the U.S. Government. President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, former U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Rajiv Shah, Assistant Secretary Danny Russel, Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary Anne Richard, Ambassador Derek Mitchell, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Thomas Harvey, and Pacific Command Deputy Commander Lieutenant General Anthony Crutchfield have all raised these issues with the Government of Burma as urgent areas for action. The Department of Defense also continues to raise these issues in its limited engagements with the Government of Burma.

Multilateral Strategy:
In addition to raising human rights concerns and humanitarian needs directly with the Government of Burma, U.S. Embassy Rangoon continues to work consistently with other foreign Heads of Missions to engage collectively with the Government of Burma and the communities of Rakhine State to address common challenges, including the plight of the Rohingya population. U.S. officials also engage with other governments on related issues. In 2015, a State Department delegation led by Assistant Secretary Anne Richard attended several multilateral meetings to advocate for international cooperation to protect vulnerable irregular migrants, including Rohingya. They emphasized the United States’ commitment to support regionally-led efforts to address the root causes of irregular migration while meeting the humanitarian needs of migrants across the region.

The U.S. Government regularly raises concerns about the human rights of members of the Rohingya community in international fora. The U.S. Government has co-sponsored annual resolutions in both the UN Human Rights Council and the UNGA for the past several years calling attention to the human rights situation in Burma. The situation in Burma has been on the agenda of recent interagency meetings, and in meetings with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the European Union (EU). U.S. officials have consulted with Japanese and EU counterparts to inform their respective human rights dialogues with the Government of Burma. In April and May 2015, the UNSC discussed human rights in Burma. During Burma’s 2015 Universal Periodic Review before the Human Rights Council, the United States called upon Burma to end discrimination against members of the Rohingya population and members of other minority groups, including by providing a voluntary pathway to or restoring citizenship for stateless persons without requiring them to accept ethnic designations they do not agree with, removing restrictions on freedom of movement, and revising discriminatory legislation, including the 1982 Citizenship Act and the four “race and religion” laws.

Foreign Assistance: In addition to diplomatic efforts, the United States has taken a leadership role in providing humanitarian and development assistance. U.S. foreign assistance to Rakhine State is calibrated to address factors that may contribute to conflict and human rights abuses and to work to meet the needs of members of all vulnerable populations, and is closely coordinated with the UN and other donors providing assistance. In FY 2015, the United States provided more than $50 million in humanitarian assistance for vulnerable populations in Burma and displaced Burmese throughout the region, including conflict-affected and flood-affected populations and Rohingya. These U.S.-funded programs provide life-saving humanitarian assistance to Rohingya and other IDPs, refugees, and asylum seekers from Burma in the areas of health and medical care, shelter and food, nutritional services, water, sanitation and hygiene, and access to services for people with disabilities. These funds assist vulnerable migrants and helped the Government of Burma improve its efforts to combat trafficking in persons, including forced labor. In addition, the United States has resettled more than 140,000 refugees from Southeast Asia in the past decade, including more than 4,700 Rohingya since 2010. The United States remains committed to these efforts. Resettlement, however, is not the primary solution to this current crisis.

U.S. humanitarian assistance in Rakhine State includes support to improve sustainable access to healthcare, shelter, and safe drinking water; to rehabilitate and construct new sanitation facilities; and to conduct hygiene promotion activities for IDPs. U.S. funds support the distribution of locally and regionally procured food to conflict-displaced and other vulnerable persons, and supports coordination and logistics for humanitarian agencies. In addition to humanitarian programs, the United States provides assistance through small grant activities that are increasing participation and inclusion in reform and peace processes, countering hate speech, mitigating inter-communal violence, promoting interactions and economic growth between diverse communities, and strengthening conflict prevention mechanisms in Rohingya and neighboring Rakhine communities in northern Rakhine State. USAID is a donor and on the board of the multi-donor Livelihoods and Food Security (LIFT) Trust Fund overseeing a food security and poverty reduction program serving all communities, including Rohingya, in Rakhine State. The United States also recently started a new program, which seeks to reduce displacement by supporting early recovery, livelihood, water and sanitation, and trust-building initiatives for voluntarily returned or relocated Rohingya IDPs and vulnerable neighboring communities.

Support of Human Rights in Rakhine State: The U.S. Government supports community leaders in Rakhine State willing to advocate for human rights for all people, and has consistently and strongly advocated on the behalf of members of the Rohingya population. U.S. assistance furnishes local civil society networks with resources to monitor and mitigate the potential for intercommunal conflict and violence, monitor hate speech used to incite violence, and track the sources of public defamation campaigns against activists who promote human rights. U.S. assistance provides support for inter- and intra-faith dialogue; training on tolerance and diversity; and programs with interfaith speakers to help local organizations develop advocacy strategies. U.S. assistance also supports small-scale activities to develop economic linkages and joint marketplaces for Rakhine and Rohingya communities, along with jointly-implemented community development projects, in an effort to build trust between the communities as a basis for improved reconciliation and advancing respect for human rights. The United States also conducts workshops and exchanges on human rights, human trafficking, and international humanitarian law for members of the Government of Burma, including members of the military, through the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies (DIILS) as well as the Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS). The Department of Defense supports the continuation of these types of programs to address the underlying causes of conflict and human rights abuses, and will continue to work with the Department of State on these efforts.

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This post is in: ASEAN, Children and Youth, Crimes Against Humanity, Displacement, Ethnic Nationalities, Health, Human Rights, Human Trafficking, International Relations, Law, Military Regime, Women

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