Authorities hinder civil society's monitoring and human rights activities in Rakhine
Civil society calls for UN-led Investigation
As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the cases of human rights violations and abuses against the minority Rohingya Muslims by security forces have yet to be independently investigated. On 25th May 2017, fifty-nine civil society organisations issued a statement calling on the authorities in Myanmar to cooperate fully with a UN-led investigation into alleged war crimes committed against the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. One of the signatories of the statement, Khin Zaw Win from the Tampadipa Institute, stated:
“It's not too late for civilian and military authorities to work with this mission to establish the facts and prevent further violations and abuses...National reconciliation, stability, and development depend in large part on ending and remedying abuses and atrocities, and that can’t happen until the facts are firmly established”.
Despite the growing support for an independent investigation, the authorities have reiterated their plan to "disassociate" themselves from a UN-led monitoring and fact-finding mission. Many activists are concerned that the authorities could impede the UN's access to key conflict-affected areas in Rakhine.
In addition to the difficulty in gaining buy-in from the authorities in Myanmar, many fear that the UN's influence in general over the human rights situation in the country is rapidly declining. And some have labelled the UN mission in Myanmar as "glaringly dysfunctional" and ill-equipped to deal with the complexity of the situation in Rakhine. Despite the push back from the government, international and domestic human rights groups continued to demand that the authorities cooperate with the UN to address the ongoing human rights and humanitarian crisis in the province.
After Aung San Suu Kyi’s government rejected a UN Human Rights Council resolution in March 2017 to establish a fact-finding mission to investigate alleged human rights violations and abuses in Rakhine, the country's army launched its own internal inquiry. On 23rd May 2017, the authorities concluded from the results of the inquiry that no human rights violations had been discovered in Rakhine, claiming that cases of violations documented in a recent report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights were false and exaggerated. Despite the government's resistance, on 30th May 2017 the Human Rights Council appointed a three-person panel to oversee a fact-finding mission to Rakhine. In response, the authorities in Myanmar stated they would refuse entry visas for members of the UN mandated fact-finding mission.
While civic groups continue to petition the authorities in Myanmar to take action against the persecution of Rohingya Muslims, the difficulty in gaining access to Rakhine remains an obstacle to civil society documenting human rights violations and abuses and carrying out human rights protection activities. On 16th May 2017, the Burmese Rohingya Organisation of the UK released a report noting that the lack of unfettered access to Rakhine has seriously hindered civil society's ability to fulfill its watchdog role and mandate to promote human rights and inter-community reconciliation.
CIVICUS Speaks to Myanmar's civil society
The CIVICUS Monitor team recently spoke to a national-level civil society organisation (CSO) - *Smile Education and Development Foundation (Smile) - to learn more about difficulties facing civil society trying to operate in Rakhine state as well as the authorities' limitations on citizens' exercising their right to freedom of expression.
CIVICUS: How would you describe the current situation faced by Myanmar’s Rohingya population?
- Smile: As noted by leading human rights organisations and the UN, Rohingyas are the most persecuted population in the world. They face restrictions that have been imposed on them for decades. The violence in 2012 and the ARSA attacks on Border Guard Police (BGP) in October & November 2016, have worsened conditions for Rohingya populations living in Rakhine state. Highly restrictive movement policies by the state prevent access to livelihood, healthcare, and education, and have exacerbated a vicious cycle of poverty. This has led to high levels of infant and maternal mortality, extremely low levels of education, and virtually no access to significant livelihood opportunities. Furthermore, a failure to clampdown on Buddhist nationalism has contributed to a situation where communities in close proximity are fearful of one another. The stateless status and restrictive government policies faced by Muslims have prevented many from organising and expressing themselves politically, or seeking an exit to this condition through outward migration.
CIVICUS: Are there aspects of this crisis that your organisation is aware of that are not being covered in the mainstream media?
- Smile: [We are] committed to promoting, protecting, and advancing minority rights, and freedom of religion and belief in Myanmar – i.e. in Rakhine state and also across Burma. Unfortunately, the coverage of this issue has been compartmentalised. We hope that the mainstream media can cover the issue of minority rights more holistically across Myanmar, as opposed to viewing it as confined to specific areas or populations. With respect to the Rohingya population specifically international media should report on the livelihood crisis that Rohingya’s are facing.
CIVICUS: How have limits to freedom of expression in Myanmar affected local media coverage and civil society advocacy on this issue? Have these limits affected the work of your organisation?
- Smile: The limits to freedom of expression in Myanmar have had far reaching effects not only on the work of organisations, but also on the consciousness and behavior of people living in Myanmar. This environment has led to high instances of self-censorship, wherein organisations, civil society actors, and activists are extremely cautious and frequently exercise self-censorship. Human rights defenders and interfaith activists operate in a climate of extreme hostility, facing harassment and discrimination from both state and non-state actors. Section 66(D) of the telecommunications law is the newest threat to freedom of expression. Limits to freedom of expression have hampered our strategic advocacy efforts. At times, because of advice from our partners or lawyers, we have chosen not to share advocacy briefs or legal analyses that have already been prepared. Most recently, a film produced by Smile called Sittwe was selected for the Human Rights Film Festival but banned shortly before screening. The film focuses on the perceptions and experiences of young people from different religions living in Sittwe. At present, we cannot show the film publicly anywhere in Myanmar and have been advised against issuing a press release.
CIVICUS: How have civil society groups operational in Rakhine province been affected by the conflict?
- Smile: Most civil society groups working on religious freedom and belief, access to citizenship and social cohesion are working through informal means. Entry into Nothern Rakhine State is highly restrictive, which has affected many organisations. For example, an organisation which had allocated five million pounds to work in Rakhine state can no longer access their target stakeholders.
CIVICUS: How do you see this situation unfolding over the next three months?
- Smile: It is likely that the stagnation and slow degradation of the situation will continue. The current government's lack of priority and support (even dismissal) of efforts to promote interfaith reconciliation between communities (e.g. banning a film like Sittwe) does not help. Restrictions on movement and fear have remained constant under the current government. There continues to be a lack of trust and accountability between the civilian government and military junta. There are very few civil society organisations working on the rights of religious minorities, who continue to work under a climate of extreme hostility and lack of political will.
CIVICUS: What role could international civil society play in addressing this issue and providing support and solidarity to civil society activists within Myanmar?
- Smile: It is highly likely that the state counsellors office may begin interfering with funding for CSOs, by determining how much and for what type of activities in the next few months. An advocacy fund to support work of activists working on the promotion and protection of religious freedoms and beliefs, and those working on promoting the voice of the most marginalised would be immensely helpful to the work of activists and groups working in-country. In addition, there could be an international event to raise awareness on under-represented issues and experiences. Events should also focus on issues that are challenging to talk about in Myanmar, especially for Myanmar nationals and organisations. Furthermore, organisations should work directly with civil society, and focus their efforts on facilitating a sharing of experiences, accumulating evidence and providing intellectual capacity support.
*Smile Education and Development Foundation (Smile) is a non-profit and non-governmental organisation based in Yangon, Myanmar, founded in 2007 and registered in 2013. Smile is dedicated to promoting freedom of religion and belief, building interfaith harmony and transforming intercommunal conflicts in Myanmar. Smile works to promote change at the community-level through informal education for youth and CSO development for community organisations.