Deepening humanitarian crisis now coined a "catastrophe"
As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the unfolding crisis in Rakhine state continues to attract widespread international condemnation. Mounting evidence of crimes against humanity perpetrated by security forces in Myanmar, compounded by a deepening humanitarian crisis, has left Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim community in a conflict zone bereft of crucial aid. In this context, the authorities' refusal to cooperate with international human rights mechanisms and the barring of humanitarian aid agencies have been viewed as a cynical move to dampen accounts of atrocities taking place in the region. International observers have now coined the situation a "humanitarian catastrophe". Meanwhile, evidence of civilian massacres and the systematic use of sexual violence as well as disturbing cases of torture have come flooding in from the voices of the 500,000 refugees who have escaped the escalating conflict crossing the border into Bangladesh. Given the severity of the situation, local and international groups have reiterated calls on authorities in Myanmar to cooperate with humanitarian aid agencies and permit an independent UN-mandated fact-finding mission full access to Rakhine state.
The formal withdrawal of charges of "unlawful association" against journalists in early September 2017 has been viewed as a positive development since the last update on Myanmar was published on the CIVICUS Monitor. Journalists Aye Nai, Pyae Phone Aung and Lawi Weng were originally arrested on 26th June 2017 after returning from a drug-burning ceremony in Shan state and prosecuted under the lawful association act. While the dropped charges are welcomed, the case has also drawn attention to the misapplication of laws in Myanmar against those who are critical of the state and state agencies.
Existing laws are still being used against civil society leaders and organisations working in conflict regions of Myanmar. As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, groups promoting the rights of ethnic minorities, particularly Rohingya Muslims, as well as humanitarian agencies, remain constrained. In early September 2017, authorities in Myanmar barred all UN agencies from entering the conflict-ridden state, effectively stopping them from providing any assistance to civilians trapped in the conflict zone. Similarly, on 31st August 2017 sixteen of the largest international civil society groups operating in the area issued a statement decrying restrictions on their work as well as correcting misinformation on the assistance given to the conflict-affected communities. The statement has become emblematic of a situation where all international assistance in Rakhine state has been hindered by unwarranted restrictions.
As previously featured on the CIVICUS Monitor, restrictions on freedom of expression have been a key concern for civil society under Aung San Suu Kyi's tenure as de facto leader. The third draft of a new law to counter hate speech has triggered another outcry from freedom of expression groups that claim the provisions could be used to stifle free speech in Myanmar. While efforts to enshrine and institutionalise safeguards against ethnic and religious intolerance have been welcomed, in the context of the ongoing crisis in Rakhine state and a growing anti-Muslim sentiment across the nation, scrutiny over the wording of the draft law has uncovered glaring flaws. In particular, the lack of an adequate definition for "religion" and "ethnicity" as well as the failure to include non-citizens in the legal framework have left many questioning whether the broadly defined provisions will be used to harass those who need protecting the most. Since Myanmar's persecuted Rohingya Muslim community is excluded from obtaining citizenship, they are one of the largest stateless populations in the world and would be excluded from protection under the new law on countering hate speech. In a recent statement, Article 19 commented on the proposals:
"ARTICLE 19's analysis of the third draft of Myanmar’s Interfaith Harmonious Coexistence Law finds that, notwithstanding some positive changes to the draft law, it remains fundamentally flawed from a freedom of expression perspective. Against the draft law’s own stated objectives, its reliance on broad censorship powers is profoundly misguided, and will not advance much-needed efforts to alleviate or prevent conflict. A new approach is needed to build respect for pluralism and diversity in Myanmar, and open space for dialogue that genuinely has the potential to prevent violence and discrimination".
As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, a growing crackdown on journalists and dissidents has taken place. Unless this clampdown is reversed and legislation revised, challenges to human rights protection in Myanmar will only continue.