Violence in Rakhine state prompts international condemnation of authorities in Myanmar
Violence in Rakhine State has placed a spotlight on the treatment of the minority Rohingya Muslim community in Myanmar. Over the past month, the state has witnessed a surge in violence between security forces and alleged insurgents belonging to the Rohingya community.
The situation has escalated after an unknown group attacked three police outposts in Maungdaw township on 9th October. While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, authorities in Myanmar have blamed Rohingya Muslims for the provocation. Reports detail that retaliatory attacks and subsequent confrontations have left at least 69 insurgents and 17 members of the security forces dead. Human Rights Watch (HRW) used satellite imagery to evidence the destruction of 3 villages in Northern Maungdaw, and noted that over 400 buildings have been razed in three villages. HRW provided credible evidence showing 85 buildings destroyed in the village of Pyaung Pyit (Ngar Sar Kyu), 245 in Kyet Yoe Pyin, and 100 in Wa Peik (Kyee Kan Pyin).
3 Rohingya villages burned in Myanmar. Human Rights Watch says +400 buildings destroyed in Rakhine State | Aljazeera https://t.co/BjpccWBnGe— Burma/Myanmar Watch (@MyanmarWatch) November 13, 2016
Numerous groups have called upon the United Nations to investigate reports of arbitrary arrest, rape and extrajudicial killings. Furthermore, the state is in heavy lockdown with no media or international observers granted access to the region, leading many to believe security forces are acting with impunity. In a recent statement a group of international human rights experts, including the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee said:
'While the State has the legitimate authority and power to carry out operations to pursue the alleged perpetrators of the 9 October attacks, such crimes should be investigated and prosecuted in a court of law and not dealt with violence.'
After the civilian government assumed office earlier this year, many expected an improvement in freedom of expression in Myanmar. However, reports from civil society note conditions are actually worsening as journalists face prosecution under outdated and unnecessary defamation laws. On 11th November, two senior journalists of Eleven Media Group based in Myanmar were detained after allegedly posting on social media that a Chief Minister was involved in corruption. Dr. Than Htut Aung and Chief Editor Wai Phyo were arrested by security forces despite deleting the post. Furthermore, reports allege that the social media post did not explicitly mention any individual, leading many to believe that their prosecution is politically motivated. The prosecution of the two activists is illustrative of the continued misuse of overbroad provisions contained in the Telecommunications Law Section 66 (d), which has been widely criticised for curtailing freedom of speech in Myanmar. At the time of writing the two journalists are being held in pre-trial detention without bail. If convicted, their charges carry a maximum of three years in prison. A joint statement by MPC, Myanmar Journalists Association, Myanmar Journalists Network, Myanmar Lawyers Network and Burma News International noted:
'We all believe that filing a lawsuit against the Eleven Media Group by the Yangon Region chief minister under Section 66 (d) of the Telecommunications Law would tantamount to neglecting the Press Law and the Press Council, and in consequence a suppression of the freedom of expression. We are not arguing about the accuracy of the facts and figures in this case, but we are pointing to the manner in which action was taken.'
In another instance of misuse of the Telecommunications Act, Myanmar citizen Hla Phone was accused of defaming General Min Aung Hlaing and former President Thein Sein after posting satirical cartoons on social media. He was arrested earlier this year and was forced to spend several months in pre-trial detention without bail while awaiting trial. On 11th November, Hla Phone was sentenced to 24 months for defamation. A previously persecuted local activist, Maung Saungkha said:
'We are worried that the Telecommunications Law is being used as a weapon to attack political groups. Even if you don’t do anything wrong, you can be sued and detained under this section of the law.'
While authorities in Myanmar continue to use the judicial system to harass activists, they are also known to exert influence on independent media outlets. On 4th November, a journalist for the Myanmar Times, Fiona MacGregor was fired after she wrote articles critical of abuses by security forces in Rakhine state. MacGregor mainly reported on rape by the security forces. Many following the situation believe that authorities in Myanmar used coercive tactics to pressure the media outlet into firing the journalist.
Reports from Myanmar also confirm that access to information is a recurring problem. State and government officials do not provide interviews or vital information making investigative journalism extremely challenging.