International alarm over the persecution of Rohingya Muslims

The international community has condemned the alarming number of threats against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, there is mounting evidence of systemic human rights abuses against religious minorities by security forces in Rakhine province. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has joined the growing number of civil society voices calling for an international independent inquiry into human rights violations committed during the unrest. In a recent interview, Lee commented on the situation, stating: 

"No one currently knows exactly what happened in the north of Rakhine State during the “clearance operations” – we have a large number of serious and disturbing allegations of grave violations reportedly committed by security forces in an area that was in lock down for several months and from which tens of thousands of people have apparently fled.

A commission of inquiry with the appropriate mandate and expertise would be able to look into the alleged human rights violations with guarantees of independence and impartiality to find out exactly what happened, and help verify the allegations with a view to ensuring accountability, and providing justice and redress for victims." 

During a recent visit, Lee was denied access to Rohingya villages by authorities in Myanmar. The United Nations estimates that as many as 69,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims have fled across the border to Bangladesh due to threats to their safety. International pressure on Nobel Peace Prize winner and Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has grown, with the international community urging Suu Kyi to protect minority Muslims. Some have claimed she is purposefully overlooking ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity in Rakhine province. The most recent reports show that security forces have presumably "ceased" the crackdown against the Rohingya communities. 


The recent murder of Ko Ni, a prominent Muslim lawyer and a member of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League of Democracy, has sparked fears of increasing violence towards religious minorities in Myanmar. Ko Ni was gunned down outside Yangon airport on 29th January 2017. Many fear that the brazen killing of Ko Ni represents worsening attitudes toward religious pluralism in the country. And the deteriorating human rights situation in Rakhine state and reports of human rights abuses committed with impunity against the Rohingya Muslim community also show that religious groups and minorities are not protected. On 22nd December 2016, Human Rights Watch released a video documenting the targeted and systematic use of extrajudicial killings, sexual violence and torture in Rakhine state.

In a statement, the International Crisis Group condemned the violence against religious minorities, stating:

"...there is a serious risk that in a context of strong anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, rampant hate speech on social media, and virulent Buddhist nationalism propounded by some senior monks, this crime could embolden others and unleash further violence."

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the authorities in Myanmar have continued to restrict civic activities in Kachin state. On 28th November 2016, the authorities refused to allow a public workshop in Myitkyina, the Kachin state capital, despite the fact that the organisers had applied for permission two months in advance. The workshop, organised by the Australia Myanmar Constitutional Democracy Project and the Community of Democracy, aimed to provide a forum for political debate over the future of Myanmar. While the authorities prohibited the workshop in Myitkyina, similar workshops were allowed to take place in Naypyidaw and Yangon.

The issue of political reform in Myanmar has been high on the agenda of local civil society groups. Given the continued unrest in Rakhine province and religious intolerance, local groups have pushed for revising the 2008 military-drafted constitution. On 27th February 2017, over 500 civic leaders attended the National CSO Forum, calling on the government to reform the constitution. 


Despite the evidence of numerous human rights violations by the military, a march in support of the Myanmar Defence Services (Tatmadaw) mobilised thousands of people in Shan, Kachin and Rakhine states on 18th December 2016. In an apparent display of inter-ethnic unity, a number of Myanmar's diverse ethnic groups participated in the march, distinguishable by their traditional dress. However, community leaders questioned the authenticity of many of the protesters. In an interview, a member of the All Burma Shan Youth Network, Sai Hsaing Lin commented on the protest, saying:

“The organiser and the marchers will know if they are real ethnic persons or not...Visually, they looked weird—especially the way they wore their ethnic traditional dress. They were dressed wrong, and it was quite obvious. Personally, I think their attendance was fake.” 

Reports also noted the presence of Myanmar's security forces at the event, who allegedly photographed and documented the journalists in attendance. 

Workers' rights and property rights have been key to galvanizing citizen action in Myanmar. On 10th February 2017, Amnesty International reported on the reopening of the Letpadaung mine operated by Wanbao Mining. As the conglomerate expands its operation, thousands of local residents risk losing their homes or farmlands. Amnesty has documented local demonstrations against the mine, as well as the authorities' heavy-handed response, including arrests, harassment and intimidation of protesters. 

In March 2017, factory workers at the European clothing brand H&M rioted over poor working conditions, refusing to work when a trade union representative was fired after negotiating overtime pay. During the month-long standoff, workers destroyed the factory's property. Myanmar's textile industry has flourished in recent years and has rapidly grown to become a key industry for the economy. However, with the expansion of factories, many have expressed concern over the poor working conditions and the lack of protection of workers' rights. The video below documents the story:  


Independent journalists have been barred from traveling to northern Rakhine State, where the United Nations and human rights groups have accused soldiers and police of violating the rights of civilians during their sweep of the Muslim-majority area. To avoid an investigation, the Ministry of Information organised a team of officials, accompanied by handpicked journalists working for state media outlets, to visit and report on the area. As noted on the CIVICUS Monitor, press freedom and access to information have been severely curtailed in the country.