As violence and displacement continues in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, ARTICLE 19 calls on the Myanmar government to take urgent steps to end human rights violations, tackle discrimination and ‘hate speech’, and allow access to journalists and independent observers, in order to bring an end to the crisis and protect the human rights of all people in the country. The government should immediately allow journalists and independent UN observers access to conflict areas, not just the areas untouched by violence, as State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi offered in her recent speech. Such access is necessary to ensure the people of Myanmar are able to access independent reporting and information about the situation. Equally, immediate measures must be taken to tackle the rise of divisive and discriminatory speech surrounding and fuelling the crisis, and the growing issue of online and offline anti-Muslim ‘hate speech’, which threatens to create a deep and lasting divide in Myanmar society. Finally, the government must end impunity for the actions of Myanmar’s military in the state and elsewhere in the country.
The ongoing military operations in Rakhine State, sparked by attacks by ARSA militants in late September, have led to the displacement of more than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims and at least 30,000 Buddhist and Hindu communities. Many of those displaced have reported serious human rights violations and atrocity crimes, particularly by the Myanmar military. The violence comes on the heels of years of growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, fanned by nationalist organisations like Ma Ba Tha, which in 2012 resulted in the displacement of at least 110,000. Restrictive laws have also prevented the Rohingya from free movement and full access to education and healthcare, and a failure to address growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the country has allowed the situation to worsen. The Rohingya were disenfranchised in Myanmar’s 2015 elections, which saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy NLD rise to power.
In a speech last week, replacing her presence at the UN General Assembly, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi stated that she welcomed international scrutiny, and highlighted the government’s supposed efforts to ‘promote harmony between the Muslim and Rakhine communities’. However, the government’s refusal to allow the UN mandated International Fact-Finding Mission* access to affected areas of the State, and its denial of access to journalists unaccompanied by Myanmar’s military, suggests an unwillingness to allow open scrutiny and debate of the situation. Equally, comments made by government officials and the State Counsellor’s own information office, which have suggested among other things that Rohingya refugees fleeing to Bangladesh have done so due to their association with the ARSA terrorist group, and that reports of severe human rights violations have been exaggerated or fabricated, have only worsened suspicion and division between the country’s and the State’s ethnic and religious groups.
The escalating violence against Rohingya and other ethnic groups in Rakhine State, including the discovery on 24 September of the bodies of at least 28 Hindu villagers, has been accompanied by a worsening of inter-communal relations, and escalation of anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. On 22 September, a bomb exploded outside a Mosque in Buthidaung, Rakhine State, and the latest attack on a Hindu village is evidence of an alarming divide. As the crisis has worsened, this divide has been most visible online, where ‘hate speech’, against Rohingya in particular, has been surging, fuelled in part by misinformation from external and internal sources. ARTICLE 19 reiterates its recommendations to the government to make genuine efforts to promote dialogue between communities, and begin implementing the recommendations of the Rakhine Commission, particularly with regard to ‘hate speech’ and tolerance, without delay.
The State Counsellor has repeatedly stressed her mandate to build a democratic Myanmar, in challenging circumstances. The Myanmar military continues to control a quarter of seats in the country’s legislature, several key ministries, and has extensive control over the administrative operations of the government.
However, a stable democracy requires the free flow of information and freedom of expression to thrive, and requires leaders to speak out against discrimination and hatred. It requires that journalists feel free both to access areas of conflict to conduct their work, as well as to report on sensitive issues without fear of harassment and criminalisation. It requires cooperation with international human rights bodies and the implementation of international standards to protect human rights. And lastly it requires strong and urgent action to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice and end impunity for such crimes. We urge the Myanmar government to show its commitment to the establishment of democracy, through immediate efforts to halt the violence and promote equality and dialogue between communities in Rakhine State and across Myanmar.
*In light of the escalation of the situation in Rakhine, and lack of cooperation from the Myanmar government, the UN Human Rights Council decided unanimously to extend the mandate of the Fact Finding Mission on 29 September 2017.