End Persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State

(Yangon, November 7, 2014)— Myanmar state security forces are complicit in and profiting from the increasingly lucrative maritime human trafficking and smuggling of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine State, Fortify Rights revealed in a briefing released today.

Since 2012, Myanmar state security forces in Rakhine State have collected payments from Rohingya asylum seekers fleeing Myanmar by ships operated by transnational criminal syndicates, according to information obtained by Fortify Rights. In some cases, the Myanmar Navy escorted boats operated by criminal gangs out to international waters.

“Not only are the authorities making life so intolerable for Rohingya that they’re forced to flee, but they’re also profiting from the exodus,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights. “This is a regional crisis that’s worsening while Myanmar authorities are treating it like a perverse payday.”

Local Rohingya brokers mostly deliver payments to members of the Lon Thein riot police, Myanmar Police Department, Navy, and Army in amounts ranging from 500,000 kyat ($500 USD) to 600,000 kyat ($600 USD) per shipload of Rohingya asylum seekers in exchange for passage out to sea. In one case documented by Fortify Rights, the Myanmar Navy demanded 7-million kyat ($7,000 USD) from a criminal gang operating a ship filled with Rohingya fleeing to Malaysia. In other cases, members of the Myanmar Police Department took up to 15,000 kyat ($15 USD) per person directly from individual Rohingya passengers.

Trafficking in persons is prohibited under international law, and states have a duty to take action to combat trafficking. Human trafficking includes elements of deceit, exploitation, and abuse. Human smuggling, on the other hand, involves a “client” consenting and paying to be transported across an international border.

In June 2014, Myanmar maintained its place on the United States Department of State’s tier-two watch list in the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. Myanmar has remained on the tier-two watch list through a system of waivers. Unless demonstrable changes take place in the next year, the country could be downgraded to tier-three status—the lowest designation reserved for countries failing to adequately combat human trafficking. 

Tier-three countries face potential US sanctions at the discretion of the President of the United States. President Barack Obama will be visiting Myanmar on November 12 and 13 for the 25th annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit.

“Ignoring the Myanmar government’s responsibility for this regional crisis will only perpetuate it,” said Matthew Smith. “The US and regional governments should work with Myanmar to end its persecution of the Rohingya and combat trafficking in a rights-respecting way.”

From September 2013 to October 2014, Fortify Rights interviewed more than 90 Rohingya men and women in Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia, many of whom fled the country between 2012 and 2014. Thousands more have fled in recent weeks.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya in Rakhine State are now preparing to board 50-to-100-person occupancy boats on the western coast of Myanmar. These boats transport Rohingya asylum seekers to larger ships in the Bay of Bengal that hold as many as 1,000 people. The vast majority of Rohingya who depart by sea soon find themselves in the custody of abusive human trafficking and smuggling gangs, who detain them in conditions of enslavement and exploitation. 

Most Rohingya are fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Before boarding ships, they are generally not fully informed and, in many cases, are deceived about the treatment they will endure, additional costs, and other aspects of the journey to Malaysia. Many are sold multiple times and for a myriad of reasons, including for labor and sexual exploitation. Nearly all endure or witness torture, deprivation of food and water, confinement in extremely close quarters, and other abuses throughout their journey.

In 2012, civilians and state security forces razed Muslim villages in 13 of 17 townships in Rakhine State. More than 300,000 people—predominantly Rohingya Muslims—are now in need of humanitarian aid in the state, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid. That includes 70,000 “food insecure” people, 50,000 living in isolated villages, 50,000 in “host communities,” and approximately 140,000 Rohingya and non-Rohingya Muslims living in more than 80 internally displaced person (IDP) camps. More than 100,000 Rohingya reportedly fled the country by sea in the last two years. Rakhine Buddhists also endured casualties and displacement in Rakhine State in 2012 on a lesser scale. 

Scores of Rohingya who were displaced in Rakhine State told Fortify Rights that inadequate food, health care, and livelihood opportunities in the IDP camps as well as restrictions on movement and fear of future persecution contributed to their decision to flee Myanmar.

Moreover, more than 1 million Rohingya continue to be directly affected by persecutory state policies restricting their movement, marriage, childbirth, and other aspects of everyday life in Rakhine State. Rohingya who were not displaced by attacks in 2012 but still face persecution told Fortify Rights that they fled the country due to restrictions imposed by the state, including restrictions on freedom of movement, threats of violence, and ongoing pressure to abandon their ethnic identity.

“President Thein Sein has the authority to abolish the restrictions imposed on Rohingya, but he hasn’t done that,” Matthew Smith said. “We’re seeing tightened restrictions, arbitrary arrests, and severe deprivations, driving more and more Rohingya to flee.”

The government of Myanmar routinely denies the existence of the Rohingya ethnicity and claims that Rohingya are “Bengali” from Bangladesh. Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law denies Rohingya equal access to citizenship and effectively renders most Rohingya stateless.

In 2014, the government of Myanmar began a “citizenship scrutiny” process to “verify” the status of “Bengali” in Rakhine State—a process that requires Rohingya to disavow their ethnic identity in exchange for “naturalized” citizenship. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee referred to naturalized citizenship in Myanmar as a “lower class of citizenship,” which can be revoked by the authorities “on the basis of vague and broad grounds.”

In her September 23, 2014 report to the United Nations General Assembly, Special Rapporteur Lee pointed out that Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law is in contravention of international law and Myanmar’s international treaty obligations, adding that it “should not be exempt from reform.”

In February 2014, Fortify Rights published a 79-page report, Policies of Persecution: Ending Abusive State Policies Against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, exposing leaked government documents that outline discriminatory policies against Rohingya Muslims, restricting all aspects of everyday life, and resulting in severe violations of human rights of Rohingya. The report implicates state and central government officials as perpetrators of the crime against humanity of persecution.

“The international community should condemn the abuses against Rohingya with a unified voice and work with Myanmar in a principled way to improve the situation,” said Matthew Smith. 

Fortify Rights Briefing and Recommendations: November 7, 2014

Eyewitness and Survivor Testimonies

Some people didn’t have proper food or water [on the ship at sea] and got very mad. When that happened the [traffickers] stabbed them and threw them in the sea. Six people were killed and thrown in the sea. And then some people got so upset they just jumped in the water. There were men, women, and children on board. All the people who were killed were men. All six managers [of the ship] were [Rohingya] from Alay Than Kyaw [Rakhine State]. The knives were maybe 8 inches long. … They had weapons also in the boat. 

— Fortify Rights interview with “D.D.,” Rohingya boy, 17, from Maungdaw Township, Rakhine State, September 17, 2014

About 12 people died on the journey [by ship from Rakhine State to Thailand]. When they were beaten they had heavy pain, and there was a shortage of water and food. We prayed and cried for rain so we could get some water to drink. The traffickers knew one of the 12 would die so the men threw his body overboard while he was still alive. He was an older [Rohingya] man. 

— Fortify Rights interview with “A.Z.,” Rohingya boy, 16, from Sittwe, Rakhine State, August 11, 2014

When we reached Sittwe [offshore], the Navy arrested us all, and we had to pay 7-million kyat ($7,000 USD) to be released. When the Navy seized us, they took us as a group. The captain of the boat went to the Navy, and after two hours, he came back to the boat. We were cleared after we paid 7-million kyat ($7,000 USD). No one was taken off the boat. We were worried about what was happening, and when the captain came back, we asked the Rohingya guard [trafficker], and he said there was no problem at all. He said they already paid 7-million kyat ($7,000 USD) and that we could go. It was a big Navy boat. I saw about 15 Navy persons with guns. 

—Fortify Rights interview with “E.D.,” Rohingya man, 27, September 27, 2014

When we got on the boat, we didn’t see anyone, but in the sea, we ran into the Myanmar Navy. When we were close to the Navy, two people from our boat got on the Navy boat and then came back to our boat, and we started moving. The Navy stayed with our boat for two and a half hours. After that, [the Navy] provided some rations and showed the way to Malaysia. I saw six or seven Navy soldiers. It was a big Navy ship. We left Myanmar, so maybe they helped us to go. They are driving people out of the country. 

—Fortify Rights interview with “A.G.,” Rohingya man, 43, from Minbya, Rakhine State, August 13, 2014

When we first left Sittwe, there was a [police] checkpoint to go from Sittwe to the boat. We had to pay money at the checkpoint. … At sea, we saw the Myanmar Naval ship. They stopped us, and two people from our boat talked to the Navy. After the discussion, the Navy helped our boat along for two hours. They helped us leave Myanmar, and they provided rations for us to leave. They provided oil, fish, and rice. There were two big Navy boats. 

—Fortify Rights interview with “A.I.,” Rohingya man, 20, from Sittwe, Rakhine State, August 13, 2014

I had to sell a gold chain to get on the boat. I don’t know what I paid; I gave them my gold chain. I gave the chain to the boat owner and he gave it to the [security forces]. I didn’t see him give it to the [security forces] but they were standing right there. I realized that they paid the [security forces] because they didn’t arrest us. There were many there. There were at least 25 [soldiers] when we were getting on the boat. When the 25 [soldiers] came, they weren’t allowing us to get on the boat. I said, “Okay, if you need money, I will give you my chain.” I gave it to the boat owner. The [security forces] were all Burman. They had three stars on their shirts. 

—Fortify Rights interview with “Z.C.,” Rohingya woman, 50, from Sittwe, Rakhine State, August 12, 2014

When we were trying to get on the boat, [Lon Thein security forces] came and said they wouldn’t allow us to leave. We said we had no food and had to leave. They collected 380,000 kyat ($380 USD) from us. We gave them the money and they let us leave. They said, “Okay, you can leave here. This is not your country.” I wanted to kill them when I heard that, but they had the weapons. 

—Fortify Rights interview with “Z.C.,” Rohingya man, 27, from Myebon, Rakhine State, August 10, 2014

When I saw the big boat, I was scared. I thought, how could we go there? All 27 of us wanted to go back [to shore]. We were scared. The big boat was already full. We were the last passengers getting on the boat. We all said we would wait for another boat. But they wouldn’t let us. … We were only given a small portion of rice and water twice a day. … They beat us. They beat almost every person on the boat. They used a plastic pipe. 

—Fortify Rights interview with “Z.E.,” Rohingya man, 19, from Maungdaw Township, August 10, 2014

The main reason I left [Myanmar by sea] was because we weren’t allowed to move around. We couldn’t move from one village to another. We needed a permit. Sometimes when we had permission, the army would still beat us, and they’d ask for money. They mainly do this because they’re trying to slowly kill us all. They restrict us and don’t let us move from village to village because they want us to die and to starve. We need to travel to other villages to survive. People would die without food and medicine. This is a deliberate plan. 

—Fortify Rights interview with “E.H.,” Rohingya man, 27, from Mrauk U, Rakhine State, September 28, 2014

I had to leave Rakhine State because of hunger. I was in Bariza [IDP] camp. They [UN agencies] provided for one person only a cup of rice and a little oil. We also had only half rations because we needed the rest to buy other things, like fuel. I was living in the IDP camps, and it was very difficult and a very hard time, and that’s why I realized I had to leave the country. 

—Fortify Rights interview with “F.I.,” Rohingya girl, 15, from Sittwe, Rakhine State, October 1, 2014

After my neighbor was shot, I stayed for another two weeks in my village. The military continued to come to the village to arrest and beat people. One evening when they came, my family and I fled from our home. It was around 8 pm at night. I was separated from my mother and sisters. I was with 35 villagers. We found an old fishing boat without an engine on the beach. We didn’t know the owner, but we knew we had to leave for our lives, so we took this boat to Bangladesh. I hadn’t planned to leave, but I couldn’t continue to live in Myanmar. 

—Fortify Rights interview with “H.A.,” Rohingya boy, 17, from Duchiridan, Rakhine State, September 15, 2014


To the Government of Myanmar
  • Support an independent international investigation, including Myanmar partners, into human rights violations in Rakhine State from 2012 to present, and into restrictions imposed on Rohingya in northern Rakhine State. Ensure all perpetrators of human trafficking, human rights violations, and discriminatory acts are held accountable regardless of rank and are provided with due process rights and trials that meet international fair trial standards.
  • Ensure that humanitarian aid is delivered impartially and that humanitarian aid organizations have unfettered access to all populations in need in Rakhine State. Implement policies and procedures and allocate resources to facilitate access to adequate health care for all Rohingya in Rakhine State. 
  • Immediately abolish all local orders and cease practices that violate the human rights of the Rohingya Muslim population, including the rights to nondiscrimination, nationality, movement, marriage, family, health, and privacy. Immediately lift travel restrictions on Rohingya, including on internally displaced Rohingya, and respect the right of the displaced to return home.
  • Protect the rights of minorities to self-identify based on their national, ethnic, religious, and linguistic characteristics. Remove indications of ethnic origin and religious affiliation on national identification cards, further to the 2012 recommendation of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Provide equal protection under the law to all ethnic nationalities in Myanmar, including Rohingya in Rakhine State. 
  • Amend the 1982 Citizenship Law to reduce statelessness and ensure Rohingya have equal access to citizenship rights. Bring the 1982 Citizenship Law in accordance with article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child to ensure that Rohingya children can exercise the right to acquire a nationality.
  • Provide unfettered access to Rakhine State for the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, representatives of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), humanitarian organizations, independent observers, and national and international media.
  • Implement the recommendations relating to Rakhine State and anti-Muslim violence made by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, and the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council.
To the International Community and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations
  • Enact a coordinated international plan of action to end the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar and the trafficking in persons of Rohingya from Myanmar.
  • Urge the government of Myanmar to immediately abolish all local orders and cease practices that restrict basic human rights of Rohingya, including the rights to nondiscrimination, nationality, movement, marriage, family, health, and privacy. 
  • Support an independent international investigation, including Myanmar partners, into human rights violations in Rakhine State from 2012 to present, and into restrictions imposed on Rohingya in northern Rakhine State.
  • Provide financial, technical, and advocacy support to human rights defenders in Myanmar in order to strengthen local responses to human rights violations.
  • Advocate for the full realization of recommendations relating to the situation in Rakhine State and the situation of anti-Muslim violence made by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, and the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council.

Read the 79-page Fortify Rights report, Policies of Persecution: Ending Abusive State Policies Against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (February 2014)

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