Abolish restrictions and ensure accountability, cooperate with U.N. Fact Finders

(YANGON, August 24, 2017)—The Government of Myanmar should immediately act on comprehensive recommendations from the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, said Fortify Rights today. The Commission, led by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, released its final report today in Yangon

The Advisory Commission recommends that the government take concrete steps to end enforced segregation of Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims; ensure full and unfettered humanitarian access throughout the state; tackle Rohingya statelessness and “revisit” the 1982 Citizenship Law; hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable; and end restrictions on freedom of movement, among other recommendations.

“Rather than deal with ongoing atrocities, the government tried to hide behind the Advisory Commission,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights. “The Commission responded with concrete recommendations to end violations, and the government should act on them without delay. The government needs to urgently address the realities on the ground.” 

Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi established the nine-member Advisory Commission on Rakhine State on August 23, 2016 to “consider humanitarian and development issues, access to basic services, the assurance of basic rights, and the security of the people of Rakhine.” It comprised six Myanmar nationals and three international commissioners, including Mr. Annan. The government previously said it would implement the Commission’s recommendations.

Just over a month after the government established the Commission, Rohingya militants murdered nine police officers on October 9, 2016 in a coordinated attack on three police outposts in northern Rakhine State. The Myanmar Army responded with brutal force. Army soldiers killed civilians, raped women and girls, and razed entire villages, displacing more than 90,000 civilians, according to Fortify Rights and others.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights alleged in February that violations against Rohingya since October may amount to crimes against humanity. The government has denied the allegations.

“Whenever there is an accusation from the international community, we say we are taking action in line with the recommendations of the Kofi Annan commission,” said Myanmar government spokesperson Zaw Htay to The Irrawaddy on July 10. “The commission is serving as a shield for us.”

The government did not mandate the Advisory Commission to investigate and document human rights violations. Recognizing the importance of accountability to address the “human rights crisis” in Rakhine State, the Commission today recommended that the government hold “perpetrators of serious human rights violations” accountable.

The Advisory Commission also recommended the government ensure the right to freedom of movement for all residents of Rakhine State.

In 2014, Fortify Rights exposed local orders and internal government documents revealing severe restrictions on freedom of movement, marriage, childbirth, and other aspects of daily life for more than one million Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. The government continues to confine more than 120,000 people—mostly Rohingya survivors of 2012 violence—to 38 internment camps in eight townships in Rakhine State. Local orders and practices prevent Rohingya from traveling freely between villages, village tracts, townships, and beyond. 

Rohingya who violate restrictions on movement face criminal charges, extortion, or violent reprisals by Myanmar state security forces, Fortify Rights said. 

“Restrictions on freedom of movement are not only unlawful, they’re also bad for the economy and create deadly security risks,” said Matthew Smith. “These apartheid-like restrictions erode security for communities and heighten the risk of mass killings. It’s a tinderbox.” 

Following the Myanmar Army’s crackdown in northern Rakhine State in October, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a landmark resolution on March 24 ordering an independent, international Fact-Finding Mission to investigate human rights violations and abuses in Myanmar, including in Rakhine State. The President of the Human Rights Council appointed three experts to lead the mission.

Fortify Rights recommended that the Fact-Finding Mission focus on human rights violations by state and non-state actors in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan states. 

The Government of Myanmar “disassociated” itself from the resolution. Suu Kyi explained that her government would not cooperate with the Mission. The Fact-Finding Mission is expected to formally request access to Myanmar soon. 

The Myanmar military and Suu Kyi’s offices have routinely denied allegations of serious human rights violations in Rakhine State since October 2016. On August 6, another commission appointed by Suu Kyi and led by Vice President Myint Swe dismissed allegations of serious human rights violations in Maungdaw Township since October. 

“There is no possibility of crimes against humanity, no evidence of ethnic cleansing, as per UN accusations,” Vice President Myint Swe told journalists.

The Myint Swe Commission’s methodology and practices were “deeply flawed” and “its findings lack any semblance of credibility,” Fortify Rights said. 

“Between the Annan Commission, U.N. fact finders, and Myanmar’s own civil society, the government has an opportunity make real progress in ending and remedying atrocities,” said Matthew Smith. “Some officials are looking to sweep Rakhine under the rug. The military and civilian authorities should cooperate with international efforts to establish the facts and hold perpetrators accountable. There’s no other way forward.” 

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