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Daw Gulban, a 53 year-old Rohingya woman who was granted citizenship in 2014, shows her ‘pink card’ at her house in Taung Paw Camp in Myebon. 13 March 2017. (Antolín Avezuela Aristu)

By Anton Avezuela & Carlos Sardina Galache
July 24, 2017

“Nothing has changed for me since I got citizenship,” says Daw Gulban, a 53 year-old Rohingya woman living in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Myebon Town, Rakhine State, Myanmar. Daw Gulban has been confined to the camp since a wave of sectarian violence began in 2012. Like the overwhelming majority of Rohingya, Daw Gulban was stateless for decades, but unlike most of them, she gained her citizenship three years ago as part of a pilot program in her township.

To qualify for citizenship, Rohingya applicants had to renounce their identity and accept being labelled as ‘Bengalis’ on all official documents. They also had to prove that they could trace the presence of their family in Rakhine back three generations, something which is extremely difficult as many Rohingya lack documents or had lost them in 2012.

Daw Gulban was one of the lucky ones: she could produce the necessary papers. “I heard the word ‘Rohingya’ from my parents when I was a child, but it’s not accepted by the immigration department. They laughed at me and told me to go when I said it once in their office. Bengali means we are from Bangladesh. I am from Burma, but I’m willing to accept [this term] if I can get citizenship and rights,” she explains.

Rohingya Muslims comprise one million out of the 53 million people that live in Myanmar, forming the world’s largest stateless population in a single country. Almost universally reviled by the country’s Buddhist majority, they have been oppressed by the government since the late 1970s when the government launched a campaign to identify ‘illegal immigrants’. Serious abuses were committed, forcing as many as 250,000 Rohingya refugees to flee to Bangladesh.

The Rohingya ethnicity is not included in the list of 135 officially recognised ‘national races’ adopted in the late 1980s by the government. Rohingyas are labelled ‘Bengalis’ instead, implying that they are interlopers from Bangladesh despite their deep roots in Rakhine State, where most of the community lives.

The Myebon River in Myanmar, on the shores of which the town of Myebon lies. 12 March 2017.
Photo: Antolín Avezuela Aristu

In 2012, a year after the government launched a process of democratic transition from five decades of military dictatorship, successive waves of sectarian violence between the Buddhist Rakhine majority and Muslim Rohingya engulfed Rakhine State. Rohingya bore the brunt of the violence and, since then, 140,000 people have been forced to live in squalid camps, many along the Myebon River.

Bananda Phyabawga, abbot of the Pyanabakeman Buddhist Monastery, in Myebon, poses while surrounded by a group of local monks. Myebon, Myanmar, 12 March 2017. Photo: Antolín Avezuela Aristu

Some local Rakhine and national politicians, influential Buddhist monks, civil society leaders and the government itself have all been stoking fears about a Muslim invasion of this deeply religious Buddhist-majority country for decades, resulting in sporadic bouts of sectarian violence and the progressive disenfranchisement of the Rohingya and other Muslim populations in the country. The violence in 2012 was the worst in years and the situation of the Rohingya has worsened markedly ever since.

“Muslims try to impose their religion on others, so we need to handle this threat,” says Bananda Phyabawga, the abbot of a local monastery.

Maung Zaw shows the ‘pink card’ he received in 2014 in Taung Paw Camp, Myebon. 13 March 2017.
Photo: Antolín Avezuela Aristu

In 2014, the government launched a pilot program to verify the citizenship of the Rohingya. The verification process was mostly carried out in the township of Myebon, where almost 3,000 Muslims had been confined in a camp since October 2012.

The program was carried out by application of the controversial 1982 Citizenship Law, which establishes three layers of citizenship and makes belonging to one of Myanmar’s ‘national races’ the primary (although not the sole) criterion of full citizenship.

The way ethnic labels are applied may sometimes be arbitrary. Maung Zaw, a 45 year-old intern at the camp was branded ‘Bengali’ on the pink citizenship card he attained in 2014 but his family documents show that he belongs to the Kaman minority, a Muslim ethnic group officially recognised as one of the 135 so-called ‘national races’ in the country.

Daw Khin Thein, chair of the local chapter of the Rakhine Women’s Network, in her gold shop in Myebon. 12 March 2017. Photo: Antolín Avezuela Aristu

The citizenship verification process was met with strong resistance from the local Rakhine population. Organisations such as the Rakhine Women’s Network staged demonstrations in the town against the move and have mobilised to prevent the provision of services to the Rohingya living in the camp.

The local leader of the Rakhine Women’s Network, Daw Khin Thein, has led these demonstrations. “This conflict is not about citizenship, but about the Muslims trying to invade our land. That’s the real problem,” she says.

Taung Paw Camp, in the outskirts of Myebon Town. 13 March 2017. Photo: Antolín Avezuela Aristu

U Tin Shwe, the general administrator of Myebon Township, was in charge of the local pilot program in 2014, which lasted for a few months. “Virtually all Muslims applied for citizenship, and none of them used the word ‘Rohingya’. They don’t use that word here. We eventually gave full citizenship to 97 people, and naturalised citizenship to 969 of them,” he explains to Equal Times in his office.

Several Muslim citizens interviewed by Equal Times asserted that permits are extremely difficult to get and they have to pay exorbitant bribes to the police to attain them. They also claim that their lives have changed very little since they were recognised as citizens. Those still confined in IDP camps have little access to education or healthcare. The local population refuses to allow them access to such services and the authorities do little to protect them. To move outside the camp, they need special permits and protection from the security forces, which comes at a price that few can afford.

“The 1982 Citizenship Law recognised as citizens those who were already recorded as such, regardless of how they were identified racially or religiously. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the government launched a process of re-registration, taking old ID cards to re-issue new ones, Muslims in Rakhine State were not issued with new cards even when they were legally entitled to them,” explains Nick Cheesman, a Myanmar legal expert at the Australian National University.

A group of Muslim women carry water at Taung Paw Camp in Myebon. 13 March 2017. Photo: Antolín Avezuela Aristu

“The problem in contemporary Burma is that the notion of national races surpasses that of citizenship, both legally and ideologically. The 1982 Citizenship Law may recognise that members of non-national races who held citizenship previously would keep it, but it set as the gold standard for citizenship to be a member of one of the national races,” Cheesman adds.

An ethnic Bamar from central Myanmar, Tin Shwe blamed the local Rakhine population for the restrictions of movement imposed on Muslims. “When the program was implemented, it met with strong protests from the indigenous community. I tried to explain the law to them, but it’s difficult for the government, because we found ourselves between both communities,” he explains. Beyond the apparent divergences between Rakhine nationalists and government officials like Tin Shwe, all of them seem to agree on the idea that the Rohingya are not “natural citizens” of Myanmar. Citizens or not, the Rohingya are still seen as foreigners in the only land they have ever known.

“Nothing has changed for me since I got citizenship,” she says. “I don’t know what human rights are. I just know I would like to have food at my table, freedom of movement, education for my children, access to healthcare and for my family to live without fear,” she adds.

Myanmar security forces killed three people while clearing a suspected Rohingya insurgent training camp in the mountains in the troubled northwestern state of Rakhine on Thursday (22/06). (Reuters Photo/Soe Zeya Tun)

By Sheany
July 24, 2017

Jakarta -- The Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Thursday (20/07) emphasized that any approach aimed at resolving the ongoing conflict in Rakhine State must be comprehensive and reflect a joint effort with the government of Myanmar.

Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said that because the situation in Myanmar is "fragile," a comprehensive approach, in collaboration with Myanmar's government, is essential to produce "effective support."

Arrmanatha was responding to a recent Jakarta Globe inquiry regarding the situation in Myanmar's western Rakhine State as a United Nations mission seeks to investigate allegations of rape, torture and indiscriminate killings of Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar's armed forces.

Since October, Rakhine State has been engulfed in an ongoing conflict after a series of attacks by an ethnic Rohingya insurgent group on Myanmbar border posts led to a military crackdown in the region. The Rohingya people, native to Rakhine, are Muslim, though the country is around 87 percent Buddhist.

Myanmar authorities have been accused of crimes against humanity during the recent military operations, which have been criticized by the United Nations and Amnesty International, as well as by the governments of the United States, Malaysia and Bangladesh.

Myanmar’s government has denied the accusations.

During a bilateral meeting with President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo in April, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi said her government is committed to improving the situation in Rakhine.

In response to the UN mission’s attempt to investigate the situation, however, Myanmar declined to grant visas to three experts appointed by the UN for the mission, saying their presence will only "aggravate the situation," according a report from Reuters.

"At the end of the day, what we are trying to do is to find a solution. We are not trying to point fingers or to shame and blame," Arrmanatha said, reiterating that the best possible solution would include coordinating and partnering with the government of Myanmar.

Indonesia has been active in its support toward a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Rakhine, which includes construction of schools and medical facilities in the region.

Thirteen-year-old Mohammad Kibas doing his chores at shelter home Humanitarian Aid Selangor. 

By Melissa Goh
July 24, 2017

KUALA LUMPUR: Despite the ongoing crackdown against human trafficking in Thailand, the people smuggling network is still very much alive.

Scores from Rohingya from north west of Myanmar were still being smuggled into the Malaysia each month, seeking better lives for themselves and their families back home.

Thirteen-year-old Mohammad Kibas was one of them who survived the gruelling journey by road from Sittwe to Kuala Lumpur that took almost three months.

Being the eldest son in his family, his parents were worried that he might be targeted by the military crackdown last February, so they sold their land outside Sittwe and paid a local agent three million kyats (US$2,000) to bring him to Malaysia.

Mohd Kibas set off late February along with eight others, including a girl.

Squeezed into a compartment underneath the goods, they travelled by lorry from Sittwe to Yangon by lorry, then on foot to Mae Sot district near the Thai border before making their way to Padang Besar in southern Thailand.

There were days, he said, they walked for hours in mosquito-infested jungles with no food, moving from one transit hut to another.

Mohd Kibas said while he was not physically harmed, the girl he was travelling with disappeared one night and never returned.

He woke up one day in April and was told that he had reached Penang. After passing from one agent to another he finally arrived at a shelter home in May called Humanitarian Aid, run by Rohingya religious teacher Ustaz Rafik Ismail, outside Kuala Lumpur.

Mohd Kibas said he considered himself lucky to have escaped Rakhine. But added he missed his home and family badly. ''I miss them so much that it hurts, I just want to run back and see my family," he said.


Ustaz Rafik said authorities need to do more. Despite the tough legal action against kingpins and army generals in Thailand, the human trafficking syndicates continue to operate.

While the exodus of Rohingya has stopped after the blockade imposed by Myanmar and Bangladesh governments, some young Rohingya are still bracing the journey to come to Malaysia.

"ln 2013 and 2014, thousands used to arrive each month by boat, now they are still coming but there are not many, maybe 10 to 20 a month, it's all the younger generation," said Ustaz Rafik. 

"The journey is very hard, not the same like before in a boat. They have to walk through the jungles - it can take one month, two months, three months and there is no food; many tried but failed."

For those who made it, it is a one-way ticket.

Rohingyas who left Rakhine said they can never return home.

"Once you are out, you cannot go back in, so where can we go? Where else can we find help?" said 23-year-old Ahmad Nassim, who has been trying to renew his refugee card that's expired.

Outside the United Nations refugee agency in Kuala Lumpur, scores of Rohingya are still queuing each day to seek refugee status years after they had arrived in Malaysia.

Having a refugee card does not allow them to work legally, but at least it gives them certain medical and welfare benefits - and, more importantly, some form of protection against arrests from the authorities. But getting one issued by UNHCR is not easy as there are specific criteria that must be met.

There is no reprieve even for those with children born after they arrived in Malaysia.

"My babies were born in Malaysia but we are still unable to get a refugee card," said Anwarah Begum Abdul Ghafar.

There is no reprieve even for those with children born after they arrived in Malaysia.

Without a valid refugee card, many said they are constantly being harassed by authorities and can easily be arrested, as a nationwide crackdown is underway by Malaysian immigration enforcement department to flush out illegal migrant workers.

By Taylor McDonald
July 24, 2017

Sixty-two people were jailed by a Bangkok court this week in the largest human trafficking trial in Thai history. Ex-army general Manas Kongpan was sentenced to 27 years for trafficking and organised transnational crime.

And more needed to be done to ensure that traffickers were brought to justice and Rohingya migrants protected, human-rights groups argued.

Politicians Patchuban Angchotipan (“Ko-Tong”) and Bannakong Pongphol were sentenced to over 75 years each. In total 103 defendants stood trial with charges including human trafficking, murder, ransom and the unlawful use of firearms or other weapons. The longest sentence was 94 years for Soe Naing, widely known as Anwar, a Rohingya man who police claimed was a key figure behind the jungle death camp.

The investigation attracted increased attention when Major General Paween Pongsirin, who was leading the police probe, fled to Australia saying he feared for his life after his findings implicated “influential people” who wanted to silence him.

The trial began in 2015 after 36 bodies were found in shallow graves near the Malaysian border in a prison where traffickers were believed to have held migrants hostage until their relatives paid a ransom.

The dead were believed to be mostly Rohingya Muslims from western Myanmar who were fleeing persecution to predominantly Muslim Malaysia.

While applauding the convictions, rights groups said more needed to be done to protect the estimated 5,000 Rohingya in Thailand and to investigate other camps where victims of beatings, disease and starvation are believed to be buried.

“The trial and convictions was just the first step,” said Sunai Phasuk, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to do more beyond this and continue investigations. It should leave no stone unturned.”

Those convicted included Burmese nationals.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha asked public not to regard the military as entirely comprised of criminals, saying there were “many people in this human trafficking network”.

The US State Department in June left Thailand on a “Tier-2 Watchlist”, just above the lowest rank of Tier 3, in its annual people trafficking report.

Washington said Thailand did not do enough to tackle human smuggling and trafficking, and did not convict government employees “complicit in trafficking crimes”.

This week’s convictions could allow Thailand to move out of Tier 2 status next year, activists said.

The Rohingya are often shipped away from Myanmar on heavily overcrowded vessels. Picture credit: YouTube

A Border Guard Police officer stands at a police post that was previously attacked by a Muslim terrorist group in Kyee Kan Pyin Buthidaung in which Myanmar government and military claim the existence of Muslim terrorists, in Rakhine state Myanmar, on Friday, July 14, 2017. Myanmar's military, accused of committing genocide during an aggressive counterinsurgency campaign in the heartland of the country's oppressed Muslim ethnic Rohingya minority, allowed journalists to previously off-limits areas on a guided press tour. (AP Photo/ Esther Htusan)

July 21, 2017

KYAR GAUNG TAUNG, Myanmar - Myanmar’s military has a big public relations problem: It stands accused of committing genocide.

Which is why I was among 14 international journalists escorted to a village in northern Rakhine state this past week on a guided press tour - the first time we were allowed into this area since last October, when the army began an aggressive counterinsurgency campaign in the heartland of the country’s oppressed Muslim ethnic Rohingya minority.

The idea was to show that the army’s hands are clean and to display openness, even as the government refuses to allow a human rights fact-finding team from the United Nations to enter the country.

It was hard to reach many conclusions. Our government handlers placed limits on how much we saw and heard. There were time constraints, guards and informers shadowed us, and official briefings mostly repeated familiar talking points. Reporting also was a challenge because many Rohingya villagers speak only their own language and only a few of the reporters even spoke Burmese.

But I learned enough to get at least a dim outline of an ongoing battle for hearts and minds.

Our five-day trip ended Sunday. Everywhere we went, I could see fear in people’s faces, especially when police were with us. I learned how little access the Rohingya have to even basic services. The school attendance rate is less than one in 10; some schools exist but the transportation infrastructure to get children to them doesn’t exist.

The five villages we visited in northern Buthidaung township are very remote; we spent much more time traveling to them - by boat and car - than actually in them.

Farmers and fishermen live in bamboo houses in settlements bracketed by rice paddies. Many small children don’t wear clothes. The only boats visible in the nearby river were dugout canoes, nothing more elaborate.

Their lives are simple. Men plow the fields with their draft animals. Women stay home and cook and wash clothes and fetch the water.

It all seemed so normal.

But when we walked around, people’s expressions made it clear they wanted to tell us something. We were on occasion able to get away from our security escorts - ostensibly there for our own protection - and talk to some.

The army is accused of carrying gross human rights violations against Rohingya villagers during a counterinsurgency operation launched after October’s nighttime attacks by insurgent-led mobs resulted in the deaths of nine border guards and the theft of a cache of weapons.

Human rights groups accuse the government’s security forces of mass killings, gang rapes and burning down villages.

There is evidence to support the allegations. Advocates for the Rohingya, working with a network of activists in Rakhine, circulated many photos and detailed accounts of alleged atrocities, mostly impossible to verify but not refuted either.

In Kyar Gaung Taung, one 20-year-old woman told us what happened when soldiers arrived in her village when the counterinsurgency sweeps began last year. Her story was very similar to accounts that circulated at that time but that we heard mostly secondhand.

When the troops arrived at her villages, she said, they seized her 60-year-old father and tied his hands behind his back. They then set fire to the family home and tossed her father in, she said. She spoke to journalists at the graveyard where her father’s remains were buried.

The army was prepared with a response. “There are less than 10 cases involving killings by the Border Guard Police, and we have explanations in each case,” Brig. Gen. Thura San Lwin told us later. “Even out of these 10 cases filed to the court involving killings, some of the complaints were fake and lies.”

The U.N.’s human rights agency collected testimony from hundreds of Rohingya who fled to neighboring Bangladesh, concluding that rape was widely used by the army as a weapon of war and that civilian deaths were in the hundreds.

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch used before-and-after satellite photos to demonstrate that more than 1,500 houses and other structures had been burned down as part of the counterinsurgency operation. Less convincingly, the government attributed the arson to the insurgents and their sympathizers.

The allegations of abuse are credible not only because the army is historically notorious for mistreatment of other minority groups in the eastern side of the country, but also because there is a well-established pattern of hostility and violence directed by Buddhist ethnic Rakhines at the Rohingya population, estimated at upward of 1 million, most settled in this region.

The Rohingya were the targets of inter-communal violence in 2012 that killed hundreds and drove about 140,000 people - predominantly Rohingya - from their homes to camps for the internally displaced, where most remain.

Many others have been taken into custody. At one point, a group of women from another village glimpsed us and crossed some paddy fields to talk.

The women from War Pait village - I interviewed eight of them - said more than 60 men from their community were arrested for suspected links to the group that carried out the October attacks. Many were under 18, some as young as 13, they said. They’ve visited Buthidaung Prison a couple of times to see their sons, but none of the women knew exactly what charges their loved ones face or how long they will be held.

The violence is not one-sided, although the alleged brutality and scale of last year’s army sweep tends to overshadow other ominous developments. The government claims, and the pattern of several dozen similar killings suggests, that these acts - some involving beheadings - have been carried out by the insurgents, targeting suspected informers or government collaborators.

It’s evident that such activity is blowback from the army’s vigorous counterinsurgency campaign, which had the predictable effect of serving as a recruiting tool for the militants.

Last year’s presumed attackers of the border posts, relatively obscure at the time, have become very active on messaging networks such as WeChat to spread their propaganda. In March, they declared themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

And as the conflict gains more traction in the public eye, the government is grappling with how to get its message out - all while restricting access to the region. Included in this trip were four journalists from state-owned media.

Their only job, it seemed, was to document journalists from the international media - to keep track of us as we tried to tell the stories of others. We were on the front page of the government’s English-language mouthpiece, The Global New Light of Myanmar, three mornings in a row.

As far as they were concerned, we were the news.


Esther Htusan is AP’s correspondent in Myanmar, Yangon. Her work on human trafficking in the seafood industry was part of the winning entry for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

End of Mission Statement by Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar 

Yangon, 21 July 2017

Thank you for the opportunity to address you again this evening. I would like to start by expressing my sympathies to Myanmar at the damage recently caused by the Cyclone Mora, particularly in Rakhine and Chin States and Ayeyarwaddy Division. I understand the rebuilding effort is underway and hope the needs of all affected people can be addressed soon. 

As you know I have just completed my 12-day visit to Myanmar. I would like to thank the Government as well as the United Nations Resident Coordinator for facilitating it. I have been to Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw as well as parts of Rakhine, Shan and Kayin States. In Rakhine, I went to Kyaukphyu, Sittwe, Buthidaung and Maungdaw. In Shan State, I was only able to visit Lashio; and in Kayin State, only Hpa-an. In Nay Pyi Taw, I met with the State Counsellor as well as other Government ministers and officials. I was not able to meet the Commander-in-Chief and representatives from the ministries for Defence, Home Affairs, Transport and Communication, and Religious Affairs and Culture. I also met with the Attorney General, as well as Governmental, Parliamentary, and statutory bodies.

In the past, I have acknowledged the good cooperation extended to me by the Myanmar Government for my visits to the country. And on a few occasions mentioned some difficulties of access. This time I want to speak a bit more on the issue of access particularly in light of the Government's recent decision to deny visas to the UN Fact-Finding Mission as well as a new condition that the Government tried to impose on me for this visit. 

Let me first remind that two recommendations from my last report were for a Special Session of the Human Rights Council on the situation in the north of the country, specifically Kachin and Shan States; and for a Commission of Inquiry on the situation in Rakhine State. In its March resolution, the Human Rights Council extended my mandate for one more year while at the same time established the mandate of the Fact-Finding Mission. 

Now these are two separate independent mandates. I am here concluding my visit to the country today as part of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar which was in fact first established in 1992 by the UN Commission on Human Rights. 

Yet I was astonished when I was asked by the Government to give an assurance that I will not undertake any activities that are to do with the Fact-Finding Mission while conducting my visit. The Government delayed confirming the dates of my visit expecting me to give such an assurance which I found to be an affront to the independence of my mandate as Special Rapporteur. 

The delay of the Government in confirming the dates of my visit also meant delay in confirming the places that I would be permitted to go. Usually, and this was the case this time, in order to maximise the limited time I have in the country, I would propose alternative options to the places I had been denied. Yet the Government would often, which was also the case here, use the excuse of short notice to not entertain any new proposals, in addition to reasons of security. 

As well as increasing restrictions on my access, individuals who meet with me continue to face intimidation, including being photographed, questioned before and after meetings and in one case even followed. This is unacceptable.

This is my third visit under the new Government and I have to say I am disappointed to see the tactics applied by the previous Government still being used. I understand the new Government wishes to normalise its relations with the United Nations, including not having special mechanisms attached to it. Before these “special mechanisms” can be dismantled, Myanmar must first transition into a country that deserves less attention and scrutiny.

Just as we are told not to expect Myanmar to transition into a democracy overnight - that it needs time and space, Myanmar should also not expect to have special mechanisms dismantled overnight - not until there are real and discernible progress in the human rights situation. 

I will not at this time go into detail on the substance or issues that I looked into during my visit and will elaborate on them in my report to the General Assembly. But, for now, let me give you a brief overview. 

I was particularly dismayed to learn that the situation in northern Shan is deteriorating. During my visit, I was not allowed to go to any of the places I had sought to visit beyond Lashio. I understand this applies to other international actors whose access to other areas is decreasing month on month. One of my requests was to visit Hsipaw Prison where the three journalists detained and charged under the Unlawful Associations Act are being held. However, despite Hsipaw being a tourist destination and frequented by foreigners, I was not allowed to go there.

In Lashio, I met representatives of the Shan State Government as well as civil society actors. I am concerned to hear from groups working on the ground they see more conflict, more cases of alleged human rights violations by different parties to the conflict and inadequate assistance for civilians. There have been numerous reports of killings, torture, even the use of human shields by the Tatmadaw, allegedly in some cases accompanied by threats of further violence if incidents are reported. In a few cases civilians, who are accused as collaborators or supporters of an ethnic armed group, are reportedly even forced to wear the uniform of that EAG before being subjected to ill treatment and torture. 

I welcome information on the recent release of 67 children and young people from the Tatmadaw in June. However, there is also a reported increase in forced recruitment and abductions by the several Ethnic Armed Groups operating in the region as well as various militias. Civilians are caught between parties to the conflict facing abuses, risks from mines and clashes while less able to access assistance. While I was not able to visit this time, I understand the situation in Kachin State is also extremely serious, with no access for the UN to non-government controlled areas for over a year and concerning developments in Tanai township. 

As you may know, my first site visit was to Kyaukphyu in Rakhine State. This was as part of my focus on business and human rights, particularly on the three Special Economic Zones - Kyaukphyu as well as Dawei and Thilawa. I met members of civil society working in this area and community members including farmers and fishers who were affected by these SEZs as well as past and ongoing mega-projects including on the Madei Island. These communities relayed experiences of land confiscation with little or no consultation or compensation, with efforts to seek redress often gone unanswered. Similar stories were to be repeated during my visits to other areas, showing this to be a truly nationwide problem.

In respect of Rakhine, I also sought to see progress on the Government's implementation of the Rakhine Advisory Commission's interim recommendations particularly the recommendation on the closure of three camps affecting three different communities. I was able to meet Kaman leaders as well as the displaced community members who were offered to move to Yangon instead of returning to their place of origin as recommended. I also visited Pyin Phyu Maw village where the displaced Rakhine community members were resettled from Ka Nyin Taw and met a few of them who also expressed their initial desire to return to their place of origin. I was however unable to meet the Rohingya community who still remain displaced in Kyein Ni Pyin camp. I am worried that these different and non-uniform re-settlement practices so far offer little prospect of a durable solution for the estimated 120,000 long-term IDPs still living in camps. On birth registration, I was informed of efforts to improve this in line with a recommendation from the Commission and welcome the issuance of over 20,000 birth certificates in Rakhine State.

The general situation for the Rohingya has hardly improved since my last visit in January, and has become further complicated in the north of Rakhine. I continue to receive reports of violations allegedly committed by security forces during operations. There also appear to be incidents of Rohingya being targeted by unknown assailants for applying to be verified as a citizen, as well as village administrators and other Muslims targeted for being collaborators for working with the authorities – leaving many Rohingya civilians terrified, and often caught between violence on both sides. 

I note that officials at the State as well as Union level have stated that their duty to provide protection and security extends to not only the Rakhine but also the Muslim communities. Concrete actions including investigating all alleged violations must be undertaken. At the same time steps must be immediately taken to end discriminatory practices and restoring freedom of movement. 

Members of the Rakhine community expressed to me their sadness at the current situation, their belief that the problems were caused by hardliners in both communities or even the Government and asked for the international community to be reminded that the Rakhine community as a whole should not be judged for the actions of its most extreme members. Similarly, the Kaman Muslims I met in Kyauk Ta Lone IDP camp stated that they have no problems with the Rakhine community living in Kyaukphyu town; however, they were being kept separated. I was saddened to learn that the IDPs were told that they would only stay in the camp for 3 days. The 3 days have turned into 5 long years.

I met a number of detainees in Buthidaung Prison arrested and charged in relation to the 9 October attacks – most of whom do not appear to have legal representation, do not fully understand the charges against them and are unable to put up a proper defence. I am particularly concerned by the detention of under-age individuals in general as well as specifically related to the 9 October attacks, and reported deaths in custody. Humanitarian access remains conditional, impeding the work of humanitarian actors in making the required assessment and delivering the necessary assistance and services. Moreover, it is also equally important that there is access for human rights monitoring and protection activities.

In Kayin State, I was not allowed to visit other places besides Hpa-an. Visiting the state for the first time, I met civil society groups working with communities across the state affected by land confiscation without due consultation and compensation as well as forced evictions. I was shocked to hear that in some cases farmers must still pay tax on land which was confiscated from them and in some other cases they are given the offer to buy back their own land at an inflated rate. I heard that domestic violence and violence against children is increasing both here and in other areas of the country with relevant ministries lacking the financial and human resources to roll out assistance projects across the country. Many of the tens of thousands of individuals displaced in the Thai-Myanmar border area are reportedly still afraid to return due to landmines and militarisation but face an increasingly precarious situation with assistance being reduced where they are now. 

I also wanted to visit the Myaing Ka Lay cement factory area, but was denied, on the basis of the usual security issues. However, to my surprise, on the road from Hpa-an to Yangon, the cement factory was very visible, permitting me to see from afar the site which produces 4,000 tonnes of cement per day. 

Concerns related to civil documentation were heard from communities living in several areas. I heard testimonies that obtaining identity cards in Kayin State is time consuming and frequently requires a bribe to speed up the process. I heard that in Kyaukphyu, the slow citizenship verification process is confining Kaman Muslims family members to Kyauk Ta Lone camp while their Buddhist family members have freedom to choose where to live. I also heard that in the north of Rakhine, the NVCs are being imposed on the Rohingya community in order to fish, get food assistance, have a job when the citizenship verification exercise is meant to be a voluntary one. 

I also obtained updates on the worrying increase in prosecutions under Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act and ongoing efforts to amend the law as well as on the status of other laws that I have been following.

I will give more detail on these and other issues in my report to the UN General Assembly which I will present in October. 

I recognise that for many individuals, albeit perhaps not many of those with whom I have spoken, there have been improvements. I welcome the clear commitment from some ministries such as the Ministry of Education that is making extensive efforts to improve access to quality schooling across the country. The Ministry of Health’s efforts in extending vaccination coverage are also to be commended as well as the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservations’ clear desire to tackle complex challenges in the resource sector. 

In other, perhaps more sensitive areas, I sincerely hope that an equally strong commitment will become clear in the next few months that can be reflected in my report to the UN General Assembly – such as demonstrable steps towards humanitarian access being fully restored, towards preventing violations and assisting victims, towards the full implementation of the interim recommendations of the Rakhine State Advisory Commission and towards instituting systematic and genuine consultation as well as adequate compensation for those impacted by all new and continuing development projects in line with international standards. 

I would also like to appeal to ASEAN to take a “non-indifference” stance to assist Myanmar in its journey to full transformation to a fully democratic society.

As ever, I stand ready to help in any way I can, to make Myanmar the rights respecting country I know it can be -- to make Myanmar a country where the rights of all people are respected, upheld, and protected.

Thank you!


Annex – List of Meetings Held/Requested & Areas Visited/Requested

Union Government Officials 

Meetings held
• State Counsellor, Union Minister for Foreign Affairs, Minister in the President’s Office (with Union Minister, State Counsellor’s Office)
• Union Minister of Border Affairs; Central Committee for the Implementation of Stability, Peace and Development of Rakhine State
• Union Minister of Information
• Union Minister for Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation
• Union Minister of Labour, Immigration and Population
• Minister for Commerce 
• Minister for Health and Sports
• Permanent Secretary of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement; National Disaster Management Committee
• Union Minister of Education
• Union Attorney General

Meetings requested but not held
• Union Minister for Home Affairs
• Union Minister for Defense
• Union Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture
• Union Minister for Transport and Communications

• Amyotha Hluttaw Bill Committee
• Legal Affairs and Special Cases Assessment Commission

Other institutions/bodies
• Myanmar National Human Rights Commission
• Myanmar Press Council
• Central Committee on Confiscated Farmlands and Other Lands
• Union Investigation Commission on Maungdaw 

Military (meetings requested but not held)
• Commander-in-Chief
• North-Eastern Commander

Rakhine State

Meetings held and areas visited
• Chief Minister and representatives of the Rakhine State Government
• Resettled Rakhine community in Pyin Phyu Maw, Kyaukphyu
• Communities affected by the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone 
• Affected community of Madei Island
• Community in Kyauk Ta Lone camp, Kyaukphyu 
• Meeting with members of the Rakhine elders, Sittwe
• Muslim community in Aung Mingalar, Sittwe
• Muslim community in Thet Kae Pyin camp, Sittwe
• Members of the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone Management Committee

Visits requested but not held
• Kyein Ni Pyin IDP camp, Pauktaw

Shan State

Meetings held
• Deputy State Administrator, Shan State Government 
• Civil Society Actors working on IDPs and conflict

Visits requested but denied
• IDP camps in Kutkai, Muse and Namkhan areas
• IDP camps in Namtu town
• Hsipaw Prison

Kayin State

Meetings held
• Acting Chief Minister and representatives of the Kayin State Government
• Civil society actors working on IDPs and refugee issues; land issues; natural resource issues; gender equality issues; cultural rights issues; rule of law issues

Visits requested but denied
• Myaing Ka Lay cement factory
• Wa Koke Taw, Hlaing Bwe Township

Persons met in prisons
Buthidaung Prison
• Individuals detained in relation to the attacks on security forces 

Lashio Prison
• Dumdaw Nawng Lat and Langjaw Gam Seng

• Meeting with Kaman representatives
• Lawyers
• Actors working on land rights issues; environmental issues; bushiness and human rights issues; Special Economic Zone issues; women’s rights and gender issues; children and youth issues; labour rights issues; peace process; freedom of religion; reform of the Telecommunications Act; judicial and legislative reform
• Representatives of international human rights non-governmental organizations

• Members of the United Nations Country Team
• Representatives of the diplomatic community

Original here.
Drifting in limbo: Rohingya migrants in a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman Sea. — AFP

July 20, 2017

SITTWE (Myanmar): Five years have passed since Hla Hla Sein was forced into a displacement camp in western Myanmar for Rohingya Muslims, where disease and deprivation are rife and armed guards patrol a barbed-wire perimeter. 

But after a crackdown on the international smuggling routes that once offered a dangerous – but viable – escape route, she now sees no way out. 

“We have no idea how many years we will have to live like this,” the 40-year-old widow said inside the tiny bamboo hut she shares with her son, tugging nervously at her purple headscarf. 

“Our lives are worse than animals ... we are human only in name.”

Deadly sectarian riots in 2012 drove more than 120,000 Rohingya into the camps in Rakhine State, where they live in ramshackle homes and are deprived of adequate food, schools and doctors.

For years human traffickers cashed in on the group’s desperation, ferrying thousands of Rohingya across the Andaman Sea to countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. 

The journeys were defined by danger: from rickety boats on high seas to abuse and even death at the hands of the gangs, who held many victims for ransom in jungle camps on the Thai-Malaysia border. 

That route was shuttered by Thailand’s junta in 2015 and few boats have left the camps since, according to residents, aid workers and migration experts. 

The move may have spared Hla Hla Sein death at sea or abuse at the hands of smugglers, but it also cut off a way out of a painful limbo.

Hla Hla Sein and her son had tried to escape to Malaysia before the crackdown, but their boat was so overcrowded it started to sink a few hours into the journey, forcing the captain to turn back.

It was only after they returned to shore that she found out the smugglers had planned to sell them as slaves at their destination.

“I was ready to die at sea as we have nothing in this country,” she said. 

“Our children cannot get education, even I cannot work. I thought dying would be better.”

Buddhist-majority Myanmar has long been chastised for its treatment of the Rohingya, a group of more than a million Muslims whose rights and freedoms have been successively stripped away since the early 1980s.

PHOTO: Speaking out about the violence is risky for the people of Rakhine State. (ABC News: Liam Cochrane)

By Liam Cochrane
July 19, 2017

As the last of the foreign reporters walked over a bamboo bridge a young Rohingya woman dressed in black, with a black umbrella, raised her hand hesitantly.

Her demeanour was somewhere between blank and terrified.

But she wanted to tell us something.

"The Rakhinese entered and aimed the gun at my forehead. They held my hands strongly and did what they wanted to me," she said.

"Then I was told to go back. But I didn't. I was sitting there. Then they started beating me and they took off my clothes.

"They beat me too much and did what they wanted. The military did this."

PHOTO: A reporter talks to villagers in the Rakhine region of Myanmar on a government tour of the region, July 2017. (ABC News: Liam Cochrane)

She is 18 years old.

The Myanmar Government organised a trip for foreign journalists to go to northern Rakhine State, in Myanmar's west.

The region has been off limits ever since militants attacked several police posts in October, killing nine officers and stealing dozens of weapons.

That sparked reprisals from security forces against Rohingya Muslims that the United Nations called "possible ethnic cleansing".

Some of the 70,000 who fled to neighbouring Bangladesh told stories of atrocities at the hands of the army.

The township of Maundaw was allegedly the scene of some of the worst violence last year, at the hands of soldiers and police.

Where possible, reporters insisted our heavily-armed police escort stayed behind while we conducted interviews.

Each time, fresh allegations emerged.

"They came to this village and burned my father [alive] inside a house and jailed my mother [when she filed a complaint]," said a woman, who the ABC has chosen not to name, in case of retribution.

Speaking out is risky.

Two previous Government-run trips for local journalists have toured northern Rakhine State.

After each trip, someone who talked to the press was killed by unknown assailants.

Myanmar is a majority Buddhist country with more than 130 recognised ethnic groups.

But the 1 million Muslim Rohingyas are not among them.

Most in Myanmar consider Rohingyas to be illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, calling them "Bengalis" or worse, "kalas".

Many have lived in Myanmar for generations, but they exist under a kind of apartheid — forbidden to leave their village without permission, get a formal job or attend university.

Against this backdrop, a new insurgency formed calling itself Harakah al-Yaqin … or Faith Movement.

It is thought to be led and funded from Saudi Arabia.

The army and the Border Guard Police deny almost all the allegations of human rights abuses.

Police Brigadier General Thura San Lwin said Rohingyas were killing each other and had burned down their own homes.

The Chief Minister of Rakhine State, U Nyi Bu, rejects the allegation from Malaysian's Prime Minister that Myanmar is conducting genocide.

"This isn't genocide, what we did just caused minor injuries," he said. "If people think it's a big deal, they're wrong."

The conflict between Buddhists and Rohingyas dates back decades, with sporadic flaring of communal violence.

In 2012, clashes caused thousands of Rohingyas to flee the state capital Sittwe and shelter in what they thought would be temporary camps.

Five years on, they still depend on food aid but malnutrition appears common, compounded by a lack of medical services.

There are no easy answers, with both sides entrenched in mistrust and prejudice.

After historic elections in 2015, Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is the de facto leader of the country, but she has no control over the security forces, which continue to act as a law unto themselves.

She has been criticised for not speaking for the rights of the Rohingya, but doing so risks alienating her main constituency, the myriad of ethnic groups who are united in little else but their dislike of the "Bengalis".

Aung San Suu Kyi has tried to carve out space for dialogue, requesting that emotive terms like Bangali and Rohingyas be avoided, and "Muslim" be used instead.

A special commission headed by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has made interim recommendations, including a call for unimpeded access for aid workers and media.

A UN resolution to launch a fact finding mission to Rakhine State has been blocked by the Myanmar Government, saying it would be provocative.

With no end in sight, the secret killings and blanket denials continue, bringing with it the risk of a much more potent insurgency.

Border police are shown last week at Ngayantchaung village, Buthidaung township, in Burma’s northern Rakhine state. (Hla Htay/Agence France-Presse)

By Olivia Enos and Hunter Marston
July 19, 2017

Olivia Enos is a policy analyst in the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. Hunter Marston is a Washington-based Burma analyst who writes on U.S. foreign policy and Southeast Asia.

At the end of June, authorities in Burma — including the country’s leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi — denied United Nations investigators access to Rakhine state, where the Burmese military is allegedly abusing the Muslim minority Rohingya. The action placed Burma on a short list of nations that have denied U.N. access in their countries. The list includes the unsavory regimes of North Korea, Venezuela, Congo and Syria.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision is a huge disappointment to U.S. policymakers who hoped that the Obama-era velvet-glove approach to Burma (also known as Myanmar) would improve conditions for the nation’s long-suffering people.

Under President Barack Obama, policy regarding Burma changed dramatically. Long-standing sanctions were loosened, and Washington offered technical assistance ahead of national elections. Burma’s “opening” was hailed as proof that the new approach had worked.

The rose-colored view of Burma has continued in the Trump administration. The State Department recently upgraded Burma’s rank in its Trafficking in Persons report and removed the nation from its Child Soldier Prevention Act list. These diplomatic rewards are, at present, unmerited.

Now comes the denial of U.N. access, suggesting that the democratic transition in Burma has stalled, at the very least. At worst, it has seriously deteriorated.

After multiparty elections in 2015 brought Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) to power, the international community hoped that Burma had finally taken a turn for the better — one that put it on solid footing for democratization. But elections alone do not a democracy make.

Burma’s democratization did not begin with a solid foundation. While the Obama administration described the 2015 elections as “credible, transparent, and inclusive,” many observers disagreed. And certainly the elections were far from being free and fair. All 1.3 million Rohingya – and hundreds of thousands of others — were not allowed to vote.

The military retains control over key government organs, the powerful Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Border Affairs, as well as the oft-overlooked General Administrative Department, which is responsible for matters of sub-national governance. Active-duty military hold a quarter of all parliamentary seats, effectively granting the army a veto over constitutional amendments, which require a 75 percent vote of approval. If that weren’t enough, the 2008 Constitution grants the commander in chief of the armed forces the right to declare a state of national emergency and retake political power whenever he deems it necessary to preserve national unity.

There are other indications that Burma has strayed from a path toward democratization. Since the election of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi has displayed strong authoritarian tendencies and a willingness to acquiesce to the military’s demands that far exceeds the call of duty in the Burmese political system. She has failed to institute meaningful economic reform or substantive reform to political institutions.

Nor has she been able to muster the political clout necessary to arrange a cease-fire among the nation’s disparate separatist and ethnic movements. Richard Weir from Human Rights Watch believes that violence has actually risen since Aung San Suu Kyi’s election.

While the international community focuses largely (and rightly) on the plight of Rohingya, Weir fears that other groups experiencing violence and oppression — such as the Kachin and Shan in the north — are slipping off the radar. Weir’s on-the-ground observations were recently corroborated by reports from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that note rising violence against the Christian minority Kachin.

Now Aung San Suu Kyi’s denial of U.N. entry should be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Human rights groups and local media have reported a slew of abuses by security forces across Rakhine state: the systemic use of rape as a weapon of war, beatings and killings of civilians, and the widespread looting and destruction of Rohingya homes.

Aung San Suu Kyi faces a difficult political situation. A deep bias against ethnic Rohingya (extending to Muslim believers in general) is rampant among the Burmese majority. If she lets racial divisions foment social discord, she risks provoking a military reaction — perhaps even an attempt by the generals to return to power.

It is clear the NLD would rather ignore the problem until tensions dissipate. On Monday, an NLD spokesperson acknowledged that the ruling party had used the recent international Rakhine state commission, chaired by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, as a “shield” from political criticism.

While Aung San Suu Kyi remains, for many, a powerful symbol of the struggle for democracy, the time has come for stronger international pressure to condemn her moral abstention regarding the abuse of her country’s ethnic minorities.

Burma’s democratic transition is faltering. The Trump administration should respond by shoring up and maintaining democracy programming in Burma. Moreover, it should press the NLD government to begin to implement a path to recognize Rohingya as citizens. Such actions would affirm the U.S. commitment to promote human rights and freedom, not just in Burma but also throughout Southeast Asia.
Myanmar's Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi smiles after a meeting with her Norwegian counterpart at Myanmar's Foreign Ministry in Naypyitaw, on July 6, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

July 19, 2017

In its editorial on July 18, the paper criticised Myanmar's State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, for failing to uphold the democratic principles she espoused when she took power.

NEW DELHI -- For all her democratic protestations of concern over the persecution of Rohingyas, the Myanmar government's refusal to allow a UN fact-finding mission to investigate allegations of killings, rape and torture by security forces against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state reflects poorly on the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. Ironically enough, her stance is seemingly concordant with that of the junta's.

As the de facto leader of Myanmar's civilian government, short of President, and also its foreign minister, she has rejected the allegations and now opposes the mission that has been planned by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council. The flat refusal of the government in Naypidaw is in itself a mockery of human rights.

Sad to say, Suu Kyi is pretty helpless as she fears that she may have to pay a political price for speaking out. Contrived silence can have its costs, however. Having turned down the UN team's visit, she has in effect gone against the voice of the comity of nations.

The hope raised two years ago - at the time of transition from repressive military rule to a purportedly democratic regime - is in tatters. Indeed, her ability to achieve peace and rein in the junta is now open to question, more so with the official assertion that the country would refuse entry to the UN investigators.

Obviously, the world body would have exposed the almost relentless persecution that flies in the face of the certitudes of democracy that Suu Kyi had upheld not too long ago. She seems to be utterly helpless against the vicious crackdown on the Rohingyas by the Myanmarese army amid reports of mass arrests, the burning of villages, bar on journalists, aid workers, and international monitors.

The democratic change has made no difference to the pilght of the Rohingyas - they remain nowhere people on the border with Bangladesh, wandering from shore to shore in search of a home. The fact that some of them have fled to the Kashmir Valley in search of refuge might serve to exacerbate matters, given the inbuilt insecurity in that swathe of India.

The UN team's proposed visit can be contextualised with Amnesty International's indictment - "The army's callous and systematic campaign against the Rohingyas may be a crime against humanity". So indeed it is. The lifeline of the "nowhere men" in Rakhine has been severed; the military blockade has deprived them of food, water, and healthcare. Such brutality has served to undermine Suu Kyi's standing, after having led Myanmar since the party's resounding electoral triumph in 2015; not forgetting her famous victory in 1990, which led her to jail rather than the helm of the government.

The ethnic conflict does not speak well of her skills as a peacemaker.

Suu Kyi has failed to live up to her own rhetoric.

The Statesman is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 news media entities.

Rohingya Exodus