On March 29, 2016, the day before Burma’s transfer of power to a new government, outgoing President Thein Sein ordered the lifting of the state of emergency imposed on Arakan State in 2012 during communal violence between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. State media reported that the order was issued after the state government found that there was no longer a threat to people and property.
“President Thein Sein’s last minute repeal of Arakan State’s state of emergency puts the new government on firm footing to ensure basic freedoms for the long persecuted Rohingya minority,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “It’s now up to the new government to work with local officials and security forces to ensure that ending the emergency translates into real improved respect for the rights of all the state’s people.”
Nyi Pu, the newly appointed chief minister of Arakan State from the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, and incoming national President Htin Kyaw should strengthen efforts to ensure that all communities receive equal protection without discrimination. Curbs on basic freedoms maintained by security forces and military-controlled ministries should be immediately removed.
The government’s effective denial of Burmese citizenship to 1.2 million Rohingya under the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law has facilitated human rights violations, including restrictions on their right to freedom of movement, discriminatory limitations on access to education, arbitrary detention and taxation, forced labor, and confiscation of property. For example, Rohingya must apply for permission to travel within and between townships, which has had a devastating effect on their access to health care and ability to earn a living. Rohingya in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships must also contend with a raft of regulations requiring them to seek permission to marry and register births.
Since the communal violence in 2012, which Human Rights Watch research found constituted ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, over 130,000 Rohingya Muslims remain displaced. Local officials and security forces restrict aid agencies’ access to camps for internally displaced Rohingya in Sittwe and to Rohingya communities in northern Arakan State. Swiftly repealing discriminatory local measures would immeasurably improve the living standards of stateless Rohingya and other Muslim minorities.
On February 8, 2016, officials in northern Arakan State extended for two months a curfew that bans gatherings of more than five people in public places, including mosques. It is not clear if this local order is covered under the state of emergency, but state officials should make it a priority to lift all curfews.
“The state of emergency was only one element of a repressive apparatus that effectively segregated the Rohingya population and denied them basic services,” Robertson said. “Removing these draconian measures is needed to reach a long-term resolution of the Rohingya crisis, which affects everyone in Arakan State.”
The state and national governments and the Burmese military should end arbitrary arrests under the Unlawful Associations Act, used to detain civilians suspected of assisting or supporting the insurgent Arakan Army. Over the last year, fighting between the military and the Arakan Army, a Buddhist Arakanese insurgent force, has escalated in northern Arakan and southern Chin States. The authorities have arbitrarily arrested and charged scores of civilians under the act.
The increased fighting in Arakan State has been accompanied by reports of human rights abuses by state and non-state forces against civilians, including forced labor and the use of indiscriminate antipersonnel landmines near civilian settlements. Thousands of civilians have been temporarily displaced by the fighting and excessive security restrictions have in some cases hampered access by aid agencies.
“The Burmese army should cease its abuses against the Arakanese Buddhist population caught up in the slowly building armed conflict there,” Robertson said. “Continued harassment and abuse by the security forces will shatter efforts to rebuild trust and respect for rights following the 2012 communal violence.”