The World Most Unwanted People: Crime Against Humanity in Arakan

by Abdurrahman Erol and Selman Aksünger*

While a lot of attention has been devoted to North Korea and referendum in Northern Iraq, comments must be made on one of the most tyrannous mass human rights violations of the last couple years. Recently, news on Myanmar and Rohingyas started to hit the headlines again. Graphic pictures and videos from the decades-long conflict zone Arakan, a.k.a Rakhine state, have started to spread in some news and social media sites. Although the State Peace and Development Council of Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingyas as one of the 135 ethnic minority groups, they are indeed such a minority group, which is estimated to constitute 25% of the population of Arakan. It is believed that around 800.000 Muslim Rohingyas live in Arakan and are mainly concentrated in the northern part of the Arakan state. The Buddhist Rakhine constitutes the majority ethnic group in Arakan.

There are different claims about the origins of the Rohingyas. Former and current governments in Myanmar argue that they are illegal immigrants from adjacent Muslim regions who came after the Anglo-Myanmar War in 1824. However, on the other hand, the Rohingyas and some renowned scholars state that they are descendants of the first Muslim residents of Arakan who came there in or around the 9th century by way of the new emerging trade routes through the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. This debate forms the basis of today’s problems in Arakan and the mistreatment of Rohingyas, resulting in gross human rights violations by the government and majority groups in Arakan. Continue reading

Inaction in the International Community: The Plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya

By Vani Sathisan*

Rohingya protestersIn February, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a report condemning the widespread human rights violations against the Rohingya population, a minority Muslim community, in Myanmar. The report states that a “calculated policy of terror” indicates the “very likely commission of crimes against humanity,” a view echoed by the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee. Following the 34th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva in March, The UN Human Rights Council approved a resolution to “dispatch urgently” an international fact-finding mission to investigate alleged human rights violations by military and security forces against the Rohingya community. The Myanmar government, however, has rejected the UN probe for “inflaming” existent tensions, stating instead that the allegations are an “internal matter.”

Since deadly violence erupted in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in 2012, an estimated 140,000 people, mainly Rohingya and small groups of Rakhine Buddhists, have been internally displaced. Persecution by Rakhine Buddhists and the national government, which is controlled by the Bamar majority ethnic group, have forced even more Rohingya to flee Myanmar for neighboring countries, like Bangladesh. Myanmar’s lack of genuine commitment to the rule of law and to protecting the rights of the Rohingya further entrench exclusion, discrimination and marginalization, and violate a number of international human rights laws and norms. Continue reading

Myanmar: UN Report Condemns Human Rights Violations against Muslim Minority

Rohingya Village

Rohingya Village in Myanmar

On Friday, a new UN report has accused Myanmar’s security forces of waging a brutal campaign of murder, rape and torture in the Rakhine State against Rohingya Muslims, a stateless minority not recognized by Myanmar.

The report, compiled after interviews with more than 200 Rohingya refugees who fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh, also cites consistent testimony indicating that hundreds of Rohingya houses, schools, markets, shops, madrasas and mosques were burned by the army, police and sometimes civilian mobs.

Witnesses also described the destruction of food and food sources, including paddy fields, and the confiscation of livestock.

While discrimination against the Rohingyas has been endemic for decades in the Rakhine State, the recent level of violence is unprecedented, says the report.

The testimonies, gathered by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, indicate that the attacks against the Rohingya villages make it impossible for them to live in their villages, thereby creating a coercive environment amounting to forced displacement.

The information also demonstrates that the victims were targeted based on their belonging to a particular ethnicity and religion.

Many victims mentioned that soldiers and officers taunted them by saying that Islam is not the religion of Myanmar; that Rohingyas are Muslim Bengalis; and that Rohingyas would be eliminated from Myanmar.

The report says that the attacks against the Rohingya population in the area seem to have been widespread as well as systematic, indicating the very likely commission of crimes against humanity.

An estimated 65,000 members of the Muslim minority community have fled to Bangladesh since violence broke out in Myanmar last October.

Letpadaung, Daw Khin Win and Impunity

Sagaing Region ministers have been meeting opponents of the Letpadaung copper mine to discuss a list of grievances, including lingering questions about the death of a protester.

By Vani Sathisan*

Letpadaung Copper Mine

The Letpadaung Copper Mine

“Here is a real bullet, beside a shotgun shell with rubber pellets inside, that were used on the day Daw Khin Win was killed. I kept them as evidence. Why were real bullets used to disperse a crowd that was peacefully protesting?”

A relative of Khin Win put the question to representatives of the International Commission of Jurists during a recent visit to Monywa to monitor the human rights impact of the nearby Letpadaung copper mine.

The bullet displayed by the villager was used in the fatal shooting on December 22, 2014, of Khin Win, a landowner, during a protest against the expansion of the mine. Two other villagers were hurt in the same protest over the seizure of land in 35 nearby villages.

There remains a lack of transparency about whether there has been any credible investigation of villagers’ claims that workers from Wanbao joined forces with police that day to violently disperse the protestors.

Wanbao – a subsidiary of China’s state-owned weapons maker Norinco, which runs the mine in a joint venture with the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited – restarted production in May. In April, Wanbao released a slick corporate social accountability video called “A New Dawn” to show it had a “social licence” to operate.

However, the ICJ’s discussions with affected communities, including meetings at the Sagaing regional hluttaw and the General Administration Department of the Ministry of Home Affairs, found different sentiments in villages near the project. Grievances in the communities included land grabs, loss of livelihoods and environmental damage. Continue reading

Authorities and Courts Complicit in Eroding Rule of Law in Kachin State

by Vani Sathisan and Sean Bain*

“The scale and severity of human rights violations in Kachin State is one of the worst in Myanmar,” a lawyer told the International Commission of Jurists during a meeting in Myitkyina last month.

Myitsone Kachin State

Visitors walk along the riverbank at the Myitsone in Kachin State in December 2015. (Wa Lone / The Myanmar Times)

Illegal large-scale land grabbing, harassment of landowners by government and business officials, and a lack of access to justice were the central complaints heard by the ICJ during the discussions with human rights defenders and civil society groups in Kachin State.

Senior state-level judicial officials signalled increased readiness to discuss ways to improve the effectiveness and independence of the courts. Yet meaningful reform also requires revising laws to bring them in line with international human rights standards, respecting judicial independence by government officials, and securing corporate legal compliance through consistent application of the law and access to fair and effective judicial review.

The conflict in Kachin State and northern Shan State, where over 100,000 people remain displaced since fighting between the government and ethnic armed groups re-started in 2011, is partly fuelled by the abundant natural resources.

Eighty percent of Myanmar’s mining operations are located in Kachin State and neighbouring Sagaing Region. Timber, rubies and gold are plentiful. A report by international watchdog Global Witness estimated the value of illegal jade mining at around US$31 billion in 2014 alone. Yet hazardous mining practises are rampant while law enforcement is haphazard. Continue reading

Myanmar: New Government Inherits Problems and Promise of Special Economic Zones

By Vani Sathisan (International Legal Advisor, International Commission of Jurists) and Bobbie Sta. Maria (Senior Researcher for Southeast Asia, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre)

Myanmar Special Economic ZoneWhile SEZs are supposed to be a driver for Myanmar’s economic growth, their impacts on the rights of affected communities indicate that this growth is reserved for businesses and investors.

This is a long form version of this article published by Reuters on 1st April 2016.

More than half a century of military rule ostensibly comes to a close on April 1, when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) officially takes over Myanmar’s government and the first civilian President since 1962 starts leading the nation. Despite these extraordinary developments, daunting challenges remain in Asia’s second poorest country. Myanmar’s military still controls key governmental functions; the country is barely emerging from decades of civil conflicts; rule of law and institutions are weak; the economy is fragile and dominated by crony companies; corruption, and human rights abuses remain stubbornly persistent.

The outgoing government initiated a number of significant changes, including efforts to encourage economic development through foreign trade and investment. This strategy included heavily promoting foreign investment through three major special economic zones (SEZ): a Japanese supported zone focused on manufacturing in Thilawa, near Yangon; a Thai supported zone initially focused on heavy industry including petrochemicals in Dawei in the south; and a Chinese supported zone in Kyaukphyu in the northwest, envisioned as a trade corridor connecting the Chinese, Indian and ASEAN economies. These were said to build on Myanmar’s strategic location and low-cost production base for export destinations in the region.

The NLD recently announced that while it supports the zone in Thilawa, it will reconsider the continuation of the Dawei and Kyaukphyu SEZs, study commitments made by the former government to investors, and speak with relevant stakeholders. This is a crucial process and many hope that the NLD does not lose sight of its commitments in its Election Manifesto, including encouraging “foreign investment in line with the highest international standards”, and laying down “paths for economic cooperation that can bring sustainable long-term mutual benefits”. Continue reading

Myanmar: Rule of law depends on reform of Union Attorney General’s Office

By Daniel Aguirre and Vani Sathisan*

Recent political discussion in Myanmar revolves around the formation of a new government and selection of a president, but not enough attention is focused on the position of the attorney general, who holds a critical function in upholding rule of law and respect for human rights.

Students arrested in a police crackdown on their peaceful protests against the education law in March 2015 arrive for a court hearing on May 12, 2015. Lawyers and activists complain the trial is taking too long. Photo: Aung Myin Ye Zaw / The Myanmar Times

Students arrested in a police crackdown on their peaceful protests against the education law in March 2015 arrive for a court hearing on May 12, 2015. Lawyers and activists complain the trial is taking too long. Photo: Aung Myin Ye Zaw / The Myanmar Times

The attorney general is Myanmar’s most powerful legal officer: As a member of the executive, the AG provides legal advice to the President and the hluttaw, analyses international treaties, drafts and amends laws, and represents the government in judicial proceedings. The attorney general also directs the prosecutors’ office and ensures that cabinet actions are legally valid, in line with the constitution and international human rights law.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), international donors and development partners discussed the attorney general’s powerful role on the sidelines of the launch for the Union Attorney General Office’s (UAGO) Strategic Plan 2015-19 in Nay Pyi Taw last week. All expressed hope that the incoming National League for Democracy (NLD) government will appoint an attorney general committed to reform, the rule of law and human rights, in line with their election manifesto promise to ensure that executive and judicial systems support the rule of law. Continue reading

Time for a Genuine Commitment to Rule of Law

by Vani Sathisan*

Court HammerThe world observes Human Rights Day on 10 December to mark the momentous strides in international human rights law since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. In Myanmar, recent political changes have been both momentous and transformative. Nonetheless, what was proclaimed by the UDHR as the “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”, continue to be infringed upon by the arbitrary and highly subjective interpretation and application of laws, some of them dating back to British colonial times.

Successive governments in Myanmar have used overly broad or vaguely defined laws to curtail freedom of expression that is protected under international law. They often invoke the justification, typically inappropriately, of protecting national security, or to prevent public disorder or avoid outraging the religious feelings of a class. None of these efforts have served or can serve to address or respond to sectarian and religious violence.

On behalf of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), I have observed trials of those arrested and detained on criminal defamation charges for their Facebook posts that allegedly defame either the Tatmadaw or a political leader. One of the laws used to charge the accused is the Penal Code, first drafted in 1860.

The ICJ released a briefing paper last month highlighting how the enforcement of Myanmar’s defamation laws can result in violations of a number of international laws and standards protecting human rights, and also have an overall chilling effect on the freedom of opinion and expression and freedom of assembly in the country. Continue reading

Investigation Reveals ‘Strong Evidence’ of Genocide against Rohingya

FILE - In this June 13, 2012 file photo, a Rohingya Muslim man who fled Myanmar to Bangladesh to escape religious violence, cries as he pleads from a boat after he and others were intercepted by Bangladeshi border authorities in Taknaf, Bangladesh. She is known as the voice of Myanmar's downtrodden but there is one oppressed group that Aung San Suu Kyi does not want to discuss. For weeks, Suu Kyi has dodged questions on the plight of a Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, prompting rare criticism of the woman whose struggle for democracy and human rights in Myanmar have earned her a Nobel Peace Prize, and adoration worldwide. (AP Photo/Anurup Titu, File)

Rohingya People who fled Myanmar to Bangladesh to escape violence (AP Photo/Anurup Titu)

According to a news article by Al Jazeera of Tuesday the 27th of October, there is ‘strong evidence’ that a genocide against the Rohingya people at the hands of the Myanmar government is, and has been, taking place.

The Lowenstein Clinic of Yale Law School, a clinic that undertakes a wide variety of projects involving students of Yale Law School and which is working on behalf of human rights organisations and individual victims of human rights abuses, spent eight months assessing evidence from Myanmar.

The clinic concluded that it was hard to avoid a conclusion that intent to commit genocide is present, given the scale of the atrocities and the way politicians in Myanmar talk about the Rohingya muslim minority of the country.

Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit and the advocacy group Fortify Rights provided documents and testimonies to the study. According to this evidence, “the government has been triggering communal violence for political gain by inciting anti-Muslim riots, using hate speech to stoke fear among the Myanmarese about Muslims, and offering money to hardline Buddhist groups who threw their support behind the leadership.”

Al Jazeera has also published a new documentary, Genocide Agenda, which consults legal and diplomatic experts on whether the governments campaign amounts to systematic extermination. Continue reading

Why Myanmar Needs to Stop Prosecuting People Over Facebook Posts

By Vani Sathisan*

facebookTo say that Facebook and other internet-based social media networks have revolutionized modern day communication would be an understatement. According to a report by the Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the global number of internet users has reached more than two billion. One million log onto Facebook every month. Twitter claims 500 million users and YouTube is viewed about 4 million times per day. After ideas expressed online have had an instant “viral” spread, revolutions  have unfolded .

And so have the prosecutions.

Judiciaries worldwide have had to struggle with what content is defamatory and what is self-expression.

The US Supreme Court, in Elonis v. United States [2015], considered the case of a defendant who had written, and posted on Facebook, apparently violent rap lyrics, including “I want to kill my wife” while he was undergoing a divorce. The court had to weigh up whether convicting a man of threatening another person requires proof of subjective intent to threaten or whether it would suffice to show that a “reasonable person” would regard the statement as threatening. It ruled in favour of the defendant stating that “negligence is not sufficient to support a conviction.” The defendant’s lawyer argued that his client was exercising his First Amendment rights and that governments may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because certain factions of society find it offensive. Continue reading