Burma has a quasi-parliamentary system of government in which the national parliament selects the president and constitutional provisions grant one-quarter of parliamentary seats to active-duty military appointees. The military also has the authority to appoint the ministers of defense, home affairs, and border affairs and one of two vice presidents, as well as to assume power over all branches of the government should the president declare a national state of emergency. In 2015 the country held nationwide parliamentary elections that the public widely accepted as a credible reflection of the will of the people. The National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi was the civilian government’s de facto leader and, due to constitutional provisions preventing her from becoming president, remained in the position of state counsellor. During the year parliament selected NLD member Win Myint to replace Htin Kyaw as president, and the country held peaceful and orderly by-elections for 13 state and national offices.
Under the constitution, civilian authorities have no authority over the security forces; the armed forces commander in chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, maintained effective control over the security forces.
Independent investigations undertaken during the year found evidence that corroborated the 2017 ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Rakhine State and further detailed the military’s killing, rape, and torture of unarmed villagers during a campaign of violence that displaced more than 700,000 Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh. Some evidence suggested preparatory actions on the part of security forces and other actors prior to the start of violence, including confiscation of knives, tools, iron, and other sharp objects that could be used as weapons in the days preceding attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). An additional 13,764 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh between January and September. The government prevented assistance from reaching displaced Rohingya and other vulnerable populations during the year by using access restrictions on the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies. The military also committed human rights abuses in continuing conflicts in Kachin and Shan States.
Human rights issues included reports of unlawful and arbitrary killings by security forces; torture; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; arbitrary arrest and prosecution of journalists and criminalization of defamation; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including arrests of peaceful protesters and restrictions on civil society activity; restrictions on religious freedom; significant restrictions on freedom of movement, in particular for Rohingya; corruption by some officials; unlawful use of child soldiers by the government; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats targeting members of national, ethnic, and religious minorities; and the use of forced and child labor. Consensual same-sex acts among adults remained criminalized, although those laws were rarely enforced.
Although the government took some limited actions to prosecute or punish officials responsible for abuses, the vast majority of such abuses continued with impunity.
Some nonstate groups committed human rights abuses, including killings, unlawful use of child soldiers, forced labor of adults and children, and failure to protect civilians in conflict zones. These abuses rarely resulted in investigations or prosecutions.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were many reports security forces committed arbitrary or unlawful killings (see also section 1.g.).
Security forces used excessive and sometimes lethal force against civilians. On
January 16, police in Mrauk-U shot and killed seven and injured 12 Rakhine demonstrators who were protesting a decision by officials to cancel an annual event in commemoration of the anniversary of the end of the Arakan Dynasty. Police beat demonstrators–some of whom threw stones and attempted to take over a government administrative building–in addition to firing live rounds into the crowd.
There were several documented extrajudicial killings of Rohingya in Rakhine State during the year and several documented assaults by police against unarmed Rohingya.
On April 5, government soldiers shot and killed the environmental rights activist and community leader Saw O Moo in Karen State. The military stated that Saw O Moo, who was riding a motorcycle with a Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) fighter, was suspected of involvement in planning attacks. His family and other activists denied this claim and said he was only giving a ride to the KNLA fighter.
With additional, albeit still limited, access to northern Rakhine State granted by the government during the year, Amnesty International reported that Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) fighters were almost certainly responsible for a massacre of 53 Hindu villagers in Kha Maung Seik Village, Maungdaw Township, in August 2017.
The trial of four people charged in the death of Ko Ni, a prominent Muslim lawyer and adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi who was assassinated outside Rangoon’s international airport in January 2017, continued as of October. Civil society groups and religious groups noted Ko Ni’s death had a chilling effect on lawyers working for constitutional reform and accountability for military abuses, as well as on Muslims fighting for improved treatment.
Arbitrary and unlawful killings related to internal conflict also occurred (see section 1.g.).
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits torture; however, members of security forces reportedly tortured and otherwise abused prisoners, detainees, and other citizens and stateless persons in incidents not related to armed conflict. Such incidents occurred, for example, in Rakhine and Kachin States. The government did not launch any investigation into reports of sexual violence by the military in prior years.
Security forces reportedly subjected detainees to harsh interrogation techniques designed to intimidate and disorient, including severe beatings and deprivation of food, water, and sleep. Human rights groups continued to report incidents of torture in ethnic minority areas. Authorities generally took no action to investigate incidents or punish alleged perpetrators.
At least two contingents of Border Guard Police (BGP) in northern Rakhine State in August 2017 tortured and otherwise abused 25 Rohingya men and boys, according to a report released during the year by Amnesty International. Torture included severe beatings, burnings, and sexual violence lasting several days or even weeks. One Rohingya teenager described being beaten severely while hung from a chain attached to the ceiling, first with a hard plastic stick, and then with gloves filled with nails.
On August 21, Human Rights Watch reported that the BGP apprehended and tortured six Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh in 2017 and had since returned to Rakhine State. Authorities, accusing them of illegal border crossing, tried the refugees in Burmese, which they did not understand, and sentenced them to four years in prison.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
The Ministry of Home Affairs operates the prison system and continued during the year to significantly restrict access by international organizations–other than the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)–to prison and detention facilities generally. The military also operates detention facilities and did not permit access. There were continued reports that conditions in prisons and labor camps were harsh and sometimes life threatening due to overcrowding, degrading treatment, and inadequate access to medical care and basic needs, including food, shelter, and hygiene, although observers noted some minor improvement in more centrally located prisons.
Physical Conditions: The Department of Corrections under the Ministry of Home Affairs operated an estimated 47 prisons and 48 labor camps, officially called “agriculture and livestock breeding career training centers” and “manufacturing centers,” according to the government. More than 20,000 inmates were serving their sentences in these labor camps across the country. Authorities reportedly sent prisoners whose sentences did not include “hard labor” to labor camps in contravention of the law and rented out prisoners as labor to private companies. In spite of reforms in recent years, conditions at these camps remain life threatening for some, especially at 18 camps where prisoners work as miners.
A prominent human rights group estimated there were more than 90,000 prisoners; women and men were held separately. Overcrowding was reportedly a serious problem in many prisons and labor camps; a human rights group reported that occupancy at the country’s largest prison was more than double capacity. Some prisons held pretrial detainees together with convicted prisoners. Authorities held some political prisoners separately from common criminals, but political prisoners whom authorities arrested for problems related to land rights were generally held together with common criminals.
Medical supplies and bedding were often inadequate. Bedding sometimes consisted of a single mat, wooden platform, or laminated plastic sheet on a concrete floor. Prisoners did not always have access to potable water. In many cases family members had to supplement prisoners’ official rations with medicine and basic necessities. Inmates reportedly paid wardens for necessities, including clean water, prison uniforms, plates, cups, and utensils.
Detainees were unable to access adequate and timely medical care. Prisoners suffered from health problems, including malaria, heart disease, high blood pressure, tuberculosis, skin diseases, and stomach problems, caused or exacerbated by unhygienic conditions and spoiled food. Former prisoners also complained of poorly maintained physical structures that provided no protection from the elements and had rodent, snake, and mold infestation.
There were reports of custodial deaths due to health problems associated with prison conditions and lack of adequate and timely medical care.
Prison conditions in Rakhine State were reportedly among the worst, with hundreds of Rohingya arbitrarily detained in prison and nonprison facilities, denied due process, and subjected to torture and abuse by Rakhine State prison and security officials.
Administration: Some prisons prevented full adherence to religious codes for prisoners, ostensibly due to space restrictions and security concerns. For example, imprisoned monks reported authorities denied them permission to observe Buddhist holy days, wear robes, shave their heads, or eat on a schedule compatible with the monastic code. Citing security considerations, authorities denied permission for Muslim prisoners to pray together as a group, as is the practice for Friday prayers and Ramadan. Prisoners and detainees could sometimes submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship or negative repercussions. The ICRC followed up with relevant authorities on allegations of inappropriate conditions.
Independent Monitoring: Although the ICRC had unfettered access to prisons, prisoners, and labor camps, it did not have access to military detention sites. The ICRC reported its findings through a strictly confidential bilateral dialogue with prison authorities. These reports were neither public nor shared with any other party.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law does not explicitly and comprehensively protect freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. Laws provide rights for citizens to settle and reside anywhere in the country “according to law.” Laws related to noncitizens empower the president to make rules for requiring registration of foreigners’ movements and authorize officials to require registration for every temporary change of address exceeding 24 hours.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government committed widespread and systematic abuses against the Rohingya population (see Stateless Persons).
In-country Movement: Regional and local orders, directives, and instructions restrict freedom of movement.
The government restricted the ability of IDPs and stateless persons to move. While a person’s freedom of movement generally derived from possession of identification documents, authorities also considered race, ethnicity, religion, and place of origin as factors in enforcing these regulations. Residents of ethnic-minority states reported the government restricted the travel of, involuntarily confined, and forcibly relocated IDPs and stateless persons.
Restrictions on in-country movement of Rohingya were extensive. Authorities required the Rohingya, a largely stateless population, to carry special documents and travel permits for internal movement in five areas in Rakhine State where the Rohingya primarily reside: Buthidaung, Maungdaw, Rathedaung, Kyauktaw, and Sittwe. Township officers in Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships continued to require Rohingya to submit a “form for informing absence from habitual residence” for permission to stay overnight in another village and to register on the guest list with the village administrator. Obtaining these forms and permits often involved extortion and bribes.
Restrictions governing the travel of foreigners, Rohingya, and others between townships in northern Rakhine State varied, depending on township, and generally required submission of a document known as “Form 4.” A traveler could obtain this form only from the township Immigration and National Registration Department (INRD) and only if that person provided an original copy of a family list, temporary registration card, and two guarantors. Travel authorized under Form 4 is generally valid for two to four weeks. The cost to obtain the form varied from township to township, with required payments to village administrators or to the township INRD office in amounts ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 kyats ($32 to $64). The government removed the Form 4 requirement between Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships in late 2017, only for individuals in possession of formal identity documents, although other formal and informal local restrictions on movement remained in place. Change of residency from one village or township to another in northern Rakhine State required permission from the INRD or the township, district, and state officials. While Rohingya could change residency, the government would not register them on a new household registration list in that new location. This practice effectively prevented persons from changing residency.
International and local humanitarian staff required travel authorizations from the union and state level to operate in Rakhine State. Local staff had to submit travel applications two weeks in advance, and they were often denied. Humanitarian access to northern Rakhine State was suspended entirely in August 2017; however, during the course of 2018, the Red Cross Movement, World Food Program, and several other organizations regained some degree of access. Media and human rights professionals were routinely denied access to Rakhine State.
Travel restrictions effectively prevented Rohingya from northern Rakhine State from traveling to other parts of the state, including the capital of Sittwe, and outside the state.
In May, Hla Phyu was arrested and convicted of false representation after attempting to leave an IDP camp in Rakhine State, where she had been living since her displacement during violence in 2012, and travel to Rangoon. The 23-year-old teacher, who is Muslim, had previously applied for official permission to travel without success, and eventually traveled without receiving permission. She was sentenced to a year in prison with hard labor.
There were reports of regular, unannounced nighttime household checks in northern Rakhine State and in other areas.
Foreign Travel: The government maintained restrictions preventing foreign travel of political activists, former political prisoners, and some local staff of foreign embassies. While some administrative restrictions remained, local organizations reported encountering far fewer delays and restrictions. Stateless persons, particularly Rohingya, were unable to obtain documentation necessary for foreign travel.
Exile: There was a sizeable diaspora, with some citizens choosing to remain outside the country after years of self-imposed exile. During the year the government encouraged exiles to help rebuild their country, and some returned home; however, the government appeared to maintain an opaque “black list” of individuals, including some from the exile community, who were prohibited from entering the country.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The country’s laws do not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR did not register any asylum seekers during the year.
The vast majority of Rohingya were stateless. Following the forced displacement of more than 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh in 2017, an estimated 520,000 to 600,000 Rohingya remained in Rakhine State. There were likely significant numbers of stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality throughout the country, including persons of Chinese, Indian, and Nepali descent.
Provisions of the Citizenship Law contributed to statelessness. Following the entry into force of the 1982 law and procedures, the government released a list of 135 recognized “national ethnic groups” whose members are automatically full citizens. This list excluded the Rohingya, and subsequent actions by the government rendered the vast majority of the Rohingya ethnic minority stateless. The law defines “national ethnic group” only as a racial and ethnic group that can prove origins in the country dating back to 1823, the year prior to British colonization. Several ethnic minority groups, including the Chin and Kachin, criticized the classification system as inaccurate. While the majority of the country’s inhabitants automatically acquired full citizenship under these provisions, some minority groups, including the Rohingya; persons of Indian, Chinese, and Nepali descent; and “Pashu” (Straits Chinese), some of whose members had previously enjoyed citizenship in the country, are not included on the government’s list. The Rohingya and others are technically eligible for full citizenship via standard mechanisms unrelated to ethnicity, but they must go through a special process with additional scrutiny that in practice requires substantial bribes to government officials to access the government’s family records or to ensure officials formally accept a citizenship application for processing. This process generally results in naturalized citizenship without the complete set of rights associated with full citizenship. The law does not provide protection for children born in the country who do not have a “relevant link” to another state.
The name Rohingya is used in reference to a group that self-identifies as belonging to an ethnic group defined by religious, linguistic, and other ethnic features. Rohingya maintained they have resided in what is now Rakhine State for generations. In 2016 the government established a policy of using “Muslims in Rakhine State” to refer to the population, although military officials and many government officials, particularly in Rakhine State, continued to use the term “Bengali,” which is considered a pejorative. This term is still used on identification documents. The government offers a citizenship verification process to Rohingya to determine who qualifies for citizenship on the basis of mechanisms in the 1982 law that provide pathways to citizenship other than being a member of a national ethnic race. The Rohingya community participated in this process in a limited manner. The government no longer requires all participants to identify as “Bengali” as a condition of participating in the process, nor does it require applicants to list their race or religion on forms in the earliest phases of the process, although implementing officials reportedly continued to require participants to identify as “Bengali.” Those who are verified as a citizen (of whatever type) would have “Bengali” listed as their race on their citizenship scrutiny card. This process and the separate national verification process were not seen as credible by the Rohingya community, in part because many continued to be told they were required to apply as “Bengali,” because the few Rohingya who received national verification cards or citizenship through these processes did not receive significant rights and benefits, and because the government implemented the process in a coercive manner. For example, there were reported cases that a government official required Rohingya to have a national verification card to go fishing or access a bank account. The government continued to call on Rohingya to participate, but many of them expressed the need for more assurances about the results of the process. Many said they were already citizens and expressed fear the government would either not affirm their citizenship or would provide a form of lesser citizenship–naturalized rather than full–thereby formalizing their lack of rights.
According to the Citizenship Law, two lesser forms of citizenship exist: associate and naturalized. According to other legal statutes, these citizens are unable to run for political office; serve in the military, police, or public administration; inherit land or money; or pursue certain professional degrees, such as medicine and law. According to the Citizenship Law, only the third generation of associate or naturalized citizens are able to acquire full citizenship.
Rohingya experienced severe legal, economic, and social discrimination. The government required them to receive prior approval for travel outside their village of residence; limited their access to higher education, health care, and other basic services; and prohibited them from working as civil servants, including as doctors, nurses, or teachers. Authorities singled out Rohingya in northern Rakhine State to perform forced labor and arbitrarily arrested them. Authorities required Rohingya to obtain official permission for marriages and limited the registration of children to two per family, but local enforcement of the two-child policy was inconsistent. For the most part, authorities registered additional children beyond the two-child limit for Rohingya families, yet there were cases of authorities not doing so.
Restrictions impeded the ability of Rohingya to construct houses or religious buildings.