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. General elections were held on November 8 and widely accepted as a credible reflection of the will of the people, despite some structural flaws. Voters in all constituencies where the government determined elections could be held safely elected members of parliament in both the upper and the lower houses, as well as state and regional legislatures. The government cancelled polling in more than half of the townships in Rakhine State, in addition to cancellations in Shan State, Kachin State, and elsewhere due to insecurity. Results declared on November 14 showed the National League for Democracy maintained its majority of parliament, while a military-aligned party lost seats. By the terms of the constitution, the military itself filled by appointment 25 percent of seats in both the upper and lower houses of parliament, as well as in state and regional legislatures. National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi continued to be the civilian government’s de facto leader and, due to constitutional provisions preventing her from becoming president, remained in the position of state counsellor.
The Myanmar Police Force is primarily responsible for internal security. The Border Guard Police is administratively part of the Myanmar Police Force but operationally distinct. Both fall under the Ministry of Home Affairs, led by an active-duty military general, so they are subordinate to the armed forces’ command. The armed forces under the Ministry of Defense are responsible for external security but are engaged extensively in internal security, including combat against ethnic armed groups. 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 all security forces. Members of the security forces continued to commit numerous serious human rights abuses.
Extreme repression of and discrimination against the minority Rohingya population, who are predominantly Muslim, continued in Rakhine State. Intense fighting between the military and the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army in January displaced thousands more civilians, further disrupted humanitarian access to vulnerable populations, and resulted in serious abuses of civilian populations. Fighting between the military and ethnic armed groups in northern Shan State, as well as fighting there among ethnic armed groups, temporarily displaced thousands of persons and resulted in abuses, including reports of civilian deaths and forced recruitment by the ethnic armed groups.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by security forces; enforced disappearance by security forces; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by security forces; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious abuses in internal conflicts, including killings of civilians, enforced disappearances or abductions, torture and physical abuses or punishments, unlawful recruitment of child soldiers, arbitrary denial of humanitarian access, and other conflict-related abuses; severe restrictions on free expression, including arbitrary arrest and prosecution of journalists, and criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions on religious freedom; serious restrictions on freedom of movement; the inability of some citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on political participation; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats targeting members of national, ethnic, and religious minority groups; laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults, although those laws were rarely enforced; and the use of forced and child labor, including the worst forms of child labor.
There continued to be almost complete impunity for past and continuing abuses by the security forces. In a few cases the government took limited actions to prosecute or punish subordinate officials it claimed were responsible for crimes, although in ways that were not commensurate with the seriousness of the acts. In the few cases where the military claimed to try to convict perpetrators, the process lacked transparency and no details were provided about the identity of the individuals, the crimes they were charged with, or their sentences.
Some ethnic armed groups committed human rights abuses, including killings, disappearances, physical abuse and degrading treatment, unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers, forced labor of adults and children, and failure to protect local populations in conflict zones. These abuses rarely resulted in investigations or prosecutions.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides that “every citizen shall be at liberty in the exercise of expressing and publishing freely their convictions and opinions,” but it contains the broad and ambiguous caveat that exercise of these rights must “not be contrary to the laws enacted for national security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility, or public order and morality.” Threats against and arrests of journalists and others who criticized the government or military continued.
Freedom of Speech: Freedom of speech was more restricted than in 2019. Authorities arrested, detained, convicted, intimidated, and imprisoned citizens for expressing political opinions critical of the government and the military, generally under charges of defamation, incitement, or violating national security laws. This included the detentions and trials of activists and ordinary citizens. The government applied laws carrying more severe punishments than in the past, including laws enabling years-long prison sentences.
Some persons remained wary of speaking openly about politically sensitive topics due to monitoring and harassment by security services and ultranationalist Buddhist groups. Police continued to monitor politicians, journalists, and writers.
On January 17, the Karen State government charged Karen environmental activist Saw Tha Phoe over his role in a traditional prayer ceremony to protect local water resources against pollution from a coal-powered cement factory. He fled when police attempted to arrest him and was still in hiding as of November. The local government General Administration Department filed a complaint against Saw Tha Phoe for making or circulating statements that may cause public fear or alarm and incite the public to commit an offense against the state or “public tranquility.”
On May 7, the Kayah State government placed numerous restrictions on civil society and political activities, using COVID-19 as a pretext to ban any speeches, writing, pictures, posters, placards, pamphlets, or other activity deemed to be defamatory to authorities, according to The Irrawaddy newspaper.
On September 4, Maung Saungkha, an activist, poet, and cofounder of the freedom of expression activist organization Athan, paid a fine to avoid a prison sentence over an act of peaceful protest to mark the first anniversary of the mobile internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin States. Saungkha unfurled a banner asking: “Is the internet being shut down to hide war crimes in Rakhine [State] and killing people?”
Military officers brought or sought to bring charges against several prominent religious figures based on their criticism of the military, including multiple Buddhist monks. Cases against at least three prominent, protolerance monks critical of the military and Burmese Buddhist ultranationalism, Sein Ti Ta, Myawaddy Sayadaw, and Thawbita, remained open as of November.
As of November, proceedings continued in the cases against democracy activist Nilar Thein and four others for their protest during a court hearing for Peacock Generation members (see Academic and Freedom and Cultural Events below). Nilar Thein and the four others were charged with “obstructing” and “deterring” a public official. The maximum sentence is three years in jail.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and able to operate, despite many official and unofficial restrictions. The government continued to permit the publication of privately owned daily newspapers. As of November, authorities approved 47 dailies; however, press freedom declined compared with 2019, and security forces detained journalists under laws carrying more severe sentences than those used in previous years.
Local media could cover human rights and political issues, including, for example, democratic reform and international investigations of the 2017 ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State, although they observed some self-censorship on these subjects. Official action or threats of such action increased against journalists reporting on conflict in Rakhine State involving the AA. The government generally permitted media outlets to cover protests and civil unrest, topics not reported widely in state-run media.
The military continued to react harshly to perceived critical media commentary through prosecution by civil authorities. Members of the ruling party increasingly prosecuted journalists perceived as critical. Officials continued to monitor journalists in various parts of the country, according to Freedom House.
On April 3, Takotaw Nanda (also known as Aung Kyi Myint), a Channel Myanmar News journalist, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for allegedly disrupting a public service and unlawful assembly after live-streaming on Facebook a May 2019 protest against a Mandalay Region cement plant. In May 2019, Aung Marm Oo, editor-in-chief of Development Media Group in Rakhine State, went into hiding after charges were filed that the group reported human rights violations in the continuing fighting between the military and the AA. Aung Marm Oo, also known as Aung Min Oo, received death threats, while Special Branch police interrogated journalists at the media group and questioned his family members.
Authorities took actions against journalists for erroneous reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. On May 21, chief editor of Dae Pyaw News Agency, Zaw Min Oo, was sentenced to two years in prison for falsely reporting a COVID-19 death in Myawady, Karen State, on April 3. He was charged with publishing or circulating a statement, rumor, or report that could arouse “public mutiny, fear, alarm or incitement.” On July 10, Zaw Min, a reporter from Khit Thit Media, was fined for incorrectly reporting a local quarantine center had no staff to feed nine patients and no masks or soap were available.
The government relaxation of its monopoly on domestic television broadcasting continued, with five private companies broadcasting using Ministry of Information platforms. The news broadcasters, however, were subject to the same informal restrictions as were print and online media. The government offered three public channels–two controlled by the Ministry of Information and one by the military; the ministry channels regularly aired the military’s content. Two private companies that had strong links to the previous military regime continued to broadcast six free-to-air channels. The government allowed the general population to register satellite television receivers for a fee, but the cost was prohibitive for most persons outside of urban areas. The military, government, and government-linked businesspersons controlled the eight privately or quasi-governmentally owned FM radio stations.
Violence and Harassment: Government agents, nationalist groups, and businesspersons engaged in illegal enterprises, sometimes together with local authorities, continued to attack and harass journalists who criticized government policy on a range of issues.
On February 9, ultranationalists from the Ma Ba Tha-linked Myanmar National Organization protesting in Rangoon threatened and physically intimidated staff at Khit Thit Media and 7 Day News, according to Tharlon Zaung Htet, editor of Khit Thit Media and a member of the government-sponsored Myanmar Press Council.
On March 4, Frontier Myanmar journalist Naw Betty Han and Ko Mar Naw, a photojournalist from Myanmar Times, were detained for one day and allegedly tortured by the ethnic Karen Border Guard Forces in Myawaddy Township, Karen State, for reporting on the Chinese Shwe Kokko development project.
On May 13, Kyaw Lin, a journalist who reported for online independent news outlets Myanmar Now and Development Media Group, was assaulted in Sittwe, Rakhine State, by two individuals shouting death threats. Kyaw Lin had reported on fighting between the AA and the military. In 2017, an unknown attacker stabbed him in Sittwe after he published an article on local land prices. The perpetrators of the May 13 assault were still at large as of October.
Authorities prevented journalists’ access to northern Rakhine State except on government-organized trips that participants reported to be tightly controlled and designed to advance the government’s narrative. The government continued to use visa issuance and shortened visa validities to control foreign journalists, especially those not based in the country.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Although generally not enforced, laws prohibit citizens from electronically passing information about the country to foreign media, exposing journalists who reported for or cooperated with international media to potential harassment, intimidation, and arrest. There were no reports of overt prepublication censorship, and the government allowed open discussion of some sensitive political and economic topics, but legal action against publications that criticized the military or the government increased self-censorship.
Self-censorship was common, particularly on issues related to Buddhist extremism, the military, the situation in Rakhine State, and the peace process. Journalists reported that such self-censorship became more pronounced after the 2018 trial and conviction of two Reuters journalists. The government ordered media outlets to use certain terms and themes to describe the situation in northern Rakhine State and threatened penalties against journalists who did not follow the government’s guidance, exacerbating self-censorship on that topic.
The military filed a complaint to the Myanmar Press Council when a January 25 Reuters story quoted a lawmaker as saying that army artillery fire had caused the deaths of two Rohingya women. After the reported advocacy by the press council, however, the military withdrew its complaint on March 18 “in the interest of maintaining good relations with the press council.”
The government censorship board reviews all films to be screened inside the country.
Journalists continued to complain about the widespread practice of government informants attending press conferences and other events, which they said intimidated reporters and the events’ hosts. Informants demanded lists of hosts and attendees.
Libel/Slander Laws: A criminal defamation clause in the telecommunications law was frequently used to restrict freedom of expression; charges were filed against journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens perceived as critics of the government and the military.
Noted filmmaker and human rights activist Min Htin Ko Gyi was freed on February 21 after serving seven months in prison for libel for Facebook posts that were critical of the military’s role in politics.
As of November, a case against three prominent political activists, lawyer Kyi Myint, poet Saw Wai, and former army captain Nay Myo Zin, continued in the courts. In late 2019 the military charged them with defamation for remarks they made in April 2019 about amending the military-drafted 2008 constitution. Nay Myo Zin was serving a one-year prison term in Insein Prison on the same charge from another military lawsuit.
National Security: In March the government and military designated the Arakan Army as a terrorist organization and an unlawful association under the law. Nay Myo Lin, founder and editor of Voice of Myanmar, a local Mandalay news outlet, was arrested on March 30 for publishing an interview with an AA spokesperson. He was charged in a local court under sections of the law prohibiting organizations and individuals from contacting or associating with outlawed organizations–a charge carrying a maximum life sentence. Police released Nay Myo Lin on April 10 when the court decided to drop the case.
The government censored online content, restricted access to the internet, and continued to prosecute internet users for criticism of the government and military and their policies and actions. In March the Ministry of Transport and Communications issued a series of directives ordering internet providers to block websites.
By order of the Transport and Communications Ministry, mobile phone operators in 2019 stopped mobile internet traffic in eight townships in northern Rakhine State and in Paletwa Township in southern Chin State due to “disturbances of peace and use of internet services to coordinate illegal activities.” Although the ministry announced on June 23 that internet restrictions were extended only through August 1, as of November only 2G data networks were available, according to Human Rights Watch. Some persons reported being unable to access the internet at all. On October 31, the ministry announced all mobile operators should extend restrictions on 3G and 4G mobile data services in the eight townships until at least December 31.
The telecommunications law includes broad provisions giving the government the power to temporarily block and filter content, on grounds of “benefit of the people.” According to Freedom House, pressure on users to remove content continued from the government, military, and other groups. The law does not include provisions to force the removal of content or provide for intermediary liability, although some articles are vague and could be argued to cover content removal. Pressure to remove content instead came from the use or threat of use of other criminal provisions.
In the second half of March, the Posts and Telecommunications Department ordered mobile operators to block more than 2,000 websites, including 67 allegedly distributing “fake news.” In May it followed up by instructing the operators to block a further 22 sites alleged to contribute to “fearmongering” and “misleading of the public in relation to the coronavirus.” Neither the government nor the operators released a full list of the blocked websites, but among those that could no longer be accessed were several registered news organizations, including Rakhine State-based Development Media and Narinjara News, Voice of Myanmar, Karen News from Karen State, Mandalay-based In-Depth News, and Mekong News, which was based in eastern Shan State’s Tachileik.
The government’s Social Media Monitoring Team reportedly continued to monitor internet communications without clear legal authority, according to Freedom House. Social media continued to be a popular forum to exchange ideas and opinions without direct government censorship, although there were military-affiliated disinformation campaigns on social media.
The government limited users’ ability to communicate anonymously by enforcement of SIM card registration requirements. Subscribers must provide their name, citizenship identification document, birth date, address, nationality, and gender to register for a SIM card; noncitizens must provide their passports. Some subscribers reported being required by telecommunications companies to include further information beyond the bounds of the regulations, including their ethnicity.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
Government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events continued.
The government tightened restrictions on political activity and freedom of association on university campuses. In September and October, approximately 57 students at universities across the country, who protested human rights violations in Rakhine State, called on the government to lift internet restrictions in Rakhine and Chin states and urged reform of laws to comply with international standards for the protection of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. They were arrested and faced a variety of criminal charges, according to the All Burma Federation of Student Unions. The students were charged with unlawful assembly, various speech-related crimes, antimilitary incitement, and other crimes, according to the federation. As of November, more than 20 were imprisoned, while the remainder were awaiting sentencing or were in hiding while facing arrest warrants, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
The government generally allowed the informal establishment of student unions, although among university rectors and faculty there was considerable fear and suspicion of student unions because of their historical role in protests. Although some student unions were allowed to open unofficial offices, the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, as in previous years, was unable to register but participated in some activities through informal networks.
There were reported incidents of the government restricting cultural events. There is a ban on street art. On April 3, three street artists were arrested for painting a mural about the coronavirus pandemic, according to Human Rights Watch. The artists were charged with violating a law criminalizing speech that “insults” religion after Buddhist hardliners complained the mural portrayed a grim reaper figure that they believed looked like a Buddhist monk, spreading the COVID-19 virus. On July 17, the artists were freed after charges were dropped.
In a series of seven verdicts delivered between October 2019 and June 2020, courts handed down prison sentences to the leader and five other members of the satirical street performance group Peacock Generation. Group leader Zayar Lwin was sentenced to a total of five and one-half years in prison; the others received sentences of two to six years. The military brought the charges after a performance in which members satirically criticized the military’s political power in a democracy. At year’s end up to 25 members still faced charges that carry up to six months in prison, while two members were released in June and August, respectively, having already completed sentences of more than a year.
Public film showings were possible with the cooperation of the Ministry of Information. The MEMORY! film festival showed prescreened classic films in public spaces in Rangoon “under the high patronage of the Ministry of Information.” According to the organizers, mutual trust with the ministry enabled freedom of expression for organizers, participants from civil society organizations, and audiences. Organizers showed films including challenging themes. While MEMORY! faced information ministry censorship, mostly for nudity or Buddhist imagery, no film was banned in its entirety, and journalistic fora and public discussions around the films were free of interference.
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government restricted these rights. In addition to direct government action, the government’s failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on freedom of assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
Although the constitution provides the right to peaceful assembly, it was not always respected. While the law only requires notification of protests, authorities treated notification as a request for permission. Authorities used laws against criminal trespass and provisions criminalizing actions the government deemed likely to cause “an offense against the State or against the public tranquility” to restrict peaceful assembly.
Restrictions remained in place in 11 Rangoon townships on all applications for processions or assemblies. Some civil society groups asserted these restrictions were selectively applied and used to prevent demonstrations against the government or military.
Farmers and social activists continued to protest land rights violations and land confiscation throughout the country, and human rights groups reported the arrest of farmers and supporters. Many reported cases involved land seized by the former military regime and given to private companies or persons with ties to the military.
Whether civil society organizations were required to apply for advance permission before holding meetings and other functions in hotels and other public venues varied by situation and by government official. Some officials forced venues to cancel civil society events where such permission was not obtained.
On January 17, four activists–Naw Ohn Hla, Maung U, U Nge (also known as Hsan Hlaing), and Sandar Myint–were sentenced to one month in prison after they were found guilty of protesting without authorization. Police charged the four activists after they participated in a peaceful demonstration organized by residents of the Shwe Mya Sandi housing project in Karen State in April 2019.
On March 20, Than Hla (also known as Min Bar Chay), an ethnic Rakhine development worker, was found guilty of protesting without permission after he participated in a demonstration calling for justice and an end to security force violations in Rakhine State. He was sentenced to 15 days in prison; he was released the same day authorities announced that a second charge of protesting without permission was dropped.
Although the constitution and laws allow citizens to form associations and organizations, the government sometimes restricted this right.
The law on registering organizations stipulates voluntary registration for local NGOs and removes punishments for noncompliance for both local and international NGOs. In the run-up to the November general election, the government began insisting that NGOs receiving foreign funding were required to register.
Registration requires sponsorship from a government ministry. Some NGOs that tried to register under this law found the process extremely onerous. According to Myanmar Now, NGOs classed as “advocacy groups” would have to pay tax if the Internal Revenue Department determined, based on their tax return, that they made a “profit.” Advocacy groups include those working on human, women’s, labor, and land rights. NGOs expressed concern about the new rules and warned they could place an unfair burden on small organizations and limit their operations.
Activists reported that civil society groups, community-based organizations, and informal networks operated openly and continued to discuss human rights and political issues openly, although discussion of the most sensitive issues could lead to prosecution. They reported, however, that state surveillance of such operations and discussions was common and that government restrictions on meetings and other activity continued.
c. Freedom of Religion
d. Freedom of Movement
The law does not protect freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, or repatriation. Local regulations limit the rights of citizens to settle and reside anywhere in the country. By law the president may require the registration of foreigners’ movements and authorize officials to require foreigners to register every change of address exceeding 24 hours.
In-country Movement: Regional and local orders, directives, and instructions restricted freedom of movement.
Restrictions on in-country movement of Rohingya were extensive. Authorities required the largely stateless Rohingya to carry special documents and travel permits for internal movement in areas in Rakhine State where most Rohingya resided. Township officers in Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships continued to require Rohingya to submit a “form for informing absence from habitual residence” in order 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 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 and only if that person provided an original copy of a family list, a temporary registration card, and letters from two guarantors. Travel authorized under Form 4 is generally valid for two to four weeks, but it is given almost exclusively for medical emergencies, effectively eliminating many opportunities to work or study. The cost to obtain the form varied from township to township, with required payments to village administrators or to the township immigration office ranging from the official amount of 30,000 to more than two million kyats ($22 to $1,460). The extensive administrative measures imposed on Rohingya and foreigners in Rakhine State effectively prevented persons from changing residency.
Rohingya faced prison terms of up to two years for attempting to travel out of Rakhine State without prior authorization. A total of 128 Rohingya from Rakhine State were arrested in November 2019 after disembarking from boats near beach resorts in the Ayeyarwady Region. They were charged for traveling without valid identity documents, which carries a maximum two-year prison sentence, a modest fine, or both. On April 8, a court dropped illegal travel charges against more than 200 accused persons, but according to activists hundreds more Rohingya charged with illegal travel remained in jails and youth detention centers across the country.
Foreign Travel: The government maintained restrictions to prevent foreign travel by political activists, former political prisoners, and some local staff of foreign embassies. Stateless persons, particularly Rohingya, were unable to obtain documents required for foreign travel.
As of November, an estimated 326,500 individuals were living as internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to violence in Rakhine, Kachin, Chin, and northern Shan States. The large number of primarily ethnic minority IDPs in primarily ethnic-dominated parts of the country can be traced back to decades of conflict between the central government and ethnic communities.
As of November, an estimated 40,000 IDPs lived in areas of the country outside government control, primarily in northern Kachin State. Fighting in Rakhine, Chin, and Shan States displaced tens of thousands of additional persons during the year, compounding the long-term displacement of communities in these areas. Most of those newly displaced in Shan State, however, were able to return home. Locally based organizations had some access to IDPs in areas outside government control, but the military restricted their access, including through threats of prosecution. The military largely restricted access to IDPs and Rohingya in areas of Rakhine State to only the Red Cross and the World Food Program, resulting in unmet humanitarian needs among these IDPs. The government had not granted the United Nations or other international organizations humanitarian access to areas in Kachin State outside of military control since 2016.
The United Nations reported significant deterioration in humanitarian access during the year–a situation further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic–and the military continued to block access to IDPs and other vulnerable populations in areas controlled by ethnic armed groups (see section 1.g., Other Conflict-related Abuse). The Arakan Army-military conflict in Rakhine State and the COVID-19 pandemic were cited as justifications for additional onerous restrictions on humanitarian access in Rakhine State, most of which were not justified on security or public health grounds, according to humanitarian partners operating in Rakhine State.
The government restricted the ability of IDPs and stateless persons to move, limiting access to health services, employment opportunities, secure refuge, and schooling. 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 IDPs and stateless persons.
The approximately 132,000 primarily Rohingya IDPs in Sittwe, Pauktaw, and other townships were dependent on assistance from aid agencies. Humanitarian agencies provided access to clean water, food, shelter, and sanitation in most IDP camps for Rohingya, although the COVID-19 pandemic restricted access from August.
An October Human Rights Watch report on the detention of Rohingya described the IDP camps’ severe restrictions on movement; limited access to education, health care, and work; and the denial of fundamental rights. It referred to the camps collectively as “An Open Prison Without End.” According to the report, more than 130,000 Muslims–mostly Rohingya, as well as a few thousand Kaman–remain confined in IDP camps in central Rakhine State. Rohingya in the camps were denied freedom of movement through overlapping systems of restrictions–formal policies and local orders, informal and ad hoc practices, checkpoints and barbed-wire fencing, and a widespread system of extortion that made travel financially and logistically prohibitive. In 24 camps or camp-like settings, severe limitations on access to livelihoods, education, health care, and adequate food or shelter were compounded by increasing government constraints on humanitarian aid.
The COVID-19 pandemic further compounded freedom of movement restrictions in IDP camps. In general, IDP camps did not have dedicated quarantine centers or testing facilities due to lack of space and dedicated staff. If there was a positive case, movement restrictions were imposed on the entire camp and residents were not allowed to leave or enter the camp, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees. IDPs who required testing, hospitalization, and quarantine were moved to outside government facilities where the government and humanitarian organizations provided targeted support for the patient and direct contacts. IDPs received adequate care, and outside of a few isolated cases, there were no major COVID-19 outbreaks at IDP camps.
Camp shelters, originally built to last just two years, deteriorated without construction and maintenance, leading to overcrowding and vulnerability to flood and fire. According to Human Rights Watch, these IDP camp conditions were a direct cause of increased morbidity and mortality in the camps, including increased rates of malnutrition, waterborne illnesses, and child and maternal deaths. Lack of access to emergency medical assistance, particularly in pregnancy-related cases, led to preventable deaths.
Approximately 70 percent of the 120,000 school-age Muslim children in central Rakhine camps and villages were out of school, according to Human Rights Watch. Given the movement restrictions, most could only attend underresourced temporary learning centers led by volunteer teachers. Restrictions that prevented Rohingya from working outside the camps had serious economic consequences. Almost all Rohingya in the camps were forced to abandon their pre-2012 trades and occupations.
Despite the adoption of a national camp closure strategy in 2019, the government’s approach to “closing” IDP camps largely consisted of building new infrastructure near existing camps and reclassifying them as villages without addressing movement restrictions; providing security, livelihoods, or basic services; or consulting with IDPs on their right to return to their areas of origin or to resettle in areas of their choice.
The government did not always cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, or other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Dozens of Rohingya were arrested and charged under immigration laws after returning from Bangladesh informally in June and July during heightened scrutiny of border crossings because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The UN High Commission for Refugees did not register any asylum seekers during the year.
The vast majority of Rohingya are stateless. Following the forced displacement of more than 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh in 2017, up to 600,000 Rohingya were estimated to remain in Rakhine State. There were also likely significant numbers of stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality throughout the country, including persons of Chinese, Indian, and Nepali descent. Although these latter groups did not face the same level of official and social discrimination as Rohingya, they were still subject at best to the lesser rights and greater restrictions of associate and naturalized citizenship.
The government recognizes 135 “national ethnic groups” whose members are automatically full citizens. The law defines “national ethnic group” as a racial and ethnic group that can prove origins in the country dating back to 1823, the year prior to British colonization. Despite this rule, the government has granted “national ethnic group” status to ethnic groups or withdrawn that status from them throughout the country on various occasions. The Rohingya are not on the list. Several ethnic minority groups, including the Chin and Kachin, criticized the classification system as inaccurate.
The law also establishes two forms of citizenship short of full citizenship: associate and naturalized. Citizens of these two types are unable to run for political office; form a political party; serve in the military, police, or public administration; inherit land or money; or pursue certain professional degrees, such as medicine and law. Only members of the third generation of associate or naturalized citizens are able to acquire full citizenship.
Some Rohingya may be technically eligible for full citizenship. The process involves additional official scrutiny and is complicated by logistical difficulties, including travel restrictions and significant gaps in understanding the Burmese language. In practice this also requires substantial bribes to government officials, and even then it does not guarantee equality with other full citizens. In particular, only Rohingya are required to go through an additional step of applying for the National Verification Card (NVC), in which their identity papers will describe them as “Bengali” and presumes them to be noncitizens. This can lead to discrimination in access to public services and a wide range of societal discrimination. While members of other ethnic groups faced challenges, they are not singled out the same way Rohingya are in obtaining citizenship.
The law does not provide any form of citizenship (or associated rights) for children born in the country whose parents are stateless.
The government continued to call for Rohingya to apply for NVCs, created in 2015. The government claimed that these cards were necessary to apply for citizenship as well as other government documentation, such as Citizenship Scrutiny Cards. NGO reports indicated that Rohingya were pressured or coerced to accept NVCs. For example, there were reported cases of government officials requiring Rohingya to have an NVC to go fishing or access a bank account. Many Rohingya expressed the need for more assurances about the results of the process as well as fear that after turning in their old documents they would not be issued new documents. 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, thereby formalizing their lack of rights. Rohingya in Rakhine State had to identify as “Bengali” to apply for NVCs, while some Muslims from other ethnic groups had to identify as “Bengali” to apply for Citizenship Scrutiny Cards in other parts of the country.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides citizens a limited ability to choose their government through elections held by secret ballot. General elections are held every five years, and by-elections are held to fill empty seats due to locally cancelled races or other vacancies in nonelection years. The electoral system is not fully representative and does not assure the free expression of the will of the people. Under the constitution, active-duty military are appointed to one-quarter of all national and regional parliamentary seats, and the military has the right to appoint the ministers of defense, home affairs–which has responsibility for police, prisons, and other domestic security matters–and border affairs. The military can also indefinitely assume power over all branches of the government should the president declare a national state of emergency. The constitution prohibits persons with immediate relatives holding foreign citizenship from becoming president. Amending the constitution requires approval by more than 75 percent of members of parliament, giving the military effective veto power over constitutional amendments. NLD efforts to reform the 2008 military-drafted constitution failed in March due to the military’s veto. Significant portions of the population were disenfranchised due to restrictive citizenship laws or the cancellation of elections due to security concerns.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: Observers considered the November 8 national election to be generally reflective of the will of the people, notwithstanding some structural shortcomings. The NLD, chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi, won approximately 80 percent of the contested 1,150 seats at the state, regional, and union levels in the election. The NLD won 396 of 476 races for national assembly seats; a military-affiliated party won 33, and various ethnically based parties took 47. By-elections in 2017 and 2018 were also assessed as basically free and fair. Aung San Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from the presidency due to her marriage to a British national.
Most potential Muslim candidates were disqualified from running in the November 8 general election by electoral authorities or blocked by their own parties from running, apparently on a discriminatory basis. Some political parties, including the NLD, nominated Muslim candidates. Two Muslim members of parliament were elected. Almost all members of the Rohingya community, many of whom voted prior to 2015, were disenfranchised and barred from running for office. The government also canceled voting in some conflict-affected ethnic minority areas.
The November general election featured more than 90 political parties and more than 5,640 candidates. The electoral commission cancelled elections across most of Rakhine and parts of Chin, Kachin, Mon, and Shan states and Bago Region, which generated further disillusionment in the electoral process among ethnic minorities and disenfranchised approximately 1.5 million persons nationwide. The government did not permit the right to vote for hundreds of thousands of voting age Rohingya in Rakhine State or in refugee camps in Bangladesh. The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights commented before the elections that there was “no evidence that the government was willing or prepared to facilitate the right to vote for hundreds of thousands of voting age Rohingya in Rakhine state or in refugee camps in Bangladesh.”
Political Parties and Political Participation: Opposition parties exercised their rights to assemble and protest. New political parties were generally allowed to register and compete in elections, which featured fewer restrictions than in 2015 on party organization and voter mobilization. Only sporadic interference from military and government officials was reported during the campaign and on November 8, unlike during the 2015 election, when military Special Branch elements were very active as election preparations were underway.
Electoral competition was skewed in part by the Union Solidarity and Development Party’s systematic support from the military, whose personnel and their families were eligible to vote in advance without observers present, in some cases in military barracks, despite a May change to the election law that requires service members to vote at public polling places on election day. Moreover, some legal provisions can be invoked to restrict parties’ operations. The constitution requires that political parties be loyal to the state. Laws allow for penalties, including deregistration, against political parties that accept support from foreign governments or religious bodies or that are deemed to have abused religion for political purposes or disrespected the constitution. The electoral commission, which is appointed by the ruling party, censored opposition party broadcasts on state-run television.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Nevertheless, women and minority groups continued to be underrepresented in government, and policies limited participation in practice. For example, in some municipal elections, the vote was apportioned at the household level, with only one member, usually the male head of household, allowed to vote for the entire household. Women made up only approximately 17 percent of national and local elected legislators.
Ethnic minority parliamentarians from ethnic minority political parties comprised less than 9 percent of legislators at the national, state, and regional level; this did not include the numerous ethnic minority members of the NLD or the Union Solidarity and Development Party (see Recent Elections above for participation of Muslims and Rohingya).
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of women is illegal but remained a significant problem, and the government did not enforce the law effectively. Rape of a woman outside of marriage carries a maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment. Spousal rape is not a crime unless the wife is younger than 14, and the penalty is a maximum of two years in prison. The law prohibits committing bodily harm against another person, but there are no laws specifically against domestic violence or spousal abuse unless the wife is younger than 14. Overlapping and at times contradictory legal provisions complicated implementation of these limited protections.
The number of reported rapes increased over the previous year, but it was unclear whether this was due to increased awareness or increased incidences of rape. Police generally investigated reported cases of rape, but there were reports police investigations were not sensitive to victims. Civil society groups continued to report police in some cases verbally abused women who reported rape, and women could be sued for impugning the dignity of the perpetrator.
Domestic violence against women, including spousal abuse, remained a serious problem. Abuse within families was prevalent and considered socially acceptable. Spousal abuse or domestic violence was difficult to measure because the government did not maintain comprehensive statistics and victims typically did not report it, although the government attempted to document cases, and reported cases were on the rise. In April Myanmar Times reported the observation by Daw Htar, founder of the NGO Akhaya Women Myanmar, that over the two weeks when the government started community lockdowns in some areas, there was a spike in domestic violence complaints compared to the prelockdown period.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment and imposes a maximum of one year’s imprisonment and a fine for verbal harassment and a maximum of two years’ imprisonment and a fine for physical contact. There was no information on the prevalence of the problem because these crimes were largely unreported. Local civil society organizations reported police investigators were not sensitive to victims and rarely followed through with investigations or prosecutions.
Reproductive Rights: The right of individuals to manage their reproductive health is limited by the 2015 Population Control and Health Care Law, which restricts sexual and reproductive rights, including the imposition of birth-spacing requirements. The president or the national government may designate “special regions” for health care that consider population, natural resources, birth rates, and food availability. In a special region the government may allow the creation of special health-care organizations to perform various tasks, including establishing regulations related to family planning.
Access to family planning was limited in rural areas, and local organizations noted that the unmet need for family planning was particularly high in Rakhine State. Economic hardship and security concerns in conflict-affected regions also limited access to family planning.
In 2020 limited access to sexual and reproductive health services for sexual violence survivors was available through both public and private facilities, and the Department of Social Welfare adapted gender-based violence services to COVID-19, including expanding virtual platforms for online training.
According to UN 2017 estimates, the maternal mortality ratio nationwide was 250 deaths per 100,000 live births. The 2017 National Maternal Death Surveillance and Response Report stated the maternal mortality ratio in Rakhine State was the second lowest among states and regions. This was not consistent with the previous pattern of Rakhine State reporting a relatively higher maternal mortality ratio, and the Ministry of Health and Sports acknowledged that the results reflected underreporting of maternal deaths due to the conflict in Rakhine State and other parts of the country. NGOs reported that humanitarian access and movement restrictions among Rohingya limited access to health-care services and contributed to maternal mortality rates in Rakhine State being higher than the national average. Complications resulting from unsafe abortions were also a leading cause of maternal deaths.
Other major factors influencing maternal mortality included poverty; limited availability of and access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services and information, including contraception, and maternal and newborn health services; a high number of home births; and the lack of access to services from appropriately trained and skilled birth attendants, midwives, auxiliary midwives, basic health staff, and other trained community health workers. The UN Population Fund estimated that skilled health personnel attended only 60 percent of births.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities. The law allows the government to impose coercive birth-spacing requirements–36 months between children–if the president or national government designates “special regions” for health care based on factors such as population, migration rate, natural resources, birth rates, and food availability. Once a special region is declared, the government may create special healthcare organizations to perform various tasks, including establishing family planning regulations. The government did not designate any such special regions during the year.
In Rakhine State, local authorities prohibited Rohingya families from having more than two children, although some Rohingya with household registration papers reportedly could circumvent the law.
Discrimination: By law women enjoy the same legal status and rights as men, including property and inheritance rights and religious and personal status, but it was not clear the government enforced the law. Customary law was widely used to address issues of marriage, property, and inheritance; it differs from the provisions of statutory law and is often discriminatory against women.
The law requires equal pay for equal work, but it was not clear the formal sector respected this requirement. NGOs reported some sectors did not comply, and other forms of workplace discrimination were common (see section 7.d.).
Poverty affected women disproportionately.
The law restricts the ability of Buddhist women to marry non-Buddhist men by imposing a requirement of public notification prior to any such marriage and allowing for objections to the marriage to be raised in court, although the law was rarely enforced.
Birth Registration: The law automatically confers full citizenship to children of two parents from one of the 135 recognized national ethnic groups and to children who met other citizenship requirements. Moreover, the government confers full citizenship to second-generation children of both parents with any citizenship, as long as at least one parent has full citizenship. Third-generation children of associate or naturalized citizens can acquire full citizenship. Many long-term residents in the country, including the Rohingya, are not among the recognized national ethnic groups, however, and thus their children are not automatically conferred citizenship (see section 2.g.).
A prominent international NGO noted significant rural-urban disparities in birth registration. In major cities (e.g., Rangoon and Mandalay), births were registered immediately because registration is required to qualify for basic public services and to obtain national identification cards. In smaller towns and villages, birth registration often was informal or nonexistent. For the Rohingya community, birth registration was a significant problem (see section 2.g.). The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State noted in its interim report that nearly half of all residents in Rakhine State lacked birth documentation.
A birth certificate provides important protections for children, particularly against child labor, early marriage, and recruitment into the armed forces and armed groups. Sometimes a lack of birth registration complicated access to public services in remote communities.
Education: By law education is compulsory, free, and universal through the fourth grade (up to age 10). This leaves children ages 10 through 13 vulnerable to child labor, since they are not required to attend school but are not legally permitted to work, because the minimum age for work is 14. The government continued to allocate minimal resources to public education, and schools charged informal fees.
Schools were often unavailable in remote communities and conflict areas, and access to them for internally displaced and stateless children also remained limited.
Child Abuse: Laws prohibit child abuse, but they were neither adequate nor enforced. NGOs reported corporal punishment was widely used against children. The punishment for child abuse is a maximum of two years’ imprisonment or a modest fine. The Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement continued child protection programs in partnership with UNICEF to improve data collection, develop effective laws, provide psychosocial assistance, and combat trafficking, and added COVID-19 awareness raising. Violence in Rakhine, Chin, Shan, and Kachin states exposed many children to an environment of violence and exploitation.
Online and street protests continued following the alleged May 2019 sexual assault of a two-year-old girl, pseudonym “Victoria,” at a nursery school in Nay Pyi Taw. Protesters raised concerns about the transparency of the trial, and in July 2019 Win Ko Ko Thein, the leader of an online protest campaign, was arrested for Facebook posts “defaming” the police officers investigating the case. Both cases continued as of November. Legal violations during the “Victoria” trial included the police’s December 2019 disclosure of the victim’s name and of photographs further identifying the child and her parents, their occupations, and the family’s address. On June 2, the promotions of three senior police officers responsible were suspended.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The law stipulates different minimum ages for marriage based on religion and gender. The minimum age for Buddhists is 18, while the minimum age for non-Buddhists is 16 for boys and 15 for girls. Child marriage occurred, especially in rural areas. There were no reliable statistics on forced marriage.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: Children were subjected to sex trafficking in the country, and a small number of foreign child-sex tourists exploited children, according to Human Rights Watch. The 2019 Child Rights Law prohibits the sexual exploitation of children, including pimping and prostitution; separate provisions within the penal code prohibit sex with a minor younger than 14. The penalty for the purchase and sale of commercial sex acts from a child younger than 18 is 10 years’ imprisonment. The law prohibits child pornography and specifies a minimum penalty of two years’ imprisonment and a modest fine. The law on child rights provides for one to seven years’ imprisonment, a substantial fine, or both for sexual trafficking or forced marriage. If a victim is younger than 14, the law considers the sexual act statutory rape. The maximum sentence for statutory rape is two years’ imprisonment when the victim is between the ages of 12 and 14 and 10 years’ to life imprisonment when the victim is younger than 12.
The country’s antitrafficking in persons law requires a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute a child sex-trafficking offense.
Displaced Children: The United Nations estimated that approximately 40 percent of IDPs were children. The mortality rate for child IDPs was significantly higher than the national average.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at .
There was one synagogue in Rangoon serving a very small Jewish population. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. The law directs the government to ensure that persons with disabilities have easy access to public transportation. The government did not effectively enforce these provisions.
Civil society groups reported that children with disabilities attended school through secondary education at a significantly lower rate than other persons; many never attended school due to stigma and lack of any accommodation for their needs.
Persons with disabilities reported stigma, discrimination, and abuse from members of the public and government officials. Students with disabilities cited barriers to inclusive education as a significant disadvantage.
Military veterans with disabilities in urban areas received official benefits on a priority basis, usually a civil service job at pay equivalent to rank. Persons with disabilities in rural areas typically did not have access to livelihood opportunities or affordable medical treatment. Official assistance to civilian persons with disabilities in principle included two-thirds of pay for a maximum of one year for a temporary disability and a tax-free stipend for permanent disability. The law providing job protection for workers who become disabled was not implemented.
Wide-ranging governmental and societal discrimination against members of minority groups persisted, including in areas such as education, housing, employment, and access to health services. Ethnic minority groups constituted 30 to 40 percent of the population. The seven ethnic minority states comprised approximately 60 percent of the national territory, and significant numbers of minority group members also resided in the country’s other regions.
International observers noted that significant wage discrepancies based on religious and ethnic backgrounds were common.
Burmese remained the mandatory language of instruction in government schools. The government’s official education plan does not cover issues related to mother tongue instruction, but ethnic languages were taught as extra subjects in some government schools. Progress was slow due to insufficient resources provided by the government, the nonstandardization of regional languages, a lack of educational material in minority languages, and varying levels of interest. In schools controlled by armed ethnic groups, students sometimes had no access to the national curriculum.
The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group that claims to have lived in the area of Rakhine State for generations. The Rohingya faced severe discrimination based on their ethnicity and religion. Large numbers of Rohingya were forced into internal exile in 2012, and the majority of the population was forced into refugee camps in Bangladesh in 2017 during a military ethnic cleansing campaign.
Political reforms in recent years made it easier for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community to hold public events and openly participate in society, yet discrimination, stigma, and a lack of acceptance among the general population persisted. Transgender persons, for example, were subject to police harassment, and their identity is not recognized by the state. There were reports of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment. LGBTI persons reported facing discrimination from healthcare providers.
On March 12, an openly gay restaurant owner was sentenced to five years in prison under the “unnatural offenses” law for allegedly sexually assaulting a male member of his staff.
There were continued reports of societal violence and discrimination, including employment discrimination, against persons with HIV/AIDS. Negative incidents, such as exclusion from social gatherings and activities; verbal insults, harassment, and threats; and physical assaults continued to occur. Laws that criminalize behaviors linked to an increased risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS remain in place, directly fueling stigma and discrimination against persons engaged in these behaviors and impeding their access to HIV prevention, treatment, and care services.
Although the law nominally decriminalizes drug use, possession of small amounts of illegal drugs still leads to long prison sentences. Excessive law enforcement activities and local antidrug groups threatened at-risk drug abusers and hindered access to HIV, harm reduction, and other essential health services. Likewise, the antisodomy law creates an environment that discourages men who have sex with men from accessing available services.
High levels of social stigma and discrimination against female sex workers and transgender women hindered their access to HIV prevention, treatment, and social protection services. Police harassment of sex workers deterred them from carrying condoms.