Summary Paragraph: There were reports of large-scale abuses by the military and others against ethnic Rohingya, who are nearly all Muslim, and other minority populations – including extrajudicial killings, rapes, torture, beatings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, mass displacement, burning of structures, restrictions on religious practice and freedom of movement, and discrimination in employment, granting of building permits, and access to citizenship. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Elsewhere in the country, non-Buddhist minorities, including Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, reported incidents in which authorities unduly restricted religious practice and travel, destroyed religious property and texts, denied or failed to approve permits for religious buildings and renovations, and discriminated in employment.
According to the government, ongoing attacks on and threats against civilians by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) prompted the government to deploy security forces to northern Rakhine State in early August. According to NGO and media reports, security forces, in their search for ARSA members, committed enforced disappearances and arbitrary arrests of various persons, the majority of whom were Muslim Rohingya. According to the government, security forces later acted in response to coordinated ARSA attacks on August 25 against 30 border guard police and military outposts in northern Rakhine State that resulted in the deaths of 12 soldiers. Media sources and NGOs said some Rohingya villagers joined ARSA to attack security units. The military and Border Guard Police subsequently launched so-called “clearance operations,” which they said were to search for the perpetrators of the ARSA attacks.
From August through November, there were numerous reports by media, the UN, NGOs, and others of mass atrocities in northern Rakhine State, including killings, rapes, beatings, arrests, and the burning of 354 villages by security forces and local vigilante groups. NGOs and UN observers assessed that the security forces’ operations were preplanned, pointing to the movement of units, the spike in arrests of Rohingya before the ARSA attacks, and the common tactics used by many different units in many different villages. Other NGOs, think tanks, and UN observers said the security forces’ response appeared opportunistic and disproportionate, but not pre-planned, given the ongoing security threats in northern Rakhine State against Rohingya, Rakhine, and other civilians between January and August.
The government said its “clearance operations” ended September 5, but satellite imagery corroborated claims by witnesses that security forces or local vigilante groups continued to raze villages for weeks afterward. According to the government, as of September, there were reports of approximately 400 “insurgent” deaths, 30 civilian deaths, as well as 6,842 homes burned in 59 villages during security forces’ operations. The government restricted UN, NGO, and media access to Rakhine State through the end of the year.
As of December, international organizations reported that approximately 688,000 civilians, overwhelmingly Rohingya, arrived in Bangladesh after being displaced from Rakhine State. An additional unknown number were internally displaced. The Government of Bangladesh estimated 500 of the Rohingya refugees from Burma in Bangladesh are Hindu and the remainder Muslim. Human rights organizations and media reported security forces and vigilante groups carried out mass killings and rapes of Rohingya civilians,, as well as arson, in multiple locations in northern Rakhine State, citing far higher numbers of burned homes and villages than the government. International NGOs documented through satellite imagery many instances where homes belonging to villagers from other ethnic groups were not burned in areas that were otherwise destroyed. For example, over 90 percent of the Rohingya homes in Maungdaw District, one of three districts in northern Rakhine, were reportedly burned. Reports indicated children, elderly, or infirm persons were burned alive in houses. Places of worship and religious texts were destroyed. In September the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR) released a report that included an interview with a Rohingya Muslim refugee from Burma in Cox’s Bazar, who reported that Burmese security forces attacked a mosque and burned a Quran in Buthidaung Township a few days before the ARSA attacks on August 25. Based on victim and witness interviews, NGOs and media reported that security forces employed similar tactics in different villages. According to eyewitness accounts collected by The New York Times, Human Rights Watch, and others in Cox’s Bazar, villagers who fled to Bangladesh described the military’s use of small arms, mortars, and armed helicopters in the attacks. Rohingya refugees also said they witnessed children and elderly family members being thrown into burning homes and experienced or witnessed gang rapes of women by uniformed security forces. Some media reports and some NGOs stated that some of the serious allegations from Rohingya victims were not completely accurate and the result of collective trauma due to forced displacement. NGOs and media also reported on allegations of several mass casualty massacres in Tula Toli (aka Min Gyi), Inn Din, and other Rohingya villages across northern Rakhine State, with total deaths among them reported in the thousands. According to a report by NGOs Fortify Rights and the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, on August 27, in Chut Pyin Village, Rathedaung Township, soldiers shot rocket-propelled grenades to burn houses and opened fire on Rohingya individuals, while armed civilians slashed and stabbed Rohingya with knives and long swords.
According to NGO and media reports, victims reported that soldiers told some Rohingya Muslim villagers they needed to leave because they were Bengali or because Burma was not a place for Muslims. After some instances of abuse, including killings and physical abuse, soldiers reportedly mocked or denigrated villagers’ religious beliefs.
UN experts and other observers expressed serious concern regarding the role of religious intolerance in abuses against the Rohingya Muslim community and other minorities throughout Rakhine State. The military denied any discrimination on its part. Some Rakhine State leaders said they feared Rohingya would demographically overtake the Rakhine community in Rakhine State and would consequently take over the land of ethnic Rakhine. On September 1 in Nay Pyi Taw, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said insurgents used religion as a tool for violent attacks, and said the “Bengali problem” was a holdover from previous governments that the current government had to solve. Denying allegations of widespread rape, Colonel Phone Tint, the Rakhine State border security minister, stated, “look at those women who are making these claims – would anyone want to rape them?” In November the military replaced the army general responsible for Rakhine State, Major General Maung Maung Soe, for undisclosed reasons.
The UN, media, human rights groups, and Bangladesh border authorities reported security forces planted landmines along the border of Bangladesh in northern Rakhine State in September, with some saying the security forces planted the mines to prevent Rohingya refugees from returning. Sources said at least nine internally displaced persons (IDPs) died from wounds characteristic of landmine injuries while fleeing northern Rakhine State to Bangladesh.
On September 11, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said the situation in northern Rakhine State “appears to be a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” On December 5, the High Commissioner noted security forces had committed “acts of appalling barbarity … against the Rohingya, including deliberately burning people to death inside their homes, murders of children and adults; indiscriminate shooting of fleeing civilians; widespread rapes of women and girls, and the burning and destruction of houses, schools, markets and mosques;” and that “elements of genocide may be present.”
At the end of September a commissioner from the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission visited northern Rakhine State and declared security forces had not used disproportionate force or committed any human rights abuses.
According to news reports, some of the small number of Rohingya Hindus who fled to Bangladesh described witnessing killings and arson in their communities, like their Muslim neighbors.
Multiple government-led investigations into earlier reported abuses by security forces did not result in prosecutions or accountability. Following widespread disturbances in northern Rakhine State in October 2016 and reports of abuses by security forces, on February 16, the military declared an end to security operations there, stating that 106 individuals had died, including 76 “attackers,” and that security forces had detained over 600 individuals. On January 3, the government-led Investigation Commission on Maungdaw, headed by military-appointed Vice President Myint Swe, released an interim report stating there was “insufficient evidence to take legal action” regarding allegations of rape, and that the unrest was due to foreign-funded “extremists.” In February the UNOHCHR mission in Bangladesh released a report based on interviews with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh detailing widespread allegations of extrajudicial killings, rape, and other abuses occurring in 2016. In August the Investigation Commission on Maungdaw released its final report, informed by separate military and police investigations into 2016 abuses in northern Rakhine State. In the report, the government-led commission stated there was no credible basis for allegations of human rights abuses by security forces in northern Rakhine State during operations in October and November 2016. International experts pointed to serious flaws in the commission’s methodology, including interrupting alleged victims of abuses to assert that their testimony was false and then broadcasting the exchange on national television. At the end of September, a commissioner from the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission visited northern Rakhine State and declared security forces had not used disproportionate force or committed any other human rights abuses during their August 2017 clearance operations.
On August 25, the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, established by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in 2016 and led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, released its final report with recommendations. The report noted, “protracted statelessness and profound discrimination have made the Muslim community particularly vulnerable to human rights violations.” The commission’s recommendations included: accelerating the citizenship verification process for stateless individuals; ending restrictions on freedom of movement; ensuring minority representation in local governance; closing IDP camps; and ensuring the safe and voluntary return of IDPs to their homes. The government committed to implementing these recommendations but had not taken steps to do so by year’s end.
On December 24, 2016, the military detained two affiliates of the Kachin Baptist Convention, Dumdaw Nawng Latt and his nephew, Langjaw Gam Seng, in Mong Ko, in northern Shan State. Civil society groups said the military did not disclose until the end of January that they were holding the men. The two were detained after speaking to journalists about a church in Mong Ko allegedly damaged by the military. In January the military charged both men under the Unlawful Association Act for supporting the Kachin Independence Army and for having unlicensed motorbikes. In March the military announced an additional charge of defamation based on an interview the men gave to Voice of America saying the Burmese military bombed civilians during the 2016 conflict. A court convicted the two men on October 27. It sentenced Nawng Latt to four years and three months for criminal defamation and violating the Unlawful Association Act and the Export Import Act, and sentenced Gam Seng to two years, three months under the same latter two charges. The two had been in detention for 10 months at the time of convictions, which were deducted from their sentences.
International observers reported abuses by authorities during late 2016 operations and against alleged participants in those attacks in the year following. Police and security forces reportedly arrested and detained hundreds of Rohingya males at random following the October 2016 violence. Some of these individuals reportedly stood trial with hundreds of codefendants after being held in prison for over a year.
On May 24, President Htin Kyaw pardoned and the government released 259 prisoners, including Muslim interfaith activists Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt. The released also included seven of the 12 alleged Muslim Myanmar Army prisoners whom authorities had arrested in 2014 under the subsequently repealed Emergency Provisions Act; they had been accused of receiving training from an armed group, among other charges.
According to various religious organizations and NGOs, the process to register an NGO, including a religiously affiliated NGO, remained lengthy and, due largely to what they say is bureaucratic inefficiency in local governments, was often not completed. Organizations noted that lack of registration did not generally hinder the ability of groups and individuals to conduct religious activities, except in a few cases.
Fighting between the government and rebels that restarted in Kachin State in 2011 continued; and fighting in Shan State reportedly increased as new groupings of rebels confronted the army. According to UN figures, almost 100,000 civilians remained displaced by conflict in Kachin and northern Shan States, where there are many Christians and Buddhists as well as other religious groups.
There were reports of local authorities preventing Muslims from conducting prayer services at religious facilities in some villages. Rohingya in northern Rakhine were reportedly prohibited from gathering publicly in groups of more than five persons.
On December 9, local government authorities in Kan Thar Village Tract in Magwe Division, which has an ethnic Chin Christian population, issued a letter barring a planned pre-Christmas prayer in a private home from proceeding. The letter said Buddhist neighbors had suggested to the local government officials that the celebration could cause religious conflict.
The government relaxed its requirements to receive prior written authorization for public events, including religious ceremonies outside of houses of worship and festivals, although in practice religious organizations still operated under the former regulations. While the law, as amended in 2016, only requires written notification to the local government for public events, in practice many religious and civil society organizations stated they preferred to receive written authorization from ward, township, and other local authorities before holding events. There were reports that some religious and nonreligious events received written authorization with restrictive security regulations or other controls.
Several Christian theological seminaries and Bible schools continued to operate, along with several madrassahs.
The government continued to support financially Buddhist seminaries and Buddhist missionary activities. The government continued to fund two state sangha universities in Rangoon and Mandalay, respectively, which trained Buddhist monks under the purview of the SSMNC, as well as the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University in Rangoon.
Religious organizations said Buddhist groups generally did not experience difficulty obtaining permission to build new pagodas, monasteries, or community religious halls, in contrast with minority religious groups. According to religious organizations, the Ministry of Religious Affairs financially supported the SSMNC and religious ceremonies.
Some teachers at government schools reportedly continued to require students to recite Buddhist prayers, although such practices were no longer a mandated part of the curriculum. Many classrooms displayed Buddhist altars or other Buddhist iconography.
Due to movement restrictions, many Rohingya reportedly could not access education in state-run schools. Authorities did not permit Rohingya high school graduates from Rakhine State and others living in IDP camps to travel outside the state to attend college or university. Authorities continued to bar any university students who did not possess citizenship scrutiny cards from graduating, which disproportionately impacted students from religious minorities, particularly Muslim students. These students were permitted to attend classes and take examinations, but they could not receive diplomas unless they had a national identification card, the application for which required some religious minorities to identify as a “foreign” ethnic minority.
Faith communities throughout the country, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, all reported difficulties and delays that could last for years in getting permits to allow construction of new and rehabilitation of existing religious buildings. Buddhists, however, said getting such permission was harder for other groups. Religious groups said the multiple permissions required, unclear authority among government agencies, and interminable delays in responses to requests for permits led them to construct places of worship without the required permissions, leaving them vulnerable to future government action or to pressure by members of other religious groups. Others said it was necessary to bribe authorities to obtain permits.
In Mandalay, Christians said the local General Administrative Department (GAD), which has a significant role in issuing permits, required them to attest prayer activities would not take place in a requested new house of worship. Christians also said the local GAD office in July told them the permit process for new religious buildings was suspended due to May incidents in Rangoon related to “illegal mosques and prayer activities leading to social unrest.” A Hindu group seeking similar authorization in Mandalay said the GAD had not granted it by year’s end. In Meiktila in Mandalay Division, Muslims said authorities strictly prohibited cleaning, renovating, or entering eight mosques shut down after interreligious conflict in 2014; five others remained authorized. In Rangoon and Mandalay, Buddhist leaders said local GAD authorities denied some requests to build or renovate some monasteries, while other monasteries were shut down due to insufficient information provided to the GAD.
Christian communities in Chin and Kachin States reported that while applications to local authorities for property registration, construction, and renovation were not formally denied, the applications encountered delays spanning several years or were lost altogether. These included continued reports that local government officials delayed permits to restore crosses previously destroyed, or to renovate and build Christian churches in Chin State. Local authorities in Chin State also continued to delay applications from Christian groups and churches to buy land in the name of their religious organizations. Religious groups said individual members circumvented this requirement by purchasing land on behalf of the group, a practice the government tolerated.
Christian and Muslim groups seeking to build small places of worship on side streets or other inconspicuous locations continued to be able to do so only with informal approval from local authorities, according to religious groups.
Muslim groups reported official building requests encountered significant delays, and even when approved could subsequently be reversed. They also reported it remained extremely difficult to acquire permission to repair existing mosques, although authorities permitted internal maintenance in some cases. Historic mosques in Meiktila in Mandalay Division, Mawlamyine in Mon State, and Sittwe in Rakhine State, as well as in Rangoon and other areas continued to deteriorate because authorities did not allow routine maintenance.
Rohingya remained unable to obtain employment in any civil service positions. A 2005 local order in Maungdaw Township in northern Rakhine State requires residents, predominately Rohingya, to obtain local authorization to marry. In addition, some Rohingya sources expressed concern about the two-child policy for Rohingya families, referring to a 2005 local order promulgated in northern Rakhine State and sporadically enforced.
On September 18, local government authorities in Hpa-An Township in Karen State issued a letter requiring Muslims from Hpa-An to inform and receive authorization from local administrators to travel. Enforcement of the order reportedly was haphazard, however, and the chief minister of Karen State later rescinded it. In September airport officials at Thandwe Airport in southern Rakhine State requested some organizations traveling to Ngapali Beach to identify Muslim travelers and note where they would be staying.
In November Amnesty International released a two-year study on conditions in Rohingya IDP camps in place since intercommunal violence in 2012. The report noted that the camps segregate Rohingya men and women in what some called an “open air prison,” with little access to food and basic services and increasing restrictions on their freedom of movement.
In Rakhine State, the government and security forces imposed restrictions on the movement of various ethnic groups, particularly members of the nearly all Muslim Rohingya community and including IDPs, both before and after the violence beginning in August. According to NGOs and the Annan report, such restrictions seriously impeded the ability of Rohingya to pursue livelihoods, gain access to markets and other basic services, and engage other communities. According to civil society groups, government officials denied the Rohingya normal access to basic services, including hospitals, which Rohingya could only access through an arduous and unclear approval process. Additionally, as the vast majority of the restricted groups in the area were Muslim, individuals stereotyped by security forces as appearing to be Muslim received additional scrutiny on movements in the region, regardless of their actual religion.
Restrictions governing the travel of persons whom the government considers as foreigners, including both Muslim and Hindu Rohingya, and others between townships in northern Rakhine State, varied depending on the township, usually requiring submission of an immigration form. The 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, temporary registration card, and two guarantors. The form authorized travel for 14 days. Authorities granted Muslims located outside of Rakhine State more freedom to travel, but they still faced restrictions on travel into and out of Rakhine State.
Muslim community representatives reported that in some cases Muslim-owned businesses encountered significant delays to procure government contracts without a Buddhist “front” person. Media and religious sources said local authorities in some villages restricted the licensing and butchering of cattle by slaughterhouses, the vast majority owned by Muslims, which negatively affected business operations and the ability of Muslim communities to celebrate Islamic holidays.
Nearly all senior officials within the military and civil service remained Buddhist, in spite of military and civil service outreach to various ethnic groups, including by inviting various ethnic groups to attend the Defense Services Academy. Applications for civil service and military positions required the applicant to list his or her religion.
Authorities required citizens and permanent residents to carry government-issued identification cards that permitted holders to access services and prove citizenship. These identification cards often indicated religious affiliation and ethnicity, but there appeared to be no consistent criteria governing whether a person’s religion was indicated on the card. The government also required citizens to indicate their religion on certain official applications for documents such as passports, although passports themselves do not indicate the bearer’s religion. Members of religious minorities, particularly Muslims, faced problems obtaining identification and citizenship cards. Some Muslims reported that they were required to indicate a “foreign” ethnicity if they self-identified as Muslim on applications for citizenship cards.
According to the Annan commission, “Muslims in Rakhine constitute the single biggest stateless community in the world. …Efforts by the government to verify citizenship claims have failed to win the confidence of either Muslim or Rakhine communities.” The government continued to call for Rohingya to participate in the government’s citizenship verification process and to apply for National Verification Cards (NVCs), but Rohingya communities objected to the exercise, citing a lack of requisite change in their rights after obtaining the NVCs and a general distrust towards the government. In September and October, the government reported issuing more than 2,600 NVCs (the first step in the citizenship verification process) to Rohingya in Maungdaw Township, and, as of the end of the year, a small number of Rohingya had gained either full or naturalized citizenship. Recipients of naturalized citizenship were ineligible to participate in some political activities and professions, although all citizens had the right to vote. The national government no longer required participants to identify as “Bengali” to receive NVCs and did not include race or religion on the document, but local implementers reportedly made applicants identify as “Bengali,” and all were required to identify as “Bengali” on their ensuing citizenship card. In October the government reportedly attempted to force Rohingya in Sittwe to apply for NVCs by making renewal of fishing licenses contingent on applying and by refusing to release Rohingya prisoners from Sittwe prison until they applied. According to a news report, Rohingya Hindus had accepted documents that recognized them as naturalized citizens.
According to a Refugees International report published in December, “decreased international aid, decreased accessibility due to government policies, and waning global attention are creating a desperate and unsustainable situation for the displaced people” in northern Burma – in particular, an estimated 100,000 displaced persons still living in camps in Kachin State, mostly Christian with some Buddhists also impacted, and northern Shan State, mostly Buddhist. According to the report, nearly half of this displaced population lived in areas controlled by ethnic armed groups to which the government blocked nearly all access by the UN and other international groups.
On April 28, authorities sealed off two madrassahs in Thaketa Township near downtown Rangoon in response to protests by a group of 50 to 100 Buddhist nationalists, who believed that the schools were unlawfully operating as mosques. According to local residents and media, Buddhist nationalists and police locked the buildings and barricaded the entrances. Several weeks later, when Muslim leaders arranged a large community prayer on a nearby street, authorities reportedly banned the event and threatened participants with jail. Police charged the Muslim community member who led the prayers, Moe Zaw, and two other community members with failure to obtain a permit to organize prayers, punishable by a fine or up to six months in prison. The two madrassahs remained closed as of year’s end. Several hundred students had attended the madrasahs’ primary schools prior to their closure.
On June 1, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture ordered the closure of Mya Taung Saung Monastic Education School in the town of Mrauk-U in Rakhine State after the military charged the head Buddhist monk at the school with having connections to the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed group deemed an illegal association by the government. The monk reportedly held a soccer match on school grounds on April 8 to celebrate the eighth anniversary of the Arakan Army. The Burmese military based in Mrauk-U found out about the match and filed charges against the monk and Khine Min Ni, another organizer of the match. The school reportedly later received a letter from the ministry removing authorization for the school to operate. According to officials, the monastic school had approximately 180 students, of which 50 lived on the school grounds.
Second Vice President Henry Van Thio, a Chin Christian, continued to serve in his position. There were no Muslim members of parliament. While some political parties fielded religious minority candidates in the 2015 elections and 2017 by-elections, including Muslims, the vast majority of parliamentarians were Buddhist. High-profile Buddhist monks remained informally involved in controversial political issues.
State-controlled media frequently depicted government officials and family members paying respect to Buddhist monks; offering donations at pagodas; officiating at ceremonies to open, improve, restore, or maintain pagodas; and organizing “people’s donations” of money, food, and uncompensated labor to build or refurbish Buddhist shrines nationwide. The government published and distributed books on Buddhist religious instruction.
The government officially recognized a number of interfaith groups, including the Interfaith Dialogue Group of Myanmar, which organized monthly meetings and sponsored several religious activities promoting peace and religious tolerance around the country throughout the year. The group’s leadership included Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and Hindu leaders as well as from other religious groups. The government also organized interfaith prayer meetings across the country in October.
The government generally permitted foreign religious groups to operate. Local religious organizations were also able to send official invitations for visa purposes to clergy from faith-based groups overseas, and foreign religious visitors acquired either a tourist or business visa for entry. Authorities generally permitted Rangoon-based groups to host international students and experts.
The government facilitated the visit of Pope Francis to Rangoon and Nay Pyi Taw November 28 to 30. The pope’s visit, the first by any pope, included meetings with government leaders, religious leaders, and a public Mass attended by approximately 150,000 participants from various religious faiths.