On November 11, The Gambia filed a case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) alleging that Burma’s actions against the Rohingya violated the country’s obligations as a signatory to the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi represented Burma at the ICJ in the preliminary hearings on December 10-12. Following characterization of the military’s actions as a “clearance operation” and claims that hundreds of ARSA members were killed, Aung San Suu Kyi stated, “It cannot be ruled out that disproportionate force was used…” [or that] “they did not distinguish clearly enough between ARSA fighters and civilians.” She also stated, “Genocidal intent cannot be the only hypothesis.” The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) supported her appearance with a series of public demonstrations and prominent billboards in Yangon and elsewhere. One of the billboards, which was later removed, featured Aung San Suu Kyi in front of three leading generals above the caption, “We stand with you.”
On November 14, the ICC approved a request from prosecutors to open an investigation of allegations of certain crimes committed against the Rohingya minority in Burma, according to a statement from the ICC. Although the country is not a party to the ICC, the court said it had jurisdiction over crimes if elements of the crime were committed in Bangladesh, which is a State Party, and where most displaced Rohingya fled.
Investigations of ethnic cleansing in northern Rakhine State released during the year, including the UN Fact-Finding Mission’s detailed findings released on September 16, corroborated earlier accounts of systematic abuses and a campaign against Rohingya civilians that involved extrajudicial killings, rape, and torture. The UN Fact-Finding Mission, established by the UN Human Rights Council in 2017 with a mandate ending in September, stated in its report that “the situation of the Rohingya in Rakhine State has remained largely unchanged since last year,” and, “The laws, policies, and practices that formed the basis of the government’s persecution against the Rohingya have been maintained.” The report described atrocities committed by the military in Rakhine, Kachin, Chin and Shan States, as well as other areas, stating further investigations had strengthened its findings that the circumstances and context of the “clearance operations” against the Rohingya, beginning on August 25, 2017, gave rise to an inference of genocidal intent and that those attacks were preplanned and reflected a well-developed and state-endorsed policy aimed at the Rohingya. The government denied the Fact-Finding Mission permission to enter the country and publicly disavowed the report. The report also found military actions in both Kachin (mostly Christian) and Shan States (mostly Buddhist) since 2011 included war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The Independent Commission of Enquiry established by the government in 2018 to investigate the 2017 violence in Rakhine State did not release any findings by year’s end. According to international and domestic human rights activists, previous government-led investigations of reports of widespread abuses by security services against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine State in 2016 yielded no findings of responsibility by security forces and were criticized by international observers as deeply flawed.
On May 7, the government granted presidential amnesty and freed two Reuters reporters detained by the government in December 2017 and sentenced in September 2018 to seven years in prison under the Official Secrets Act related to their investigation of security forces’ alleged massacre of 10 Rohingya men and boys in Inn Din, located in northern Rakhine State. According to a Reuters report released in May, the soldiers sentenced in 2018 to 10 years in prison for the killings in Inn Din village were freed in November 2018, the only individuals to have been convicted for the 2017 mass atrocities against Rohingya in Rakhine State.
UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee told the Human Rights Council in September, “[Rohingya] are denied citizenship and recognition, face regular violence (including in the context of the ongoing conflict between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw), [and] are unable to move freely and have little access to food, healthcare, education, livelihoods and services.”
According to UNHCR, an additional 1,132 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh between January and September, compared with 13,764 during the same period in 2018. The government prepared facilities to begin receiving approximately 3,450 of the 700,000 Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh in 2017. In August, amid a second attempt by the governments of Burma and Bangladesh to initiate returns, Rohingya refused to return, often saying they would be subject to human rights abuses if they returned without a guarantee of citizenship. Bangladesh authorities said they would not force them to go back, and no one chose to return.
Several NGOs reported approximately 120,000 Rohingya remained confined to camps within the country since an earlier round of violence in 2012. 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 reside.
In September police arrested 30 Rohingya men, women, and children attempting to travel from Rakhine to Yangon. According to media reports, 21 of the individuals faced up to two years in jail under legislation that stipulates that citizens must be in possession of registration cards to prove their identity. Authorities told Radio Free Asia the Rohingya were fleeing villages in Rakhine State, where rights activists reported violence and ethnic cleansing.
In September the military dropped a criminal complaint it had filed in August against Reverend Hkalam Samson of the Kachin Baptist Convention for comments he made to the U.S. President during a July 17 meeting at the White House in Washington. In those remarks, Samson praised U.S. visa restrictions imposed in July and said Christians in Myanmar have been “oppressed and tortured.”
In May the government issued an arrest warrant for sedition for self-defined nationalist Wirathu, a monk and chairperson of the Ma Ba Tha branch in Mandalay, for criticism of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. The charge carried a potential prison sentence of three years. At year’s end, Wirathu remained at large.
The Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) reported in May that local officials in Ann Township in southern Rakhine State forced three ethnic Chin Christians, including a pastor, to convert to Buddhism or face expulsion from the village and a fine of 100,000 kyat ($68) for Christian activities. Some local Christians were verbally harassed and physically assaulted by local authorities because of their faith and moved to nearby villages, according to the CHRO.
The government continued to tightly restrict outside access, including UN and NGO humanitarian aid and media, to northern Rakhine State, northern Shan, and Kachin States during the year. According to the Danish Refugee Council, the government’s travel authorization process for aid groups in the country effectively acted as a restriction on aid and humanitarian access to displaced populations in violation of international humanitarian law. During the year, the Red Cross Movement and World Food Program maintained generally predictable access to meet life-saving emergency needs. The government threatened to prosecute officials from the Kachin Baptist Convention for visiting camps near China controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) to provide relief supplies, according to La Croix International.
Multiple sources stated authorities continued to single out Rohingya in northern Rakhine State to perform forced labor, including requiring them transport soldiers, weapons and ammunition, and food supplies, and arbitrarily arrested them and imposed restrictions impeding their ability construct houses or religious buildings.
Authorities in northern Rakhine reportedly continued to prohibit Rohingya from gathering publicly in groups of more than five persons. Rohingya refugees reported that exceptions to the five-person regulation applied only to marketplaces and schools.
Fighting between the government and ethnic armed groups that restarted in Kachin and northern Shan States in 2011 continued. The UN estimated that 107,000 persons remained displaced by conflict in Kachin and northern Shan States, where many Christians and individuals from other religious groups live. Christians in Kachin State, according to media and NGO reports, stated the military was carrying out a campaign to eliminate them similar to the situation in Rakhine State. It was often difficult to categorize specific incidents as based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity.
The KIO stated the military destroyed or damaged more than 400 villages, 300 churches, and 100 schools in Kachin State since 2011. According to the United Nations, 100,000 persons remained displaced in Kachin State. According to NGOs, both the government and nationalist monks used their influence and resources to build Buddhist infrastructure in majority Christian areas, including in Kachin and Chin, against the wishes of the local population. Minority religious communities said they perceived these efforts to be part of a process of “Burmanization.”
According to a CHRO September report, authorities continued “openly practicing discriminatory policies against religious minorities in Burma.” The report said that Christians in Chin State and Sagaing Region faced destruction of homes and places of worship, suffered physical violence, and were prevented from legally owning land and constructing religious buildings. The CHRO report also said there were cases where police failed to investigate or hold perpetrators to account.
In Rakhine State, according to the United Nations and media reports, the government and security forces continued to restrict the movement of members of various ethnic and religious groups, particularly Rohingya. Restrictions governing the travel of persons whom the government considers foreigners, including both Muslim and Hindu Rohingya, some other Hindus living in Rakhine State, 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 of origin’s Immigration and National Registration Department and only if that person provided an original copy of a family list, temporary registration card, and letters from two guarantors. The form typically authorized travel for two to four weeks, but was given almost exclusively for medical emergencies, according to human rights activists. Muslims throughout the country still faced restrictions on travel into and out of Rakhine State, and reportedly feared authorities would not allow them to leave Rakhine if they were to visit the state.
According to NGOs, such restrictions continued to impede the ability of Rohingya to pursue livelihoods and education, access markets, hospitals, and other services, and engage other communities. Sources stated that individuals stereotyped by security forces as appearing to be Muslim continued to receive additional scrutiny on movements in the region, regardless of their actual religion; obtaining these travel permits often involved extortion and bribes.
According to various religious organizations and NGOs, the process to register an NGO, whether religious in nature or not, remained lengthy and often went uncompleted due largely to bureaucratic inefficiency in local governments. 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, although being unregistered left organizations vulnerable to harassment or closure by the government.
According to Amnesty International, the military took positions within ancient temple complexes of Mrauk-U and fired “recklessly” in the area. Satellite imagery confirmed the presence of artillery close to the temples, and photographs showed destruction of temple sites. It was unclear who was responsible for the attacks. According to the director of Sittwe’s Department of Cultural Affairs, the department repaired historic sites damaged by conflicts, including those in Mrauk-U.
Religious groups throughout the country, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and especially Muslims, continued to report difficulties and delays that could last for years in getting permits to allow construction of and repairs to religious buildings. Buddhists leaders said obtaining such permission was more difficult for non-Buddhist groups. Religious groups said the need for multiple permissions, 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 areas with few or no mosques, Muslims often conducted prayer services and other religious practices, such as teaching, in private homes. The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture continued to restrict non-Buddhist religious teachings to government-approved religious buildings and prohibited prayer services and religious teaching in private homes. Reportedly, the ministry no longer required that teaching materials, including Islamic materials printed in Arabic, be in the Burmese language and submitted to the ministry in advance.
In September Muslim leaders formed a committee to press the government to reopen shuttered mosques across the country, most of which were closed by the government in the wake of 2012 communal Buddhist-Muslim violence in Rakhine State. The committee maintained a list of more than 40 shuttered mosques across the country. A list from the General Administration Department reported there were more than 800 mosques in northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw Township, more than 400 in Buthidaung Township, and 10 in Rathedaung Township of northern Rakhine State. It was unknown how many of them had been shut down or destroyed. Twelve mosques and religious schools remained closed in Ayeyarwady, Mandalay, and Sagaing Regions, as well as in Shan State during the year, according to the Burman Human Rights Network (BHRN). A 2017 ban on prayers in eight Islamic schools in Thaketa Township in Yangon Region and the closure of two remained in force. Thirty-two mosques and religious schools in Yangon and Mandalay Regions remained closed. Human rights and Muslim groups reported that historic mosques in Meiktila in Mandalay Region, Hpa-An in Karen State, and other areas continued to deteriorate in part because authorities denied permits to perform routine maintenance. In September two mosques in Chauk Township, Magway Region, reopened 10 years after closing following violent clashes between Buddhist and Muslim communities in 2009.
Muslims in Mandalay Region reported continued obstacles to rebuilding mosques after anti-Muslim violence in 2014 but noted some openness among local and regional authorities to reopening mosques in less visible areas. Authorities ordered mosques shut down after the 2013 anti-Muslim riots in Meiktila, and they remained closed, in addition to mosques in Bago and Mandalay Regions. Some Hindu leaders also reported authorities limiting access to religious sites.
According to a CHRO September report, Christian communities in Chin State were still unable to own land registered for religious purposes; instead they used private or individual names to register the land and build houses of worship. A local official said high-ranking government officials in Chin State chose to conduct official visits on Sundays to disrupt church services.
A Chin-based NGO reported local authorities in Chin State and Sagaing Region continued to delay applications from Christian groups and churches to buy land in the name of their religious organizations. Religious groups said individual members continued to circumvent this requirement by purchasing land in their own names on behalf of the group, a practice the government tolerated.
In January, according to the CHRO, the General Administration Department from Mindat, Chin State, ordered organizers of religious events and activities involving domestic and international NGOs, such as workshops, meetings and training sessions, to seek permission at least two weeks in advance from the Chin State government in Hakha. 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 approval from local authorities, according to religious groups.
Sources said the government continued to increase restrictions on both secular and religious civil society organizations holding public events in hotels and other venues, imposing new requirements for advance notice of events and participants, and civil society organizations sometimes turned to churches and other religious institutions in light of restrictions on the use of other venues. Many religious and civil society organizations said they preferred to receive written authorization from ward, township, and other local authorities before holding events to avoid last-minute cancellations.
The government continued to financially support Buddhist seminaries and Buddhist missionary activities. The government continued to fund two state sangha universities in Yangon and Mandalay that trained Buddhist monks under the purview of the SSMNC, as well as the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University in Yangon. According to religious organizations, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture financially supported the SSMNC and religious ceremonies.
Teachers at many government schools reportedly continued to require students to recite Buddhist prayers. Many classrooms displayed Buddhist altars or other Buddhist iconography. According to the Chin State Academic Research Network and the NGO Fortify Rights, Christian students were required to convert to Buddhism to access so-called “Na Ta La” schools in Chin State, which were better funded than public schools. The CHRO described Na Ta La schools as a “state-sponsored religious and cultural assimilation program.” The national elementary school curriculum included lessons and textbooks containing “discriminatory and incendiary material,” according to UN and NGO reports. In her March report, the UN Special Rapporteur noted a specific lesson, “We loathe those of mixed blood, for they prohibit the progression of a race.” After more than 100 civil society groups objected to the lesson, the Ministry of Education ordered its removal, according to a report in The Irrawaddy.
Several Christian theological seminaries and Bible schools continued to operate, along with several Muslim madrassahs, in Yangon, Sagaing, and elsewhere.
Due to movement restrictions, many Rohingya could not access education in state-run schools. Rohingya and Kaman children in central Rakhine had physical access to only one high school in Thet Kae Pyin, Sittwe Township, according to international observers. Authorities generally did not permit Rohingya high school graduates from Rakhine State and others living in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps to travel outside the state to attend college or university. Authorities continued to bar any university students who did not possess citizenship cards from graduating, which disproportionately affected students from religious minorities, particularly Muslim students. These students could attend classes and take examinations but could not receive diplomas unless they had a citizenship card, the application for which required some religious minorities to identify as a “foreign” ethnic minority.
A human rights organization again reported that schools sometimes submitted citizenship applications on behalf of non-Muslim students while denying the same privilege to Muslim students. Muslim students, after submitting the applications, sometimes had to pay bribes to immigration officials to obtain documentation. According to BHRN, instructors reportedly made anti-Muslim comments in university classrooms, and Muslim students typically were not permitted to join institutes for professional studies. One human rights group documented the teaching of racist and anti-Muslim tenets in schools throughout the country.
According to a United Nations report, the government continued to prevent Rohingya and other Muslims from holding congregational prayers on Friday or during religious festivities. Rohingya refugees reported having been unable to freely celebrate Eid al-Fitr or other religious holidays for the past six years.
According to media reports, Yangon authorities denied Muslims permission to open mosques during Ramadan. In May local officials approved applications to open three temporary Ramadan prayer sites in South Dagon Township, Yangon, but an armed group, including Buddhist monks led by Michael Kyaw Myint and Thiha Myo Naing, arrived at the sites, and the group’s leader threatened to demolish them. Reportedly intimidated by the crowd, the township government canceled prayers and required Muslims to obtain permits from additional departments. The next morning, U Seintita, a pro-tolerance Buddhist monk from Pyin Oo Lwin who was visiting Yangon, handed out white roses to Muslims after prayers, sparking an eponymous movement that spread nationwide. In the face of rising public pressure, the township government reopened the prayer sites. Wunna Shwe, joint secretary of the Islamic Religious Affairs Council Myanmar, said the White Rose campaign was a glimmer of hope amid rising anti-Muslim sentiment. In September Michael Kyaw Myint and Thiha Myo Naing, were sentenced to one year in prison for causing “fear or alarm” to the public under the penal code.
Muslims said government authorities granted limited permission to slaughter cows during Eid al-Adha, consistent with prior years. Media and religious sources said local authorities in some villages restricted the licensing of and butchering of cattle by slaughterhouses, the vast majority owned by Muslims. These restrictions negatively affected business operations and the ability of Muslim communities to celebrate Islamic holidays.
Sources continued to state that authorities generally did not enforce four laws passed in 2015 for the “protection of race and religion.”
The Yangon Region military commander publicly donated 30 million kyat ($20,300) to the Ma Ba Tha in June. A military spokesman later said the donation was “necessary for our religion.” The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture issued a statement that denounced the donation as contravening the SSMNC ban on the Ma Ba Tha.
The military charged prominent monk Myawaddy Sayadaw with defaming the military for his public criticism of its donation to Ma Ba Tha. He stated that Ma Ba Tha broke religious rules by taking money from the military; he said the military was blocking democratic reforms and was full of “thieves.” The case was ongoing at year’s end.
A 2005 local order in Maungdaw Township in northern Rakhine State continued in effect, requiring 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.
According to civil society activists, Rohingya remained unable to obtain employment in any civil service positions.
Buddhists continued to make up nearly all senior officials within the military and civil service. Applications for civil service and military positions required the applicant to list his or her religion. According to one human rights organization, applications by Muslims for government jobs were largely rejected.
Buddhists continued to make up the vast majority of parliamentarians. There were no Muslim members of parliament, and neither the ruling NLD nor the main opposition party ran any Muslim candidates during nationwide elections in 2015 or by-elections in 2017 and 2018. Second Vice President Henry Van Thio, a Chin Christian, continued to serve in his position, and the speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament were Christian.
Authorities required citizens and permanent residents to carry government-issued identification cards that permitted holders to access services and prove citizenship. These identification cards usually indicated religious affiliation and ethnicity. 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.
In May the Foundation for Education Development in Thailand reported Burmese migrant workers who are not members of Burma’s officially recognized indigenous groups – including Muslims – continued to be subjected to a troublesome verification processes, hampering their efforts to obtain the necessary official documents. BHRN published a case study of Muslim migrant workers in Thailand who applied to Burmese immigration officials for a formal verification of their nationality, known as a Certificate of Identity (CI). Respondents consistently reported that they had to provide more documentation than non-Muslims, or that authorities said, “We are not giving CIs to Muslims.” BHRN’s case study found that twice as many Muslims were rejected as were accepted and news reports indicated the issue continued through year’s end.
The government continued to call for Rohingya to participate in the government’s citizenship verification process and to apply for National Verification Cards (NVCs). The government said these cards were necessary to apply for citizenship under the 1982 citizenship law. NGOs reported that Rohingya were pressured or coerced to accept NVCs. There were reports that government officials required Rohingya to have an NVC to fish or access banking services. Many Rohingya expressed distrust of the process; they said they were already citizens and that they feared the government would either not affirm their citizenship or would grant naturalized rather than full citizenship, which carried fewer rights. Some townships in Rakhine State continued to require Rohingya to identify as “Bengali” to apply for NVCs and listed “Bengali” as their race on their citizenship scrutiny card. At least one NGO stated that NVCs were a method used by authorities to diminish the citizenship standing and future rights of Rohingya by indicating they are foreigners. The few Rohingya who received citizenship through this process said they did not receive significant rights or benefits and consideration of their citizenship applications usually required significant bribes at different levels of government.
State-controlled media continued to frequently depict military and government officials and their 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.
Hate speech against Muslims continued to be widespread on social media. On August 22, Facebook removed 89 Facebook accounts, 107 pages, and 15 groups, as well as five Instagram accounts, for “engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior.” An investigation found that some of this activity was linked to individuals associated with the military.
Sources stated that government officials circulated or advanced rumors and false information concerning Rohingya and other Muslims, including claims of a demographic takeover of Rakhine State by Muslims. According to media reports, the military conducted a coordinated effort to spread anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya sentiment through dummy Facebook accounts and other social media.
In August and September the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing, made several well-publicized visits to Muslim, Christian, and Hindu – as well as Buddhist – houses of worship in Nay Pyi Taw, Mandalay, and Yangon. He also made donations of cash and food. A military spokesperson characterized the visits as a gesture at “political, social, and religious unity.” Some observers said Min Aung Hlaing’s visits were likely to advance his political ambitions.
The government hosted conferences and attended events with a number of interfaith groups, including Religions for Peace, to promote reconciliation, peace, and development through national initiatives and locally in its interfaith councils, the Interfaith Youth Network, and Women of Faith Network. The group’s leadership included Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and Hindu leaders.
In May State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the president, and other senior government officials participated in a conference organized by Religions for Peace. During the event, Suu Kyi urged respect for the country’s different faiths.
According to NGOs, the government generally permitted foreign religious groups to operate in a manner similar to nonreligious foreign aid groups. 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 Yangon-based groups to host international students and experts.