Map of Northern Arakan State
In June 2012, deadly sectarian violence erupted in western Burma’s Arakan State between ethnic Arakan Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims (as well as non-Rohingya Muslims). The violence broke out after reports circulated that on May 28 an Arakan woman was raped and killed in the town of Ramri allegedly by three Muslim men. Details of the crime were circulated locally in an incendiary pamphlet, and on June 3, a large group of Arakan villagers in Toungop stopped a bus and brutally killed 10 Muslims on board. Human Rights Watch confirmed that local police and soldiers stood by and watched the killings without intervening.
On June 8, thousands of Rohingya rioted in Maungdaw town after Friday prayers, destroying Arakan property and killing an unknown number of Arakan residents. Sectarian violence then quickly swept through the Arakan State capital, Sittwe, and surrounding areas.
Mobs from both communities soon stormed unsuspecting villages and neighborhoods, killing residents and destroying homes, shops, and houses of worship. With little to no government security present to stop the violence, people armed themselves with swords, spears, sticks, iron rods, knives, and other basic weapons, taking the law into their own hands. Vast stretches of property from both communities were razed. The government claimed that 78 people were killed—an undoubtedly conservative figure—while more than 100,000 people were displaced from their homes. The hostilities were fanned by inflammatory anti-Muslim media accounts and local propaganda.
During the period after the rape and killing was reported and before the violence broke out, tensions had risen dramatically in Arakan State. However, local residents from each community told Human Rights Watch that the Burmese authorities provided no protection and did not appear to have taken any special measures to preempt the violence.
On June 10, fearing the unrest would spread beyond the borders of Arakan State, Burmese President Thein Sein announced a state of emergency, transferring civilian power to the Burmese army in affected areas of the state. At this point, a wave of concerted violence by various state security forces against Rohingya communities began. For example, Rohingya in Narzi quarter—the largest Muslim area in Sittwe, home to 10,000 Muslims—described how Arakan mobs burned down their homes on June 12 while the police and paramilitary Lon Thein forces opened fire on them with live ammunition. In northern Arakan State, the Nasaka border guard force, the army, police, and Lon Thein committed killings, mass arrests, and looting against Rohingya.
In the aftermath, local Arakan leaders and members of the Arakan community in Sittwe have called for the forced displacement of the Muslim community from the city, while local Buddhist monks have initiated a campaign of exclusion, calling on the local Buddhist population to neither befriend nor do business with Muslims.
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Drawing on 57 interviews conducted in Burma and Bangladesh with Arakan, Rohingya, and others, this report describes the initial events, the acts of violence that followed by both Arakan and Rohingya, and the role of state security forces in both failing to intervene to stop sectarian violence and directly participating in abuses. It examines the discriminatory forced relocations of Rohingya by the Burmese government from an Arakan population that feels long ignored.
Witness after witness described to Human Rights Watch how the Burmese authorities failed to provide protection to either side in the early days of the violence and that Arakan and local security forces colluded in acts of arson and violence against Rohingya in Sittwe and in the predominantly Muslim townships of northern Arakan State.
A 31-year-old Arakan mother of five told Human Rights Watch how a large group of Rohingya entered her village outside Sittwe around June 12 and killed her husband. She said the government had provided no security. “They killed him right there in the village,” she said. “His arm was cut off and his head was nearly cut off. He was 35 years old.” A 40-year-old Arakan man in Sittwe said, “The government didn’t help us. We had no food, no shelter, and no security [when we fled], but we protected ourselves using sticks and knives.”
A Rohingya man, 36, in Sittwe, described how the security forces took part in the violence: “[An Arakan mob] started torching the houses. When the people tried to put out the fires, the paramilitary shot at us. And the group beat people with big sticks.” A Rohingya man from Narzi said, “I was just a few feet away. I was on the road. I saw them [the police] shoot at least six people—one woman, two children, and three men. The police took their bodies away.”
Local residents said that soon after the sectarian violence began, state security forces conducted systematic and abusive sweeps in the predominantly Muslim townships of northern Arakan State, claiming to be looking for suspected Rohingya rioters. Between June 12-24, these forces entered villages around Maungdaw Township, opened fire on Rohingya, looted properties, and rounded up men and boys, taking them to unknown locations where most have since been held incommunicado. Family members of those arrested told Human Rights Watch that they had not heard from their relatives since the security forces boarded them onto trucks and took them away.
A 22-year-old Rohingya man who fled from security forces that entered his village of Kampu on June 26 told Human Rights Watch: “We were running out of the village and wading through the water on the street [from monsoon rains] and they shot at us in the street. I saw 17 people shot and 9 of them were boys and young men. Police from Maungdaw, Lon Thein, and Nasaka were all involved in the sweep.... The bodies were lying on the street, I don’t know what happened to them because I ran away to avoid arrest. The sound of bullet fire was continuous.”
The sectarian violence and abuses that have followed have created urgent humanitarian needs for both Arakan and Rohingya communities. The humanitarian response to the crisis has been severely hampered by restricted access to the affected areas, particularly to northern Arakan State. UN and independent humanitarian agencies and their local staff have been subjected to arrests, threats, and intimidation. At the time of greatest need, their work has been brought almost to a standstill.
Local organizations have provided food, clothing, medicine, and shelter to displaced Arakan populations, largely supported by domestic contributions, but Rohingya populations have been less fortunate. Human Rights Watch spoke to Rohingya in Sittwe who had been living in hiding for several weeks, fearing they would face imminent attack from local Arakan if they ventured out in public. Their access to markets, food, and work remain limited because of the dangers of venturing into public spaces.
Other Rohingya have been living in makeshift camps overseen by the army, in the jungle, or surviving in home-stay situations, seeking shelter in some of the last standing Muslim neighborhoods in Sittwe. Their local movements are restricted by the Burmese army, ostensibly for their own protection, but many still lack adequate aid and the physical conditions of the internally displaced person (IDP) settlements are degenerating under the strain of overcrowding and monsoon rains.
Some Rohingya in displacement camps told Human Rights Watch that some Burmese soldiers had shown great compassion and gone to the market on their behalf to purchase rice and other necessities, but that their willingness to do so has since stopped. The soldiers’ refusal to informally help Rohingya buy food correlates with a local campaign by Arakan Buddhist monks—the most revered members of local Arakan society—who have distributed pamphlets advocating for separation of the communities and imploring the Arakan people to exclude Muslims in every way. “They are eating our rice and staying near our houses,” the author of one pamphlet told Human Rights Watch. “So we will separate. We need to protect the Arakan people.... We don’t want any connection to the Muslim people at all.”
In late June, the national government authorized an inter-agency emergency rapid assessment by the UN and international relief agencies, which enabled the agencies to understand the scope of the immediate needs. However, the agencies have been unable to assess the situation in some parts of northern Arakan State. Humanitarian access has been limited by both the Burmese government and resentful local Arakan populations who claim the agencies have focused primarily on Rohingya populations over the years while neglecting the plight of the Arakan.
While all security forces operating in Arakan State have been implicated in serious human rights violations, the army at times has taken positive action. In the early days of the violence, the army’s presence in Sittwe had a calming effect and was welcomed by both communities. Human Rights Watch observed Burmese army units in Sittwe playing a constructive role in stemming violence in late June by guarding groups of displaced Rohingya and making public calls for residents to disarm. Human Rights Watch also witnessed the army escorting Rohingya through the state capital in late June to collect personal belongings from their homes and market stalls in the city before returning to displaced person sites, though we were unable to determine whether this was done as part of normal duties or for payment.
At the same time, the army has collaborated with other elements of the security forces in abusive sweeps across northern Arakan State. According to a 27-year-old Rohingya man who fled Maungdaw township, “The military came and spoke to the chairman of the village and told him to give them the names of the people who took part in the violence. They went house-to-house, door-to-door, taking people. Those on the list … no one knows where they are, and those not on the lists can be set free if they pay money.”
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The Rohingya and Arakan populations in Burma, estimated to total 800,000 to 1,000,000 people, have often clashed in daily life and long expressed mutual animosity. Successive Burmese governments have discriminated against the Rohingya, who they assert are foreigners with no right to live in Burma, a view shared by much of the Arakan population. This has been state policy since 1982, when a citizenship law passed by the then-military government excluded the Rohingya from Burmese citizenship, effectively rendering them stateless.
The Rohingya’s lack of legal status has contributed to tensions in Arakan State. By law, full citizens are persons who belong to one of the enumerated “national races,” which does not include the Rohingya, or those whose ancestors settled in the country before 1823, the beginning of British occupation of what is now Arakan State. Those who cannot provide “conclusive evidence” that their ancestors settled in Burma before 1823, are denied full citizenship and attendant rights. Rohingya face restrictions on freedom of movement, access to education, and employment— rights guaranteed to non-citizens as well as citizens under international law. Thousands of dispossessed Rohingya would likely face serious hunger and possibly starvation annually without interventions by the United Nations World Food Program.
Anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim sentiments, long a part of the political and social landscape of Burma, have become rampant since the outbreak of violence in June.
Burmese government officials typically refer to the Rohingya as “Bengali,” “so-called Rohingya,” or the pejorative “Kalar,” which has a variety of disturbing translations. The Rohingya face widespread animosity from broader Burmese society, including from longtime pro-democracy advocates and members of ethnic nationalities who themselves have long faced oppression from the Burmese state.
In a European tour during the crisis—her first trip abroad in 24 years—democracy icon and opposition party leader Aung San Suu Kyi characterized the sectarian violence in Arakan State incorrectly as the result of the government’s failure to enforce its immigration laws. She said she “does not know” if the Rohingya should be considered Burmese, lending credence to popular views that Rohingya are foreigners or “intruders.” She suggested “some of them” would meet the requirements of the citizenship law, and blamed the problem on the law’s lack of clarity.
A number of other longtime democracy activists have made incendiary anti-Rohingya statements. In early June, prominent pro-democracy activist Ko Ko Gyi spoke at a press conference in Rangoon and categorically denied that the Rohingya are an ethnic group of Burma. While conceding that ethnicity is not a requirement for citizenship, he blamed the sectarian violence on “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh” and “mischievous provocations from the international community,” referring to Western attention to the Rohingya. “Such interfering efforts of powerful nations on this issue without fully understanding the ethnic groups of Burma, will be viewed as offending the sovereignty of our nation,” he said.
Mistreatment of the Rohingya has not been limited to Burma, evident in the inhumane and illegal response of neighboring Bangladesh to the crisis. Rohingya have sought safety in Bangladesh by journeying by sea in barely seaworthy wooden boats, or crossing the border at the Naf River or alternative routes. In southern Bangladesh, approximately 30,000 Rohingya refugees have been living for decades in two of the world’s most squalid refugee camps, and an estimated 40,000 barely subsist in what are called “informal camps”, and a further 160,000 living outside of camp settings. Yet when sectarian violence broke out in June, the Bangladeshi government, in violation of its international legal obligations towards asylum seekers, ordered its border guards and naval services to prevent anyone from crossing the border. Rohingya men, women, and children arrived onshore and pleaded for mercy from Bangladesh authorities, only to be pushed back to sea in their frail boats during rough monsoon rains, putting them at grave risk of drowning or persecution in Burma. It is unknown how many died in these pushbacks.
Those who have made it into Bangladesh remain in hiding with no official protection from the Bangladeshi government or the UN and no access to humanitarian assistance as a result of policy decisions by the Bangladesh government.
On June 10, President Thein Sein addressed the nation. “If we are sticking to endless hatred and revenge by killing each other, it’s possible that the danger will be more widespread, not only in Arakan State,” he said. “If that happens, make no mistake, it would cause a severe loss to our fledgling democracy—stability and development.” These were welcome words and helped to calm the situation. However, on July 12 the president appeared to join forces with anti-Rohingya extremists when he said that the “only solution” would be to expel the Rohingya to other countries or to camps overseen by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—undoubtedly a reference to UNHCR camps in Bangladesh. “We will send them away if any third country would accept them,” Thein Sein said. “This is what we are thinking is the solution to the issue.” The UNHCR quickly rejected the proposal, saying, “As a refugee agency we do not usually participate in creating refugees.”
Thein Sein was right that this unrest and continuing abuses by the security forces could derail the democratic reform process and spread to other parts of the country, as other ethnic minority groups could become increasingly wary of the government’s proclaimed commitment to improving relations with ethnic populations. Such blatant persecution of a minority group would make it more difficult for donor governments, multinational bodies, and international financial institutions to press ahead with development assistance. If the government wants to be seen as reforming and deserving of the large amount of international aid, investment, and support it so clearly desires, it needs to rein in its security forces and end discriminatory policies, practices, and public statements against a demonstrably vulnerable population. The government also needs to commit to reform its discriminatory and outdated citizenship law. The Rohingya cannot and should not be asked to leave their homes and should be entitled to citizenship on the same basis as members of other national groups.
To demonstrate its seriousness in addressing abuses, the government should grant the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomas Quintana, full access to investigate abuses on all sides and take action to hold perpetrators accountable. Those responsible for ordering or participating in abuses during and after the sectarian violence in Arakan State should be impartially investigated and disciplined or prosecuted as appropriate. For the safety of those being held, the government should immediately disclose information to the special rapporteur about the presumed masses of Rohingya who remain in incommunicado detention.
To address the chronic and systematic abuses in Arakan State and elsewhere, the government should invite the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to open an office with a full monitoring and protection mandate, including the ability to operate in and open sub-offices in Arakan State and other parts of the country. The government should work with local and international nongovernmental organizations, and UN agencies to meet the urgent humanitarian needs of the Rohingya, Arakan, and non-Rohingya Muslim populations, allow unfettered humanitarian access to affected populations, and address the continuing threats to safety and security of humanitarian organizations. In the medium term, the authorities need to work with displaced populations to find solutions that respect their rights to return home and live safely. Where appropriate, the government should provide local populations restitution for destroyed property and develop a comprehensive strategy to end violence and promote reconciliation with local populations.
The government should quickly amend discriminatory provisions in the 1982 Citizenship Law so that Rohingya are treated in the same way as members of the eight other ethnic groups named in the citizenship law, as well as the unnamed ethnic groups still protected under the law and who are treated as citizens. All other discriminatory laws, policies, and practices should be revised or repealed.
The Burmese government also needs to confront the deep-seated prejudice within its own ranks and Burmese society that manifests itself in discrimination and violence against the Rohingya population. It should engage in a broad based public information campaign endorsing tolerance and non-discrimination. In particular, it should emphasize that the Rohingya are one of the many diverse ethnic groups that make up the Union, and that the country’s development depends on ending this longstanding cycle of violence and discrimination.
Numerous Arakan and Rohingya have reached the conclusion that the outbreak of the sectarian violence and the abuses that followed could have been avoided. A 29-year-old Arakan man and an older Rohingya man captured the local sentiment when they each told Human Rights Watch, separately but in the same words, “The government could have stopped this.” It is not too late for the government to take effective action to bring the realities on the ground in line with the pervasive rhetoric of democratic reform. Any failure to do so will almost certainly ensure future bloodshed and abuse.
The Bangladeshi government should also rethink its policy of refusing to provide safety to Rohingya asylum seekers. It should accept offers of humanitarian assistance already made by donors—and demand more. It should accept offers of limited resettlement of Rohingya already in official camps—and ask for more. But it cannot claim to be a rights-respecting government or upholding international law, as the Bangladeshi foreign minister did in parliament in June, if it turns away people facing death with little more than a bottle of water.
None of this will happen if the international community does not respond with a dramatically increased sense of urgency. If these same events had happened one or two years ago, before the reform process in Burma was underway, the United States, European Union, Australia, the UN, and others would almost certainly have roundly condemned the Burmese government in the strongest terms. The failure of the government to prevent the violence and later to engage in serious abuses would have been seen as further proof of the need for wholesale reform of the government and security forces. Now, apparently caught up in the excitement of Burma’s opening to the democratic opposition, talks with ethnic armed groups, and the opportunity to dramatically increase trade and investment in the country, much of the world has offered only a muted response, at best.
The US has led the way in dropping many sanctions and encouraging investment, even announcing on July 11 the ending of key investment sanctions at the height of the crisis in Arakan State. The US and others have a special responsibility to send clear signals to the authorities in Burma that brutal repression of the Rohingya and other vulnerable minorities will not be tolerated and will harm their relationships with the government. The way that Burmese authorities responded to the crisis and continued persecution and discrimination should come at a cost to these relationships. World leaders should be saying so in clear and unequivocal terms.