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(Washington, DC) – The World Bank Group should act to overcome Burma’s major human rights problems in its new strategy for the country, Human Rights Watch said in a submission to the bank released today. Key issues include rights violations against ethnic minorities, widespread land grabs, and systematic corruption.

Despite significant human rights improvements in Burma, the reform process remains tenuous, and serious problems remain, particularly as the 2015 elections approach. The World Bank Group cautiously re-engaged with the Burmese government in 2012 and is developing a more comprehensive partnership framework for the next five years. The World Bank Group consists of four organizations tasked with reducing global poverty and achieving sustainable development, and an arbitration body.

“The World Bank should be taking stock of the human rights situation in Burma as the 2015 elections approach,” said Jessica Evans, senior international financial institutions researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The elections could be a milestone in Burma’s reform efforts or a major setback, and the bank will need to set the best path for engagement.”

World Bank Group President Jim Kim should highlight ongoing problems of discrimination and abuses against ethnic minorities, land and labor rights, access to justice, and corruption when he meets with Burmese finance officials during the World Bank/International Monetary Fund annual meetings in Washington, DC, on October 10-12, 2014.

Before it re-engaged with Burma in 2012, the World Bank had not provided financial aid to the country since 1987, when it was ruled by an abusive military junta. While there has been an increase in development aid in the past two years, Burma remains one of the poorest countries in the region.

The World Bank Group is piloting a new process for country engagement in Burma, first identifying major challenges to sustainable, inclusive development. The next step is to work with the government on a strategy to address the challenges. For this new process to be meaningful, the bank should not ignore controversial issues such as human rights, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch urged the World Bank to fully analyze Burma’s positive developments and the myriad issues that remain, and work with the government to address these issues, in close consultation with independent groups.

The decades-long government repression of the Rohingya Muslim minority continues on a massive scale. Since sectarian violence flared in June 2012, an estimated 140,000 mostly Rohingya displaced people have been relocated into camps around Burma’s western Arakan State.

Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law effectively prevents Rohingya, many of whom have lived in the country for generations, from obtaining citizenship. This has left Rohingya stateless, facilitating human rights abuses against them and posing serious obstacles to ending the sectarian violence in Arakan State. The citizenship issue has also played a role in pushing Rohingya into increased poverty and is a barrier to realizing their social and economic rights. A draft of the long-awaited Rakhine (Arakan) Action Plan obtained by Human Rights Watch outlines plans to resettle over 130,000 displaced Rohingya into long-term settlements and stage a nationality verification process. A subsequent citizenship process will be inherently discriminatory because it is based on the 1982 law.

In its 2012 Burma strategy, the World Bank dismissed this entrenched discrimination as “localized instances of communal violence … that indicate the need to address continuing societal fault lines.” The attacks on the Rohingya, which amounted to crimes against humanity in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, and the impact on their social and economic rights have heightened since then, but the bank has remained silent.

Since 2012 there has also been a serious rise in anti-Muslim violence and incitement throughout Burma. Attacks took place in a number of towns in central Burma in 2013 and in Mandalay in June 2014.

“World Bank Group President Jim Kim has highlighted the cost of discrimination not only on society, but on the economy,” Evans said. “Kim should emphasize these costs with Burma’s government and urge them to dismantle entrenched discrimination and take the necessary measures to end the violence against the Rohingya and other Muslim communities.”

The World Bank Group should also do more to ensure that local communities can participate in identifying and shaping development priorities, Human Rights Watch said. The bank should publish country documents and project documents in relevant ethnic languages in addition to Burmese and English; consult with local people who will be directly affected by proposed projects; and ensure that all consultations are accessible for all marginalized groups. It should also address ongoing governmental restrictions on independent groups and the media, both in its diagnostic effort and its high-level dialogue with the government, emphasizing the importance of participation and social accountability for development.

The World Bank Group should assess and address the possible adverse impacts on human rights in all of its projects in Burma, particularly discrimination against minorities, land rights violations, and labor rights violations. In light of the high-risk environment, the International Finance Corporation, the bank’s private-sector lending arm, should require businesses to undertake human rights due diligence. This would involve taking the necessary measures to identify potential human rights problems, mitigate them, and provide an appropriate remedy for any abuses that occur despite the preventive steps taken.

All institutions of the World Bank Group should examine the rights records of government and private sector partners to ensure that they are not implicated in rights abuses or corruption, Human Rights Watch said. And all should rigorously monitor and supervise implementation of projects they fund to ensure that human rights are respected throughout.

“The World Bank has an important role to play in advancing access to education, health, and electricity in Burma,” Evans said. “But for it to really advance development, it needs to have its eyes wide open to Burma’s ongoing rights problems and actively work to address them.”

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