Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are escorted by police as they leave the courthouse after a hearing in Yangon, Myanmar, January 10, 2018.

© 2018 Lynn Bo Bo/EPA-EFE

(New York) – The Myanmar government committed grave abuses against Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic minorities throughout 2018, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019. Democratic space diminished in the face of increasing government actions to stifle free speech and peaceful assembly.

A United Nations investigation found that the Myanmar military had committed the “gravest crimes under international law” in operations in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan States since 2011, calling for senior military officials to face investigation and prosecution for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

“Extensive evidence has laid bare the staggering brutality of the Myanmar security forces,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Yet rather than take action against the military’s atrocities, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has held fast to its denials, betraying the ideals of justice and freedom that the ruling National League for Democracy once espoused.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

More than 730,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh – including over 15,000 new arrivals in 2018 – to escape the Myanmar military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing that began in August 2017. The estimated half-million Rohingya remaining in Rakhine State live in dire conditions, subjected to government persecution, violence, extreme restrictions on movement, and deprivation of food and health care. Returnees to Myanmar have faced arrest and torture by the authorities.

The Myanmar government claimed throughout 2018 that it was ready to accept repatriated refugees, but showed no willingness to create conditions for safe and dignified returns or address the root causes of the crisis. Bangladesh and Myanmar attempted to begin repatriations in November amid widespread condemnation, without consulting the Rohingya refugee community. Bangladesh authorities postponed the operation when no Rohingya agreed to return.

Myanmar authorities repeatedly denied that security force abuses took place, setting up successive investigations that lacked independence and credibility. The authorities have barred independent investigators from Rakhine State and punished local journalists for reporting on military abuses. In September, a Yangon court sentenced Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo to seven years in prison under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act for their reporting on a military massacre of Rohingya in Inn Din village. They were convicted despite witness accounts that revealed their December 2017 arrest to be a police setup, as well as numerous inconsistencies and irregularities in the prosecution’s case.

The government escalated its use of repressive laws across the country to arrest and imprison individuals for peaceful expression and assembly, particularly under charges of criminal defamation. Journalists’ ability to cover conflict areas steadily declined, while the rise in prosecutions had a chilling effect on the country’s media.

Armed conflict between the military and ethnic armed groups intensified over the year in Kachin, Shan, and Karen States, stoked by large-scale development projects and disputes over natural resources. Civilians were increasingly endangered by severe aid blockages, indiscriminate attacks, and forced displacement. The national peace process stagnated, failing to gain trust or traction among ethnic armed groups.

Myanmar faced growing international condemnation for the military’s atrocities. The European Union, Canada, the United States, and Australia sanctioned several security force officials over the course of the year, and the UN Human Rights Council established a mechanism to collect evidence of grave crimes and prepare case files for prosecution. However, crucial actions for accountability, including a Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court, have remained elusive, Human Rights Watch said.

“Greater international action is needed to begin dismantling the walls of impunity that have protected Myanmar’s military from accountability for decades,” Adams said. “Justice for the Rohingya and other victims will only come about through decisive, concerted measures to hold those responsible for atrocities to account.”