Burma: Government Forces Implicated in Killings and Rape

(New York) – Burma’s new civilian-led government has failed to hold the military accountable for persistent human rights violations throughout the country, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2017. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government has done little to address the military’s brutal crackdown on ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine State and other abuses against civilians in ethnic areas, or to reform laws limiting free expression and assembly rights, undermining the promise of the political transition.

In the 687-page World Report, its 27th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights as an impediment to the majority will. For those who feel left behind by the global economy and increasingly fear violent crime, civil society groups, the media, and the public have key roles to play in reaffirming the values on which rights-respecting democracy has been built.

“Aung San Suu Kyi and her new government brought high hopes that Burma had finally turned the corner toward becoming a rights-respecting democracy,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “But to reach that goal, the government needs to stand up for principles of human rights, and that means holding the military accountable.”

The NLD-led government took office in March 2016 as the country’s first democratically elected government since 1962. However, provisions in the 2008 constitution granting the military control of key ministries and 25 percent of seats in parliament, along with the frequent use of repressive legislation, have facilitated continued human rights abuses and stymied meaningful political reform. Under the 2008 constitution, the military retains autonomy from civilian oversight and extensive power over issues of national security.

On October 9, 2016, attacks by Rohingya militants against border guard posts in northern Rakhine State resulted in the deaths of nine officials. In response, the military initiated “clearance operations” and a lockdown of the area, denying access to humanitarian aid groups, independent media, and rights monitors.

The lockdown has prevented any independent investigations into the widespread reports of serious abuses by government security forces against Rohingya villagers, including summary killings, rape and other sexual violence, torture and ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests, and arson. Satellite imagery revealed widespread fire-related destruction in Rohingya villages, with a total of at least 1,500 destroyed buildings. Analysis of the imagery and accounts from Rohingya refugees in neighboring Bangladesh implicate the military in the atrocities. Tens of thousands of Muslim villagers have been displaced, a large number of whom have fled to Bangladesh.

Fighting between the Burmese armed forces and ethnic armed groups worsened over the year in northern Shan, Kachin, Rakhine, and Karen States, displacing thousands of civilians. Government forces have been regularly identified as responsible for violations including extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence, and destruction of property. Government shelling and airstrikes continue to be conducted against civilians in ethnic areas, in violation of the laws of war. In August, Aung San Suu Kyi and the government held the 21st Century Panglong Conference, a peace process forum, which fell short of expectations among ethnic groups.

In April, the government released 235 political prisoners and detainees in a series of amnesties. However, the nod toward a new era of openness has been contradicted by the government’s continued use of problematic legislation to restrict free speech and peaceful assembly. Authorities continue to arrest and prosecute activists for criticizing the government or military, and for participating in peaceful demonstrations. While the relaxation of press censorship was a hallmark of the democratic transition, various forms of government control remain inscribed in the legal framework and employed to restrict media freedom.

“The government’s continuing attacks on religious and ethnic minorities and arrests of political activists are uncomfortably reminiscent of the ‘bad old days’ in Burma,” Adams said. “Foreign governments should press Aung San Suu Kyi to call on all sections of the government to promote respect for human rights so that needed reforms can be realized.”

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