(Yangon, November 5, 2016)—The Government of Myanmar should scrap its plan to arm non-Muslim civilians in a predominantly Muslim area of northern Rakhine State, Fortify Rights said today.
“This is a highly inadvisable and dangerous move by the authorities,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer at Fortify Rights. “If the government wants to improve security, it should take urgent action to protect members of all races and religions and immediately provide free and unfettered access to aid groups.”
The Myanmar Police Force announced a plan this week to recruit and arm ethnic Rakhine and other non-Muslim civilians in restive Maungdaw Township, a predominantly Muslim township in Buddhist-majority Rakhine State. The township is the site of recent attacks on police by armed Rohingya and a subsequent crackdown by the Myanmar Army.
Rakhine State Police Chief Colonel Sein Lwin told Reuters that the new “regional police” would include non-Muslim residents who would not otherwise meet educational or physical requirements to join the Myanmar Police Force, adding that recruits would serve in their own villages.
More than 100 recruits between the ages of 18 and 35 will reportedly receive a 16-week “accelerated” training program, beginning in the state capital of Sittwe on November 7. The police intend to provide the recruits with weapons and “other equipment” as well as compensation.
Fortify Rights called on the Government of Myanmar to immediately scrap the plan.
In 2013, Myanmar President Thein Sein unilaterally disbanded NaSaKa—a controversial security force in Rakhine State that included police, military, customs, and immigration personnel. Former President Thein Sein’s disbanding of NaSaKa demonstrates that the central government has authority to intervene with respect to security forces in Rakhine State. This should be instructive for the current civilian government at this critical time, Fortify Rights said.
On October 9, 2016, suspected ethnic-Rohingya militants attacked three border guard posts, killing nine police officers and wounding five others.
The Myanmar Army subsequently began “clearance operations” in northern Rakhine State. Since the October 9 attacks, authorities have blocked vital humanitarian aid deliveries to Maungdaw Township. The authorities also suspended regular humanitarian programs in the area, depriving tens of thousands of Rohingya—including children suffering from acute malnutrition—of food, health, education, and nutrition aid.
Up to 15,000 Rohingya men, women, and children and a number of aid workers remain displaced and isolated in Maungdaw Township.
In contrast, an estimated 3,000 ethnic-Rakhine fled Maungdaw Township following the attacks on October 9, and more than half have now returned to their homes, according to U.N. sources.
Fortify Rights received eyewitness reports of extrajudicial killings of unarmed Rohingya men in Maungdaw Township by Myanmar Army soldiers on October 10. Numerous reports subsequently alleged that Myanmar Army soldiers and security forces raped women and girls, killed unarmed civilians, and carried out arbitrary arrests and detentions. Several Rohingya Muslim villages were razed.
On October 24, five U.N. Special Rapporteurs issued a joint statement urging the Government of Myanmar to “address the growing reports of human rights violations in northern Rakhine State.”
The Office of the President of Myanmar repeatedly denied all allegations of abuses or wrongdoing, dismissing allegations as false propaganda in service to terrorist organizations. The President’s spokesperson Zaw Htay also rejected the allegations of rape, saying, “There’s no logical way of committing rape in the middle of a big village of 800 homes, where insurgents are hiding.”
The authorities have blocked journalists and human rights monitors from accessing areas of northern Rakhine State, limiting the availability of information.
On November 3, the Myanmar Times fired journalist Fiona MacGregor for writing a widely read article published by the newspaper on October 27, which included allegations that Myanmar Army soldiers raped dozens of Rohingya women in a single village in Maungdaw Township on October 19.
Government rhetoric surrounding the situation in Rakhine State is increasingly concerning, Fortify Rights said.
On October 31, Rakhine State Member of Parliament Aung Win declared, “All Bengali villages are like military strongholds.” On November 1, state-run media appeared to refer to Rohingya as a “thorn” that “has to be removed as it pierces,” and on November 3, state-run media alleged that international media “intentionally fabricated” allegations of human rights violations “in collusion with terrorist groups.”
In 2012, violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State resulted in well-documented, targeted, state-sanctioned attacks against Rohingya and Kaman Muslims in 13 of 17 townships in the state. More than 140,000 Rohingya and other Muslims were displaced into more than 40 internment camps, where they remain confined today. More than 100,000 other Rohingya are believed to have since fled the country.
In 2012, Rakhine civilians and monks also called for the authorities to arm ethnic-Rakhine residents.
International law, as articulated by the United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, provides that individuals performing state-authorized security functions should be qualified, professionally trained, and abide by human rights standards.
In accordance with these standards, individuals operating as law enforcement officials should be screened to ensure “appropriate moral, psychological and physical qualities for the effective exercise of their functions” and should only be authorized to carry firearms after completing specialized training. Force should only be used when strictly necessary. According to the Principles, “internal political instability or any other public emergency may not be invoked to justify any departure from these basic principles.”
“Arming civilians based on their ethnic and religious identity in this racially-charged context is profoundly irresponsible and could turn deadly,” said Matthew Smith. “We fully expect the government to put a stop to this plan and to immediately provide aid groups with free and unfettered access to all in need. The best way to prevent violent extremism is to promote and protect human rights, not equip people to potentially commit abuses.”
There are more than one million stateless Rohingya in northern Rakhine State.
In June, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights reported to the Human Rights Council that there was a “pattern of gross human rights violations” against Rohingya in Rakhine State that “would suggest a widespread or systematic attack against the Rohingya, in turn suggesting the possible commission of crimes against humanity.”
In February 2014, Fortify Rights published the 79-page report Policies of Persecution, exposing government restrictions on Rohingya that violate the rights to nondiscrimination, freedom of movement, marriage, family, health, and privacy.
In October 2015, the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School found “strong evidence” to establish the elements of the crime of genocide against Rohingya in Rakhine State.