Blackout in Rakhine State as the Myanmar Army Runs Amok

November 9th, 2016  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  7 minute read
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Calls from diplomatic observers for an independent investigation into the human rights violations in Rakhine State is the latest development to surface in Myanmar[1] following attacks on border guard outposts on 9 October, 2016. The initial attacks, which left nine police officers dead, was immediately characterized by the Government of Myanmar as coordinated by members of an armed Rohingya group. The event is the latest eruption in tension since 2012’s Rakhine State riots, which resulted in at least 88 deaths, the burning of homes, and the forced displacement of over 100,000 Rohingya.

Since the 9 October attacks, the Myanmar Government has responded in a forceful and violent clampdown throughout northern Rakhine State, at the expense of Rohingya civilians. Human Rights Watch has recently released satellite imagery confirming local reports of at least three villages being set ablaze in the region. Other witnesses have reported on the forced displacement of at least 13,000 local residents by the Myanmar Army as they conduct what the government branded a “security sweep” through Rohingya villages. Worryingly, local NGOs and human rights activists have claimed that the government-reported figure of 30 deaths resulting from the military operation is in fact false, stating that the actual number is considerably higher.

Tragically, these human rights abuses have proven difficult to confirm, as both independent media and humanitarian access have been denied throughout northern Rakhine State since 9 October. On 7 November, after over four weeks of restrictions, the World Food Programme (WFP) was finally granted access to deliver food to just four villages. However, the WFP also highlighted that 78,000 people are in immediate need of food. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights Chairperson, Charles Santiago, condemned the lack of access in the region, stating,

  “Myanmar government officials have denied outright that rights violations are occurring. But the lack of access makes these claims impossible to verify and severely undermines their credibility. Allowing independent monitors and journalists to access the area would therefore be in the interest of Myanmar authorities, as well as the local population.”

A concerning example of stifled press freedom comes from the recent dismissal of Fiona MacGregor, a former journalist of the Myanmar Times who was fired following her reporting on the rapes of 30 Rohingya women by members of Myanmar’s security forces in a single village in Maungdaw Township. Her dismissal came immediately after public condemnation from the spokesperson of the President’s Office, U Zaw Htay, along with a complaint sent by the Ministry of Information to the Myanmar Times on MacGregor’s reporting. Continued self-enforced restrictions by the Myanmar Times on reporting on the issues occurring in Rakhine State has understandably resulted in a number of journalists both condemning the situation and fearing the return of limited press freedoms in Myanmar.

The state newspaper and former mouthpiece of the military regime, the Global New Light of Myanmar, has provided a disturbing commentary on the events in Rakhine State, largely disputing allegations of human rights abuses and going so far as to release an incendiary opinion piece calling for “the thorn to be removed as it pierces,” in reference to the Rohingya.

Fortify Rights has recently criticized the Myanmar Government for proposing a plan to arm non-Muslim civilians for potentially contributing to further violence and armed attacks on the Rohingya community. According to the human rights NGO, the plan would reinforce villages in Maungdaw Township with quickly trained and armed non-Muslim residents, a move that is clearly in violation of basic international law.

The Myanmar Government had also routinely rejected pleas from the UN and other human rights observers for an impartial investigation into the violence in Rakhine State. A delegation of international observers, including ambassadors from nine countries and the UN’s Myanmar Resident Coordinator, were among the first outsiders to visit the affected region. However, the purpose of their trip was not to produce any substantive solutions to solving issues and protecting the Rohingya. Instead, the focus of the mission largely involved encouraging the government to restore humanitarian aid to displaced civilians. U.S. Ambassador Scot Marciel, a member of the observation team, admitted that the team lacked any true capability to investigate human rights abuses, but called on Myanmar to conduct an “independent, credible investigation that can look into these things more deeply.”

Despite Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s promise to restore “peace and harmony” in Rakhine State in accordance with the rule of law, actions by the government’s security forces clearly demonstrate that for Rohingya people on the ground, protection is severely lacking. The actions of security forces in northern Rakhine State are reminiscent of the now disbanded NaSaKa, a border guard force that committed grave human rights violations against Rohingya under the previous military regime. The prevention of independent media gaining access to report on the conditions on the ground is also further exacerbating a murky and dangerous situation.

If Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is to truly ease tensions in Rakhine State, she must first hold the military accountable for escalating the crisis and contributing to a declining human rights situation.  

If Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is to truly ease tensions in Rakhine State, she must first hold the military accountable for escalating the crisis and contributing to a declining human rights situation. Above all, the Myanmar Government must immediately cease its long-running persecution of the Rohingya, allow independent media and full humanitarian access to northern Rakhine State, and allow an impartial international investigation into human rights abuses against the Rohingya community. This will serve as a pathway to not only ending the violence but also finding a sustainable solution to protecting this vulnerable population from further abuses and persecutions, and achieving harmony and peace in the region.


[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

Resources from the past week


Statements and Press Releases

ASEAN MPs call for investigation into reported human rights abuses in Myanmar’s Rakhine State
By ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights

Ban Ki-moon urged to act on humanitarian restrictions in Rakhine State
By Burma Campaign UK

Myanmar obstructs reporters from covering crisis in Rakhine State
By Committee to Protect Journalists

FCCT Statement on the Dismissal of Myanmar Times Journalist Fiona MacGregor
By  Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand

Thailand’s top court dismisses criminal defamation case against Finnwatch researcher Andy Hall
By Finnwatch

Myanmar: Scrap Plan to Arm Civilians in Rakhine State
By Fortify Rights

Burma: Satellite Images Show Fire-Damaged Villages
By Human Rights Watch

Burma: Farmers Targets of Land Grabs
By Human Rights Watch



Burma Army Attacks Kachin at Gidon Mountain
By Free Burma Rangers

“The Farmer Becomes the Criminal” Land Confiscation in Burma’s Karen State
By Human Rights Watch

Prospects for Justice in Myanmar – Does the New Political Reality Offer Opportunities for Addressing Human Rights Violations?
By Justice Truth Dignity

ျငိမ္းခ်မ္းေရး စစ္တမ္း (၂၁) “၀” အမ်ိဳးသားအေရးနွင့္ ဆက္စပ္ေသာ ျငိမ္းခ်မ္းေရးျပႆနာမ်ားအားသံုးသပ္ျခင္း
By Legal Aid Network/Human Rights Lawyer U Aung Htoo

Myanmar and its Militias
By The Asia Foundation/ John Buchanan

Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”