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July 16, 2013
On 12 July, President Thein Sein of Myanmar issued notification no. 59/2013 abolishing the Nasaka border security force, which has been active mainly in Rakhine State (formerly known as Arakan) and in particular along the border with Bangladesh. This is a very positive move. Rakhine State has seen repeated violence between the Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities, and official and semi-official policies of discrimination against the Muslim population.
The Nasaka, or “Border Immigration Headquarters” as it is sometimes known, is an inter-agency force established in 1992 and comprised of around 1200 immigration, police, intelligence and customs officials. It operates in the Muslim-majority northern part of the state, near the Bangladesh border.
In this area, it is the most prominent state authority, and as such is charged not only with securing the border, but also with enforcing the various discriminatory policies against the Rohingya – including travel restrictions, marriage restrictions, and the recently reactivated “two child” limit. It has also faced many allegations of serious human rights abuses, imposition of forced labour and extortion.
In our report Myanmar: Storm Clouds on the Horizon (12 Nov 2012), Crisis Group urged disbanding the Nasaka:
“Local government and the local security forces (the police and the paramilitary border force known as the “Nasaka”), which are dominated by Rakhine Buddhists, often have a strongly anti-Rohingya agenda. Disbanding the Nasaka, which is seen as the most corrupt and abusive government agency in the area, would address both Rohingya concerns of abusive practices and go some way to addressing Rakhine concerns of lax or corrupt border security.”
President Thein Sein gave no explanation for the notification, and the rest of the government has also been silent. But in a speech at Chatham House in London on 15 July, the president promised “a zero-tolerance approach” to any renewed communal violence. Describing Myanmar as a multi-faith country, he stressed the need for a “more inclusive national identity” encompassing people of all ethnic backgrounds and faiths.
The full impact of the decision to abolish the Nasaka remains to be seen. The move took many people by surprise, including the local authorities in Rakhine, who were apparently not informed in advance. It seems that the Nasaka’s main functions will be taken over by the police.
The removal of an agency created for oppressive purposes, and with an institutional culture of corruption and abuse, can only be a good thing. The discriminatory policies aimed at the Rohingya, especially movement restrictions, will very likely remain in force. But no other existing agency is likely to have the power and the reach of the Nasaka, and its abolition should reduce the level of abuse faced by the Rohingya. Attention must now turn to ending the denial of basic rights to this population, including the right of citizenship. There also remains an urgent need to ensure humanitarian access to those displaced Muslim populations in other parts of Rakhine State that are living in desperate conditions, and to ensure them a safe and permanent return to their homes.