Myanmar: What Will Replace the Notorious NaSaKa?

By Melanie Teff

On my research missions to Myanmar and to Bangladesh, I have met so many Rohingyas who suffered terrible abuses at the hands of the NaSaKa border force and whose everyday lives were blighted by their fear of it. In our reports, Refugees International has repeatedly demanded that the NaSaKa be reined in, and so we welcome President Thein Sein's announcement that this notorious force is being disbanded.

But this positive development also raises questions – namely, what the NaSaKa’s replacement will be and whether its behavior will be any different?

The NaSaKa was a force made up of officers from police, military, customs, and immigration which was supposed to supervise the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh. However, it became known for its corruption, and for its arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority. (Rohingyas make up the majority of the population of northern Rakhine State, where the NaSaKa was headquartered.)

I have spoken with Rohingyas who were themselves arbitrarily arrested and tortured by the NaSaKa or lost family members because of their abuses. The Rohingya community in northern Rakhine State is one of the most impoverished populations in the world, and yet they were forced to pay off the NaSaKa to get their relatives released from detention, and even to get permission for everyday activities such as travel, marriage, and birth registration.

During the horrific inter-communal violence of June 2012 between the Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim communities in Rakhine State, and the targeted attacks of October 2012, the NaSaKa did not provide impartial protection to the two communities. They failed to protect the Rohingya, and in some cases they actively participated in abuses against Rohingyas. The June violence was also followed by a wave of arbitrary arrests of Rohingya men and boys by both the NaSaKa and other security services.

Even though the Rohingya were overwhelmingly the victims of the June and October 2012 violence, very few Rakhine Buddhists were arrested for it. Nearly all of the detainees – many of whom were tortured in detention, and some of whom died – were Rohingyas. There are also credible reports of acts of sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls by NaSaKa in the wake of the June clashes.

So President Thein Sein’s decision to disband this force is a welcome one. He signed the announcement abolishing the force on July 12, but has not publicly stated the reasons for his decision. There have been criticisms of the NaSaKa for many years, and in March 2013 the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Tomas Quintana, called for the force to be suspended on account of its human rights violations. But another key factor for President Thein Sein could have been his ongoing visits to London and Paris, and his need to convince potential investors and supporters in Europe that his reform process is having some concrete effects.

Sadly President Thein Sein has not yet made good on other key commitments he has made, such as releasing all political prisoners, providing full humanitarian access to displaced communities, and guaranteeing fair treatment for the Rohingyas. And of course, it remains to be seen what will replace the NaSaKa. Because the NaSaKa was composed of officers from various agencies that will continue to operate in Rakhine State, simply getting rid of the force may not resolve the problem. 

Discriminatory local orders and practices remain in place in Rakhine State – including a requirement that Rohingya seek the authorities’ permission to travel, marry, and have more than two children – and until they are withdrawn, abuses by whichever force is in charge are likely. President Thein Sein must end these discriminatory orders and practices, and he must ensure that any force which replaces the NaSaKa respects the human rights of all residents and is held accountable for any abuses.