Myanmar: UN expert says ‘lost optimism but still hopes for promised democratic transition’

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Graphic: BBC

As grave allegations of international crimes remain to be effectively addressed by the authorities in Myanmar, a UN human rights expert said on 23 January she had not given up hope as she concluded her final official visit to the region.

“I have lost my optimism – how could I be optimistic with ongoing credible allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide having been committed in Myanmar, and with justice and accountability still not yet within reach?” said Yanghee Lee, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar in a statement following a visit to neighbouring Thailand and Bangladesh.

“But I still hold out hope that the promised democratic transition will proceed, as it is not too late for the government to change the course it is currently set to. The Myanmar government must face up to its responsibilities, obligations and duties.”

Lee’s mandate finishes this year. She took up her mandate in 2014, when Myanmar’s burgeoning democratic transition, promising reforms and encouraging progress were a source of “great optimism”, she said. She has been barred entry to the country since December 2017.

During her mission, the UN expert met with refugees in Cox’s Bazaar refugee camp in Bangladesh. “I met with male survivors of sexual violence. They told me of the rape and gang rape that they endured at the hands of the Myanmar military and security forces in Rakhine,” she said. “I also met Rohingya Christians who told me they were persecuted by the Myanmar government due to their religion.

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“Refugees I spoke to were firm about their deep desire to return home. However, I was informed of ongoing violence, continuing restrictions on movement, forced imposition of national verification cards, and people being killed and injured by landmines in northern Rakhine. Conditions remain unsuitable for their return.

“The intensifying conflict between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw – the Myanmar armed forces – is having a devastating impact. The restrictions imposed by the government, including the internet shutdown in four townships and the blockage of aid in eight townships, with the recent addition of Myebon town, severely exacerbate that impact. There are now reportedly over 100,000 living in camps and sheltering in villages in Rakhine, and 1,800 people displaced in southern Chin.

“I am also very worried about both sides engaging in disturbing tactics including abductions and mass arrests, and how this is instilling fear in the civilian population.”

Lee also expressed concern about the situation in northern Shan state, which remains volatile, with armed conflict ongoing, village leaders reportedly being targeted by the military and ethnic armed organisations, and civilian fatalities reportedly caused by gunfire and landmines.

With national elections coming this year, it is incumbent on the government to ensure that they are peaceful, credible, free and fair; that all people in the country are able to equally participate; and that political debate is open and welcome, she said.

“Some people told me they are worried that polling may not be allowed in parts of Rakhine and Shan for security reasons. If that occurs, distrust towards the next government and community grievances and marginalisation that already exist are only going to grow stronger, and this will further hamper efforts to move forward in the democratic transition and peace process.”

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The UN expert observed that significant steps have been taken towards international justice and accountability in the last three years, but more needs to be done to realise it for all the people of Myanmar.

She welcomed the decision on 23 January of the International Court of Justice that ordered preliminary measures in relation to Myanmar’s alleged violation of the Genocide Convention. She noted that on 20 January, the Myanmar government’s Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE) transmitted its final report to the president.

“I would very much like the opportunity to read the ICOE’s report in its entirety, and I call for it to be made public as soon as possible.

“I urge the international community to keep the credible evidence of ongoing crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide front of mind in its relations with Myanmar. In the face of this, one cannot proceed with business as usual.”

Source: UN news release

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