A new report presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council accuses Myanmar of “institutionalized discrimination and long-standing persecution” of its mainly Muslim Rohingya population amid appeals by a government representative to the international community to support Myanmar “in its efforts to promote democracy and human rights.”
While Yanghee Lee, special investigator on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, acknowledged the new government has been in power for barely one year, she noted that there were a great many human rights violations that could not wait to be addressed and needed immediate attention.
Lee cited reprisals against human rights defenders and the suppression of voices of dissent through arrest and imprisonment as main concerns. She said she had never “felt more anxiety over potential acts of retaliation and reprisal” than in Rakhine State during her visit to Myanmar in January.
Lee’s assessment follows another report issued by the U.N. human rights office on February 3, which documented acts of cruelty, by Myanmar’s security forces, triggered by the October 9 killing of nine police officers by armed men who attacked three border guard police facilities in Rakhine.
Rights officials say this unleashed weeks of retaliatory measures and gross violations by security forces, including mass gang-rapes, killings, and disappearances, prompting more than 66,000 Rohingya to flee northern Rakhine State to Bangladesh.
In her effort to investigate the issue of reprisals, U.N. investigator Lee said she went to Cox’s Bazaar in neighboring Bangladesh where she interviewed around 140 Rohingya.
“I heard allegation after allegation of horrific events like these – slitting of throats, indiscriminate shootings, setting alight houses with people tied up inside and throwing very young children into the fire, as well as gang rapes and other sexual violence.
“Even men, young and old, broke down and cried in front of me telling me about what they went through and their losses,” she said.
In response to the deadly attacks on October 9, Htin Lynn, Myanmar’s ambassador in Geneva, said, “Security forces had to launch operations to restore peace and maintain law and order in northern Rakhine State. Such operations have now ceased.”
Investigator Lee expressed her disquiet about clearance operations, including the dismantling of people’s homes and a household survey in which, she said, those absent may be struck off the list facing what “could be the only legal proof of their status in Myanmar.”
She said this indicated that “the government may be trying to expel the Rohingya population from the country altogether. I sincerely hope that that is not the case.”
She noted that there have been several commissions of inquiry and investigations set up to examine the situation of the Rohingya, but that none has proven to be “truly independent.”
“There is a need for a new set of investigations, which are prompt, thorough, independent and impartial, and this needs to happen soon, before the evidence is compromised. Prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigations are not only needed in Rakhine, but also in conflict-affected areas such as Kachin and Shan,” she said.
Lee noted that similarly serious violations to those in Rakhine have been reported in those states for years, often been overlooked and “also gone uninvestigated, with the situation in these areas worsening and still receiving little attention.”
Lee warned the conflict in Kachin and Shan states is escalating. She said more than 10,000 people were forced to flee to China.
Lee said she continued to receive reports of serious human rights violations committed by all parties to the conflict, including torture, inhumane and degrading treatment, sexual and gender-based violence, arbitrary killings and abductions, “all of which frequently go uninvestigated.”
Lee called on the government in Myanmar to reform and modernize its judiciary, executive, and legislative branches. She said the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which stripped the Rohingya of their birthright, was discriminatory and needed to be overhauled.
She assured the Myanmar representatives who attended the council session that she had “absolutely no reason whatsoever to present a biased, one-sided report.”
She added, “I have every reason to present the situation to reflect the reality, even if some may not like what I have to say.”
Ambassador Htin Lynn was not persuaded. He said his government could not subscribe to many of the recommendations in the report.
“Myanmar does not accept an idea of a Commission of Inquiry as we are seriously addressing the allegations nationally.”
He also dismissed the term “crimes against humanity,” saying it was based “on unverified and one-sided allegations.”