Myanmar military may be repeating crimes against humanity, UN rapporteur warns

Yanghee Lee says the army is ‘maximising suffering’ on Rohingya and other people in attacks reminiscent of the 2017 assault in Rakhine state

Myanmar’s military may once again be committing crimes against humanity in Rakhine state, the UN special rapporteur on human rights has warned, urging the international community to prevent further atrocities.

In a damning statement issued on Wednesday, Yanghee Lee said the military was inflicting immense suffering on communities living in conflict-affected states, and called for increased efforts to “ensure that there is not another systemic failure like in 2017”. The military had also expanded its campaign against minorities from Rakhine to neighbouring Chin state, she said.

Myanmar is already facing allegations of genocide over a brutal military crackdown that began in August 2017, and which forced more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee over the border to Bangladesh. Earlier this year, Myanmar was instructed by the UN’s highest court to take action to prevent genocidal violence against Rohingya citizens and to report back on its progress.

Citizens of all ethnicities living in conflict areas are now being targeted by the military, Lee’s statement said. Despite calls from the UN for a global ceasefire during the coronavirus crisis, the military, known as the Tatmadaw, has instead escalated its fight against the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic Rakhine rebel group seeking greater autonomy from central government.

The military has not only injured and killed scores of civilians, including children, in recent air and artillery strikes, Lee said, but also blocked some of the injured from accessing urgent medical care. In one case, a teenage boy died at a military checkpoint in Rakhine after the military forced the vehicle transporting him to wait there on the way to hospital. It is not clear how the boy was injured.

In attacks that are reminiscent of the 2017 military assault on Rohingya people, schools, houses, a Buddhist temple, and in one case a village of up to 700 homes had been destroyed or burned to the ground. The military has also disappeared, arrested, tortured or killed dozens of men, often accusing them of links to the Arakan Army. Entire villages have fled the violence.

“Having faced no accountability, the Tatmadaw continues to operate with impunity. For decades, its tactics have intentionally maximised civilian suffering; we all know what they did to the Rohingya in 2017. They are now targeting all civilians in the conflict area, with people from Rakhine, Rohingya, Mro, Daignet and Chin communities being killed in recent months,” said Lee, who is concluding her tenure as special rapporteur.

Lee cited a recent artillery attack, on 13 April, in which eight civilians died, including at least two children, when the military targeted Kyauk Seik village in Ponnagyun township.

“The Tatmadaw is systematically violating the most fundamental principles of international humanitarian law and human rights. Its conduct against the civilian population of Rakhine and Chin states may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity,” she added.

The UN secretary general, António Guterres, has urged warring parties globally to put down their weapons so that all efforts could be focused on protecting civilians from the spread of Covid-19. Humanitarian agencies fear communities in conflict areas are especially vulnerable to the virus, which could spread quickly in camps where displaced people are living in close quarters with extremely limited access to healthcare.

Earlier this month, a driver working for the World Health Organization who was transporting swabs from patients to be tested for coronavirus was killed after his vehicle was attacked by gunfire in Rakhine state. Both Myanmar’s army and the Arakan Army denied responsibility for the attack.

More than 157,000 people have been displaced since the conflict began, according to the UN. Vast numbers of people have been cut off from aid by the military, including 8,000 displaced people sheltering in Paletwa township in Chin.

Internet access is also blocked in many conflict-affected areas, meaning people have little access to information about how to protect themselves against the coronavirus, and making it harder for communities to document atrocities committed by armed actors. A crackdown on journalists has also been ramped up, forcing editors to live in hiding and further restricting information about human rights abuses.

Civilians have also been affected by violence carried out by the Arakan Army, which has kidnapped local officials and parliamentarians. Just weeks ago, the group is reported to have abducted an elected member of a Paletwa township committee. However the Arakan Army has declared a unilateral ceasefire, which has improved protections for civilians.

Lee called for an investigation into allegations of ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity in both Rakhine and Chin states, to ensure perpetrators are held to account. Lee also urged the UN to increase protections for civilians.