UN: A UN special rapporteur has expressed grave concern over escalating violence and discrimination against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar.
Following a fact-finding mission, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, expressed concern over atrocities committed against the Rohingya, as well as the government’s denial of allegations.
“For the government to continue being defensive when allegations of serious human rights violations are persistently reported, that is when the government appears less and less credible,” she said during a press conference.
Lee added that this response is “not only counterproductive but is draining away the hope that had been sweeping the country”.
After half a century of military rule, Myanmar saw its first democratic elections when Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy to a majority win. However, she faced criticism for failing to protect Myanmar’s minority groups, namely the Muslim Rohingya minority.
Myanmar’s government disputes the Rohingya people’s status as Burmese citizens and have since enacted discriminatory policies including restrictions on movement and exclusion from healthcare, rendering the majority of the group stateless and impoverished.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) previously described the Rohingya community as one of the most “excluded, persecuted, and vulnerable communities in the world.”
Violence once again reignited following attacks on border guard posts in October in Rakhine state, prompting Myanmar’s military to conduct an ongoing offensive.
According to a report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), cases of sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances by military and police forces have emerged since the retaliation.
In one incident, an eyewitness told OCHR that the military beat their grandparents, tied them to a tree and set them on fire. The UN office also found that more than half of the 101 women interviewed experienced rape or other forms of sexual violence, including pregnant women and pre-adolescent girls.
The attacks “seem[ed] to have been widespread as well as systematic, indicating the very likely commission of crimes against humanity,” the report stated.
Approximately 90,000 people fled the area since the attacks with an estimated 66,000 Rohingya crossing the border into Bangladesh.
Lee said the government’s response to her regarding the military attacks was that it had “rightly launched a security response.” Though authorities must respond to such attacks, Lee noted that the response must be in full compliance with the rule of law and human rights.
“I saw with my own eyes the structures that were burnt down in Wa Peik, and it is hard for me to believe that these are consequent to actions taken in a hurry or haphazardly,” she stated.
OHCHR found that hundreds of Rohingya houses, villages and mosques were deliberately burned down with one eyewitness noting that only Buddhist houses in her village were left untouched.
Human Rights Watch estimates at least 1500 buildings were destroyed, further driving Rohingya from their homes.
The government has denied these allegations, telling Lee that it was villagers who had burnt down their own houses in order to lure international actors to help build better houses. Authorities also said that this was part of the Rohingya’s propaganda campaign to smear the country’s security services.
“I find it quite incredible that these desperate people are willing to burn down their houses to be without a home, potentially displaced…just to give the government a bad name,” Lee said.
“I must remind again that these attacks took place within the context of decades of systematic and institutionalised discrimination against the Rohingya population,” she continued.
Those that do flee face further challenges in host nations. Bangladesh has been one of the primary hosts of displaced Rohingya, but due to population pressure and security concerns, the South Asian country has been pushing back on refugees. According to Amnesty International, Bangladeshi authorities have denied Rohingya refugees asylum and have detained and pushed hundreds back to Myanmar.
The government had also proposed a plan to relocate refugees to an island.
“We cannot just open our doors to people coming in waves,” said Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. In a country of an estimated 160 million people, her government has its own share of issues to take care of.
The crisis has prompted international groups and leaders to call for actions including unfettered humanitarian access to all parts of northern Rakhine state.
Though Myanmar’s government announced the creation of a committee to investigate the situation in the border state, Human Rights Watch also urged the government to invite the UN to assist in an impartial investigation.
“Blocking access and an impartial examination of the situation will not help people who are now at grave risk,” Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams said.
In December, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak also called on Asian neighbours and the international community to address the crisis.
“The world cannot sit by and watch genocide taking place,” Razak said while protesting violence against the Rohingya minority.
“We must defend them [Rohingya] not just because they are of the same faith but they are humans, their lives have values,” he continued.
In addition to accepting assistance from international actors, Lee encouraged the government of Myanmar to “appeal to all communities…to be more open and understanding of each other, to respect each other instead of scapegoating others for the sake of advancing their own self-interests.”
“I stand ready to assist in the journey towards a more free and democratic Myanmar,” Lee concluded.
The special rapporteur is due to present her final report on her trip to the UN Human Rights Council in March.