India Has Special Responsibility to Help Myanmar Address Rohingya Issue: UN Expert

Thousands of Rohingya have been displaced since renewed violence broke out in October, with India saying Myanmar be given more time to resolve the issue.

New Delhi: As the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) gets ready to call for a UN fact-finding mission to Myanmar, special rapporteur Yanghee Lee said that India has a special obligation to use its “good relations” to persuade Nay Pyi Taw to support an independent and fair inquiry into serious allegations of human rights violations against the Rohingya people during the current round of violence in Rakhine State.

In an interview with The Wire, Lee, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, stated that New Delhi had to be more involved and vocal in finding a sustainable solution to the Rohingya problem, as ripples from the violence continue to spread across Myanmar’s neighbourhood.

“I have always noted that how the Rohingya are treated in Myanmar can have regional implications. India is not exempt from these effects. The country has been host to Rohingya refugees for a number of years and some of those who have fled from Rakhine State following the October 9 attacks and subsequent security operations have also reportedly recently arrived in India,” she said.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that around 14,000 Rohingya live in India, bust most of them arrived in the aftermath of the 2012 sectarian riots.

Lee pointed out that India has a strategic concern in ensuring a peaceful Rakhine State – its multi-million dollar Kaladan multi-modal transit corridor, which will create a new trading network for India’s land-locked northeast states.

“Given India’s commercial involvement in several projects in Rakhine State and Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi’s recognition that Myanmar holds a unique position in the region as the ‘land bridge that connects India with Southeast Asia,’ India has an additional interest in the stability of Rakhine State,” she asserted.

The South Korean professor argued that it was logical for regional countries, “India in particular,” to support her call for a ‘prompt, impartial, independent and thorough’ investigation.

In her reply to The Wire’s questions, Lee said that such an investigation would verify the allegations of serious human rights violations in Rakhine State to ensure justice and accountability for the victims. It could also address, she felt, “the longstanding persecution of the Rohingya as well as underdevelopment affecting all communities in Rakhine state are addressed, as this is required for the long term stability of the area”.

Yanghee Lee, UN rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar. Credit: Reuters

Yanghee Lee, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar. Credit: Reuters

“India should be using its good relations with Myanmar to advocate for this,” said Lee, who has been observing and advising the UNHRC as an independent expert on Myanmar since 2014.

The markers – prompt, impartial, independent and thorough – for a new investigative mechanism were spelled out by Lee in her third report on Myanmar submitted to the UNHRC on March 13, in which she had called for the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry.

Her remarks to The Wire came in the background of the ongoing 34th session of the UNHRC, where states have been debating the international response to the treatment of the Rohingya.

The latest violence in Myanmar’s restive Rakhine State, which has led to at least 70,000 Rohingya fleeing into Bangladesh, began with the October 9 incident in which around 400 Rohingya militants attacked border police outposts.

Operations in Rohingya-dominated villages to flush out militants have been the subject of numerous reports accusing Myanmar security forces of using extreme tactics. In her report, Lee even said that it seemed that the “government may be trying to expel the Rohingya population from the country altogether”.

Under Myanmarese law, Rohingya Muslims cannot obtain citizenship, and their movement and legal status is restricted. They are mainly viewed as economic migrants from Bangladesh, even though most of them have lived in Myanmar for generations.

Every year, Myanmar gets special attention at the UNHRC, but the country’s slow march towards democracy has usually tempered the language in recent years. But the four-month long security operations, and subsequent reports by human rights groups of mass killings and rapes, have made it imperative to forge a stronger response.

Myanmar has rejected the call for a commission of inquiry, pointing to two domestic processes that were established in response to the Rohingya issue – an advisory commission on Rakhine State chaired by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and a national investigation commission led by vice president U. Myint Swe.

India, as usual, is expected to disassociate from any resolution on Myanmar – as it has done in the previous years. This is mainly based on a consistent position to oppose any country-specific resolution at the UNHRC, which New Delhi believes is counter-productive. In a written reply submitted to Lok Sabha on Wednesday, the minister of state for external affairs, V K Singh said that Indian government “has discussed with the Government of Myanmar the importance of maintaining communal harmony in the Rakhine State of Myanmar”. “Myanmar has conveyed that it has undertaken several political, economic and social development activities in the Rakhine State in the past few years in cooperation with the international community,” he added. His reply was in answer to a question by a AIDUF member of parliament from Assam whether India had held any bilateral talks with Myanmar over the recent violence against the Rohingyas. 

While India has talked about the Rohingya issue behind closed doors, India has remained consistent in backing Myanmar on international platforms. In a nod to the Myanmar government’s sensitivity on the issue, no public statement from India mentions the term ‘Rohingya’ – just to ‘developments’ in Rakhine State.

The tone of India’s support was set during the informal discussion with Lee on March 13, where India’s permanent representative to the UN Ajit Kumar submitted that it was too early to censure the Aung San Suu Kyi-led government.

“The special rapporteur does acknowledge the positive developments in Myanmar; however, the overall approach of Special Rapporteur’s report gives an impression that Myanmar’s continuing efforts under difficult circumstances, have failed to receive the credit they deserve,” Kumar said.

When asked to respond to India’s criticism, Lee reiterated that her “role is to stand up for the promotion and protection of the rights of all people in Myanmar and in my report I must present the situation to reflect the reality, even if some may not like what I have to say”.

Thousands of Rohingya have been displaced since renewed violence broke out in October 2016. Credit: Reuters

Thousands of Rohingya have been displaced since renewed violence broke out in October 2016. Credit: Reuters

“My report does, as India acknowledged, recognise the positive developments in Myanmar. However, it also highlights important remaining challenges that are all too often overlooked by the international community. This includes the continuing and escalating conflict in the north of the country which is having a dramatic impact on civilians and the continuing intimidation, surveillance, arrest, prosecution and even killings of human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, and civil society actors,” she told The Wire.

As a neighbour with a functional democracy, Lee claimed that India has a special responsibility towards Myanmar. “India should be using its decades of experience in democratic governance to steer Myanmar in its reform process, to become a full democracy that respects the rights of all and this includes being vocal on the humanitarian issues as well as human rights issues, not just in Rakhine State but throughout the country,” she said.

Meanwhile, the draft resolution on the human rights situation in Myanmar, sponsored by the European Union and US, stops short of a seeking a commission of inquiry, which Lee considers unsatisfactory.

“I am disappointed that the draft resolution does not go as far as establishing a Commission of Inquiry as I called for in my report. I note the establishment of a fact finding mission and will follow developments closely.”

Meanwhile, the India chapter of rights organisation Amnesty International also noted that the Indian government’s response to Lee’s report “has been very disappointing and discouraging”.

“While the Indian representative at the UN Human Rights Council rightly acknowledged the various challenges faced by the Myanmar government, he appears to have completely side-stepped the issue of human rights concerns in Myanmar, especially the campaign of violence by security forces against the Rohingya civilian population in Rakhine State since 9 October 2016, which could amount to crimes against humanity,” said Raghu Menon, Amnesty International’s India advocacy manager.

He asserted that “as a historic partner of the people of Myanmar, it is incumbent upon India to support the struggle for justice and human rights accountability as well, especially in light of the gruesome details of human rights violations that have emerged from Rakhine State since October 2016”.

Calling on India to support the call for an independent international investigation in human rights violations, Menon said that it was an important as “domestic mechanisms set up to conduct investigations have been neither independent nor credible”. “We note the establishment of the Rakhine State advisory commission led by Kofi Annan, but stress that it is not mandated to investigate human rights violations, and is limited to making recommendations to secure “peace and prosperity” in Rakhine State.”

India will be out of UNHRC next year, after two consecutive terms. As per the rules, India has to sit out one year after two terms, before again standing for election to the 47-member Geneva-based body.