The U.N.’s outgoing envoy monitoring human rights in Myanmar Wednesday called for an investigation into claims of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the government army as it carries on a brutal war against ethnic rebels in Rakhine and Chin States.
“While the world is occupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Myanmar military continues to escalate its assault in Rakhine State, targeting the civilian population,” said Yanghee Lee in a report published by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
“Calls for a ceasefire, including by the Arakan Army, have gone unheeded. Instead, the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] is inflicting immense suffering on the ethnic communities in Rakhine and Chin,” said Lee, who will conclude her tenure as UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.
“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 said.
“All parties to the conflict, including the Arakan Army, must also protect civilians,” added Lee in a reference to the AA, a rebel group fighting for greater autonomy for ethnic Rakhines in Myanmar’s westernmost state.
Lee called for more accountability for the Tatmadaw, saying it “continues to operate with impunity.”
“For decades, its tactics have intentionally maximized civilian suffering,” she said.
The report cited examples of Tatmadaw attacks that killed and injured civilians including an April 13 artillery barrage that killed eight civilians, at least two of whom were children in Kyauk Seik village, Ponnagyun township.
Lee has not been allowed to visit Myanmar since late 2017, blocked by the government following an earlier round of mass army atrocities against the Rohingyas, a Muslim ethnic minority in Rakhine state.
Some 740,000 Rohingya are still living in Bangladesh more than two years after they driven out of Myanmar in what U.N. officials called an “ethnic cleansing” campaign.
Myanmar government and military personnel rejected Lee’s statement, with one official repeating the country’s stock response that claims of army brutality are one-sided.
“The military is going about its duties, complying with the constitution, existing laws and international standards,” Thein Tun Oo, the spokesperson of the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) told RFA Wednesday.
“Such groundless accusations are undermining our national sovereignty,” Thien Tun Oo added.
An official from the ruling National League for Democracy also protested Lee’s remarks.
“First of all, the AA has been designated as a terrorist group,” Monywa Aung Shin, secretary of the NLD’s central information committee told RFA.
“This was stated in an official announcement signed by President U Win Myint. There was also a statement signed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi honoring the servicemen fighting in Rakhine state. These statements have shown that the government has a very positive attitude to the military,” said the secretary.
“With regard to the armed conflicts in Rakhine State, there will be causalities on both sides. So I want to say these cannot be called human rights violations,” the secretary added.
The military also downplayed the accusations.
“I don’t have anything to say. There are always statements and accusations like that,” Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun of the military information committee told RFA.
“The only thing I would like to point out is that the local civilians in Palatwa township, Chin State are now facing the food shortage and starvation, as they are surrounded by AA troops. How would the military and the government be able to ignore such a situation?” he said. RFA could not verify the spokesman’s claim.
Zaw Min Tun also denied accusations that the military is intentionally targeting civilians, saying the only target is “the AA and its insurgent activities.”
“There is no reason to target civilians. But, as we have repeatedly stated, AA has been using the civilians and towns and villages as human shields,” he said, repeating a frequent army assertion that has not been verified on past occasions.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha, who denied army allegations of abductions in the war zone, sad the group has announced a one-month ceasefire until April 30 in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We have stopped our offensives. But armed conflicts continue every day because Myanmar’s military won’t stop their offensives against us,” he said.
“The fighting has continued only because Myanmar’s military is inhumane and doesn’t have a humanitarian spirit.”
Investigation into WHO death
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s President U Win Myint formed an inquiry commission to investigate an attack last week on a WHO vehicle in Rakhine state’s Minbya township, killing the driver.
The vehicle was attacked April 20, after it drove over a suspension bridge in Minbya, though it is unclear whether Myanmar soldiers or AA troops were behind the shooting. Both sides blamed the other for the ambush that killed local WHO employee Pyae Sone Win Maung and injured health department worker Aung Myo Oo.
U Saw, the chair of the People’s Parliament for the Citizens’ Basic Rights, will serve as the commission’s chairman, and Colonel Htein Lin, the co-chair of the president’s office will serve as its secretary. Myanmar’s government and military maintain that the AA is responsible for the attack.
“It would be better if MPs of the concerning townships also take part in this investigation as a wider task force. It would also be terrible if this investigation is only to avoid international pressure,” U Pe Thn, the member of parliament from nearby Myaybon township, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“It would be best if we were to have a committee with no fear of any pressures, focused on the truth,” he added.
But an ethnic Rakhine leader told RFA the investigation would likely be biased.
“This commission is different from what we demanded. We wanted an independent third party,” U Zaw Zaw Htun, Secretary of the Rakhine Ethnic Committee told RFA.
“But now, with army personnel and government staff taking part, can it be done with no bias? I wonder whether the investigation with real procedures is even possible,” he said.
Political analyst U Maung Maung Soe told RFA that the report would merely confirm what the army has already said on the matter.
“The more important thing is if the international community can accept the Army’s statement and the facts, or not. I think [the investigation] is just the army paying lip service to international pressure, as both the U.N. and U.S. have called for independent inquires,” he said.
It is not currently known if the government-formed commission plans to investigate the AA. RFA inquired with U Zaw Htay, the director general of the president’s office, but received no reply to the inquiry.
A statement from the AA said the investigation would not be credible because the committee was formed with ex-military personnel and like minded people, likening it to a card shark pretending to play a fair game.
But the army’s information secretary Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told RFA that the military would fully cooperate with the committee and the government in every way necessary.
UK renews financial sanctions
The United Kingdom renewed financial sanctions on several of Myanmar’s military leaders through 2021.
The sanctions, put in place to prevent money laundering, were enacted by the E.U. in 2019 before Brexit. They were to cease to be relevant to the UK on December 31, 2020.
The official website of the British government says the sanctions are “aimed at encouraging the Myanmar security forces to comply with international human rights law and to respect human rights.”
The sanctions prohibit the selling arms, providing military training and conducting military-to-military cooperation.
They also include a travel ban and a freezing of assets for 14 military and police officers accused of committing the rights violations.
Reported by Waiyan Moe Myint, Aung Thane Kha and others for RFA’s Myranmar Service. Translated by Maung Maung Nyo and Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.