UN investigator reports possible new war crimes in Myanmar

Yanghee Lee tells Human Rights Council, violations taking place in Rakhine and Chin states amid communications blackout.

    Yanghee Lee said the impact of the conflict on civilians is devastating [File: Denis Balibouse/Reuters]
    Yanghee Lee said the impact of the conflict on civilians is devastating [File: Denis Balibouse/Reuters]

    Myanmar security forces and rebels are committing human rights violations against civilians in restive western states that may amount to fresh war crimes, a United Nations investigator has said.

    More than 730,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh after an army crackdown in 2017 that UN investigators have said was executed with "genocidal intent" and included mass killings, gang rapes and widespread arson.

    The Myanmar government has denied the allegations and says its military campaign across northern Rakhine was a response to attacks by Rohingya rebels.

    Government troops are currently fighting the Arakan Army in Rakhine and neighbouring Chin state. The Arakan Army is a separatist group that is fighting for greater autonomy for Rakhine's ethnic Buddhists.

    On June 22, authorities ordered telecom companies to shut down internet services in the two states. Telenor Group said the Ministry of Transport and Communications had cited "disturbances of peace and use of internet activities to coordinate illegal activities".

    Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, said last week the army may be committing gross human rights violations under the cover of the mobile phone blackout, but on Tuesday she went further.

    "The conflict with the Arakan Army in northern Rakhine state and parts of southern Chin state has continued over the past few months and the impact on civilians is devastating," Lee said. "Many acts of the Tatmadaw (army) and the Arakan Army violate international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes, as well as violating human rights."

    Abductions, deaths

    The Arakan Army had reportedly abducted civilians, including 12 construction workers in Paletwa and 52 villagers near the Bangladesh border, she told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

    Lee cited reports of civilians, mostly ethnic Rakhine men, being detained and interrogated by the military for suspected links to the Arakan Army and said several had died in custody. In April, a military helicopter opened fire on Rohingya men and boys collecting bamboo, she said.

    Some 35,000 people have fled the violence this year, Lee added.

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    Kyaw Moe Tun, permanent representative of Myanmar to the UN, said that the government had declared a ceasefire until August and was trying to bring about national reconciliation.

    "The government of Myanmar is working tirelessly to end ethnic strife and end conflict and to achieve sustainable peace in Myanmar through a peace process," Kyaw Moe Tun told the forum.

    "Freedom of expression and media is one of most visible areas of change in Myanmar," he said. "No restriction is imposed on the use of internet and social media, but we need to strike a balance between security and freedom and rights and responsibility."

    Lee said the blackout was endangering villagers, obstructing aid and shielding the military.

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    SOURCE: Reuters news agency