The United Nations’ outgoing human rights envoy for Myanmar has told Al Jazeera that the country’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, failed to live up to her reputation as a humanitarian.
Yanghee Lee’s time in the role was dominated by Myanmar’s bloody crackdown in western Rakhine state in 2017, when at least 750,000 people, mostly ethnic Rohingya, fled across the border to Bangladesh.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been widely criticised for remaining mostly silent on accusations of anti-Rohingya violence, and Lee told Al Jazeera on Wednesday she believed the Myanmar leader’s inaction was “utterly disappointing”.
“We all knew that she was put on a pedestal or portrayed as the icon of democracy and human rights, but ever since [her party] has taken office [after the 2015 election] and ever since she took the office of the state councillor, all of her actions and her words, statements point otherwise,” said Lee, whose requests to enter Myanmar were repeatedly denied by the government.
“I would still like to believe that she can change how she’s been doing, but perhaps the world didn’t really know who she was,” she added.
Aung San Suu Kyi became an icon of democracy during the 15 years she spent under house arrest during Myanmar’s military dictatorship.
In December last year, the Nobel Peace Prize winner defended Myanmar’s military against allegations of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In her speech, during which she did not use the word Rohingya, Aung San Suu Kyi told the court that the 2017 exodus of hundreds of thousands of people to neighbouring Bangladesh was the unfortunate result of a battle with armed fighters.
The ICJ case, filed by The Gambia, accuses Myanmar of violating the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, in relation to the 2017 crackdown. UN agencies and human rights groups have documented extensive atrocities, and the ICJ, in a preliminary order, called on the countryto take steps to protect the Rohingya.
The government and army have consistently denied the allegations.
Asked about the case, Lee said: “I can’t come out with a conclusion before the court (International Criminal Court) that is mandated to deal with genocide … but I say it bears the hallmarks of genocide.”
In her final statement before stepping down from her role, Lee also called for a UN investigation into the continuing violence in Rakhine, which has also spilled over into neighbouring Chin State.
Lee said “possible war crimes” were being committed by the Myanmar military with civilians coming under attack in its continued attempts to crack down on the rebel Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine group.
The violence has intensified in recent months, with the military calling the ethnic Rakhine rebels a “terrorist group.”