An appeal by a United Nations envoy on human rights to Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi to stop ignoring the situation of persecuted Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh and those still living in the Southeast Asian country drew swift rebukes from Myanmar officials on Wednesday.
Yanghee Lee, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, told the Human Rights Council a day earlier that the situation in Myanmar was of extreme concern, and that the country had done nothing to eliminate systematic violence and the persecution of the stateless minority group.
“I would like to ask the state counselor if the Myanmar that exists today is what she had truly aspired to bring about throughout the decades of her relentless fight for a free and democratic Myanmar?” Lee asked.
“I implore you, Madame State Counselor, to open your eyes, listen, feel with your heart, and please use your moral authority before it is too late,” she said.
A brutal military-led campaign targeting the Rohingya in northern Rakhine state in 2017 left thousands dead and forced more than 740,000 others to flee their communities and seek safety in neighboring Bangladesh.
In 2018, an Independent International Fact-finding Mission (FFM) set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council said the operation amounted to “genocide” and called for the prosecution of top generals, including Myanmar's commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
In a blistering report issued Monday, the FFM warned that the roughly 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Myanmar still face a “serious risk of genocide” and called for Myanmar to be held responsible for the violence against the Rohingya.
The following day, U.N. investigators called for experts to determine whether Aung San Suu Kyi could be legally implicated in the rights abuses, a task that could possibly be handled by the Human Rights Council’s recently created Independent International Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM).
The body was set up to collect evidence of violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011 and prepare files to facilitate independent criminal proceedings over atrocities in the country.
In response to the mission’s report, Kyaw Moe Tun, Myanmar’s ambassador to the U.N., said the FFM’s accusation of genocide was one-sided.
He also said that Myanmar would reject any effort to bring the issue of rights violations involving the Rohingya before an international legal body and that it is “capable of addressing the issue of accountability” itself, the Associated Press reported.
‘Usually what they do’
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun also said that the U.N. allegations were unfair, repeating the country’s stock reply that witness and victim accounts of killings, rapes, and torchings of villages by government soldiers — well-documented by human rights groups — are “one-sided.”
“Whether it is the FFM or the follow-up creation of the IIMM, these groups are drawing conclusions from outside the country, relying on one-sided accusations,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “This is what they usually do. I have nothing more to say about it.”
Earlier this month, a Myanmar military investigation found that soldiers who killed 19 people suspected of being members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a militant group whose deadly attacks on police outposts precipitated the violent rampage on Rohingya communities, did not follow proper procedures during the crackdown.
Those responsible for the killings, which took place in February 2018 in Gutabyin village of Rakhine’s Buthidaung township, are being court-martialed.
Zaw Min Tun told RFA in an earlier report that that the murder victims were terrorists.
The U.N.’s FFM said in an email response to RFA last week that the Myanmar government’s plan to conduct domestic military investigations would not bring justice to the victims of rights violations.
The FFM’s report also pointed out that Myanmar’s 1959 Defense Services Act does not cover war crimes and that the 1982 Citizenship Law must be amended to improve the human rights situation in the country.
Under the latter law, Myanmar refused to recognize the Rohingya as a legitimate national ethnic minority and denied the group citizenship and access to basic services, despite the group’s longtime presence in the country’s western region.
With regard to the suggestion that the Defense Services Act should be amended, Zaw Min Tun said, “I want to ask if they have really studied our Act.”
Myo Nyunt, spokesman of the ruling civilian-led National League for Democracy (NLD) government, declined to comment directly on Lee’s words because she made a personal appeal, but he indicated that Myanmar should make its own decisions concerning its internal affairs.
The NLD is willing to cooperate with U.N. organizations as long as they observe the situation in Myanmar thoroughly, he said.
Myo Myunt added that only the governing party and the Myanmar people know best when it comes to domestic issues, and that the people should be the ones making decisions on these issues.
“We are always cooperating with the U.N. in areas where we can do so,” he said. “But those who are outside the country do not know in which areas we can work together and in which areas we cannot.”
No one at the State Counselor’s Office or the President’s Office was available for comment.
Memorial ceremony for Hindus
In a related development, a memorial ceremony for Hindus massacred by members of ARSA two years ago during the military-led crackdown in northern Rakhine state was held Tuesday in Myanmar's commercial hub Yangon, members of the Hindu community said.
Militants slaughtered roughly 100 Hindu villagers in Maungdaw township in late August 2017, dumping their bodies in mass graves, and forcing young Hindu women to convert to Islam and taking them to a Muslim refugee camp in Bangladesh.
Other Hindus fled to Bangladesh or to other parts of Rakhine state to escape the violence.
Family members of the deceased, diplomats, and other Hindus attended the ceremony.
Ragu Nay Myint from a Yangon-based humanitarian assistance group that helps Hindus chastised international organizations for ignoring the plight of the Hindus in Rakhine.
“These so-called humanitarian organizations have provided almost no assistance to our Hindu families,” he said.
By way of example, he said that the International Committee of the Red Cross had provided 45,000 kyats (U.S. $28) to each of the 1,200 displaced Hindus living in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe so they could return to Maungdaw.
“So far, this is the only assistance we ever received,” Ragu Ni Myint said. “So we are desperate to ask why the [international] humanitarian operations do not include us.”
Ni Maul, a Hindu community leader from Maungdaw, said about eight months have passed since the Hindu refugees received any financial aid from humanitarian organizations.
“There are hardships in our community, and people find it so difficult to make a living,” he said. “People are trying to survive on their own because our livelihoods have been eliminated.”
More than 440 Hindus who fled to Bangladesh during the crackdown and are now living in sprawling refugee camps want to return to Myanmar, but they have not yet done so, fearing for their safety.
“Hindus who wish to return to Myanmar have received death threats,” Ni Maul said. “If they are allowed to return, they don’t want to go back separately, but rather return as a group. They are worried that if they are separated, their community will become weakened there.”
Though the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to repatriate refugees, their two attempts to return some of the Hindu and Rohingya refugees failed when no one showed up at the border for re-entry processing.
Reported by Moe Myint and Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.