Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, has been an outspoken critic of the country’s powerful military and its brutal crackdowns on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state in 2016 and 2017, which caused more than 740,000 people from the stateless minority to seek shelter in neighboring Bangladesh.
She has called for the prosecution of those responsible for committing suspected acts of genocide against the Rohingya, and blasted the armed forces for their treatment of other ethnic minorities in conflict zones in Kachin and northern Shan states.
In late 2017, the Myanmar government barred Lee from visiting the country to assess the rights situation after it said a previous mission report she issued was biased and unfair.
Lee's latest outcry, on June 24, was directed at a move by government officials to temporarily suspend internet service in nine townships in Rakhine and neighboring Chin states, where Myanmar forces are battling the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic armed group that seeks greater autonomy in Rakhine state.
In an exclusive interview with Ye Kaung Myint Maung of Radio Free Asia’s Myanmar Service, Lee discussed efforts to hold the Myanmar military accountable for atrocities committed against the Rohingya, the stalled plan to repatriate Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh, and the internet shutdown in Rakhine state.
Radio Free Asia (RFA) is a sister service of BenarNews. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
RFA: The U.N.’s Independent Fact-finding Mission (FFM) presented critical evidence last year that the Myanmar military committed atrocities and serious crimes under international law, and called for military leaders to be investigated and prosecuted for genocide against the Rohingya. Why hasn’t this yet occurred, and what progress has been made?
Yanghee Lee: It is not happening yet, and I have to remind you that it was not just the FFM, but I was the first one to call for an independent investigation. The FFM and I are not saying that the military should be investigated for the crimes they had committed only in Rakhine state. We are also saying that they need to be investigated for the war crimes and crimes against humanity that they have committed in Kachin and northern Shan states and other parts of Myanmar, going back to 2011.
RFA: What has been the roadblock?
YL: The roadblock is, of course, the U.N. Security Council. China is backing the Myanmar government [by] objecting to a Security Council resolution for referral to the ICC [International Criminal Court]. China and Russia often work together in this kind of situation, which I think is shameful, so that the Security Council cannot move beyond this. I really wish China and Russia would revisit their decision.
RFA: It appears to be a dead end because the Myanmar military knows it can count on China and Russia, and this allows it to keep committing crimes. Is there any other way to prosecute those responsible so they are held accountable?
YL: I have already called for an international tribunal to be set up to adjudicate the military — the Tamadaw — the leadership, and [other] persons who were involved.
RFA: The ICC prosecutor has tried to prosecute Myanmar military leaders, but is there an alternative effective measure to hold them accountable?
YL: Yes, I think they have called for the ICC president to consider this in Chamber III of the court. We are waiting for the results of what the ICC president will decide on this particular case, but it’s not the overall crimes committed by the Tatmadaw. It will be focusing on a small part of the crimes which occurred on Bangladeshi soil while they [the Rohingya] were being forcibly deported.
RFA: Why hasn’t the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh been implemented yet?
YL: The people I have spoken with want to go back, but it’s in the hands of Myanmar. It has to change in order for the people to come back. There are discriminatory laws and practices in an administrative directive that lasted for decades and must be changed. They [the Rohingya refugees] have to have freedom of movement and access to services, and to regain the citizenship or the right to citizenship that many of them had previously that was revoked and taken away from them. The security forces who have driven them out and have now bulldozed the area and built [other] infrastructure took away the little property they had — their rice paddies and fields. All of this needs to be returned to the Rohingya population.
RFA: If Myanmar fails to improve human rights conditions, how would it affect the country’s relationships with the U.N. and the international community in the worst case scenario?
YL: Myanmar is now being very, very clever in picking and choosing which agency — which part of the U.N. — it will cooperate with. And so far, it has been very, very good at that. But look at what’s happening on the ground. I think this should worry the leadership of Myanmar ... as to the future of the people of Myanmar by continuing to [move] along these steps by reducing the democratic spaces … and not recognizing the ethnic minorities’ claims to their land and their livelihoods with all the different clashes going on. There are still more people being displaced. I really think that Myanmar is going down a dark path now. It’s going back to those years on the dark path in history, which I really feel sorry about. I really feel very committed to Myanmar and to the people, but the actions that the leadership is taking are very concerning and sad.
RFA: There is a widespread perception among the Myanmar people that the U.N.’s response to the refugee crisis among ethnic Rakhines who have been displaced by fighting between the government military and the AA has been less serious than the response to the Rohingya crisis years ago. Your thoughts?
YL: It’s a pity that there’s that opinion and that perception. I believe that the Rakhine people have suffered a lot too, as have all the minorities in Rakhine state. The response should be the same whether it is Rohingyas or Rakhines, because at the end of the day they are the ones that are bearing the brunt of the violations — not the authorities, not the civil servants. It’s the civilians. That perception needs to change, and perhaps the U.N. needs to do more to change it.
RFA: The military has denied accusations that they ordered the shutdown of the internet in Rakhine state, so why should we be concerned about the current situation?
YL: I’m surprised that the military is denying it. Then who ordered the internet to go down, because on the 20th of June there was a message by Telenor and other companies saying that the internet would be going down, and that the reasons were that the internet was mobilizing or creating more tensions in the region?
RFA: There is a widespread assumption that the internet shutdown is the precursor to massive human rights violations to come in the region. Are there any indications that this is the case?
YL: This is the first time that the government or the authorities have shut down the internet. In 2016, when the clearance operation happened in Rakhine state, the internet was not shut down. In 2017, [during the second clearance operation], it was not shut down. This time I do not know why they are shutting down the internet. We do know that during clearance operations, we’ve seen the aftermath or the consequences of what a so-called clearance operation has led to. I have already received reports from on the ground that there has been indiscriminate firing into villages, that three villagers have died, [and] that many have been injured over the weekend.
RFA: The Arakan Army has accused the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government of contributing to the military violations by allowing the internet shutdown. Do you agree with that claim?
YL: I can’t make any judgements as to who is allowing this to happen for whatever reasons because I’m not allowed into [Myanmar], no humanitarian assistance is allowed in, and there are no international journalists, international observers, or human rights observers who are allowed in. With the internet being shut down, the information we’re getting is very limited. But all I know is that the internet is down, somebody ordered it to be shut down, and that there is a clearance operation going on right now. We have to remember that those who are involved in this clearance operation – the security forces – are the exact same people that have been involved in past clearance operations and have not been held accountable. There has been no accountability for the security forces for what they did in 2016 and 2017.
RFA: What message would you like to send to Aung San Suu Kyi?
YL: I would like her to really look and think about the people — all of the people — in Myanmar and what she had been aspiring to for decades — a free and democratic Myanmar. I wonder if she can see and look at what is happening in Myanmar and truly say to herself, “This is what I wanted for Myanmar.”
RFA: What is the message you would like to send to the Myanmar military?
YL: Stop your violations, stop your human rights abuses, and respect all the people of Myanmar.
RFA: And your message to the Myanmar people?
YL: The people of Myanmar have been really, really resilient, they have been very powerful in remaining together. Now is the time that they need not to be frustrated or disappointed about things. … Please keep up your courage, please do not lose hope, and please stay united with one voice.