The human rights situation in Myanmar is generating problems for nations in South and Southeast Asia, and Naypyidaw is even apparently pressuring neighbors in its efforts to avoid scrutiny over rights violations within its borders, a senior U.N. official said Thursday.
Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, urged other countries in the region to address potential peace and security concerns stemming from violations of rights in Myanmar. She was speaking to reporters in Kuala Lumpur at the end of an 11-day visit to Thailand and Malaysia.
“Following my visit, it is extremely clear to me that the human rights situation of Myanmar has created and is continuing to create, serious regional issues for South and Southeast Asia,” she said as she read out a statement at a press conference.
She cited some facts including that nearly 1.5 million Rohingya refugees and others from Myanmar are sheltering in Bangladesh,
Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and India; and many people fleeing from Myanmar are victims of human trafficking throughout the region.
“It is incumbent on Myanmar’s neighbors to acknowledge these most serious issues, that Myanmar has produced them and that they continue to have significant impacts on countries in the region,” Lee said.
“It is of great concern to me that Myanmar appears to be increasing pressure and engaging the Governments of neighboring countries in its efforts to violate rights and avoid scrutiny. This includes obstructing me in carrying out my mandate,” she added.
While she was in Thailand earlier in her trip, she alleged that she “had to abort part of my visit due to interference.”
“This is very serious and not to be taken lightly,” Lee said.
In 2017, Myanmar’s government barred her from visiting the country to assess the rights situation there after Naypyidaw had criticized a previous mission report issued by her as biased and unfair.
Commenting on Thursday about U.S. sanctions imposed this week on four senior Myanmar generals, Lee said they should be strengthened.
The four, including Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, are now barred from travel to the U.S. for their roles in a 2017 army campaign that killed thousands of ethnic Rohingya and drove more than 740,000 others as refugees into Bangladesh.
“I think we should freeze their assets and the assets of their families, too,” said Lee, adding that sanctions should be applied to the full group of six generals, including the four already banned from entry to the U.S., identified last year by a U.N. fact-finding team for referral to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for genocide.
Internet shutdown in Rakhine
During her trip in Thailand and Malaysia she gathered information from sources about problems in Myanmar arising from a government-ordered shutdown of internet services in areas of northern Rakhine state.
The shutdown has blocked important flows of information in the war-torn region, preventing reports of army atrocities from reaching outside news sources and delaying warnings of dangerous floods, she said, describing the nearly month-old information blackout in Rakhine as “unprecedented and unacceptable.”
“It is challenging to get information on what is happening on the ground under these circumstances, but I have been told that three villages in Rakhine have been burned down by the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s national military] in the last two weeks,” Lee said.
Three Rakhine townships have also been struck by floods during the shutdown period, Lee said.
“There is no access to mobile internet in any of those townships, meaning that people were not adequately prepared for or warned of the floods that occurred,” Lee said, adding, “This has resulted in displacement and houses being destroyed.”
Humanitarian groups and other natural disaster responders have now found their work complicated by lack of internet access, said Lee.
“The question is, did the Myanmar Government impose the internet ban to inflict more harm on the people living in Rakhine?” Lee asked.
Residents, aid groups cut off
Citing ongoing fighting between national forces and the Arakan Army (AA), an armed group demanding greater autonomy in Rakhine state, the Myanmar government on June 20 ordered four telecom operators to suspend internet services to eight townships in Rakhine and one in neighboring Chin state where battles have taken place.
Rakhine residents now report that they cannot conduct bank transactions or connect with relatives and friends at home or abroad. Domestic and international NGOs and other organizations, meanwhile, say their ability to help some of the roughly 35,000 people displaced by fighting in Rakhine has been limited by the shutdown.
A motion to restore internet service in Rakhine was, however, rejected in the lower house of Myanmar’s parliament on Wednesday, with no reason given for the refusal to bring it forward for discussion, sources told the Myanmar Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews.
“We submitted the proposal yesterday,” said Khin Saw Wai, a member of parliament for Rakhine’s Rathedaung township, adding she was told that the speaker of the lower house would not permit her motion to be discussed.
“The [internet] ban was ordered by the government, but we should be allowed to discuss this inside the parliament,” she said. “This lies within the authority of the parliamentary Speaker.”
Attempts by RFA to reach Ti Khun Myat, Speaker of the Union Parliament, for comment on Thursday were unsuccessful.
Goal not fulfilled
The government has not accomplished its stated goal of enforcing security and the rule of law in Rakhine by shutting down the internet, one aid worker in the region said.
“The internet ban has impacted our relief efforts, and transactions for donations have been down,” Nyi Phu – chairman of the Phu Sin Myittar Humanitarian Association – said.
“But I don’t think this has alleviated any of our political problems. Restrictions can sometimes cause people to explode,” he said.
Many people living in Rakhine now have no idea what is happening in their own region, one local villager said.
“Houses have been burning in the Shi Shar Taung area in Buthidaung township,” Saw Win, a resident of Zaydi Byin village in Rathedaung township, said.
“But since the internet is down, no evidence of this can be brought to the public. Even relief work for the floods in the area is having serious problems now.”
Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.