Thank you for the opportunity to address you this afternoon. It is quite unusual for me to hold this press conference here, in a country not related to my mandate as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. However, these are unusual circumstances in the discharge of my mandate. For the first time since I was appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council I have not been given access to the country I am responsible for reporting on.
The Government of Myanmar has taken the unfortunate decision to no longer cooperate with me, claiming that I have been unfair and biased. They took particular issue with my previous end-of-mission statement – following my last visit to Myanmar in July 2017. I would invite all of you to re-read that end-of-mission statement. You will note that I have highlighted the human rights situation of not just the Rohingya in respect of Rakhine State but of the Rakhine and Kaman communities too. I also highlighted the situation of the Karen as well as the Shan, and the increasing restrictions on democratic space, and continuing harassment and intimidation of human rights activists and journalists, including through frivolous criminal charges.
In that statement, I expressed my disappointment at seeing that the repressive practices applied by the previous military Government are still used by the NLD-led Government. Indeed, the latest decision to deny me access to the country is a return to the situation that my predecessors faced under the military government – reporting on the human rights situation in Myanmar from abroad.
Before I proceed further, let me take this opportunity to thank the governments of Bangladesh and Thailand as well as the UN entities in both countries for facilitating my visits. It has always been important for me to be able to engage directly with the people of Myanmar and not just with the authorities, as they are the ones whose voices need to be heard. In Bangladesh, I went to Dhaka but I spent most of my time around Cox’s Bazar where I met Rohingya refugees in a number of camps and settlements.
In Thailand, I met refugees, human rights activists, journalists and representatives of ethnic groups in Bangkok, Mae Sot and Chiang Mai. I sought to meet affected ethnic communities in what the Thai Government refer to as temporary shelters for displaced persons from Myanmar at the border between the two countries but I was denied access.
From my meetings and interaction in Bangladesh and Thailand, three recurrent themes struck me.
First: belonging – the people I met all gave me the distinct sense that they are dislocated from where they belong. Myanmar is their home; it is where their parents and grandparents were born; where they built their homes, and farmed their land. Yet they have been displaced – in many cases for years, even generations – left living in camps with little or no access to basic rights – the rights to livelihood, education, and health. Even for those who were treated as aliens when they were in Myanmar, it is still where they belong and where they long to return. Sadly, the conditions are such that they do not know what to expect if they return, or are forced to do so—many even fear for their lives.
Second: equality – a need for recognition and equal treatment. The majority of those I met are from ethnic minority groups of Myanmar. They demand not only equal rights as individuals but also recognition of parity for all ethnic groups. They are not asking for the benevolence of the government; they are insisting on equal treatment, collectively and as individuals.
Third: and this is the most distressing recurring theme – attacks against ethnic minorities are not a new phenomenon. The atrocities committed against the Rohingya in the aftermath of the 9 October 2016 and the 25 August 2017 attacks have been – as highlighted by the Karen National Union in its statement last year marking the two-year anniversary of the nationwide ceasefire agreement – repeatedly witnessed before, albeit not on the same scale of the recent attacks against the Rohingya. I was told repeatedly by the other ethnic groups I spoke to – be they Kachin, Karen, Karenni, or Shan – that they have suffered the same horrific violations at the hands of the Tatmadaw over several decades and – in the case of some groups – continuing today.
What the Myanmar government claims to be the conduct of military or security operations is actually an established pattern of domination, aggression and violations against ethnic groups. Recent reports of attacks against civilians; against homes and places of worship; forcible displacement and relocation; the burning of villages; land grabbing; sexual violence; arbitrary arrests and detention; torture and enforced disappearances; are acts that have been alleged against the military and security forces for generations. While reports from Rakhine State have rightly provoked international outrage; for many in Myanmar, they have elicited a tragic feeling of déjà vu.
In Thailand, representatives from different ethnic groups that I met expressed their concern that as the world’s attention is focused on the atrocities in Rakhine State, potential war crimes are being committed in Shan and Kachin State without so much as a murmur of disapproval from the international community.
Many of you may be unaware that over the Christmas period and into the New Year, clashes between the Tatmadaw and Ethnic Armed Groups occurred in both Shan and Kachin states, resulting in the deaths of civilians and driving thousands of people from their homes. In fact, attacks continued last week, with airstrikes carried out by the Tatmadaw reportedly killing four civilians. The fallout from these attacks has been truly grave. I spoke to a Kachin woman who told me that her relatives are among a civilian group believed to number in the thousands that are taking cover from these attacks in a forest in an isolated area of Tanai township that is reachable only by water. Cut off from the outside world by the fighting, her sister-in-law gave birth to a little baby girl in the forest just a few days ago, where they both remain. I do hope that both the mother and the baby, as well as the rest of the civilian group, are holding up as well as they can in these grave circumstances.
Violence on such a scale has lasting effects. During my visit to Thailand, I spoke with people who fled similar acts years, even decades, ago. They have lived since in so-called “temporary” shelters, unable to enjoy their basic human rights, where they are once again faced with a perilous situation. Karen refugees told me that the humanitarian assistance they depend on is declining, while Shan refugees informed me that their aid has been cut by foreign donors entirely. This is occurring in a context where people are being encouraged to return home despite feeling that it is premature or unsafe to do so. They are left to choose between empty stomachs on the Thai side of the border and a return to a precarious peace on the Myanmar side and the risk of being made refugees all over again.
On the topic of peace, January has come and gone without the convening of the 21st Century Panglong Conference. During my mission, I was told by people of different ethnicities that the peace process is floundering largely because of the failure of the military and the government to earn the trust of ethnic groups, and what they see as a lack of a genuine commitment to peace on the part of officials. The Tatmadaw has reportedly prevented public consultations taking place between ethnic armed groups and their constituents while the government appears to be concerned only with reconciling with the military, rather than with the ethnic groups.
Most disturbingly, peace agreements that are already in place are failing to prevent violence, most notably in the case of the recent deaths of one civilian and three soldiers of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), who were shot dead by Tatmadaw on 20 December. While the Tatmadaw claims that the four were killed in a shootout with the KNPP, the KNPP say they were summarily executed. The allegation must be investigated by an independent and impartial body; if proven true, it would amount to a violation of international humanitarian law.
Set against this background of violence in the ethnic areas of Myanmar, is a continuing erosion of democratic space. The civilian government has failed to usher in a new era of openness and transparency and is instead persisting with repressive practices of the past. I was deeply saddened to learn that nine Rakhine Buddhist demonstrators were killed in Mrauk U last month and by reports that other injured demonstrators were arrested in hospital where they were handcuffed to their beds. This is truly shameful and cruel. While preparing this statement, I learned that the Mrauk U administrator was killed in an apparent revenge attack – a grisly reminder that violence begets violence.
Other tactics are also being employed to curtail freedom of peaceful assembly. I was surprised to learn that at least 40 university students have been expelled in the last week for taking part in protests calling for an increase in the education budget. Given the NLD’s connections with generations of student activists, I would have thought that it would fiercely protect the rights of students to speak out, rather than silence their voices.
Journalists are faring no better. I have been informed that since the arrests of Irrawaddy and DVB journalists who attended a drug burning ceremony in Shan State last year, journalists are fearful of travelling to ethnic areas to report on events in non-government controlled regions in ways that may provoke the ire of the government. Since the conviction of two Kachin Baptist pastors in October 2017, people are also too afraid to speak to the media. The two had allegedly helped journalists report on a potential war crime committed by the Tatmadaw in November 2016 in Kachin State. The result is a culture of fear, silence and self-censorship, and a situation where the public only get to hear the government or military version of events.
Despite these obstacles, some journalists have courageously continued their work. In December last year, Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone were arrested having travelled to Rakhine to investigate a massacre by the Tatmadaw. Of all the deaths that occurred in Rakhine after 25 August, the military has only accepted responsibility for ten – the ten in Inn Din village – and that may be due to the work of these two brave men. Their fearless work highlights the absolutely invaluable role of independent journalism. I remain deeply perplexed and concerned that they remain in detention despite the military having admitted responsibility for the killings at Inn Din. To say that their prosecution is under “the rule of law” is no excuse for spurious charges; they should be released immediately and the charges against them must be dropped. As I and the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression have stated previously, “journalism is not a crime”.
This brings me to my visit in Bangladesh. During this visit to Cox’s Bazar, I saw a completely different landscape than in my first visit in February 2017. No amount of videos, photographs or news footage can prepare you for witnessing in-person the immensity of the camps and gravity of the loss and suffering experienced by the Rohingya population. I was particularly shocked when I looked over the Kutapalong-Balukhali settlement expansion where nearly 600,000 people live, and saw the densely packed tarpaulin and bamboo shelters built by incredibly resilient refugees that stretch beyond the horizon. The number of those who fled from Rakhine State since 25 August 2017 currently stands at 688,000, and still there are reports of new arrivals.
In each of the camps and settlements I visited were Rohingya who came from various areas of northern Rakhine. While I listened to each unique and horrific experience, the recurring themes I mentioned earlier – the sense that people have been wrenched from where they belong; their demands for equality; and that tragic sense of déjà vu, that this violence was not new – struck me again and again.
I met over 100 refugees during my time in Bangladesh. I listened as Imams stoically struggled through accounts of their villages being attacked until they broke down when revealing that their children were killed – either burned alive or shot by Myanmar security forces. I spoke to someone who is the only surviving member of his family following the widely documented massacre at Tula Toli. Through anguish and tears he told me how the military came and called him and his family out of their homes, and then gathered and surrounded them. “[They] started shooting, so we huddled closer together—women were taken to rooms in houses, raped and killed. Then they lit everything on fire – my baby son was thrown into the fire. My wife was killed.” I listened to a grandmother who fled with her daughter-in-law and young children. Her 3-year-old grandson witnessed the slaughtering of his father. The little boy described seeing what no child should ever have to witness – “they chopped my father”.
The Government of Bangladesh has continued to be generous in their response in all sectors despite having limited resources themselves. Particularly I want to draw attention to the people of Bangladesh – the communities of Cox’s Bazar – they have shown the world the definition of humanity as they continue, despite their own hardships, to host and exhibit compassion for the Rohingya people.
During my visit, it became clear to me that the Rohingya population will not be moving from Bangladesh any time soon, and this led to serious concerns about what will happen to them when the rains start in just two months. A day of rain could trigger landslides and flood lowlands decimating shelters, and could lead to casualties. International partners stand ready to support the Government of Bangladesh in preparing and responding to the cyclone and monsoon season. But failure to act decisively now will result in a disaster within a disaster for the Rohingya: adequate land and resources must be made available to mitigate the worst.
Talks of repatriation at this time are clearly premature. While the government of Bangladesh made it clear to me that no refugees would be forced back to Myanmar, I remain concerned about whether any safeguards exist to ensure that any returns are truly voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable. I saw great anxiety and fear when I spoke to refugees about the prospect of returning to Myanmar. One mother said to me, “Our beautiful children were slaughtered, how can we go back?” Refugees have been entirely excluded from conversations about their fate, and going forward they must be involved in a meaningful way. The majority of Rohingya I spoke to clearly state they want to go home but only if they can return to a home where they are recognized as Rohingya, have rights as citizens, and can live in their place of origin without fear of being attacked.
Creating a conducive environment depends on the Myanmar government, and my discussions with different stakeholders, together with information I have received about the current situation in Rakhine, lead me to doubt that they are sincere and genuinely engaged in doing so. This is shown by their continued refusal to engage with UNHCR, including giving full access to northern Rakhine. And further, their request to extradite 1,311 named Rohingyas whom they allege are terrorists. The Myanmar authorities have even gone so far as to publish this list online and in state newspapers with pictures of those named – in clear violation of their rights to due process – contributing further to the climate of fear. Myanmar is keeping the world in the dark, and the international community appears unwilling to challenge the government of Myanmar under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi.
I note the statement recently made by the Chair of the Advisory Board to the Committee for Implementation of the Recommendations on Rakhine State mentioning that the villagers His Excellency had met did not seem to have any fear. It is unfortunate that HE Prof. Dr. Surakiart Sathirathai was unavailable to meet with me in Bangkok. If we had met I would have asked if he and the Board intend to make a visit to Cox’s Bazar to ask the refugees there if they have any fear of returning; whether they trust the very institution that they say had perpetrated violence against them to provide security if they return; and what is the Board’s view of the provision in the Bangladesh-Myanmar repatriation agreement, which imposes on returnees National Verification Cards – contrary to the voluntary nature of the citizenship verification process called for by the Kofi Annan Commission.
Throughout my mission, in Bangladesh and in Thailand, I was heartened by the words of encouragement I have received. People from Myanmar of different backgrounds and ethnicities – be they refugees, journalists, human rights defenders or political activists – expressed their regret and disappointment that I have been denied entry to Myanmar and the space to continue what they see as crucial work in the promotion and protection of human rights in their country. I hope that I will gain access again soon; I remain ready to work with the government and other stakeholders to promote and protect the human rights of all people of Myanmar.
After two weeks hearing accounts of suffering that has spanned a period of decades, it is difficult to sum up all my thoughts in this statement. In concluding, I would like to return to the three themes that recurred throughout my time in Bangladesh and Thailand:
People from Myanmar who are in Bangladesh and Thailand must be able to return home; to where they belong. For returns to be ever realized in a way that is voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable they must be treated as equals – citizens of Myanmar with all the rights that the status affords. The situation is clearly not safe for Rohingya to return now but if the process is delayed indefinitely and the facts on the ground in Rakhine State change irreversibly, there may be nothing for them to return to. The international community needs to pressure Myanmar to create conditions for return before it is too late. This must be done in a principled way that prioritizes the need for these people to be recognized as Rohingya and as citizens of Myanmar.
Without equality, Myanmar will never be free from violence and the country’s tragic déjà vu will reverberate through the future as it has through the past. The cycle of violence must end, and Myanmar must be supported in implementing the profound and meaningful reforms that are so urgently needed. The democratic government can take the first step to a more hopeful future for Myanmar by making a break with the repressive practices of the past.
Thank you for your attention.
Annex – List of Meetings Held & Areas Visited
BANGLADESH (Dhaka, Cox’s Bazar)
Camps & Settlements visited
(refugee camp/existing & makeshift settlements)
THAILAND (Bangkok, Mae Sot, Chiang Mai)
This statement is originally appeared HERE.