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Myanmar: A Breakneck Speed “Disintegration of Human Rights,” says High Commissioner

June 18th, 2024  •  Author:   Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights  •  8 minute read
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Mr. President,
Distinguished delegates,

As we convene here in the Council, yet again discussing Myanmar, we are bearing witness to a country being suffocated by an illegitimate military regime. Myanmar is in agonizing pain. And the disintegration of human rights continues at breakneck speed. This is a crisis emblematic of a decades-long legacy of military domination, the stifling of dissent, and division.

And right now, these very same dynamics are playing out in terrifying form with the Rohingya and Rakhine communities. We are hearing stories of horrific war tactics, such as beheadings. Midnight drone attacks. The burning of homes as people sleep. People being shot at as they flee for their lives. The military has lost control over a considerable amount of territory. So it is resorting to increasingly extreme measures. Forced conscription. Indiscriminate bombardment of towns and villages. Brutal atrocity crimes.

Mr. President,
I have just returned from a visit to south-east Asia. I had the opportunity to hear from Myanmar civil society on the spiralling regional impacts of the crisis and the urgent need for leadership and influence to halt this catastrophe. The Myanmar military continues to gain access to foreign currency and weapons it needs to sustain its campaign of terror, while international financial support for the people of Myanmar is meagre at best. But I also witnessed a profound sense of hope. In my discussions with Myanmar civil society, human rights defenders and refugee communities, it was clear to see there is a new generation of young people from all ethnic communities leading the struggle to create an inclusive vision for the future of Myanmar.

In Malaysia, I met with representatives of almost all ethnic communities – together.   A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable to meet with Rohingya and other ethnic communities around one table. I was moved by their solidarity and shared hopes. In Thailand, representatives of Myanmar civil society and human rights defenders from different communities and backgrounds were also united by a common sense of purpose. Their rejection of the military’s seizure of power and violence. Their demand for accountability. Their desire for a better future. These young people have strong expectations of the international community. They seek for the extent of Myanmar’s suffering to be genuinely acknowledged and given the attention it deserves. They hope that funding will be made available to those on the ground to deliver humanitarian assistance and services directly to communities throughout the country.  They have risked their lives and livelihoods to help communities in need and resist the repression by the military. And with them, a future is possible.

Mr. President,
We are witnessing a people’s revolution against decades of oppression and violence. In some areas outside the military’s control, new local governance structures have emerged, supported by ethnic armed groups and activists alike. They are providing food, shelter, education and healthcare for hundreds of thousands who are otherwise receiving little to no humanitarian support. And they are delivering critically needed protection services in the complete absence of a functioning public system. The Karenni Interim Executive Council in Kayah State, for example, has created a local governance system, where seven members have been elected by the people to respond to the community’s needs. I call on all anti-military armed groups to ensure the protection of civilians, defectors and surrendees at all times.

Mr. President,
The people of Myanmar must be spared more despair, more suffering, more fear. Armed conflicts continue to rage brutally across the country, taking an increasingly grim toll on the lives of civilians. My Office is investigating several reported attacks against civilians in Rakhine State and Sagaing over recent days with large numbers of civilians allegedly killed — in airstrikes, naval artillery barrages and shootings. I am very concerned about the situation in Maungdaw. The Arakan Army this weekend gave all remaining residents – including a large Rohingya population – a warning to evacuate.    But Rohingya have no options. There is nowhere to flee.

Following a similar pattern in Buthidaung, where Rohingya were ordered to flee, and then the town burned, I fear we are – yet again — about to bear witness to displacement, destruction and abuses. The military also reportedly ordered evacuation of ethnic Rakhine villages around Sittwe, where they have been conducting mass arrests in recent days. In another instance, the village of Byaing Phyu was reportedly emptied of its several hundred residents, as the military tried to identify men of fighting age who sympathised with their armed opponent, the Arakan Army. Men were separated from women. Dozens of men were allegedly tortured, shot and killed. Multiple reports allege that at least five women were also raped and killed in the incident. Their village was burned. Hundreds of men taken away are now missing. In a cynical move, the military has pressured and threatened young Rohingya men to join their ranks. Some reports have indicated thousands of Rohingya youth have been conscripted into the very same forces that displaced hundreds of thousands of their community in 2016 and 2017. In response, the Arakan Army has exhorted Rohingya to fight with them against the military. They have targeted their communities by forcibly displacing residents. On multiple occasions, they have detained or killed men of fighting age who they suspected of taking up arms against them.

These tactics have brought back the shocking images and memories from 2017 of systematic terrorisation, persecution and forced displacement of populations. Today, sections of Maungdaw and Buthidaung have been alternately burned. Ethnic Rakhine houses and neighbourhoods were set alight, followed days later by the burning of Rohingya villages. And tens of thousands of civilians from these communities have been forced to flee, among them entire Rohingya communities with no guarantees of finding safe haven.   Over one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are still living in limbo in dire conditions, with no prospect for durable solutions. All this, in the face of binding provisional measures ordered by the International Court of Justice for the protection of Rohingya while it examines the case alleging genocide brought before it by the Gambia and other intervening Member States.  Accountability, including in proceedings currently pending before the International Criminal Court, is absolutely critical. The failures to ensure accountability in Myanmar’s past transition, are now allowing history to repeat itself and are haunting the present and the future.

Mr. President,
The situation in Rakhine State is – tragically – just one example of how this coup, which has resulted in three years of conflict, has brought pain and suffering to an entire country. The attacks by the military have been, and continue to be, indiscriminate. Since February 2021, at least 5,280 civilians, including 1,022 women and 667 children, have been killed at the hands of the military. At least 26,865 individuals have been arrested and 20,592 remain in detention. There are now three million people internally displaced by these conflicts, the vast majority still without proper shelter.  Without access to food or water. Without essential medicines and healthcare. And so many more of the cruel consequences of the military’s continued denial of humanitarian access remain invisible and under-reported.

Mr. President,
The violence must end. The attacks against civilians must end. The forced conscription must end. And the denial of humanitarian assistance must end.  I urge all parties to prevent the recurrence of the atrocity crimes committed against the Rohingya in 2016 and 2017. I also call on countries in the region to ensure international protection, and provision of adequate shelter, support and long-term access to essential services to people fleeing the violence and persecution. Special provisions need to be made for human rights defenders, who are particularly exposed and often face transnational threats and refoulement.  Nobody should be forcibly returned to Myanmar at this time. We need an urgent rethink of how we can respond collectively to this unmitigated crisis.   I had the opportunity to discuss this with the leadership of the Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic and Malaysia as the current and future ASEAN Chair, as well as with Thailand as a near neighbour.  It is time to go beyond the ASEAN Five Point Consensus that has failed to stem the violence or restore democracy.

ASEAN’s efforts must be reenergised and backed by a consortium of influential States to develop a new roadmap that can restore the destiny of Myanmar to its people.  This must factor in the new realities of local governance emerging on the ground that can provide building blocks towards a democratic future from the bottom up.  Myanmar’s people must have a place at the table. This means reaching out to the democracy movement and youth, involving them meaningfully in the resolution of this crisis. The new generation in Myanmar – particularly the women’s leadership that has emerged – should be supported in a “visioning process” for the future of the country.

With more attention, more investment, more political will and more action, this situation can be turned around for a better tomorrow for the people of Myanmar.

Thank you.

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