Human Rights Abuses in Burma Highlighted by UN

3 August 2017

Between the 10th and 21st of July this year, the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Myanmar (Burma), Yanghee Lee, undertook an information-gathering visit across the country in which she highlighted a catalogue of concerns about human rights abuses.

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar (Source: OHCHR)

The visit takes place during a time of strong international criticism of the newly ‘democratic’ Burmese government, and its Nobel Prize winning de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. It is democratic only in name however, as it remains very much at the mercy of the military (Tatmadaw), as has been highlighted previously here. The following is a summary of the statement’s findings, and a word on how HART’s partners are working to solve these issues.

Growing violence in Shan state

Alongside concerns about the detention of journalists, which will be addressed later on, Yanghee Lee cites fears of growing violence in the state. Conflict lays the foundations for human rights violations, and this instance is no exception: the Tatmadaw is accused of serious abuses, including killings, torture, and the use of civilians as human shields. Furthermore, she reports instances of alleged civilian collaborators being forced to wear the uniforms of armed groups and then subject to violence and abuse.

A recurring abuse committed by the Tatmadaw is the use of intimidation tactics to suppress the reporting of abuses. Yanghee Lee suggests this is happening in Shan state, and is seen again, for example, in Rakhine state. In March, it was reported that 3 Rohingya girls who told foreign media that they were raped were later arrested by the Border Guard Police.

The ethnic armed groups themselves are also criticised. She points out the alarming rise in ‘forced recruitment and abductions’ by the groups and the civilians caught in the cross fire, implementing them in the resulting lack of humanitarian access for civilians.

Continued abuses against the Rohingya in Rakhine State

In Rakhine state, Lee reports continued abuses directed against the Rohingya Muslim minority. Denied citizenship and heavily marginalised by the previous military junta, the Rohingya have suffered countless abuses as a result of a military crackdown after a Rohingya armed group attacked an army outpost in October last year. Lee has labelled such abuses as ‘definite crimes against humanity’, and she reports that the situation ‘has hardly improved’.

Similar to those caught in the conflict in Shan state, she mentions that some Rohingya are targeted by hardliners within their own community who suspect that they are collaborating with the authorities. She conveys the wish of local people that the international community will not judge the Rakhine community by the actions of both sides’ extremists.

She also expressed concern for the more than 120,000 internally displaced persons, and the lack of access for humanitarian aid and monitoring. Further, the statement claims the rights of prisoners taken in response to the October attacks are being ignored, with children being detained and no opportunities for legal representation.

Troubles for refugees in Karen (Kayin) State

In Karen state, as in others such as Rakhine, the issue of land confiscation for business interests is impacting the community. They face forced eviction, no compensation, and some are even offered back their land at inflated prices.

She also highlights the rise in domestic violence in the state against women and children, and the troubles of refugees in Thailand. They feel unable to return to Burma as they face land mines, restricted access to aid, and discrimination by the Tatmadaw. Yet they are also discriminated against in Thailand – they cannot leave the camps, they are forbidden from work, and are subject to arrest and deportation by the Thai authorities.

Monitoring access and press freedom

Aside from specific concerns in individual states, there are also two general themes criticised in the statement. The first is the lack of access granted by the government to the UN and monitoring groups. The government’s usual excuse for this was security reasons – even in cases where foreign tourists are allowed to visit and places that she was close enough to see. This denial of access was repeated in many of the areas she attempted to visit in the country. With the government denying visas for UN fact finding missions, the Burmese government and military have commissioned their own investigations, often headed by generals. In one such investigation, the Tatmadaw True News Information Team cleared itself of charges related to its treatment of the Rohingya, but admitted to stealing a motorbike.

Additionally, she cites the worry that the controversial media law – section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act – is being abused to stifle press freedom and intimidate journalists. The law, criticised as a ‘candidate for world’s worst media law’, allows anyone to bring criminal charges against, amongst other things, online defamation and disturbance. With no clear definition of these terms, they are openly abused by the powerful to stifle critics and journalists. One such example is the recent arrest of an editor accused of defaming the Buddhist extremist monk, Ashin Wirathu.

How HART’s partners are working to combat these abuses

Many of the issues raised in Yanghee Lee’s statement are concerns shared by HART and its partners. For example, in Shan state, HART’s support for the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) helps to provide emergency help for people affected by crisis, something which is exceptionally important with the increasing denial of access in the state for international actors. They also work to combat domestic violence such as that reported in Karen state. SWAN provides safe houses and counselling, and helps to rehabilitate victims, as well as advocating for the rights of women.

In Karen state, Yanghee Lee reports that restricted access to aid, militarisation, and land mines are affecting displaced communities on either side of the Thai border. This is an ongoing issue that HART’s partners in Karen state work to address, risking their lives to take vital aid across the border to desperate people cut off and displaced by the Tatmadaw. This shows how our partners are working to combat serious and current issues that have been highlighted by the UN and improve the situation across Burma.


Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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