April 29, 2020 / 8:49 AM / a month ago

Myanmar military may be committing new war crimes, says departing rights envoy

(Reuters) - The departing U.N. human rights envoy for Myanmar said its military is engaged in activities against rebels that may amount to “war crimes and crimes against humanity” in Rakhine and Chin states, and that she was “enraged” and “saddened” by the situation in the country after six years in the role.

FILE PHOTO: Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee gives her report to the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo

The South Korean special rapporteur said the basis for her conclusion about possible war crimes was that the armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, have ramped up attacks against civilians in recent weeks with air and artillery strikes.

Two military spokesmen did not answer phone calls seeking comment. A government spokesman also did not answer phone calls seeking comment. The army has denied targeting civilians and has declared the insurgent group it is fighting, the Arakan Army, a terrorist organisation.

“While the world is occupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Myanmar military continues to escalate its assault in Rakhine State, targeting the civilian population,” Yanghee Lee said on Wednesday in her final statement as rights envoy, calling for an investigation into the accusations “in accordance with international standards”.

Government troops and fighters from the Arakan Army, which wants greater autonomy for Myanmar’s western region and recruits largely from the region’s Buddhist majority, have been fighting for more than a year, but clashes have intensified recently.

Dozens of people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced.

The government has repeatedly refused requests by Lee to enter Myanmar. She has previously accused the army of genocide and other war crimes against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine in 2017, when some 700,000 fled an army crackdown.

The army and government have consistently rejected such accusations and said the military was responding to attacks by Rohingya Muslim insurgents.

Lee told Reuters by phone from South Korea that the democratic opening that brought Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to power in 2016, ending half a century of military rule, had failed to bring the hoped-for expansion of rights and freedoms.

She criticized what she described as the “systemic failure” of the international community, including the United Nations, to stop grave human rights violations.

“We repeat the phrase, ‘Never again’. It goes on and on,” she said.

Lee has been a divisive figure inside Myanmar. Her defense of the Rohingya made her a popular target of Buddhist nationalists. The last time she was allowed to visit the country was in 2017, shortly after the expulsion of tens of thousands of Rohingya during a military campaign.

Editing by Robert Birsel, Matthew Tostevin and Nick Tattersall

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