The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, lamented the decades long cycle of violence perpetuated by the authorities against ethnic minorities in Myanmar, including Rohingya Muslims, and said talk of repatriating hundreds of thousands of refugees anytime soon was premature.
In an end of mission statement following visits to Thailand and Bangladesh last month, Lee said that what the Myanmar government claims to be the conduct of military or security operations was 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,” she said.
“While reports from Rakhine State have rightly provoked international outrage; for many in Myanmar, they have elicited a tragic sense of déjà vu.”
She said the atrocities committed against the Rohingya in the aftermath of the 9 October 2016 and the 25 August 2017 attacks have been 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,” Lee said.
“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.”
Lee said that set against this background of violence in the ethnic areas of Myanmar, was 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.”
Lee, who was informed by the Myanmar authorities last year she would no longer be allowed to visit the country on the grounds her reporting was unfair and biased, called on the democratic government to break with the repressive practices of the past, and to allow people who have fled their country to return home - to where they belong.
But she added: “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 that status affords.”
She said that while the government of Bangladesh had made it clear that no refugees would be forced back to Myanmar, the international community must pressure Myanmar to create conditions for their 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,” she said.
Lee said that during her visit to a camp in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, she saw great anxiety and fear when speaking 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.
“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.”
Lee said she hoped to regain access to Myanmar. “I remain ready to work with the Government and other stakeholders to promote and protect the human rights of all people in Myanmar,” she said.