The Myanmar government on Tuesday brushed aside United Nations Human Rights Council reports on serious rights violations committed against the Rohingya during a crackdown by the military in Rakhine state, saying the officials tasked with examining the abuses have “biased” and “prejudiced” views.
Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, and Marzuki Darusman, former attorney-general of Indonesia and chairman of a U.N.-appointed international fact-finding mission on human rights in Myanmar, on Monday issued damning reports on the violent expulsion of Rohingya, citing hundreds of interviews with victims and eyewitnesses about reported human rights violations along with satellite imagery, photographs, and video footage of events.
Lee told the Council on Monday that the brutal crackdown by Myanmar soldiers in northern Rakhine state in response to attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) bore the “hallmarks of genocide.” She also said that the government had done nothing to stop the attacks and must be held accountable along with those who committed acts of violence.
The crackdown, which included indiscriminate killings, rape, torture, and arson, forced nearly 700,000 Rohingya to flee across the border to Bangladesh where they live in destitution in sprawling displacement camps.
An interim report issued by Darusman’s panel said the Myanmar military has created patterns of human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law not only in Rakhine state, but also in Shan and Kachin states, where lesser-known conflicts are raging between the government army and ethnic militias.
“Regarding the Myanmar military, we are receiving credible reports of indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary deprivation of liberty, enforced disappearances, destruction of property and pillage, torture and inhuman treatment, rape and other forms of sexual violence, forced labor, and the recruitment of children into armed forces,” the report said.
Myanmar’s response at the Council's annual meeting in Geneva on Monday was that a “less-than-objective approach by some had brought a paradigm shift in the perception and attitude” towards the country, according to a statement of the proceedings issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
The Myanmar army has denied accusations of brutality against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine, saying its own investigations have cleared soldiers of the alleged abuses.
The Myanmar government has also denied the allegations and blocked Darusman’s fact-finding mission, appointed by the U.N. a year ago, from entering the country to conduct an independent investigation.
Kept out of Rakhine, Darusman’s team went to Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia to interview more than 600 refugees.
‘We don’t accept it’
Responding to comments by Lee and Darusman, Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Tuesday that the country had blocked the U.N. fact-finding mission because it rejected its legitimacy, and because its members were prejudiced in their assessment of the situation in Rakhine state by labeling it genocide or ethnic cleansing.
“We don’t accept it because making prejudgments is unethical,” he said.
Zaw Htay also said that Lee, who was nominated as special envoy on human rights by the Myanmar government and whose nomination was supported by other countries with the expectation of her demonstrating impartial cooperation, has made “biased, one-sided, and unfair accusations against Myanmar.”
“Neither the fact-finding mission nor Yanghee Lee are impartial,” he said.
“We are not denying rights violations but we are asking for strong, fact-based, and trustworthy evidence for the allegations they are making,” Zaw Htay said. “If [they provide it], we will investigate the charges and take action against people who have committed any crimes, but we don’t want stories by refugees who were interviewed at camps.”
Zaw Htay did not explain why refugee accounts were being dismissed out of hand by his government or why the repeated release of satellite data presented by human rights organizations has also been rejected by Myanmar.
Independent journalists have been barred from visiting the area, aside from rare government-escorted tours, and Myanmar has arrested two Reuters reporters for their detailed coverage documenting the killings.
The Myanmar government has temporarily barred Lee from visiting the country on her periodic missions to evaluate rights developments, particularly in violence-ridden Rakhine state.
Zaw Htay went on to say that the genocide and ethnic cleansing accusations that Lee and the fact-finding commission have raised could serve as fodder for ARSA members based just over the border in Bangladesh to incite further terrorist attacks.
“We have been talking about these possibilities repeatedly, and we have cooperated with Bangladesh because of them,” he said.
Though Myanmar still refuses to allow in the U.N.’s team of investigators, Zaw Htay said Myanmar wants to have good relationship with the international body and to be an active member.
“We will cooperate with all western and eastern countries on human rights and development issues,” he said. “We have been working with the U.N. and other countries and welcome them to to work with us on Myanmar’s national reconciliation, peace, and democracy transition based on the on-the-ground situation.”
When asked about the possibility that the government of de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi would accept the fact-finding mission in the future, Zaw Htay said all parties should understand that “the problems in Rakhine state were not created by the Myanmar government, security forces, and the predominantly Buddhist ethnic Rakhine people in the region.
“They were created by terrorists and their incitements of terrorism,” he said. “Everybody should be clear about it.”
“There are accusations from the international community — and we will have more of them — but we won’t deny them; we will prove [them wrong] with our practical work,” he said.
However, few people outside Myanmar accept the government’s account of the Rohingya mass exodus, and the issue has tarnished the reputation of Aung San Suu Kyi, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for her decades of opposition to brutal rule by the same military now accused of committing atrocities in Rakhine.
Earlier this month United States Holocaust Memorial Museum rescinded its human-rights award to Aung San Suu Kyi for her failure to stop or acknowledge the persecution of the Rohingya.
Myanmar has said that it is prepared to take back Rohingya refugees who want to voluntarily return to northern Rakhine state, if they can prove that they lived in the region prior to Oct. 9, 2016, when soldiers launched a smaller-scale crackdown in response to deadly ARSA raids on border guard stations.
Though refugee processing centers have been built in Rakhine, the repatriation program has yet to begin, with the Myanmar and Bangladeshi sides blaming each other for delays.
“We have been working on accepting back refugees who actually lived in Rakhine state,” Zaw Htay said.
“Another thing we’re giving priority to is not falling into a trap set by ARSA, which is trying to gain a political advantage from this issue,” he said.