Header image for news printout

Oral statement by Ms Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar at the 40th session of the Human Rights Council

11 March 2019

Mr President, distinguished representatives, ladies and gentlemen,

I am honoured to once again present my report to this Council on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. I have pointed out positive developments in Myanmar, as I have always done in the past, but sadly, more negative developments have emerged during the last reporting period. I take this opportunity now to provide some updates on issues raised in my report as well as to draw attention to some concerning new developments. For the sake of time, I will not repeat what I have said in my report.

While I have previously enjoyed a collegial, constructive and open relationship with the Government of Myanmar, my repeated attempts to engage with officials over the last year have been fruitless. However, I stress again that I remain a friend to Myanmar; to all of its people and its Government, and my highest priority is to continue to offer my guidance and support on issues of human rights. 

Mr President, 

Today marks the day that thousands of people living in rural areas in Myanmar may be charged with criminal trespass under the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law, if they continue to use their lands as they have done for generations, but without a permit from the Government to do so. Nearly a third of the land in Myanmar has been classified as vacant, fallow or virgin, with the majority in ethnic states. There, shared land ownership practices, such as customary tenure, are widely observed, and land belonging to IDPs and refugees of conflict is left unattended. The Law does not sufficiently recognise this reality. The Law affects so many people, and with land insecurity central to the cycle of conflict, poverty and denial of rights, it has the potential to be disastrous. 

The Government’s pledge to make Myanmar more investment friendly was reaffirmed at the Rakhine State Investment Fair last month. I am deeply concerned by what appears to be a serious downplaying of the ongoing humanitarian crisis and suppression of human rights that is affecting Rakhine. The Government has a duty to protect all people in Myanmar against human rights abuse as a result of business activity through effective policies, legislation and regulations. At present, I am not convinced that the Government is fulfilling this duty on a basis of equality for all people in Myanmar, and particularly in areas affected by conflict, such as Rakhine. 

The area of the economy I receive more reports of human rights abuse in relation to than any other, remains that of natural resource extraction. Sadly, the Government’s moratorium on issuing new licenses for gemstone mining has failed to curb the terrible devastation caused to the environment, local people and informal workers by jade mining in Hpakant.

Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. and Myanmar Economic Corporation are active across many sectors, including natural resource extraction. The full extent of their business operations and profits are unclear, but their main beneficiaries are most likely to be high-ranking military and ex-military officials. Military-dominated state-owned economic enterprises in natural resource extraction are regulators, revenue collectors and commercial entities, and they are permitted to retain vast profits that bypass the Government budget with no record kept on how they are spent. A recently published two-year investigation alleges the state-owned Myanmar Timber Enterprise enabled systematically under-graded teak to be sold into international markets, accumulating huge sums for a web of private business people and leaving Myanmar’s forests utterly devastated. The investigation found that this appears to have been brought about through the payment of millions of dollars into the personal bank accounts of military Generals. Revenues from natural resource extraction needed for vital services and development being diverted to the military and its allies undermines the civilian Government, democratic reforms, the peace process, sustainable development and the realisation of rights.

Distinguished Representatives,

In my report I raised the issue of school curriculums and textbooks containing incendiary material. I am pleased to say today that I received information that the Minister of Education just issued a directive to remove these materials. 

I have received recent reports about jailed Reuters journalist Kyaw Soe Oo being ill with an unknown condition and I am also very concerned about the health of jailed Kachin activist Nang Pu. They both must be released immediately, their convictions withdrawn, and provided with immediate medical treatment. 

Excellencies,

Despite the four month unilateral ceasefire declared by the military in December in the north and east of the country, I am increasingly concerned about conflict between ethnic armed organisations in Shan State. There are recent reports of civilian deaths and thousands of people have been temporarily displaced from their homes over the last few months, with 1,700 people fleeing from Namtu and Hsipaw since 27 February. This repeated and ongoing violation serves only to traumatise and re-traumatise adults and children, disrupting their daily lives, education and livelihoods, and impacting on their ability to access healthcare and basic services. This must not continue.

The conflict in Rakhine State between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw continues; just this weekend, the Arakan Army reportedly attacked another four more police posts in northern Rakhine and one in Chin. Since November, there have been casualties on both sides, as well as of civilians which is of great concern. Reportedly, up to 10,000 civilians have been forced to flee their homes as a result of the violence and have little humanitarian assistance as a result of Government restrictions. Allegations exist of fighters dressing as civilians and using civilian vehicles, landmine use, forced recruitment and forced portering, and arrest and detention of civilians suspected of being associates or sympathisers of the Arakan Army. It does not appear that the situation will improve in the immediate future.

I repeat my call to all parties to conflicts around the country to protect civilians and take precautions, and to end hostilities.

I received a report just last week from Buthidaung in Rakhine that 24 Rohingya houses in Kun Taing Nar Yar Gone village were burned on 2 March, and Township officials visited the village the following day and told the villagers that they had burned their own houses down. This truly is outrageous and shameful behaviour. On 4 March, 100 houses were burned in Nga Yan Chaung village, in Buthidaung. This occurs in circumstances in which the Government of Bangladesh has said that its border is now closed and it will not receive any new Rohingya refugees. Up to 16,000 people crossed over to Bangladesh in 2018. The Memorandum of Understanding between the Government, UNHCR and UNDP has not been effectively implemented, and it expires in a few months. There is nothing to indicate that conditions have improved for the Rohingya who remain in Myanmar; I am gravely concerned about what their future will be. 

I am becoming fearful of an increasingly internationalised situation of the Rohingya, with deportations from India and Saudi Arabia recently, as well as a boat arrival in Malaysia just last week. The boat arrival is particularly worrying; it illustrates the desperate situation of the people who decided to take the perilous journey, and harks back to the boat crisis of 2015 which must not be repeated. I am troubled to hear reports from Bangladesh Government officials that in April they plan to relocate 23,000 Rohingya refugees from the camps in Cox’s Bazar to Bhashan Char, a recently emerged island in the Bay of Bengal. I had the opportunity to visit the island on my last visit to Bangladesh and saw with my own eyes the works that the Bangladesh Government has undertaken. However, there are a number of things that remain unknown to me even following my visit, chief among them being whether the island is truly habitable. I have called on the Government to ensure that the protection framework has been established prior to making any plans for relocations and to fully engage refugees. Ill-planned relocation, and relocations without the consent of the refugees concerned, have the potential to create a new crisis. It is incumbent on the Government of Bangladesh to ensure that this is not brought about. 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Last year when I presented my concept for an accountability mechanism for Myanmar, I made a proposal for victim support. I am now echoing that proposal and recommending that the international community provide victims who interact with the Independent Mechanism with urgent interim relief. This would enable them to access the IM and be supported through accountability processes with protection, access to livelihoods, education, health, psychosocial and trauma care and legal assistance. Given that the road to justice is long and uncertain, it is paramount that victims’ needs are addressed and that all efforts are aimed at redressing the harm caused to them over so many years. Victims’ rights should remain at the core of all approaches. There is much that Myanmar must do to deal with the past, and processes should be undertaken at the appropriate time together with civil society and in accordance with the pillars of justice, truth, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence. Reversing the continued stance of denial, and shifting to recognition and acknowledgement would go a long way to bringing about an end to impunity that has long existed in Myanmar. 

I am aware that staff of the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court have recently travelled to Bangladesh in relation to the preliminary examination of alleged crimes against the Rohingya. I am pleased that this is moving forward, however I still firmly believe that the situation in Myanmar must be referred to the ICC by the Security Council, or a state party or group of states parties. Victims must not be forced to wait in the purgatory of international inaction; if it is not possible to refer the situation to the ICC, the international community should consider establishing an independent tribunal. I take this opportunity to remind the international community that one of the reasons the Independent Mechanism was established was that Myanmar is not willing and able to bring about accountability. 

Therefore, I would not recommend a hybrid national/international mechanism. 

Distinguished representatives,

For the first time ever, two Rohingya refugees from the camps in Cox’s Bazar, Hamida Khatun from Shanti Mohila and Muhib Ullah from the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, are here at the Council to speak to you. I would like to express my gratitude to Bangladesh and Switzerland and others, who have made this possible and to stress the importance of having the voices of the Rohingya community heard and included in all processes that affect their lives.

Too often decisions are taken without their involvement and without having at their core the interests of victims. Although they cannot represent the million people in Bangladesh, it is of critical importance that they have the opportunity to bring their demands to you directly. I encourage you all to carefully listen and act on their words.  

I repeat that I stand ready to work with Myanmar to take steps that will help protect and promote human rights for all, not leaving anyone behind.

Excellencies,

Bangladesh has done what no other country would do to respond to an enormous humanitarian crisis, with more than a million Myanmar refugees now living in Cox’s Bazar.

Are we, the international community, going to tell Bangladesh they must continue their generosity indefinitely for a crisis that was caused by Myanmar?

Are we going to tell the Rohingya refugees that they are going to have to endure the situation indefinitely?

Are we going to tell the people living in conflict and violence-affected areas of Myanmar that we cannot help them, so they will have to continue to endure abuses? 

The answer to the above questions must be unequivocally “NO”. I implore you to stop the talking, and start the DOING! 

We need to stand united, and proceed full steam ahead to take concrete actions that will solve problems in Myanmar. 

I thank you for your attention.