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Myanmar villagers fleeing military attacks seek refuge in basic shelters at Farkawn in India's Mizoram state near Myanmar border. Myanmar villagers fleeing military attacks seek refuge in basic shelters at Farkawn in India's Mizoram state near Myanmar border.  (AFP or licensors)

UN rights office: Myanmar junta's violence amounts to crimes against humanity

The UN rights chief urges the international community to redouble its efforts to restore democracy in Myanmar before it is too late.

By Vatican Radio staff reporter

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Thursday warned of a human rights catastrophe in Myanmar under military rule, pointing out that some violations by the junta may amount to crimes against humanity. "The national consequences are terrible and tragic – the regional consequences could also be profound," Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights told the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military toppled the elected government of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1, sparking nationwide anger, strikes, protests, and the emergence of anti-junta militia. The coup has exacerbated the already deteriorating situation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic in the impoverished country, with the military-run health ministry scarcely able to provide basic healthcare services.

According to a report by the UN rights office, more than 1,120 people have been killed in a nationwide crackdown by security forces on pro-democracy strikes and protests, with more than 8,000 detained and at least 120 reportedly killed in custody. Violence by the junta has displaced more than 230,000 civilians, bringing the total number of internally displaced persons in Myanmar to well over half a million.

Conflict, repression, poverty, pandemic

Bachelet said, “Conflict, poverty and the effects of the pandemic are sharply increasing, and the country faces a vortex of repression, violence and economic collapse.” The human rights situation in Myanmar has deteriorated significantly as the far-reaching impacts of the military coup continue to devastate lives and hopes across the country. 

Warning of a “human rights catastrophe,” she said the report by her office had documented many serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including violations of the rights to life, liberty, and security of person; the prohibition against torture; fair trial guarantees; freedom of expression; and freedom of peaceful assembly. Several of these violations may amount to crimes against humanity committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against the civilian population – or, to the extent arising in armed conflict, war crimes.

“The international community must redouble its efforts to restore democracy and prevent wider conflict before it is too late," she said.

People’s self defence

Local armed defence forces, which have clashed with the military, have formed in various regions, prompting many thousands to flee their towns and villages, including to neighbouring India. Local media in Myanmar reported deadly violence in at least five different regions and states on Thursday, which included the use of home-made bombs by militias allied with a shadow government, which earlier this month called for a "people's defensive war" against the junta.

Reuters on Wednesday cited local media which reported that most of the 10,000 people of Thantland town in Chin State fled to forests or across the border to India, after buildings were set ablaze by artillery amid fighting between militia forces opposed to military rule and the army.  During a clash between militia forces and the army last weekend, about 20 homes were set ablaze, with photos posted on social media showing buildings engulfed in flames. Soldiers shot dead a Christian pastor who tried to extinguish a blaze, the Myanmar Now news portal reported, although state media disputed the report.

Bachelet said troops had used weapons against civilians that were intended for military conflict and carried out "indiscriminate airstrikes and artillery barrages."

Western countries have condemned the junta and imposed targeted sanctions, but critics say a tougher stand must be taken, including an arms embargo. Bachelet said Myanmar had failed to deliver on its agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to cease violence and start dialogue.

Even children are not spared

The previous day, Wednesday, Tom Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, also told the Human Rights Council that “current efforts by the international community to stop the downward spiral of events in Myanmar are simply not working.” He also said there was evidence that the military junta was committing crimes against humanity. 

He said that the military junta was systematically abducting the relatives of people it is seeking to arrest, including children as young as 20 weeks old. “Victims of security forces often sustained wounds to their heads and torsos, indicating that they were targeted for maximum harm,” the UN said.

Andrews reported that as of July, the junta had killed at least 75 children ranging in age from 14 months to 17 years.  The military was routinely abducting family members when it is unable to locate individuals it is seeking to arrest. “I have received credible reports that junta forces have arbitrarily detained at least 177 individuals­ when the initial target of a raid had successfully eluded arrest. These victims include very young children as young as 20 weeks old,” he said.

According to the Human Rights Office, most of those arrested by security forces are held in custody without any form of due process and lack access to legal counsel, or even the ability to communicate with their families. 

However, amidst the darkness and gloom in Myanmar, Andrews notes rays of light and hope in the people’s resilience and solidarity.  Activists, peaceful protesters, police and military defectors, doctors, healthcare workers and volunteers relentlessly continue to care for patients and those in difficulty despite the dangers of doing so. He appealed for greater humanitarian aid for the more than 3 million Myanmar people who are in need of assistance.

24 September 2021, 11:50