Recent fighting between Myanmar’s army and insurgents in the country’s conflict-torn Rakhine State has had a “devastating” impact on civilians — at least 35,000 of whom have fled the region in the face of violence and possible war crimes, the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar warned this week.
Yanghee Lee told the U.N. Human Rights Council on Tuesday that both Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army, an armed guerrilla group that’s been fighting for more autonomy for the state’s ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, may be guilty of violating international humanitarian law.
“The conflict with the Arakan Army in northern Rakhine State and parts of southern Chin State has continued over the past few months and the impact on civilians is devastating,” Lee told the council. “Many acts of the [military] and the Arakan Army violate international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes, as well as violating human rights.”
The Arakan Army ― which has launched several deadly attacks on government soldiers this year ― has allegedly also abducted civilians, including a group of 12 construction workers in neighboring Chin State, Lee said.
Myanmar’s army, known as the Tatmadaw, has reportedly been arresting, interrogating and “disappear[ing]” civilians believed to have links to the Arakan Army, she added, noting that several of these detainees have died in custody.
Lee also shared a troubling report from April that claimed a military helicopter had shot at a group of civilian men and boys while they were collecting bamboo. The helicopter reportedly “circled the group several times, firing as the men and boys were fleeing, killing six and injuring thirteen,” Lee said.
The dead were reportedly all members of the ethnic Rohingya minority, a group that has faced decades of persecution in Myanmar and was driven, en masse, out of the country in 2017.
More than 700,000 Rohingya, most of whom are Muslim, fled to Bangladesh that year following a military crackdown in Rakhine State. The crackdown, which reportedly included mass killings and gang rapes, has been described by UN officials and human rights groups as a possible genocide. The Myanmar government ― and its civilian leader, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi ― has, however, vehemently refuted this characterization and has insisted that Rohingya “terrorists” were the cause of the humanitarian crisis.
The government, which has similarly referred to the Arakan Army as a terrorist organization, has also deflected blame regarding the recent clashes in Rakhine State.
Myanmar’s ambassador to the UN, Kyaw Moe Tun, told the Security Council this week that the government had extended a ceasefire through August with the country’s ethnic armed organizations and was “working tirelessly to end ethnic strife and end conflict and to achieve sustainable peace in Myanmar through a peace process,” Reuters reported.
But according to local paper The Irrawaddy, the military has excluded Rakhine State from the truce.
Lee, reportedly a persona non grata in Myanmar because of her criticism of the government, warned last week that the Tatmadaw may be “committing gross human rights violations against the civilian population” in Rakhine State under the “cover” of an internet blackout that’s been in force in parts of the region since June 21.
“We must not forget that these are the same security forces that have so far avoided accountability for the atrocities committed against the Rohingya in Rakhine State less than two years ago,” Lee said in a statement.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications ordered the blackout, which has impacted mobile data networks in eight townships in Rakhine State and one township in Chin State, The New York Times reported Tuesday, noting that the embargo had “all but severed [these areas] from the outside world.”
“The internet will resume when stability is restored in that area,” U Myo Swe, a telecommunications official, told the paper, adding the blackout was “for the benefit of the people.”
But Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch warned the blackout was “depriving aid workers and rights monitors of vital communications in a time of crisis.”
Lee said last week that she feared “for all civilians there, cut off and without the necessary means to communicate with people inside and outside the area.”
The U.S. has urged Myanmar ― which it, for political reasons, refers to by its colonial name, Burma ― to immediately restore mobile data services to Rakhine and Chin States.
“The United States is concerned the ongoing shutdown of mobile data services there undermines Burma’s democracy, increases impunity, & discourages much-needed foreign direct investment,” Morgan Ortagus, a spokeswoman for the State Department, said last week.