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UN rights chief urges accountability for escalating ‘catastrophe’ in Myanmar

An IDP camp in northern Myanmar. (file photo)
UNICEF/Minzayar Oo
An IDP camp in northern Myanmar. (file photo)

UN rights chief urges accountability for escalating ‘catastrophe’ in Myanmar

Human Rights

Escalating violence across Myanmar including attacks on civilians must be halted to prevent even greater loss of life and a deepening humanitarian emergency, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Friday.

Ms. Bachelet’s appeal follows reports of a continuing military build-up in various parts of the country including Kayah State in the east – where more than 108,000 people have fled their homes in the last three weeks – and in Chin State in the west.

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This runs contrary to commitments made in April by Myanmar’s military leaders to regional powers ASEAN, to cease brutal violence against civilians which has followed the 1 February coup.

Rising toll

“As I had feared, armed conflict and other violence are intensifying in many parts of Myanmar, including Kayah State, Chin State and Kachin State, with the violence particularly intense in areas with significant ethnic and religious minority groups”, Ms. Bachelet said in a statement.

“State security forces have continued to use heavy weaponry, including airstrikes, against armed groups and against civilians and civilian objects, including Christian churches.”

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights cited credible reports that security forces had used civilians as human shields, shelled civilian homes and churches in Loikaw, Phekon and Demoso, in Kayah State.

She also appealed for hospitals, schools and places of worship to be protected throughout the country, after several reported incidents in which hospitals, schools and religious institutions were entered and occupied by State security forces, “fired upon and damaged in military actions”.

Aid workers blocked

Soldiers had also blocked humanitarian access, including by attacking humanitarian actors, Ms. Bachelet insisted, noting with concern that more than 108,000 people had fled their homes in Kayah State over the last three weeks alone, many into forest areas where they are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also warned that “sweeping arrests” have continued of activists, journalists and opponents of the regime.

At least 4,804 people remain in arbitrary detention, Ms. Bachelet’s office noted, before citing reports of torture and collective punishment of family members of activists – including one mother of an activist who was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in place of her son on 28 May.

A group of people on the streets of Yangon show their support for Myanmar.
Unsplash/Saw Wunna
A group of people on the streets of Yangon show their support for Myanmar.

‘Human rights catastrophe’

“In just over four months, Myanmar has gone from being a fragile democracy to a human rights catastrophe. In addition to the loss of life, people are suffering from severe impacts on the social and economic rights. The military leadership is singularly responsible for this crisis, and must be held to account,” the High Commissioner said.

Since the military takeover, a minimum of 860 people have been killed by security forces, mostly in the context of protests, the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) noted.

More than 100 self-styled “people’s defence forces” and opposition armed groups also operate across the country, said OHCHR spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani, although there was “little centralised command”.

ASEAN appeal

Appealing for an “intensification” of regional diplomacy, including by regional power bloc ASEAN and other influential States, Ms. Bachelet urged them to insist on the immediate cessation of violence and ongoing violations.

“Dialogue is urgently needed with the National Unity Government and civil society stakeholders”, she said.

The High Commissioner noted that she intends to update the UN Human Rights Council on the situation in Myanmar on 7 July.