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Yanghee Lee, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights to Myanmar, speaks during a news conference in Dhaka, on Jan. 23, 2020.

MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images

The UN’s human rights expert on Myanmar has called for a new investigation into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity during recent fighting in the Southeast Asian country as she approaches the end of her appointment.

Yanghee Lee, whose formal title is special rapporteur, accused Myanmar’s military of “inflicting immense suffering” on ethnic minorities in Rakhine and Chin states, where the government is battling the Arakan Army, a well-armed and well-trained guerrilla force representing the Buddhist Rakhine minority.

“While the world is occupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Myanmar military continues to escalate its assault in Rakhine state, targeting the civilian population,” Lee said in a statement issued Wednesday in Geneva.

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She accused the military of “systematically violating the most fundamental principles of international humanitarian law and human rights,” and said its conduct toward civilians “may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Lee, a South Korean whose term ends this month, has been a sharp critic of Myanmar’s military since her appointment in 2014, focusing especially on human rights abuses against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Rakhine state.

In August 2017, the military – known as the Tatmadaw – launched what it called a clearance campaign in northern Rakhine state in response to attacks by a Rohingya insurgent group. The campaign forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. Security forces were accused of mass rapes and killings and burning thousands of homes.

The International Court of Justice in the Netherlands agreed last year to rule on charges of genocide lodged against Myanmar. UN agencies and human rights organizations have extensively documented atrocities. Myanmar’s government says it acted justifiably and denies any major abuses.

Lee linked the current situation in Rakhine and Chin to the government’s actions against the Rohingya, for which no senior officers have faced justice and token punishments were given to a handful of low-ranking security personnel.

“Having faced no accountability, the Tatmadaw continues to operate with impunity. For decades, its tactics have intentionally maximized civilian suffering; we all know what they did to the Rohingya in 2017,” Lee said. “They are now targeting all civilians in the conflict area, with people from Rakhine, Rohingya, Mro, Daignet and Chin communities being killed in recent months. Their alleged crimes must be investigated in accordance with international standards, with perpetrators being held accountable.”

The Arakan Army, which says it is seeking self-determination, has engaged in increasingly fierce combat with government forces since late 2018.

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Lee said government air and artillery strikes in recent weeks have killed and injured scores of adults and children.

“More than 157,000 people have been displaced, and hundreds including women and children killed and wounded since the conflict started,” she said.

Lee was also critical of the Arakan Army, which she said “has also conducted its hostilities in a manner that has had negative impacts on civilians, including kidnapping local officials and parliamentarians.”

She added that the guerrilla force had declared a unilateral ceasefire, citing the need to combat the spread of COVID-19.

“The focus of all authorities, including security forces, should be on dealing with the COVID-19 crisis,” Lee said.

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