GENEVA (18 February 2020) – Independent experts appointed by the Human Rights Council* have expressed grave concerns about the killing and displacement of civilians in northwest Myanmar during fighting between the military and an armed group, the Arakan Army, amid an information blackout in some parts of Rakhine and Chin States.
“Civilians, including children, continue to bear the brunt of this escalating conflict,” said the experts. “We are especially fearful for them as violence has increased in the areas where an internet shutdown was recently re-imposed. It is well known that human rights violations and abuses occur during security operations in Myanmar.”
On 3 February the Ministry of Transport and Communications suspended mobile internet services for a period of three months in Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung and Myebon in Rakhine State and in Paletwa in Chin State. The Ministry has reportedly cited “security requirements and public interest” as the reasons for the shutdown. There has been a suspension in place in four other townships, including Kyauktaw, since June 2019.
Since 4 February, the experts have received credible reports of the daily fighting using involving helicopters and Navy ships. Fighting and the possible use of heavy weapons have also occurred near ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya villages in Kyauktaw, Paletwa, Rathedaung and Buthidaung Townships. The experts said that reports indicate that in the last 10 days up to 1,100 people have been displaced, including 600 civilians from We Ma Kya village in Kyauktaw.
The experts said they had received information that at least seven civilians have been killed, including three Rohingya in Buthidaung, and up to 50 injured, including 21 Khami children who came under fire while at an elementary school in Kha Mawe Cahung village in Buthidaung on 13 February. In Kyauktaw Township, local sources reported that one Rohingya boy died on his way to the hospital after being hurt by the shelling, and seven civilians were reportedly wounded, including three Rohingya. Reportedly a monastery was burned to the ground after being hit by artillery.
“We are gravely concerned that children are being killed and injured, and that reports suggest weapons are being used indiscriminately, and precautions are not being taken to protect civilians and civilian objects such as schools and monasteries, in violation of international humanitarian law,” the experts said. “We note that the International Court of Justice ordered the provisional measures in relation to the Rohingya minority and they must be followed.”
Civilians continue to experience severe difficulties in moving around the conflict-affected area, in particular people in need of assistance. Heavy restrictions on humanitarian access in Rakhine State remain in place and access for the media and human rights monitors is extremely limited. A curfew that has been place since April 2019 is restricting overnight movement and has hampered access to medical assistance. The government has stopped transport by boat on the Kalantan River between Paletwa and Kyauktaw, and there have been disruptions to other public transport from Paletwa town to Kyauktaw.
Since December 2018, the number of mostly Rakhine people forced to flee their homes in Rakhine due to the conflict has reportedly reached over 100,000. Only about half of that number have reportedly been registered by the Rakhine State Government in its displacement sites, meaning that around 50,000 people are sheltering informally in villages, monasteries and schools.
“We call on all parties to the conflict to abide by international humanitarian law and international human rights law and protect civilians at all times,” the experts said.
The internet shutdown has been effect in Ponnagyun, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw and Minbya townships for eight months with no set date for resumption. The shutdown severely impacts the human rights of over a million people, including the right to safety, security, health, education, food, shelter, livelihood, freedom of expression, information, participation, association and assembly Given that many civilians track the presence of armed fighters and potential clashes, the shutdown can also have serious consequences on civilian protection and, potentially, the right to life.
“The blanket suspension of mobile internet cannot be justified and must end immediately. The government must also lift its restrictions and grant immediate access to the media, humanitarian organisations and human rights monitors,” the experts said.
The Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar previously expressed her fears for the civilians in Rakhine State as a result of the initial internet suspension.
* The UN experts: Ms. Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Ms. Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Mr. David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and Mr. Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issues.