More than 20 rights NGOs have urged the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, which was revamped in January and has been criticized as toothless, to focus on reported rights violations committed during the COVID-19 pandemic by military troops in conflicts in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan states.
In a joint statement issued Wednesday, the 22 rights groups contend that the MNHRC is failing to address widespread human rights violations committed amid the coronavirus pandemic, especially in conflict zones in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan states, home to ethnic conflicts of varying intensity.
“We haven’t seen any acknowledgement of human rights violations during the pandemic as we had seen before,” said Aung Myo Min, director of human rights education group Equality Myanmar.
“The commission has been particularly silent on rights violations related to COVID-19 outbreaks,” he said. “It has also been inactive in providing guidelines for preventing rights violations or acknowledging violations that have occurred.”
Aung Myo Min said that a government-imposed internet service ban in nine townships in northern Rakhine and Chin states is a violation of human rights because residents cannot access to information about the coronavirus pandemic and how to protect themselves from it.
The government cited security reasons for ordering mobile internet providers to block service to the areas amid fighting between Myanmar forces and the rebel Arakan Army.
The rights organizations have called on the MNHCR to be proactive in preventing rights violations, rather than acting only when it received complaints, Aung Myo Min said.
Myanmar President Win Myint replaced the 11 members of the MNHRC with new commissioners on Jan. 14.
Hla Myint, Myanmar’s representative to the ASEAN intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, was appointed to lead the body, while Dr. Nanda Hmun, the retired permanent secretary of the Ministry of Religion and Culture, was made vice chairman.
Among the groups that signed the statement are Equality Myanmar, the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, the Karen Human Rights Group, Karenni human rights groups, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), and the Ta’ang Women’s Organization.
The rights groups also said that the reformed MNHRC has failed to speak out about allegations of rights abuses against civilians by the military in Rakhine state. They pointed to a recent video that went viral on social media earlier this month showing Myanmar soldiers assaulting detained civilians aboard of naval vessel.
The statement mentioned cases of where soldiers have intervened in or shot at civilians involved in coronavirus screening activities conducted by ethnic armed groups in Shan and Kayin states, and noted that the MNHRC failed to demand cease-fires in conflict zones to focus on curbing the spread of COVID-19.
Myat Tun of the Rakhine Human Rights Protection Group said those who have suffered abuse at the hands of the Myanmar military have filed the complaints with the MNHRC, but the commission has not taken adequate action.
“In some cases, the commission has instructed the military to investigate, [but] the military has referred to police forces, saying the areas of occurrence are not safe for conducting investigations,” he told RFA. “There are many weaknesses in the procedures.”
“We have filed many cases on behalf of the victims,” he added. “The MNHRC is very slow in responding to the complaints and investigating them.”
As of late Wednesday, RFA had not received a response to phone and email messages sent to the MNHRC seeking comment.
Lue Po Kay Mae Chai from the Ta’ang Women’s Organization said her group has seen many human rights violations committed by Myanmar soldiers.
“They have tortured civilians and made arbitrary arrests and detentions,” she said. “These things are still going on. There are also killings of local people.”
RFA could not reach Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun for comment.
The civil society groups also noted that the MNHRC did not appeal to the Myanmar government for the release of political prisoners during the annual presidential amnesty granted to some inmates amid the Buddhist New Year holiday in April.
Only 26 of the nearly 600 political prisoners currently detained in Myanmar were released this year, they said.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.