The cost of inaction
Preeti Jha: You’ve seen Myanmar at its peak of democratic promise with the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). You’ve also documented the gravest human rights violations against minorities, including Rohingya Muslims. What went wrong?
Yanghee Lee: It shouldn’t have gone wrong. There was a lot of hope towards the end of U Thein Sein’s* government. Things were looking up. I really did see some transformation to democracy. But she was never really ready, Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi*, to govern. We all expected that during the 15-plus years of house arrest she would have had a masterplan, a blueprint. When I first met her I emphasized that the first 100 days are very important for any government, where she had to rein in (take charge) as best as she can. And more so in a country like Myanmar, where they were coming out of a five-decades-plus military regime. I gave her (a dossier of) 200-plus old draconian laws that were passed during the British colonial period and during the military regime for her to rescind, amend. But she never tackled those things. I’d have thought they were the low-hanging fruit. These were some things that – short of amending the constitution – she could have done. But she waited too long. A lot could have been avoided.
I remember the hate speech and protests you faced from some of the ethnic Bamar majority during your visits to document the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine State. Do you think more could have been done by Myanmar’s government and the world then?
When I met Daw Suu Kyi in June 2017, my last meeting with her, I urged her to go to northern Rakhine and see for herself. Because she would see village after village burned down. The massive burning of people. Actually locking people in their homes and buildings, and setting them on fire. And she brushed it off. ‘No, I don’t need to, my people are doing their job well and they’re telling me exactly what I need to know.’ She wasn’t willing to even go see for herself.
When the international community did not act upon the Rohingya crisis, that really emboldened the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military). Now they’re using those same tactics against (those who they supposedly view as) their own people, the Bamar.
The UN system has to be rallied to do what it is supposed to do in trying to uphold the UN Charter. You can’t let the worst criminals – those who are accused of crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes – go scot free.
You had urged urgent action then. In 2019, legal cases – still ongoing – were launched against Myanmar in the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. Should stronger sanctions have been imposed?
Yes. Back in 2017 the sanctions against the military should have taken place. The arms embargoes should have taken place. People were so eager to go in and invest in Myanmar that they forgot about the crimes that the Tatmadaw had committed and can commit. If the international community had listened to the reports, something could have been done back then. They just didn’t listen to all the alarms we were raising.
You were barred from visiting Myanmar after your 2017 report laid bare the military’s human rights abuses against the Rohingya. What happened?
The parliament voted unanimously for a motion not to engage with me. Henceforth Myanmar had an excuse: that the people demand this special rapporteur be banned from coming into the country. During my last visit with Daw Suu it was obvious that she had such animosity towards the UN. She said, if you keep up this narrative you will probably not get more access. I thought that was in reference to the access I’d asked for in Kachin and Shan states. I didn’t realize it was access to the entire country.
Do you think Suu Kyi changed over the course of her leadership?
She was never a beacon of human rights. I don’t know about democracy. But it was something the Western world had made her out to be. It put her on a pedestal. Then, all of a sudden, people were talking about a fall from grace. But she never said I’m an icon. She was a politician through and through. The rest of the world forgets that. Politicians, their two top priorities are: one, getting elected, and two, getting re-elected. To do that she had to listen to the Bamar majority. If you go back in history, the Bamar never really did see the ethnic minorities as part of the social fabric, let alone the Rohingya (who the government doesn’t count as one of Myanmar’s 135 ethnic minority groups). I’m not sure she ever ventured away from that.
Do you think she miscalculated the ruthlessness of the generals even after all the years they kept her under house arrest?
I think so. Because deep down inside she thought that this was the military that her father established. That they couldn’t be that bad. That they were Bamars. Buddhist.
A month after the February 2021 coup you co-founded an independent body, the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar (SAC-M), to support Myanmar people in their fight for democracy. What are you urging?
We’re calling for a ‘three cuts’ strategy. First we’d like the international community to cut the arms supply to the Tatmadaw. It would be great if that could be done through the UN Security Council (UN SC) or UN. But it can also be done bilaterally – state-to-state. Or multilaterally – through the EU – with arms embargoes. The second is to cut the cash flow to the Tatmadaw. The UN Fact-Finding Mission (in 2019) reported on the Myanmar military’s business enterprises and how much (coup leader) Min Aung Hlaing had to gain. We want countries and businesses to sever relationships with the military businesses of Myanmar. The third cut is to cut the impunity. They have to be held accountable.
There were initially loud calls from Myanmar people for armed international intervention under the UN doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Do you think this crisis has exposed the limitations of R2P and the UN itself?
It really exposed the frustrations of the UN system. I think the UN SC needs a complete overhaul. Too much is in their hands. I’m okay with having one body that is in charge of maintaining peace and security around the world. But if you have (some countries with) a veto power that bogs everything down, what is the sense of having the UN Charter? Chapter 7 (which sets out the UN SC’s power to maintain peace) can never be applied in this modern age. Now we’re seeing almost a 21st-century Cold War. You have Russia and China on one side, and the rest of the world on the other side. Nothing can be done.
The R2P calls were really heart-breaking. Young people holding signs for R2P, not really understanding the full implications. But R2P is not only about blue helmets and boots on the ground. It is where you can talk about broader sanctions, arms embargoes. Just to have those discussions in the Council would be very important in situations like Myanmar now.
If the UN fails then I think we’re going to see a domino effect around the world where you’ll find the rise of authoritarian governments, and those that were already authoritarian, exerting more power against their people. We are already seeing this happening.
What more should the UN be doing?
The Secretary-General has to go in. There’s a lot of talk, talk, talk within the UN: ‘We deplore this’, ‘we condemn this’, but I don’t think the people of Myanmar want to hear another ‘deplore’ or ‘condemn’. They want to see some concrete actions. I don’t know if that’s being done behind closed doors.
We know that in the early 1960s when there was the Cuban missile crisis the then Secretary-General – ironically U Thant (a Burmese diplomat) – went to Cuba. I don’t see why this current Secretary-General can’t go to Myanmar. In the beginning he was worried that by going he would be legitimizing the junta. But at this point his presence is going to de-escalate the violence that the Tatmadaw is using.
You’ve talked about the growing humanitarian crisis and the potential of Myanmar becoming a failed state. What are your main concerns?
Already we’re seeing food shortages and an increase in hunger. The banking systems are not really operating completely. The medical systems are not functioning fully. We know that the numbers of internally displaced people are growing and people are taking refuge in the ethnic areas. People have also crossed over to Thailand. In the event that there is a protracted nationwide civil war – we’ve had civil war for 70 years in the ethnic (minority) areas – there’s going to be a lot of population movement and there’ll be an exodus.
You have to remember we’re talking about all of these atrocities happening with a Covid-19 backdrop. Right now I understand the testing for Covid-19 has almost stopped. Huge numbers are being detained in prisons. Have there been any safety measures? I’m really worried you have double jeopardy: the coup and also the pandemic.
*U and Daw are Burmese honorifics.
Yanghee Lee was the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar from 2014 to 2020 and is a founding member of the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar.