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UN investigator calls for tougher approach on Myanmar abuses

Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee says US sanctions should be tougher and international community must step up.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - The United Statessanctions imposed on senior military leaders in Myanmar should have been tougher and applied to more generals, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar has said.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday at the end of a working visit to Thailand and Malaysia, Yanghee Lee said the measures against Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and three others as a result of their role in the "ethnic cleansing" of the Rohingya in the restive western state of Rakhine did not go far enough.

"It's better late than never," she said of the US move on Tuesday, but added, "they should freeze all their assets; the assets of their families too, and the travel ban should include the families of these individuals."

Lee, who says Myanmar's crackdown on the majority-Muslim Rohingya in 2017 was a war crime, arrived in Malaysia on Tuesday after her visit to Thailand was cut short because of what she described as "interference" targetted at those she was working with.

Lee, who said she continues to be denied access to Myanmar, declined to go into further detail. She said, however, that she was concerned that Myanmar appeared to "be increasing pressure and engaging governments of neighbouring countries in its efforts to violate rights and avoid scrutiny".

Last week, Singapore returned to Myanmar six people it said were involved in funding the Arakan Army, a rebel group fighting for greater autonomy for ethnic Rakhine people who are largely Buddhist.

An estimated 35,000 people have fled the escalating conflict between the military and the Arakan Army in Rakhine this year.

Earlier this month, Lee warned that both security forces and the rebels were committing human rights violations against civilians that could amount to fresh war crimes.

More than 730,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh after the army crackdown in 2017 that UN investigators have said was executed with "genocidal intent" and included mass killings, gang rape and widespread arson.

'ASEAN has to step up'

The situation in Myanmar posed an increasing risk to the peace and security of countries in South and Southeast Asia, Lee warned, urging the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to prioritise human rights in its dealings with Myanmar.

Lilianne Fan, founder of Geutanyoe Foundation, an NGO that works with Rohingya refugees, echoed Lee's call.

"ASEAN has to step up," she told Al Jazeera.

"So far, Malaysia is the only country taking a human-rights view, which is very different from the other countries, which are more or less supporting Myanmar's claim that it is doing everything it can to create conducive conditions for return. Malaysia is the only one asking difficult questions."

Rights groups have criticised an ASEAN report, titled Emergency Response and Assessment Team, for allegedly whitewashing the persecution of Rohingya.

The report predicted that voluntary returns would be completed in two years and did not use the word "Rohingya" - an identity denied to them inside Myanmar where they are instead labelled "Bengalis".

Lee said the international community also needed to do more given the continuing conflict.

"The UN Security Council needs to put its head together and put out a strong resolution; a resolution that will refer the Tatmadaw to the International Criminal Court," she said, referring to Myanmar's military.

While in Malaysia, Lee met government officials, civil society representatives as well as refugees and asylum seekers from Myanmar - both recent arrivals and those who have lived in the country for years.

Lee said she was of the view that the deepening conflict in Rakhine, where an internet blackout remains in force in nine townships, had led to worsening abuses against the civilian population. It had also hindered the government's own disaster planning and response at a time when the monsoon increases the risk of severe flooding, she said.

She also expressed concern about the continued spread of hate speech and disinformation on social media. Facebook remains the most popular platform for people in Myanmar and Lee said that it appeared the campaigns were becoming increasingly sophisticated, coordinated and strategic in their attempt to manipulate public opinion.

"Social-media companies are taking inadequate and inconsistent action on this," she said.

Lee will present the findings from her visit to the Human Rights Council in September and at the 74th session of the UN General Assembly in New York in October.

© July 2019 Al Jazeera. All Rights Reserved.

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