Myanmar violence may have killed more than 1,000: UN rapporteur

Rohingya refugees living in Malaysia shout slogans during a protest against the treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. (AFP)
Updated 08 September 2017

Myanmar violence may have killed more than 1,000: UN rapporteur

SEOUL: More than 1,000 people may already have been killed in Myanmar, mostly minority Rohingya Muslims — more than twice the government’s total — a senior United Nations representative told AFP on Friday, urging Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out.
In the last two weeks alone 164,000 mostly Rohingya civilians have fled to Bangladesh, overwhelming refugee camps that were already bursting at the seams.
Others have died trying to flee the fighting in Rakhine state, where witnesses say entire villages have been burned since Rohingya militants launched a series of coordinated attacks on August 25, prompting a military-led crackdown.
On the basis of witness testimonies and the pattern of previous outbreaks of violence, said Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, “perhaps about a thousand or more are already dead.”
“This might be from both sides but it would be heavily concentrated on the Rohingya population.”
The Rohingya have long been subjected to discrimination in mostly Buddhist Myanmar, which denies them citizenship and regards them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even if they have lived in the country for generations.
The figures given by Lee, a South Korean academic, are far higher than official tolls, which total 432.
Myanmar’s army has previously said it has killed 387 Rohingya militants. Authorities say they have lost 15 security personnel since the August attacks.
In updated figures released by the authorities on Thursday, Myanmar said 6,600 Rohingya homes and 201 non-Muslim homes had been burned to the ground since August 25.
They added some 30 civilians had been killed — seven Rohingyas, seven Hindus and 16 Rakhine Buddhists — in the fighting.
But Lee told AFP that it was “highly possible” the government had “underestimated numbers.”
“The unfortunate thing, the serious thing is that we can’t verify that now with no access.”
Lee expressed skepticism about authorities’ claims that the Rohingya were burning their own houses, pointing out that nearby Buddhist villages were untouched — and it is the rainy season.
“If you have got people with guns and you’re running away and it’s damp, how easily can you set your own house on fire?” she asked.
In an interview at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, where she is a professor in the department of child psychology and education, she told AFP she feared “it’s going to be one of the worst disasters that the world and Myanmar has seen in recent years.”
Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent years under house arrest when Myanmar was a military dictatorship, is now the country’s de facto leader with the title of State Counsellor.
But she has so far failed to speak out on the violence, leaving her global reputation in tatters.
Rights groups, activists — including many who campaigned for her in the past — and her fellow Nobel laureates Malala Yousafzai and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have condemned her.
“She needs to step up,” Lee said, and “show the world what she has really fought to achieve was a free and democratic Myanmar.”
“She really needs to show more compassion to all of the people in Myanmar.”
When it awarded Suu Kyi the 1991 Peace Prize the Nobel committee said that she “emphasises the need for conciliation between the sharply divided regions and ethnic groups in her country.”
But earlier this week, in her first statement since the violence erupted, Suu Kyi, 72, condemned a “huge iceberg of misinformation” on the crisis, without mentioning the Rohingya flocking to Bangladesh.
In a letter Tutu told his “dearly beloved younger sister” that “the images we are seeing of the suffering of the Rohingya fill us with pain and dread.”
“It is incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country; it is adding to our pain,” he added.
“If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
Under the Nobel prize statutes awards cannot be revoked, but Lee said the laureates’ statements showed “how grave the situation is.”
The Myanmar military are controlled by commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing but Suu Kyi should speak out and try to convince him to end the violence, she added. “This is where her leadership comes.”
But around 86 percent of Myanmar’s population is Buddhist, Lee pointed out.
“What we forget is that she is a politician through and through. People expect her to have that big high moral voice but she’s a politician, and what’s the most important objective if you are a politician? Getting elected,” she said.
“I think we need to delete our memories of the imprisoned democratic icon.”


US bans palm oil imports from Malaysian production giant over labor abuse claims

Updated 32 min 24 sec ago

US bans palm oil imports from Malaysian production giant over labor abuse claims

  • American customs agency probe into Malaysian government-linked firm FGV revealed indicators of forced and child labor, physical and sexual violence
  • The allegations of abuse related especially to migrant laborers who make up the company’s main plantation workforce

KUALA LUMPUR:  The US has banned palm oil imports from Malaysian production giant FGV Holdings after a probe revealed forced labor practices at its facilities.

Human rights groups said the abuse of agricultural workers had been rife across the whole sector for years.

The American ban came into effect after a year-long investigation by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) into FGV, which revealed indicators of forced and child labor, as well as physical and sexual violence, said Brenda Smith, executive assistant commissioner of the CBP’s Office of Trade.

FGV is a Malaysian government-linked company and one of the world’s largest palm oil producers.

In a statement, the company said it was “disappointed” with the decision by the US which had come at a time when it had been taking “concrete steps over the past several years in demonstrating its commitment to respect human rights and to uphold labor standards.”

The company said the issues raised by the US agency had “been the subject of public discourse since 2015 and FGV has taken several steps to correct the situation.”

It added: “FGV became a participating company of the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and is currently implementing a long-term and comprehensive action plan under its affiliation to the FLA that comprises a number of initiatives to further strengthen various aspects of our labor practices such as our recruitment process, human rights training programs, working and living conditions, as well as grievance mechanisms.”

The allegations of abuse related especially to migrant laborers who make up the company’s main plantation workforce. According to FGV data from August, it had 11,286 Indonesian and 4,683 Indian workers.

Malaysia’s Minister of Human Resources M. Saravanan said on Thursday that he was unclear about the details of the ban and had only found out about plans to impose it several days ago from the US ambassador to Malaysia, Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir. However, he had not expected the ban to be implemented “so soon.”

“As mentioned by the ambassador, these issues are mainly in Sabah and Sarawak (two states on Borneo island), especially in the plantation sector. Action will be taken,” said Saravanan, adding that the ban was “not a good sign” for the country which was heavily reliant on exports.

He said that the Ministry of Human Resources would work closely with the Ministry of Home Affairs which had much of the jurisdiction over foreign labor.

The timing of the ban is particularly unfortunate for Malaysia’s economy, which has been affected by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak. Palm oil exports from Malaysia — which constitute over a third of the world’s exports of the commodity — are one of the country’s key revenue sources.

“FGV would need to step up efforts to increase exports to other countries while addressing the US government’s concerns on the forced labor issues,” Prof. Yeah Kim Leng, economic studies director at Malaysia’s Sunway University, told Arab News.

He said that other palm oil companies would also need to take heed of the causes leading to the ban and address those concerns if they wished to avoid the US’ big stick.

Malaysian rights activists pointed out that they had been highlighting the issue of forced labor in palm oil supply chains for years.

In a statement, Glorene Das, director of Malaysian migrant rights group Tenaganita, said: “We demand all palm oil producers, including FGV Holdings, to take proactive steps to ensure human and labor rights of workers in plantations are respected and upheld at all time.

“Malaysia, as one of the main producers of palm oil in the world, must be an example of fair labor practices rather than be known and cited for exploitative practices.”