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UN rights chief warns of ‘rights catastrophe’ in Myanmar

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
In this file photo taken on February 28, 2021, a protester, injured after being shot with live rounds, makes the three-finger salute while receiving treatment at a makeshift medical center in Mandalay, Myanmar, as security forces continue crackdown on demonstrations against the military coup. (Photo by AFP)

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed concern over escalating violence in Myanmar, warning of a deepening humanitarian crisis following the February 1 coup in the country.

"In just over four months, Myanmar has gone from being a fragile democracy to a human rights catastrophe," Michelle Bachelet said in a statement on Friday, calling for a halt to the already spiraling violence in the country to avert even greater loss of life.

The comments come as the military junta continues its brutal crackdown on demonstrators amid a surge in daily anti-coup protest rallies in the country.

Bachelet went on to say that the military junta "has a duty to protect civilians", adding that it is "singularly responsible" for the current crisis in Myanmar and should be held accountable.  

She pointed to reports of military build-up in several regions of Myanmar and the use of lethal force against civilians, urging the international community to instantly demand that the military junta stops the outrageous use of heavy artillery against civilians and “respect the principle of distinction”.

"State security forces have continued to use heavy weaponry, including air strikes, against armed groups and against civilians and civilian objects,” she said.

"There appear to be no efforts towards de-escalation but rather a build-up of troops in key areas," she lamented, adding that violence is particularly intense “in areas with significant ethnic and religious minority groups". 

The UN rights chief further pointed to "credible reports" that security forces have used civilians as human shields, shelled civilian homes and churches, and blocked humanitarian access, including by attacking aid workers.

She said over 108,000 people have fled their homes in the eastern state of Kayah, where clashes have escalated in recent weeks, stressing that many people who had ran away into the forest areas are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

This comes as the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar has already warned of "mass deaths" from starvation and disease in the country’s east where fighting goes on between rebel groups and the junta.

Elsewhere in her remarks, Bachelet slammed the arrest of anti-coup activists, journalists and opponents of the military regime, saying at least 4,804 people remain in arbitrary detention, citing credible sources.

She also voiced alarm at reports of detainees being tortured, saying the military is branding its opponents as 'terrorists' rather than freeing the prisoners and starting its agreed dialogue.

Myanmar has been gripped by turmoil since the military ousted the country's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a coup and detained her and several other senior figures from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) Party on February 1.

The junta, which has declared a one-year emergency across Myanmar, claims that it seized power after it found fraud in elections held three months earlier that the NLD had won in a landslide.

Since then, Myanmar’s military has been struggling to impose order. Hundreds of thousands of people have held numerous protests against the coup leaders in the Southeast Asian country, demanding the release of Suu Kyi and the other detainees.

Almost 850 people have been killed and thousands of others arrested by military forces, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) advocacy group.

Amid the brutal crackdown, some locals, especially in townships that have seen a high death toll, have formed "defense forces" to protect the civilians.

In her Friday remarks, Bachelet also called on the people's defense forces and other armed groups to "take all feasible measures to protect civilians".

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