Myanmar’s government and its military should stop persecuting opposition supporters, including journalists and student protestors, ahead of the general election on Nov. 8, a UN human rights expert said Monday. 

Tom Andrews, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, applauded the country for “setting a laudable standard for the upcoming election – that they be free, fair, and reflect the will of the people.

“But this cannot happen as long as it is enforcing laws that undermine the very lifeblood of democracy, and the right to vote is denied based on race, ethnicity, or religion as it is with the Rohingya.”

He said the army “is using the Penal Code, enacted by the British in 1861, to lock up journalists, students, and others for exercising their basic right to free expression.

“Their crime? Their willingness to criticize the government and military.”

He cited other laws such as the Peaceful Assembly Act and Telecommunications Law, which the UN expert said are enforced to infringe on the rights to freedom of expression, association, and press freedom.

Andrews delivered his first report on Myanmar’s human rights situation to the UN General Assembly last week.

The election campaign “is providing a clear and compelling illustration of why and where reforms are needed to move democracy forward in Myanmar,” he said.

Andrews noted that the government should lift its censorship of candidates seeking state media access — one of the few options available to reach voters due to COVID-19 restrictions.

He also criticized the Union Election Commission in Myanmar for canceling elections for more than a million voters over security concerns.

The Rohingya are described by the UN as the world’s most persecuted people and have faced heightened fears of attack since dozens were killed in communal violence in 2012.

According to Amnesty International, more than 750,000 Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children fled Myanmar and crossed into Bangladesh after Myanmar forces launched a crackdown on the minority Muslim community in August 2017, pushing the number of persecuted people in Bangladesh above 1.2 million.

“A UN-mandated Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) found sufficient evidence to call for the investigation of senior military officials for crimes against humanity and genocide against ethnic Rohingya Muslims,” the Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2020.

Some 600,000 Rohingya remaining in Rakhine state were still the target of a government campaign to eradicate their identity and were living under the “threat of genocide,” according to the FFM report last September as quoted by the HRW.

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