KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Military-ruled Myanmar's promise of free and fair elections next year is “preposterous,” a U.N. expert said Thursday as he warned the international community not to fall for the army regime's propaganda to legitimize its rule.
Tom Andrews, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said the military has been working hard to “create an impression of legitimacy" after ousting the government of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a February 2021 takeover.
“Any suggestion that there could be any possibility of a free and fair election in Myanmar in 2023 is frankly preposterous. You can’t have a free and fair election if you locked up your opponents. You can’t have a free and fair election if you put your opponents on death row. This is outrage,” he told a news conference during a visit to Malaysia.
“Their propaganda machine works around the clock and they’ll take any shred of evidence that they could find to make it appear as if the international community recognizes them as legitimate. That is something that we are very cautious about and very careful not (to) fall into that propaganda trap," Andrews added.
The army seized power citing widespread fraud in the 2020 general election. It appointed new members to the election commission, which said that new multiparty polls next year would be free and fair.
Andrews said ASEAN must ratchet up pressure on the Myanmar army to halt its violence and release all political prisoners. He said ASEAN's five-point consensus plan should be stepped up to include clear actions and time frames.
“The five-point consensus is meaningless if it is just sitting on a piece of paper,” he said. “Its only chance of making a difference is to put it into meaningful action with a strategy, with an action plan, with a time frame."
Andrews praised Malaysia for engaging Myanmar's opposition National Unity Government, which was set up by elected lawmakers who were denied their seats in Parliament by the army coup. He urged other countries to do the same, calling the NUG a “legitimate entity" fighting a brutal military.
He said the NUG could also offer resources in delivering humanitarian aid to Myanmar so the junta can't use the aid as a “weapon of war."
The military has faced widespread opposition to its rule. After soldiers and police used deadly force to crush peaceful demonstrations, a low-level armed insurrection has emerged in both the cities and countryside.
According to Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, more than 2,007 protesters and bystanders have been killed in the junta’s crackdown, though the government puts the death toll at about a third of that.
Andrews commended Malaysia for taking in Myanmar refugees, especially minority Muslim Rohingya, but voiced concern over their treatment in the country. He said refugees he spoke to in Malaysia cited fears of being sent to migration detention, insufficient education opportunities for children and instances of extortion by police.
Andrews said he was deeply worried about reports that hundreds of children, including victims of trafficking, may be held in detention facilities. The UN refugee agency has been denied access to these facilities since 2019.
On Malaysia's plan to issue its own refugee card, Andrews said the process should be transparent. Andrews said government officials should be willing to engage in discussions and partner with the U.N. refugee agency to map out clear and consistent policies.
Malaysia’s Home Ministry said in April it should determine who can stay in the country by issuing its own cards to refugees.
Although it doesn’t grant refugee status, Malaysia houses about 180,000 refugees and asylum seekers accredited with the U.N. refugee agency, including more than 100,000 Rohingya and other Myanmar ethnic groups. Thousands more remain undocumented after arriving in the country illegally by sea.