A leading United Nations human rights expert claims the Myanmar military is carrying out “war crimes” against ethnic minorities, emboldened by special extended powers intended to help control the spread of the coronavirus.

Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, accused the military of targeting ethnic Rakhine Buddhist civilians during recent clashes with the Arakan Army, a separatist militant group in the western Rakhine State.

Lee said that houses had been burned, a monastery was attacked and people had been arrested and tortured.

“And then we find bodies that have been decapitated, these are Rakhine people,” Lee said Tuesday, as she prepared to conclude her six-year tenure as special rapporteur.

“I am calling the situation crimes against humanity and war crimes. These are the highest, the most heinous and gravest crimes of international law,” she added.

The military has special powers during the pandemic: Key military generals and military-controlled ministries were appointed to a new coronavirus committee in March, increasing the remit of the military under its delicate power-sharing agreement with the country’s civilian-led government.

“It’s emboldening the Tatmadaw (military),” Lee said. “Already they have a strong arm, and now if they have these additional powers in the name of enforcing or preventing the spread of the pandemic, then they are really given another layer, a greater, higher level of power to do what they’ve done always in the past few decades, but in a more severe and horrific manner.”

A little background: Rakhine State is a restive border area, which neighbors Bangladesh and has a long history of violent military crackdowns and ethnic clashes between the majority Rakhine Buddhist population and the minority Rohingya Muslims.