Yanghee Lee, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Burma, speaks at the Sedona Hotel in Rangoon, 16 January 2015 (Alex Bookbinder).
Concluding her second official visit to Burma on Friday evening, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, urged the government to redouble efforts to improve the country’s still-worrisome human rights situation.
“Based on all the information I have gathered, I feel assured that in some areas the Government is continuing to progress in its reform programme,” she said. “However, in some areas I have not observed progress since my last visit… In the area of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, positive gains risk being lost. Indeed, the possible signs of backtracking I noted in my first report have gained momentum in this area.”
Over the course of her ten-day trip, following up on an earlier trip to the country in July, she met with a wide cross-section of political and civil society actors, including activists, journalists, ethnic and religious leaders, and government officials. She visited Insein Prison in Rangoon, where she met with prominent activists arrested in December for protesting the Chinese-backed Latpadaung copper mine in central Burma.
She travelled to Burma’s restive Arakan State, the site of resurgent communal clashes since 2012 and home to more than a million Rohingya Muslims, most of whom are denied citizenship rights and essential services, and who are subject to severe mobility restrictions. She subsequently visited Lashio, near the front lines of resurgent fighting in northern Shan State and the site of interreligious violence last year.
Her visit to Burma was met with protests from Buddhist nationalist sympathisers, who deplored her support for the rights of Burma’s persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority to citizenship, mobility, and self-identification.
“Yes, I have been greeted with several protests, and I am informed that there will be another protest today, later on, waiting for me,” she told journalists at Rangoon’s Sedona Hotel before her departure from the country. “I would like to see this as an improvement in the ability to voice opinions and views.”
Among the marchers were members of the Arakan National Network, which has condemned the UN’s call for Burma to grant citizenship to members of the Rohingya community who were born in the country.On Friday morning, a group of some 500 monks and lay supporters, led by hardliners Wirathu and Parmaukkha, marched from Kyay Thon Pagoda, to the east of Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, to Tamwe Township east of the city centre, holding placards reading “UN decisions cause problems in Burma – we don’t want that!”
In December, the UN General Assembly approved a non-binding resolution, drafted by the European Union, that called on Naypyidaw to extend citizenship rights to the Rohingya and remove the mobility restrictions placed on them. The resolution also urged investigation into rights abuses in Arakan State, equal access to essential services, and conciliation between Buddhist and Muslim communities in the region.
“Fundamental rights are not hierarchical – they aren’t conditional upon one another. They’re inalienable. You can be assured that in all my meetings with government interlocutors, I use the word ‘Rohingya’. The rights of Rohingya people must be protected, promoted and upheld,” Lee said.
Echoing the sentiments of other high-level UN envoys to Burma over the past year – including UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon and his deputy, Haoliang Xu – Lee claimed that an undue focus on terminology has stalled progress on fundamental issues relating to humanitarian access and the acquisition of citizenship.
“There’s many complexities involved in this, and I’m bringing to the public’s attention that the fixation on the word has paralysed any forward movement,” she said. “That does not mean negating one word or the other, because it is a fundamental right for people to self-identify.”
While she praised some recent developments in Arakan, including the resumption of front-line health care by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in December, she claimed the situation in the troubled state “remains at crisis stage,” and that humanitarian access is “still minimal and high risk.”
She also noted that, while some of the inhabitants of Myebon Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp were granted citizenship through the government’s pilot “citizenship verification” programme, their living standards have not improved as they remain subject to onerous mobility restrictions.
“They remain inside the camp with minimum food rations, limited access to health care and to other essential services,” she said. “The despair that I saw in the eyes of the people in the Myebon IDP camp was heartbreaking.”
Although she was promised access to the latest draft of the government’s “action plan” for Arakan – a leaked earlier draft of which stirred outrage, as it called for the deportation en masse of those failing to acquire citizenship through the verification process – she claims it “has not yet been delivered” to her.
“I stress that international human rights norms must be at the centre of a solution in the Rakhine [Arakan] State,” she said. “Collective punishment of the entire Muslim population of the Rakhine State for the deeds of a limited number of perpetrators from the violence in 2012 is not the answer.”