UN Rights Envoy Rebuffs Foreign Ministry Criticism

Yanghee Lee speaks to reporters in Rangoon in July 2014. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Yanghee Lee speaks to reporters in Rangoon in July 2014. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The United Nations human rights envoy to Burma on Thursday hit back at government claims she was infringing upon state sovereignty and exacerbating tensions in the country, saying the criticism was “hard to comprehend.”

Yanghee Lee, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, told The Irrawaddy she was surprised at the various charges leveled at her by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a press release published in state-run media on Wednesday.

“I have a mandate to monitor and report on the human rights situation of Burma and it’s really difficult to understand why the sovereignty issue was brought up,” Lee said. “I [report] in a constructive manner and I’ve been very transparent throughout my mandate so far.”

The ministry’s Wednesday press release, issued in response to Lee’s statement on Jan. 16 at the conclusion of a 10-day visit to the country, accused the rapporteur of “selectivity” and specifically objected to her remarks on Rohingya, land issues, political prisoners, media freedom and the controversial “protection of race and religion” legislative package currently before parliament.

Lee, who was appointed to the role of rapporteur in June 2014, told The Irrawaddy, “I would certainly encourage the foreign minister to go back and read my end of mission statement very carefully because I [also] brought out a lot of positive developments that I’d seen in the past six months.”

The rapporteur questioned the ministry’s assertion that the race and religion draft laws were in accordance with the will of the people, describing the four bills as “clearly against all international norms” and in breach of Burma’s international human rights treaty obligations.

She also defended her use of the term Rohingya to describe the group of over 1 million people in conflict-torn Arakan State derogatively referred to by some members of the Burmese government as “Bengali.” In its statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that using such “controversial terminology” would only exacerbate tensions in the state.

“Everybody has the right to self-identification,” Lee said, while acknowledging sensitivities over the term and the concerns of Buddhists in Arakan State. “The fixation on the word is really paralyzing any resolution and we need to go beyond this fixation.”

Special rapporteurs in Burma have routinely attracted the ire of Burmese officials determined to play down human rights concerns. Community opposition to envoys’ visits has also occasionally surfaced, including in September 2013, when the convoy of then UN Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana was set upon by a crowd of around 200 people while traveling through the city of Meiktila in central Burma.

Yanghee Lee also encountered some local opposition during her second visit to the country last month, including demonstrations in Sittwe and Rangoon.

In a now infamous address at a demonstration in Burma’s commercial capital on Jan. 16, nationalist Buddhist monk U Wirathu labeled the envoy a “whore” and a “bitch” for her criticism of the draft race and religion bills.

“Freedom of expression is a right that everybody [is entitled to] and should be protected,” Lee told The Irrawaddy. “However, I was rather shocked to hear these statements come from a man of the Buddhist clergy, Wirathu…I don’t think there’s anybody in the United Nations system that has ever been described in those terms.”

Asked whether the government should have issued a statement condemning Wirathu’s inflammatory speech, Lee said that would have been the “common expectation.”

“As a responsible member of the international community, [Burma should] eradicate and prevent hate speech and incitement,” Lee added.

The Special Rapporteur is due to submit her latest report on the human rights situation in Burma to the UN Human Rights Council in March.

7 Responses to UN Rights Envoy Rebuffs Foreign Ministry Criticism

  1. She should learn Burmese history first before taken that position. I support for granting Citizenship to former East Pakistani citizens because the complication of their citizenship status between former East Pakistan and current Bangladesh nation. However, I don’t not support who illegally entered into Rakhine state, Burma after 1971.
    She should be neutral and fair in what she reporting to UN as UN Special rapporteurs in Burma. All Burmese ethnics won’t be accepted the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma.
    I’m Shan ethnic and I’m strongly rejected illegal migrant Bengali was Rohingya ethnic of Burma. We can not accept every Bengalis arrived on Rakhine soil declaring they are Rohingya,. Also we don’t know how many Bangladeshi’s Criminals are crossing into Rakhine state and declaring they are Rohingya. We all Burmese ethnics knew very well Burma does not have Rohingya ethnic in Burmese history. You can check even in British Colony Government’s achieved in Burma. Burmese peoples honest and never accept fabricated story.
    By the way, I don’t care about what U Wirathu said because he doesn’t represent to majority of Burmese peoples.

    • I completely agree. UN Envoy should learn to know the real history of Burma and not only clouded her judgment with the report from international staffs in the country who sometime fabricated report for their job security and promotion in UN Agencies and it is important to take account to look into the perspective of other 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar and see how they think about it.
      What UN is doing is bringing war from Middle East to Myanmar which will result civil war in the country and creating space for more interference from the international community. And this will for sure disturb the peace and stability of the country.
      I also do not agree with the Wirathu and also understand the need of the stateless people in Rakhine. UN should listen to the voice of Myanmar citizen and find other way to resolve the issue of stateless people.

  2. Yanghee Lee has a mandate ,yes. However , her perception of Myanmar is way off to the point of encouraging religious radicals and intruders of the worst kind. Intruders who had used terror as a weapon and attempting to carve out a piece of Myanmar.No sympathy for real victims.

  3. Dear Sir,

    It is a test of Burma’s own narrative on foreign affairs, especially toward UN’s experts on Human Rights and legal affairs.

    It is also a test of Foreign experts on Bumra who have given greater scope and space to inject their views in recnet Burma reform process.

    It is a test of Ministry of Foreign Affiar of Myanamr and its staffs in dealing with legal affairs in both domestic and foreign issues.

    Above all, it is a test of Burearats of Thein Sein’s government in dealing with sensitive diplomacy with other countires.

    Imagine, if the late U Thant (ex-Secretary General of UN) lives today and read this news!!!!

  4. I salute Yanghee Lee for her brave stand against inhumanity and injustice. She is a woman with lion heart. The cruelty of Bama and Rakhine is not new. It has been running in their blood for generations. These people are worst human-beings who are intolerant and racist against any different group. They have problem with every and any race in Burma- whether Karen or Kachin or Mon or Chin or any other ethnic people. They are just after killing, torturing, looting and dehumanizing innocent and defenseless citizens. What a ruthless people on earth.

  5. What a brave lady. It is a difficult task to carry out any UN job in Burma. In the past UN envoys were humiliated. But she stood strong and did not retaliated towards the insult she got from the Bin Laden of Burma Wirathu. This fake buddisht clergy is a paid puppet of Burma’s military regime. She is lucky that she wasn’t man handled by this fake clergy Wirathu’s gang. This guy is getting full support by the present military controlled government of Burma.
    There is no such democratic reform happening in Burma. The West and US are well aware but business
    is important for them. China is dominating and got
    full control in Mandalay. They won’t allow NLD or
    Su Kyi to win Election in Burma. UN envoy should never give up to these thugs and it’s fake buddisht monk.

  6. Hope the envoy stays with her dignity intact, without the harsh criticism she made, which was not up to the mark for a UN envoy. As you sow so you reap, Envoy!

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