Myanmar today is reminiscent of rule under the military regime, said UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee after concluding her recent visit to the country on July 21.
In her end-of-mission statement, she said that she was “disappointed”—an official expression used by several UN envoys over the past decades working on Myanmar issues.
Lee said she was “disappointed to see the tactics applied by the previous government still being used,” in reference to the intimidation that her sources told of experiencing.
In turn, the UN envoy’s remarks thereby disappointed the country’s top government leaders, sources in Naypyidaw told The Irrawaddy.
Lee spoke about the worsening security and human rights situation in the country. She also strongly urged the government to allow an international independent body to investigate allegations of rights abuses particularly in Rakhine State.
During her visit, she met civil society groups, journalists, and went to Rakhine, Shan and Karen states, though she reported being barred from visiting a number of locations, including Hsipaw, northern Shan State, where three journalists—including The Irrawaddy’s Lawi Weng—are being detained.
Lee met State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw during her visit but expressed further disappointment at not being able to meet Myanmar Army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.
Soon after Lee’s press briefing, opposition to her statement was palpable.
The State Counselor’s Office said it was also “disappointed” with the Special Rapporteur’s end of mission statement and declared that Lee’s statement contained many “sweeping allegations and factual errors.”
Under the previous regime, if UN representatives were denied visas or not allowed to visit then detained opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, there was a public outcry.
Now the National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition-turned-government is crying foul concerning the UN mission.
In Parliament, Daw Thandar, a well-known human rights activist and NLD MP, submitted an emergency proposal to the Lower House on Monday to condemn Lee’s remarks on the situation in Rakhine State.
The irony was that Daw Thandar’s husband, Aung Kyaw Naing—also known as journalist Par Gyi—died in army custody in October 2014. He was detained while covering fighting between the government and rebel forces in Mon State. The army statement then said he was shot when he attempted to seize a soldier’s gun and escape detention.
Daw Thandar explained the reasoning behind her proposal to The Irrawaddy: “I am not saying there are no human rights violations in Myanmar. But [Lee’s] statement on Rakhine State is incomplete. I want to highlight this.”
During Tuesday’s discussion, the Parliament unanimously approved the proposal. Daw Pyone Kaythi Naing, an NLD MP from Kalaw, Shan State, even proposed sending special envoys to the UN to counter international allegations and provide briefings outlining the Myanmar legislature’s perspectives of the current reality in Rakhine State.
The situation is a particularly sensitive issue that creates daily debates among Myanmar’s general population, and this is where the UN’s Yanghee Lee touched a raw nerve for many in the country.
The UN was stonewalled when it asked the government to allow an international fact-finding mission into Rakhine State, mandated by the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva; members of the mission have been denied Myanmar visas.
Last week, Myanmar National Security Adviser U Thaung Tun, who also served under the previous regime, said that the UN’s fact-finding mission “would only aggravate” tension between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine State and described it as “less than constructive.”
Myanmar allowed representatives from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to visit the region, and, after blocks on aid, allowed international NGOs to distribute rations to internally displaced people, although there has been criticism about equal access to this aid by both the Muslim and Buddhist populations. A series of campaigns abroad drawing attention to the plight of the Muslim Rohingya have made some headway in keeping the government at bay.
“We are told not to expect Myanmar to transition into a democracy overnight—that it needs time and space,” Lee said. “But in the same way, Myanmar should not expect to have its close scrutiny removed or its special monitoring mechanisms dismantled overnight. This cannot happen until there is real and discernible progress on human rights.”
Yanghee Lee’s visit took place during a time in which tension has developed between the NLD-led government and military.
But on the issue of the situation in Rakhine State, the two sides may see eye-to-eye and resist outside pressure.
But it seems the government’s diplomatic offensive has been “hit and miss” compared to those in neighboring countries when facing similar crises.
In power for less than two years, the NLD government faces mounting pressure from the inside and outside, and a strong focus on Rakhine State.
Last week, the country’s largest opposition party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and its allies submitted an undisclosed letter to Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, after two days of meetings regarding the country’s current affairs. In the letter, they called on him to address Rakhine State’s situation.
The USDP was founded in 1993 as a mass association under the military junta. One former patron was Snr-Gen Than Shwe who is now in his retirement, and the current leaders of the USDP are still former military generals.
On the growing insecurity in Rakhine State, the military wanted to hold a National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) meeting. The NDSC is comprised of 11 members including the President, both Vice Presidents, speakers of the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament, the army’s commander-in-chief, the deputy commander-in-chief, the foreign minister, and the ministers for defense, home and border affairs.
The government has held quasi-NDSC meetings to discuss security issues including the situation in Rakhine State, but has not yet called a full NDSC meeting. It is believed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been cautious in holding such gatherings in which her people would be outnumbered by those in the military, but that she holds ad-hoc security briefings with some top brass.
Earlier this month, the USDP and its allies called for martial law to be imposed in troubled areas in Rakhine State, citing security concerns after recent civilian attacks, threats of violence against both the Muslim and Buddhist Rakhine communities and the discovery of tunnels and arms belonging to Muslim militants.
As to the USDP’s call, there has been no response from Myanmar’s still powerful military leaders—not yet.