Government Chastises UN Rights Envoy for Burma Criticism

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 4 February 2015

RANGOON — The Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday condemned the UN human rights envoy to Burma, saying many of her concerns “don’t reflect the overall positive aspects of the current situation” and “interfere in state sovereignty and domestic jurisdiction,” according to a press release from the ministry.

The statement, published in Wednesday’s state-run media, comes more than two weeks after Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma, held a press conference on her observations at the end of a 10-day visit to the country.

The ministry said it was responding to her remarks on “the term Rohingya, the package of controversial race and religion protection bills, land issues, political prisoners and media freedom.”

Like her predecessor Tomas Ojea Quintana, Lee did not shy away from criticizing Burma’s government in her wrap-up assessment on Jan. 16, citing concerns with all of the abovementioned issues.

On the word Rohingya, which the rapporteur used in her statement instead of the government’s preferred “Bengali,” the ministry said insistence on using the controversial terminology would only serve as a barrier to resolving ethnic tensions in Arakan State, where the Muslim minority’s rights have been severely restricted since Muslim-Buddhist violence displaced more than 140,000 people, most of them Rohingya.

“Use of such a term by the United Nations would certainly draw the strong resentment of the people of Myanmar, making the government’s efforts to address the issue more difficult,” the statement said.

In response to Lee’s criticism of four controversial bills purporting to protect Burma’s majority-Buddhist character and opposed by human rights and women’s advocates, the ministry said the legislation was being drafted pursuant to the will of the people.

“Speculating and criticizing the products of the local legislating process is an attempt to influence public opinion as well as to instigate people,” it added.

Lee in her Jan. 16 statement called the bills “discriminatory” and “an illegitimate interference by the state into the rights of a woman.”

Due to her criticism of the bills, Lee was called a “whore” and “bitch” by the nationalist Buddhist monk U Wirathu at a public rally in Rangoon held to denounce her.

Lee also pointed to shortcomings in the government’s handling of the issues of land rights and political prisoners, to which the ministry said: “Given the large number of the areas of farmland in the country, land disputes can’t be solved overnight,” and that “reviewing political prisoners will be carried out in accordance with the existing laws,” respectively.

Another accusation made by the rapporteur—that the jailing of several journalists in Burma indicated backtracking on press freedoms—was also refuted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The ministry claimed that no journalists had been apprehended for exercising their due rights but rather were facing charges for legitimate offenses they had committed, such as breaking into a restricted area.

“No country will tolerate a breach of national security by any person. The state of Myanmar’s media freedom can be compared not only to that of countries in the region but also the rest of the world,” it said.

Wednesday’s statement was not the first time Lee has elicited an official government rebuke: President’s Office director Zaw Htay also criticized the rapporteur for using the word Rohingya during her first trip to Burma in July 2014, just months after she succeeded Quintana.

Her predecessor’s relationship with the government was also acrimonious at times, a tradition that looks set to continue.

“The special rapporteur should fulfill her mandate in a professional and prudent manner,” the ministry’s statement said. “Her visit should not leave the country and people of Myanmar with discord, distrust and incitement.”

Aung Myo Min of Equality Myanmar told The Irrawaddy that unlike its past mentality, the government appeared to be more sensitive to international perceptions—and was trying to counter a negative narrative.

“But rather than saying Ms. Yanghee Lee is unprofessional, they should ask themselves why these things have been said,” he added.