Burma Govt ‘Hampers’ Mandate of UN Rights Envoy

By Feliz Solomon 7 August 2015

RANGOON — The Burmese government has placed prohibitive limits on the mandate of UN rights envoy Yanghee Lee during her third official visit to the country, the special rapporteur told reporters on Friday at the tail end of a five-day fact finding mission.

Reiterating her commitment to continued engagement with the Burmese government and all other stakeholders, Lee expressed “regret” that she was denied requested access to western Burma’s Arakan State, limited to half the time of her previous visits and subjected to last minute cancelation of stakeholder meetings.

“This, unfortunately, hampers my ability to fulfill my mandate,” Lee said, stating her commitment to seek information and report fairly to the UN General Assembly. Lee’s annual report on the country is due in October, just before a nationwide general election to be held on Nov. 8.

The South Korean children’s rights expert, appointed early last year, arrived in Burma amid troubling times. A near miss by Cyclone Komen late last week dropped torrential rains on much of the country, resulting in devastating floods in some of the poorest and most remote parts of Burma.

The disaster had caused 88 deaths and affected more than 300,000 people as of Friday night, according to figures from the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement. Hardest hit was Arakan State, where 55 deaths have been reported so far.

The coastal state was already dealing with another crisis. Riots between Buddhists and Muslims tore through the state in 2012, displacing some 140,000 people. Most of those affected were stateless Rohingya Muslims, who the rapporteur said remain subject to “institutionalized discrimination” in the state of roughly 3.1 million.

Upon her last visit to Burma in January of this year, Lee was greeted by protests in Arakan State by Buddhists who accused the United Nations of bias in favor of the Muslim community. Weeks later, a notorious and widely influential Buddhist monk, Wirathu, publicly referred to her as a “bitch” and a “whore”.

Between then and now, the northern part of the state again came under international scrutiny as a migrant crisis emerged in the Bay of Bengal. An early May crackdown on human trafficking in Thailand led to the exposure of an expansive smuggling syndicate transporting migrants from Bangladesh and refugees from Burma on a dangerous and often deadly passage to Malaysia.

A significant number of the migrants, who came to be referred to as “boat people,” were found to be Rohingya Muslims fleeing severe limitations on movement and livelihoods in displacement camps. Lee called on Friday for the immediate lifting of restrictions that hinder the community’s access to education and freedom of movement.

The rapporteur further condemned the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya community, referring to the recent revocation of temporary identification cards—called white cards—which effectively rescinded their right to vote in the forthcoming election.

“Some have informed me that these are sensitive issues which should not be raised publicly given the risk of fuelling communal tensions and potential conflict,” Lee said, “but I cannot shy away from continuing to highlight serious human rights violations and make principled but constructive recommendations.”

Regarding the thorny issue of creating a path to citizenship for the beleaguered minority, Lee said that “more has to be done and can be done to address the legal status of the Rohingya and the institutionalized discrimination faced by this community.”

While Arakan officials, who traveled to Rangoon to meet with the envoy, have claimed that Lee could not visit the state due to extreme weather conditions, the rapporteur said that her request for a stopover “was denied by the government well before my visit had started.”

This and other pressing rights issues will be addressed in more detail in her report to the UN General Assembly. Those issues, she said, will include the “arbitrary” detention of student protesters, “increased monitoring” of activists and imbalanced application of laws concerning freedoms of expression and assembly.

Acknowledging the government’s efforts to responsibly address the current flood crisis, facilitate monitoring and provide for her safety, Lee said she would remain committed to her mandate despite restraints.

“While I am fully aware of the complexities of the situation in Myanmar and the reform process,” Lee said, “I cannot hold Myanmar to a lower standard.”