Human Rights Situation Still Dire: UN Envoy

By Lawi Weng 2 July 2016

RANGOON — Rights abuses are ongoing in Burma despite the election of the country’s first democratically-elected government in half a century, according to UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma Yanghee Lee.

Lee ended her 12-day visit to Burma with a press conference in Rangoon, where she said there was no difference between the human rights conditions now and under the previous quasi-civilian government.

“The home ministry and the Special Branch of the police are the same people from the past government,” said the South Korean Envoy. “That is why things have not changed…Old habits die hard.”

Lee was not just critiquing the situation based on secondhand accounts. She encountered police interference herself.

“I also continue to receive reports of monitoring and surveillance of civil society actors and human rights defenders,” she said in her statement released at the press conference. “During this visit, I unfortunately was informed that my interlocutors were photographed by security officials, and were questioned prior to and following our meetings.”

She was particularly concerned with the situation in Arakan State, where the Muslim Rohingya minority remains marginalized and deprived of many rights.

“The recent establishment of the Central Committee on Implementation of Peace, Stability and Development of Rakhine [Arakan] State signals the priority given by the government to addressing the complex challenges facing both communities,” her statement said. “Nevertheless, my visit to Rakhine State unfortunately confirmed that the situation on the ground has yet to significantly change.”

“The conditions in the IDP [internally displaced persons] camps I visited remain poor with concerns about overcrowding, the deterioration of temporary shelters and housing, and the lack of proper sanitation facilities,” she said, adding, “While there is rightful emphasis on ensuring development and humanitarian assistance to all communities, ending institutionalized discrimination against the Muslim communities in Rakhine State must also be an urgent priority. The continuing restrictions on the freedom of movement of the Rohingya and Kaman communities cannot be justified on any grounds of security or maintaining stability.”

But her concern for issues in Arakan State extended beyond just the Muslim communities.

“Also of concern is the continuing detention and reported torture of individuals with suspected ties to ethnic armed groups under Section 17 (1) of the Unlawful Associations Act,” she said. “In particular, there has been a sharp increase in cases in Rakhine [Arakan], where reportedly some arrests have been made with little supporting evidence.”

Lee also commented on the peace process, noting especially the role women could play.

“The previous government made a commitment to ensure at least 30 percent representation of women at all levels of the peace dialogue,” she said. “This commitment should be met as a minimum. A gender perspective must also be incorporated into all areas of the dialogue.”

Lee has been a controversial figure, particularly among small but vocal Burma’s far-right nationalist groups. Last year, the monk Wirathu, a leader of the Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha, called her a “bitch” and a “whore.”