Presidential Spokesman Hits Back Against UN Criticism Over Rohingya

By Lawi Weng 21 June 2016

RANGOON — The UN and the international community should support ongoing reforms inside Burma instead of focusing on human rights abuses perpetrated by the former government, said President’s Office Spokesman Zaw Htay, in response to a fresh criticism from the UN over Burma’s treatment of religious and ethnic minorities—in particular the Muslim Rohingya.

This week saw the release of a new report on Burma by the UN’s human rights office, which stated that systematic violations against the Rohingya—including denial of citizenship rights, forced labor and sexual violence—could amount to “crimes against humanity.”

More than 100,000 Rohingya remain in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Arakan State, after anti-Muslim violence in 2012 and 2013. They are subjected to severe restrictions of movement and are denied citizenship and proper access to healthcare and education; many have chosen to flee the country, placing them in the hands of predatory human-trafficking gangs. The new government has yet to take concrete steps to alleviate the situation, and its policies remain a topic of speculation.

President’s Office Spokesman Zaw Htay—who held the same post under the previous military-backed government of then-President Thein Sein—told The Irrawaddy the UN and the international community should observe reforms inside the country, be flexible with the new government’s approach and provide support and encouragement, adding that the new government recognized the abuses carried out in the past.

“This was a weakness from the past. Our government will challenge it and will work for human rights. We have already laid the foundation for this with our new policies. They (UN report) needs to reflect on the reforms undertaken by the new government,” Zaw Htay added.

On Friday, Burma’s representative to the UN’s Human Rights Council Thet Thinzar Htun criticized the use of the term “Rohingya” by international actors as “adding fuel to the fire.” Instead, the term “Muslim community in Arakan State” was floated, which the representative said would encourage “harmony” and “mutual trust” between Buddhist and Muslim communities.

Last month, the Committee for Arakan State Peace, Stability and Development was formed. Chaired by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, its purview includes resettling displaced communities and coordinating the activities of UN agencies and international organizations.

In recent weeks, the government has been handing out National Verification Cards (NVCs) to stateless Muslims in several townships of Arakan State. The NVCs are provisional documents, whose bearers will later be scrutinized for citizenship eligibility under Burma’s 1982 citizenship law, which discriminates heavily against the Rohingya as an “unrecognized” ethnic group.

Zaw Htay said the “green cards” would be later handed out to those now receiving NVCs in Arakan State, affording them “equal rights.” It is not currently clear where these “green cards” fit into Burma’s complex hierarchy of citizenship documentation, and what their legal basis is.

Yanghee Lee, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, is visiting Burma between June 20 and July 1. She arrived in Rangoon on Sunday, and will be in Arakan State from Wednesday. She will also visit Kachin, Arakan and Shan states,  and the capital Naypyidaw.

“Important steps have already been taken to further democratic transition, national reconciliation, sustainable development and peace,” Yanghee Lee said in a statement. “I intend to make a comprehensive and objective assessment of the human rights situation taking these elements into account.