RANGOON — The United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, and Arakan State Chief Minister Nyi Pu struck a conciliatory tone on a meeting in the state capital Sittwe on Wednesday, in which the contentious terms “Rohingya” and “Bengali” were avoided.
Yanghee Lee expressed confidence in the leadership of Nyi Pu, a National League for Democracy (NLD) member who was appointed as Chief Minister by the NLD leadership in the face of opposition from the Arakan National Party (ANP), which represents the Arakanese Buddhist majority and holds the largest plurality of seats in the state parliament.
Despite a reported request from Yanghee Lee, the ANP issued a statement on Wednesday saying they would not meet with her because she was “coming to write a biased report” for the UN.
Yanghee Lee and the UN have been the subject of fierce criticism, and abuse, from nationalists in Burma for highlighting discrimination against the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority in Arakan State, whom the general public in Burma refers to as “Bengali,” to imply they migrated illegally from Bangladesh.
This week, the UN’s human rights office released a report stating that violations against the Rohingya—including denial of citizenship rights, forced labor and sexual violence—could amount to “crimes against humanity.” The report has already drawn criticism from within the Burmese government.
Arakan State government spokesman Min Aung told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that Yanghee Lee—who is in Arakan State for two days—was travelling to Kadi, a Muslim-majority village tract of 421 households in Ponnagyun Township.
Yanghee Lee will then proceed to the Pa Nyar Wa camp in Kyauktaw Township, which is sheltering members of non-Muslim ethnic minority groups—including the Mro and Daingnet—displaced by recent fighting between the Burma Army and the Arakan Army.
Min Aung said that Yanghee Lee arrived at 10 am on Wednesday at Sittwe airport, where she held a ten-minute meeting with Chief Minister Nyi Pu. According to Min Aung, Yanghee Lee did not use either of the controversial terms “Bengali” or “Rohingya.”
The Arakan State government spokesman also said that Yanghee Lee’s agenda did not include visits to any of the camps for displaced Muslims.
He said that Yanghee Lee was interested to visit Kadi village tract in Ponnagyun Township because it is one of the sites being targeted by the government’s re-booted citizenship verification program aimed at stateless Muslims in Arakan State.
As previously reported by The Irrawaddy, Muslim residents of the village tract have met the process with distrust, with some refusing to cooperate.
The Irrawaddy contacted four separate individuals who attended the meeting between Yanghee Lee and Nyi Pu. They concurred with the account of spokesman Min Aung.
A government source shared an audio file of the meeting with The Irrawaddy, which featured no mention of the words “Rohingya” or “Bengali.”
Chief Minister Nyi Pu said the state government is now “observing and analyzing” the situation in Arakan State and following instructions from State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, who chairs the new Committee for Arakan State Peace, Stability and Development.
Nyi Pu said that, “under Suu Kyi’s leadership, we will quickly implement changes and deliver development. I believe our people will fully obtain the benefits.”
Nyi Pu mentioned that the world is watching Aung San Suu Kyi and her actions will be judged according to “international standards.” Nobody should doubt her sincerity, he said. He added that there was no cause for misunderstanding between the UN and the Burmese government. He called on Yanghee Lee to collaborate with the government’s plan.
Yanghee Lee said she had “come as a true friend” of Arakan State and was there to help.
Yanghee Lee expressed her gladness that Aung San Suu Kyi was leading the new committee on Arakan State, and was devoting attention to its pressing issues. She also expressed confidence in Chief Minister Nyi Pu, whom she trusted would help deliver positive change.
“Today I would like to take the opportunity again to thank you all for working hard on a very complex and very difficult situation,” she said.
On Tuesday, Ms. Yanghee Lee told civil society groups in Rangoon that she had been prohibited by the government from visiting northern Shan State, where several thousand civilians have fled armed conflict in recent months, out of concern for her “safety.”
The Irrawaddy phoned President Office’s spokesman Zaw Htay on Wednesday to clarify this restriction imposed on Yanghee Lee but the calls went unanswered.