UN Rapporteur Meets Muslim and Buddhist Communities in Sittwe

By Moe Myint 24 June 2016

RANGOON — Yanghee Lee, the United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, met on Thursday with Muslim community leaders of Aung Mingalar quarter in Sittwe, the Arakan State capital.

Aung Mingalar is the last Muslim enclave in Sittwe, after most of the town’s sizeable Muslim population fled sectarian violence in 2012. However, it functions effectively as an internment camp, with access in and out restricted by heavily armed police, and the total segregation of the Muslim community from the town’s Buddhist majority.

The meeting took place at the Ma Dar Hsa Arabic School at 10 a.m. and lasted around 10 minutes. A dozen community leaders attended.

Yanghee Lee asked the Muslim residents, many of whom identity strongly as Rohingya, for their views on the new, purportedly “neutral” term for the Rohingya—“Muslim community in Arakan State”—floated by the government at a recent session of the UN Human Rights Council. She also sought their thoughts on the government’s recently resumed citizenship verification drive targeted at stateless Muslims in Arakan State.

The Muslim community leaders responded that they did not accept the government’s new term for them, and said they still hoped to gain official recognition from the government as Rohingya, according to Zaw Zaw, a Rohingya resident who was present at the meeting.

Muslim residents also expressed distrust towards the government’s citizenship verification drive. This has involved the handing out of “national verification cards” to those who will later be assessed for citizenship eligibility under the 1982 Citizenship Law, which discriminates heavily against the Rohingya as a “non-recognized” ethnic group in Burma.

Yanghee Lee then asked which they considered to be a greater priority: gaining citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law, by whatever means, or continuing to fight for the official recognition of their identity as Rohingya.

“We told her that if the Rohingya are designated as one of the [officially recognized] ethnic minorities of Burma, we will automatically become citizens,” said Zaw Zaw.

He said that Yanghee Lee also enquired about their current situation and their experiences over the last four years. The Muslim community leaders stressed that material conditions had improved for them, but the high level of police surveillance had not changed.

“[Beforehand] we were not allowed to go to markets but now we can go everyday with police guards. That’s a small change”, said Zaw Zaw.

The Muslim residents of Aung Mingalar were not entirely satisfied with the meeting, however, because the UN rapporteur did not make any commitments towards them on behalf of the UN and merely took notes, according to Zaw Zaw.

According to state government sources, Yanghee Lee visited only one other place in Sittwe, Ming Gan quarter, where Buddhist Arakanese displaced by the 2012 violence have been settled.

Arakan State government spokesman Min Aung confirmed that Yanghee Lee did not visit any further displaced communities or camps around Sittwe. He said she would return to Rangoon on Thursday evening.

Yesterday, according to state government sources, she visited Pa Nyar Wa camp in Kyauktaw Township, which is sheltering members of non-Muslim ethnic minority groups—including the Mro and Daingnet—displaced by fighting in recent months between the Burma Army and the Arakan Army.

State government spokesman Min Aung expressed his thanks towards the local Arakanese community for not staging any protest rallies, as they had done in previous years.

Thar Pwint, a local Arakanese resident, said, “This is not the time to protest against Yanghee Lee. This is the time to protest against the government. Yanghee Lee is not our guest. She is the guest of the Union government.”

He expressed suspicion over the timing of the deployment of the government’s new term—“Muslim community in Arakan State”—to coincide with the UN rapporteur’s visit, suggesting it was a move to placate the international community. He objected to the term strongly, because it suggested that “Bengali” Muslims “originated in Arakan State.”

This reflects a widely held view among Arakanese Buddhists, and the Burmese public more generally, that the Rohingya are illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

Yanghee Lee intended to consult with civil society groups and political parties drawn from the Arakanese Buddhist majority, but they refused to meet with her. The Arakan National Party, which holds the largest number of seats in the Arakan State parliament, released a statement to that effect on Wednesday.

According to local sources, Arakanese nationalist groups in the state are planning to stage demonstrations against the government’s recent use of “Muslim community in Arakan State.”