RANGOON — UN Special Rapporteur to Burma Yanghee Lee painted a bleak picture of the state of human rights in the country at the end of her 12-day tour of Kachin, Mon, and Arakan states as well as Rangoon and Naypyidaw, at a press conference in Rangoon on Friday.
Lee said the government’s kneejerk reaction to “defend, dismiss, and deny” allegations of human rights abuses was “draining the hope that had swept the country” following the election of a civilian government last year.
She singled out the “three legs of the government”—referring to the military-controlled ministries of home, border, and defense affairs—for creating an uphill battle for human rights and noted that Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing had refused to meet her.
The UN rapporteur expressed frustration with the military side of the government for blocking her from visiting Hpakant and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) stronghold Laiza on her tour of Kachin State.
The situation in Kachin State is often overlooked and hope is starting to wane there, Lee said at the press conference. She said the situation had deteriorated—even in six months since her last visit—and pointed out that in the relatively calm area of state capital Myitkyina, residents were still afraid to go outside after dark.
She expressed disbelief over a state government denial of the existence of an IDP camp that she herself had visited.
Lee stated a similar disbelief in government denial regarding northern Arakan State, where she spent four days visiting villages in Buthidaung, Rathedaung, and Maungdaw townships—the heart of an area under Burma Army lockdown for “security operations” after militants attacked border guard posts in October and mid-November.
After witnessing burned houses in the area, she called government claims that the Muslim Rohingya community had torched their own homes in order to have better ones built by aid groups or as a smear campaign against the government “incredible” and “far-fetched.”
Lee also visited Rathedaung Township’s Koe Tan Kauk village—where footage of police beating Rohingya villagers in November went viral and prompted disciplinary action against the officers.
She said the fact that the abuse was recorded suggests it “might be common practice.”
While condemning the “deplorable” attacks on police posts by militants she told the press “these attacks took place within the context of systematic and institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya communities.”
“Desperate individuals lead to desperate actions,” she said, suggesting that if the “population had felt that the new government had started addressing the situation and their grievances,” then the attacks on the border guard posts may not have occurred.
In visits to a hard labor camp in Mon State and Buthidaung Prison, she witnessed a dysfunctional justice system. She condemned the lack of transparency or a complaints procedure, and the use of shackles as a punitive measure in Mon State.
There are currently 450 individuals who were detained after the October and November attacks at Buthidaung Prison, Lee confirmed, and lamented the fact that the majority had no legal representation, no knowledge of what they were charged with, and no way of contacting family members.
She noted that more than 40 individuals were currently being charged under the controversial Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law and that she had spoken to lawyers who were harassed or prosecuted for speaking out against human rights abuses.
Reprisal was the one word that Lee chose to sum up her trip, recalling that in every location she visited, people were afraid of speaking to her, and that the country had a long way to go before individuals were free to speak their minds and live without fear.
This article was edited to correct the list of ministries controlled by the military to home, border and defense.