UN Rights Envoy Meets Jailed Student Activists

By Nyein Nyein 6 August 2015

UN rights envoy Yanghee Lee visited flood-stricken Pegu Division on Wednesday to meet with activists who have been jailed there since a police crackdown on student protests earlier this year.

Lee arrived in Burma on Monday for a five-day fact finding visit, her third such trip since assuming the post of human rights rapporteur in early 2014.

According to the UN Information Center (UNIC), Lee visited Thayarwaddy Prison to meet with some of the scores of jailed activists and their supporters, who have been awaiting a verdict since their arrest almost five months ago.

More than 120 people were initially arrested when police brutally dismantled a sit-in protest on March 10, though dozens were later released. About 70 remaining detainees face charges including rioting, obstruction of official duties and unlawful assembly, which could land them prison sentences of up to three years.

The UNIC declined to comment further on which activists the rapporteur met with or what was discussed during the visit, though Lee will brief reporters in Rangoon on Friday evening at the end of her visit.

At the start of her five-day fact finding mission on Monday, Lee met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, several media workers and women’s rights activists. On Tuesday she conferred with peace negotiators and on Wednesday met with senior leaders from western Burma’s Arakan State.

The troubled state, one of the poorest parts of the country, was the site of inter-communal riots in 2012 that left some 130,000 people confined to displacement camps, most of them belonging to the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority. Arakan State returned to the international spotlight earlier this year as a regional refugee crisis unfolded in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.

The coastal state now suffers severe flooding after Cyclone Komen, which made landfall in neighboring Bangladesh late last week, drenched much of the country before moving northeast and weakening.

At least 55 flood-related deaths have been reported in Arakan State alone since heavy rains began, though the toll is expected to rise.

As of Thursday morning, at least 74 people have died nationwide as a result of the floods according to the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement. More than 330,000 people are believed to be directly affected, while Arakan State, Chin State, Magwe and Sagaing divisions have been declared disaster zones.

Arakan State elder Than Tun told The Irrawaddy that Lee was unable to visit the state due to current conditions on the ground, but that she expressed deep empathy with flood victims and vowed to voice their concerns with the United Nations.

“We raised our concerns for our emergency needs—paddy seeds, and the rebuilding of schools and infrastructure—and she pledged to take the issues to UN,” Than Tun said.

Lee has previously visited the state, most recently in January, when she met with massive public protests over a perception that the United Nations was biased in favor of the Rohingya community. Later that month, she was famously referred to as a “whore” by one of the country’s most well-known Buddhist figures, the outspoken monk Wirathu.

Than Tun said that during their meeting in Rangoon, Lee emphasized building trust between the state’s Buddhist and Muslim communities and inquired about progress on a citizenship scrutiny project being carried out in the state.