UN Rights Envoy: ‘When You Gain Power, You Can’t Just Change Things Overnight’

By David Hopkins 26 December 2015

Yanghee Lee, the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, is planning to make her fourth official visit to the country before the term of the outgoing government ends early next year. Lee’s last fact-finding mission in August was cut short by five days and access was denied to western Burma’s Arakan State—restrictions the South Korean child rights expert described at the time as hindering her ability to fulfill her mandate. With 2015 drawing to a close, The Irrawaddy spoke with Lee about Burma’s recent general election, her expectations of a new National League for Democracy-led government and rights issues including ongoing conflict and political prisoners.

Firstly, when is your next official visit to Burma planned and what are your expectations this time around?

I’m planning on going there within the next two months. I would like to go there before the government changes hands, before Thein Sein retires from his office, so that I will be able to reiterate some past issues and past points. Also so that President Thein Sein will still be able to fulfill the promises that he made when he took office in terms of human rights issues… My report to the Human Rights Council is due in March, that’s my mandate. I would like to engage again and go to Myanmar and see [the situation] firsthand before I complete my report.

Were you heartened by the conduct of what was broadly regarded as a credible election? And how have you viewed the early stages of the transition process so far?

I really was heartened by the election process. We had many concerns—both the people of Myanmar and the international community did. There definitely were some disappointments and some regrets, but by far it was relatively fair and free, although not in absolute terms. This transition process—it’s too early to know, but so far I think it’s going OK. However, it took a while for the president and commander-in-chief to finally meet with Daw Suu. I don’t know why it took them a few weeks to finally meet.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been clear on her party not seeking retribution for the past. From a human rights perspective, how do you balance political pragmatism with calls for justice and accountability for past abuses?

That’s always a very difficult choice. I stick by justice, accountability and truth, but you have to be aware of the 50 years of oppressive dictatorship. To say otherwise, at the very beginning of a transition or right after a landslide election, to emphasize truth and accountability… I don’t know how far cooperation would go. Daw Suu has had first-hand experience, being under house arrest for so long… So I think she’s trying to be balanced and tread the waters as best she can.

Some have questioned the extent to which the NLD can institute change and reign in abuses given the entrenched position of the military. What are your expectations of an NLD-led government in terms of addressing long-standing human rights concerns? Are you optimistic?

I have to be optimistic and I think this time there’s so much focus and attention from the outside world that what happened in 1990 will not happen this time. I would like to emphasize that this is particularly why we need continued international attention on Myanmar because of so much entrenched oppression and violations and also vis-à-vis the ongoing conflict areas. Some people think that now everything will be hunky dory, that we will conduct trade and [build] relations with Myanmar. But we have to remember that the military has a very strong hold on most of the business sector, at least most of the major, noteworthy, big revenue-generating businesses—or their cronies do. So it will be very important for the international community to continue to pay attention and still pressure the military. We are not only dealing with a new government, we are also dealing with the old military stronghold.

How might the way you pursue your mandate change under an NLD-led government?

It will not change at all. The major government interlocutors will change, but the civil society will still be there and my utmost priority, as it always has been, is to be fair and impartial and yet I have to really hone in on my monitoring of human right abuses and violations in all spectrums. It’s not just civil and political rights but also economic, social and cultural rights… From the day I took up my mandate, I did not slow down the pace from the previous mandate. I immediately said, I have to call a spade a spade, and I was not welcomed, of course, by the current government… I will still do the same with the new NLD government. It would be naïve for me or anybody to say that now the NLD is in power that all of the human rights violations and abuses will disappear overnight, because they won’t.

The new government will start with very good intentions. They were the recipients of decades of oppression. But when you’re in politics, when you gain power, you can’t just change things overnight. Some things will be prioritized more for various reasons. It will be my job to engage and cooperate with this new government to ensure human rights issues are at the forefront. We all know that economic development will be the top priority in any country when a new government comes in; to make the country rich and the people prosper. That could put human rights issues on the backburner.

You mentioned ongoing conflict, could you comment on the military’s recent offensives in central Shan State against the Shan State Army-North and how this reflects on the “nationwide” ceasefire agreement and the political process?

I’m keeping a very close eye on developments in Shan. I’m really concerned on how it’s evolving. There are still 3,000 IDPs from the recent conflict and they want to go back to their homes and their livelihoods. And of course Kachin State is another area that I’m keeping my radar on. The political process could be real and I certainly hope [conflict doesn’t affect it] because then we’re going to go back to day one again after so many years of trying for this national ceasefire agreement. There’s still military offensives going on and I’ve been hearing of looting of villagers [in Shan State] and how the villagers are still terrified of the Burmese army. These sorts of things should not continue.

Ensuring the release of political prisoners will be a key expectation of the new government. Could you explain the steps needed to ensure against politically motivated cases in the future?

I was hoping that before this government leaves, they release the remaining political prisoners. We should push for that—[although] an amnesty means that these people were indeed criminals, but in the first place they should not have been arrested. In the future, in terms of preventing more political prisoners, it has to start with repealing and amending old repressive laws. It’s not going to be an overnight process. With oppressive laws like the penal code and sections of the Constitution which are not in line with international standards, it’s so easy to have more people arrested on political motivations in the future… As long as the old laws are on the books, it’s so easy to use them against people.

Could you comment on the various defamation cases that have recently been brought to trial, such as the case of activist Patrick Khum Jaa Lee?

I think this is the job of the new Parliament, from day one. There’s no breaking in period, I think they need to start [immediately] to look at some of the oppressive laws that prohibit or hinder the realization of fundamental rights. I was very troubled by these cases. Social media is a new frontier and I’ve been concerned how the Myanmar government would handle this; whether they would scrutinize and monitor all social media and invade people’s privacy. If more cases pile up, that would be very troubling.

What were your reflections on Burma’s Universal Periodic Review held in November in terms of the government’s engagement with the process, their report and their response to recommendations?

They were prompt—and of course no country is late—in submitting their report to the UPR cycle. The civil society consultations I don’t think were adequate. It was very regrettable that it took place in the wake of the elections, it was terrible timing. What could they say and what could they not say? But I was really disappointed that many of the points they rejected were those core recommendations made by their peer groups. Such as violence and discrimination against ethnic minorities, the citizenship law, Rakhine issues, legislation issues and the recruitment of child soldiers.

The NLD did not field any Muslim candidates in the election and has been accused of failing to speak out for the persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority in Arakan State. Is the party’s willingness or ability to tackle anti-Muslim sentiment and discrimination a concern?

That’s a very political question and I’ve been trying to think this through, even months before the election campaign started. I’m trying to see the other side, what kind of logic or reasons they had for not fielding any Muslim candidates. The political sentiment there, the temperature, was escalating. Ma Ba Tha was very strong and the division between religion and the state was [blurred]. Had the NLD fielded any [Muslim] candidates, what might have happened? Why didn’t they still go ahead and field some candidates? … It’s my role to emphasize to the new government that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international treaties that Myanmar is a party to, mean they have to comply with provisions regarding non-discrimination.