Rights rep seeks action on religious issues
At the end of a 12-day trip to Myanmar, UN special rapporteur on human rights Yanghee Lee urged the country’s leaders to denounce acts of religious violence against minority Muslims.
THE UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has urged Myanmar’s political leaders, including State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to publicly denounce and prosecute acts of religious violence against minority Muslims.
Ms Lee also pressed the government to do more to ease restrictions on the population of Muslims in western Rakhine State who self-identify as Rohingya but whom the previous government officially branded Bengalis, implying that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Her fourth official visit – during which she travelled to Kachin, Shan and Rakhine states to observe humanitarian conditions in camps for civilians displaced by conflict, as well as meeting with legislators, civil society groups and government officials in Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw – ended on July 1. The 12-day assessment of the country was her first since the National League for Democracy took power in April.
“While I commend Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s commitment to combating and publicly condemning hate speech and incitement to violence against minorities, other public officials and political leaders must also speak out,” Ms Lee said at a press conference in Yangon on July 1. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, during the lead-up to last year’s election, said repeatedly on the campaign trail, in press conferences and in interviews that “rule of law” was key to combating incitement to violence and religiously fuelled hatred.
But the state counsellor has faced criticism from the international community for not speaking out more forcefully for the country’s minority Muslims, particularly those self-identifying as Rohingya in Rakhine State.
During a joint press conference in May with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said the government needed “space” to find practical solutions for the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Rakhine State, calling for the international community’s cooperation by not using the term “Rohingya” given sensitivities surrounding the word, which she described as “emotive”.
Asked to comment on the state counsellor’s request – after Ms Lee used the word “Rohingya” twice in her prepared remarks – the special rapporteur said she understood the complexity and sensitivity of issues regarding the terminology, but insisted that her usage was guided by international human rights principles, namely the right to self-identify.
Despite the recent establishment of a Central Committee on Implementation of Peace, Stability and Development of Rakhine State, “the situation on the ground has yet to significantly change”, Ms Lee said, while noting that the committee’s creation indicated that the government had prioritised addressing the state’s challenges.
“The conditions in the IDP camps I visited remain poor with concerns about overcrowding, the deterioration of temporary shelters and housing, and the lack of proper sanitation facilities,” she said.
She added that ending institutionalised discrimination against Muslim communities in Rakhine State must be an urgent priority.
“The continuing restrictions on the freedom of movement of the Rohingya and Kaman communities cannot be justified on any grounds of security or maintaining stability,” Ms Lee said.
The government last month rebooted a citizenship verification program, issuing blue-green cards to the largely stateless population of Muslims in Rakhine State, restarting a program piloted by the previous government. Individuals receiving the cards will undergo a poorly understood verification process to determine whether they are entitled to citizenship.
The UN envoy said the government should have specific timelines for carrying out the citizenship verification process in Rakhine State.
“If the verification exercise is extended throughout Rakhine State, it would be important to fully consult and involve those directly affected by this process. Clear time frames should be established on when participants will have their status reviewed and when decisions on their applications can be expected,” Ms Lee said.
She said religious tensions remain pervasive across Myanmar, citing the building of Buddhist stupas in close proximity to churches and mosques in Kayin State, and a recent mob attack resulting in the destruction of properties including a mosque and a Muslim cemetery in Bago Region.
Ms Lee criticised the government’s decision not to take action against individuals involved in the mob attack in Bago Region on June 23.
“It is vital that the government take prompt action, including by conducting thorough investigations and holding perpetrators to account. I am therefore concerned by reports that the government will not pursue action in the most recent case due to fears of fuelling greater tensions and provoking more conflict,” she said.
“This is precisely the wrong signal to send. The government must demonstrate that instigating and committing violence against an ethnic or religious minority community has no place in Myanmar. Perpetrators will be treated seriously in accordance with the law regardless of race, religious or ethnic background,” Ms Lee added.
Myanmar’s former quasi-civilian government marginalised the community in Rakhine State that numbers more than 1 million and self-identifies as Rohingya. Last year the community had their temporary identification documents known as “white cards” revoked and were denied suffrage in the November election, despite having had the right to vote in 2010.
Restrictions on movement and difficulties accessing education and healthcare remain for more than 100,000 Rohingya living in temporary camps since 2012 violence between Buddhists and Muslims.
On other human rights developments on the executive and legislative fronts, Ms Lee said she observed tensions between the new civilian leadership and a bureaucracy inherited from previous military regimes, sometimes resulting in a duality in policy and approach to human rights matters.
She said an ongoing review aimed at legal reform should be made in line with international human rights standards and practices, urging that legislation be crafted or rescinded only after public consultation and engagement with civil society actors. She praised work done by the Legal Affairs and Special Cases Assessment Commission run by the state counsellor’s close ally Thura U Shwe Mann, which recommended amending or nixing 142 laws, including the recently repealed State Protection Act.
Ms Lee also urged Myanmar’s National Human Rights Commission, which has faced criticism for not reliably flagging human rights violations and abuses in the country, to more fully step into its role as an independent advocate for human rights and not shy away from addressing issues without regard for potential reputational damage to the government or military.
Pointedly, alluding to the nation’s emergence five years ago from decades of repressive military rule, the special rapporteur noted that “old habits die hard”.
“Recent incidents, such as the banning of a film during a human rights film festival and the denial of permission for a press conference on a civil society report alleging grave violations by the military, are worrying signals,” she said.
The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar,Yanghee Lee, speaks at a press briefing inYangon on July 1.