Rights rep seeks ac­tion on re­li­gious is­sues

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - LUN MIN MANG lun­min­mang@mm­times.com

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.

Photo: AFP

The UN spe­cial rap­por­teur on hu­man rights in Myan­mar,Yanghee Lee, speaks at a press brief­ing in­Yan­gon on July 1.

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