Human rights envoy to face Rakhine protests

United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee begins her second tour of the country today.

By Bill O’Toole and Mrat Kyaw Thu   |   Wednesday, 07 January 2015

United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee begins her second tour of the country today.

The 10-day visit will take in rural communities in northern Shan State and the displaced persons camps in Rakhine, where she is expected to face protests from local Rakhine activists.

“I will review the situation in the camps for internally displaced persons and in isolated locations in the Rakhine State, to assess if there has been improvement in the critical conditions I came across on my first visit to Myanmar in July 2014,” she said in a statement.

Rakhine civil society groups told The Myanmar Times they planned to protest against Ms Lee when she arrives in the state capital Sittwe on January 8. While organised by the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion – better known as Ma Ba Tha – the demonstration will be attended by a wide range of groups, they said.

In northern Shan State, Ms Lee will examine the human rights situation of religious and ethnic minorities, including claims of gender-based violence in the region’s armed conflict.

In addition, she will “pay special attention” to four protection of religion bills that are likely to be discussed in the upcoming session of parliament.

“I am deeply concerned that if passed, these four bills will legitimise discrimination, in particular against religious and ethnic minorities, and against women,” she said.

She will also examine political conditions and preparations for this year’s election.

The statement said she would “discuss progress in the democratic process with authorities and civil society to encourage these forthcoming national elections to be transparent, inclusive, participatory, free and fair”.

Ms Lee took over as special rapporteur in 2014 from Tomas Ojea Quintana.

Mr Quintana had a fraught relationship with Nay Pyi Taw and was routinely accused of pro-Muslim bias – including by the government – particularly on the issue of Rakhine State.

While Ms Lee has been spared similar criticism, at the conclusion of her first tour in July 2014, the President’s Office decried her use of the term “Rohingya” to describe the major Muslim community in Rakhine State, who are officially referred to as Bengalis and mostly denied citizenship.

“The term has been maliciously used by a group of people with wider political agenda. The people of Myanmar will never recognise the term,” the government said in a statement.

Ms Lee, however, said it was important that individuals be allowed to self-identify their ethnicity.