UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Yanghee Lee (center) leaves a camp for Internally Displaced Persons after a visit to the Maye Bon township in western Rakhine state on January 9 (AFP Photo/Stringer)
The UN human rights chief on Wednesday urged Myanmar to condemn attacks on his envoy, who was labeled a "whore" after criticizing controversial draft bills considered discriminatory to women and minorities.
Hundreds of monks rallied against United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Yanghee Lee last week and Myanmar's most influential radical nationalist monk Wirathu called her a "whore in our country".
"The sexist, insulting language used against the UN's independent human rights expert on Myanmar... is utterly unacceptable," UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in a statement.
"It is intolerable for UN Special Rapporteurs to be treated in this way and I call on religious and political leaders in Myanmar to unequivocally condemn all forms of incitement to hatred, including this abhorrent public personal attack against a UN-appointed expert," he added.
The monk's attack came after Lee said the draft legislation — including curbs on interfaith marriage, religious conversion and birth rates — would be a further sign that Myanmar was "backtracking" in its democratic reforms if passed by parliament.
Activists say the laws are particularly discriminatory against women and religious minorities in the Buddhist majority country.
Ashin Seinnita, head of an interfaith group in Mandalay, said that Wirathu should not use such harsh words as a Buddhist monk because it could tarnish the reputation of other monks, Buddhism and the country as a whole.
“The state monk association needs to take action on this since the government can’t investigate it. But if the monks from the state level remain silent, many questions will arise among the people,” Ashin Seinnita told ucanews.com on Thursday.
Thet Swe Win, director of the Center for Youth and Social Harmony in Yangon, also criticized Wirathu’s comments as being hate speech.
“The people clapped their hands when Wirathu used those harsh words in a rally, so we are much concerned for our society that we have deep-rooted hate speech problems. So the government should tackle spreading hate speech; otherwise unexpected problems may occur in the country,” Thet Swe Win said.
“If Wirathu is willing to protect race and religion in the country, it’s better for him to disrobe,” Thet Swe Win added.
High-level government support for the bills has raised fears over growing politicization of religion in the diverse nation as it heads towards crunch elections later this year which are seen as a key test of its emergence from outright military rule.
Zeid said it was Lee's job to address "key human rights issues and the situation of minorities in the country, particularly the Rohingya Muslim community".
The UN expert had in fact expressed admiration for the work of interreligious leaders in the town of Lashio in Northern Shan state towards ensuring peaceful relations between communities, he said.
But, he added, she had also raised "serious concerns" about the draft legislation and about the situation of Rohingya Muslims displaced within Rakhine state and living in squalid conditions in camps.
On Friday, Lee said acute tensions between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state, which has been wracked by violence since 2012, could have "far-reaching implications".
She also faced protests in Rakhine during her Myanmar visit over perceived UN bias in favor of the Rohingya.
"Instead of attacking Ms. Lee personally, I invite community, religious and political leaders in Myanmar to tackle the substance of her concerns," Zeid said.
Julia Marip, a joint general-secretary of the Women’s League of Burma, said Wirathu’s remarks showed there was no recognition of women’s rights in Myanmar.
“Even the UN rights envoy is criticized by harsh words. One can imagine the risks that women activists in Myanmar who oppose the race and religion law have to face,” she told ucanews.com.
Han Thar Myint, central executive committee member of the National League for Democracy, said Wirathu’s remarks were not surprising because he has frequently used such incendiary rhetoric but declined to comment further because the NLD has not yet taken a formal position on the comments.