Persecuted Rohingya look to UN rights envoy

Special rapporteur's visit to restive Rakhine aroused both hope and cynicism
Persecuted Rohingya look to UN rights envoy

U.N. special rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee being escorted by a policeman on arrival at Sittwe airport, in the capital of Rakhine State on Jan. 13 as part of her 12-day visit to investigate escalating violence in Myanmar's restive ethnic border areas. (Photo by Wai More/AFP)

People of the Rohingya minority hope that United Nations Special Rapporteur to Myanmar Yanghee Lee, who recently visited the country, will help improve their situation in the religiously and ethnically divided Rakhine State.

Lee visited areas of north Rakhine on Jan. 13-15 that had been subjected to three months of counter-insurgency operations by Myanmar's security forces. The operations were a response the killing of nine police officers at three border posts by alleged Rhoningya militants on Oct. 9, 2016. Rights groups and residents have subsequently accused security forces of widespread abuses such as burning homes, murder, rape and arresting innocent civilians.

Lee said Jan. 17 that her four-day visit to northern Rakine State was "very useful" despite a number of "hitches".

"I was granted full access without security to most of the places I asked for," Lee told The Irrawaddy who additionally reported that there were several areas she was not allowed to visit.

As part of her Rakhine tour, Lee visited a Muslim area in state capital Sittwe and a number of Rohingya villages.

At least 69,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh while more than 23,000 remain displaced inside Maungdaw, in northern Rakhine, according to a United Nations monthly report released on Jan. 30.

Hopes for change

Sultan, a Rohingya Muslim in Maungdaw who withheld his last name, said that he hoped that the U.N. rights envoy would bring change in the region.

He added that Lee visited villages in Maungdaw and met with local people so she could see the reality with her own eyes and be able to report the human rights situation accurately.

"Her visit was a successful one and I hope the government will implement the things she suggests," Sultan, a retired schoolteacher, told

For Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya living in a camp for internally displaced people near Sittwe, the capital city of Rakhine, said that Lee's visit would not bring much change.

"As a U.N. rights envoy, she can recommend suggestions but it is largely dependent on the willingness of the government," said Kyaw Hla Aung, a former lawyer.

He added that it is a great challenge for Aung San Suu Kyi's civilian government to remedy the situation as the military controls three key ministries: home affairs, defense and borders, under the 2008 Constitution.

Institutionalized discrimination

The international community has criticized the Myanmar government over its treatment of the Rohingya and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's continued silence over the issue.

"The response [to the attacks on the border posts] must be carried out within the parameters of the rule of law and in full compliance with human rights," Lee said in a Jan. 20 statement when she concluded her 12-day visit to Myanmar which included Kachin, Rakhine, Yangon and Naypyidaw.

Lee said that the Rakhine persecution took place within the context of decades of "systematic and institutionalized discrimination" against the Rohingya.

"Desperate individuals take desperate actions," Lee said.

About 140,000 Rohingyas are currently confined to camps in apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine after sectarian violence erupted in 2012, leaving scores dead. Many of them face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, with limited access to health care, food and education.

There are estimated 1.1 million Rohingya people in Rakhine but they were not accounted for in the 2014 census.

Rakhine Burmese are not optimistic

Pe Than, a lower house lawmaker from hard-line Buddhist party, the Arakan National Party in Rakhine, said that he was not optimistic about Lee's visit because she is biased in favor of the "Bengali" (a pejorative term for Rohingya) so her report would not make a difference.

"She [Lee] needs to consider the concerns of ethnic Rakhines to reflect the reality," Pe Than told

He added that Lee should consider the two communities' concerns and the local context rather than campaign in favor of Rohingya citizenship rights and re-integration.

Pe Than's party refused to meet with Lee during her visit.

"We accept that our country still needs a U.N. rights envoy as rights abuses against minority ethnics happen. But in terms of Rakhine, Lee should not be biased in favor of Rohingya Muslims," Pe Than said.

Lee's recent visit was her fifth to Myanmar to monitor the human rights situation. She will submit her report to the United Nations in March.

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