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UN rights chief urges Myanmar to halt abuses, 'get back on track'

February 25, 2015

The United Nations human rights chief warned Wednesday that widespread abuses of minority rights in Myanmar threatened to undermine reforms in the country.

"Myanmar had promised to end the era of political prisoners, but now seems intent on creating a new generation by jailing people who seek to enjoy the democratic freedoms they have been promised," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in a statement.

He said the world had hailed the transition in Myanmar since a quasi-civilian regime took power in 2011 after decades of military rule "as a story of promise and hope."

Myanmar's roughly 1.3 million Rohingya are stateless and subject to travel restrictions ©Soe Than Win/AFP

"But recent developments relating to the human rights of minorities, the freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest are calling into question the direction of that reform and even threatening to set it back," he said.

Zeid pointed to the case last week of 14 members of the Michaungkan community jailed for protesting peacefully against the military's alleged confiscation of their land.

And in 2014, he said, 10 journalists were jailed "under outdated defamation, trespassing and national security laws."

He also expressed concern related to upcoming elections.

"During an election year, it will be tempting for some politicians to fan the flames of prejudice for electoral gain," he warned.

"But at a time when religious extremism is creating havoc in many parts of the world, the terrible consequences of appealing to or appeasing such sentiments should be all to clear."

Among the worrying developments was a government announcement last week that identity cards for people without full citizenship, including Muslim Rohingya, will expire within weeks.

"The decision appears designed to prevent 'white card' holders -- the majority believed to be members of Myanmar's stateless Rohingya Muslim minority -- from being eligible to vote," Zeid warned.

Many of Myanmar's roughly 1.3 million Rohingya are stateless and subject to restrictions that affect everything from their ability to travel and work to the permitted size of their families.

Zeid said the Myanmar government even opposes the use of the term "Rohingya", insisting that denying the group's right to self-identification "should sound a clear warning bell."

The UN rights chief also voiced alarm at escalating violence between the military and rebels in the remote Kokang region near the Chinese border, where more than 130 people have died since February 9 and tens of thousands have reportedly been displaced.

United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein expressed concern over upcoming elections in Myanmar ©Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

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