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Myanmar’s Refusal of UN Team Visas Amounts to ‘Slap in The Face’: Rights Group

Yanghee Lee arrives at Sittwe Airport, July 12, 2017.

July 13, 2017

Myanmar’s refusal to grant visas to a United Nations team investigating abuses against ethnic Rohingya Muslims is a “slap in the face” to victims that risks lumping the country with the world’s “pariah states,” like North Korea, who block independent fact-finding missions, a rights group said Wednesday.

The condemnation came as the arrival of the U.N. human rights envoy to Myanmar was met with protests by residents of troubled Rakhine state, where she is leading a delegation to probe allegations of rights violations carried out on the Rohingya by security forces.

In late June, Myanmar’s civilian government under de facto leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi informed the U.N. Human Rights Council that it would conduct its own investigation into the situation in Rakhine, and refused visas to three investigators the council asked to send to the region.

On Wednesday, John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch, urged the government to reconsider its decision or risk facing international censure, saying that to deny the team visas “would be a slap in the face to victims who suffered grave human rights violations by Myanmar’s state security forces.”

“Does Aung San Suu Kyi’s government really want to be included in a very small and ignominious club of countries that reject Human Rights Council decisions?” Fisher said in a statement.

“North Korea, Eritrea, Syria, and Burundi are human rights pariah states that obstructed the work of independent, international investigations into alleged rights abuses, and it would be a travesty for a democratically elected, National League for Democracy-led government in Myanmar to do the same.”

Fisher advised the government to immediately issue visas to the U.N. team and “fully cooperate with its investigation.”

“Otherwise, the governments that pushed to set up this fact-finding mission need to stand up for it and impose a political consequence on Myanmar for blocking its work,” he said.

Fisher’s statement followed one issued Monday by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, calling on Myanmar’s government to provide the team with visas, saying that the “international community cannot overlook what is happening in [Myanmar].”

Troubled state

Northern Rakhine state has seen a string of disappearances, murders, and attacks on security forces since deadly attacks there on border guard stations by an obscure group of Rohingya Muslim militants.

A four-month security crackdown followed the attacks, during which an estimated 1,000 were killed and 90,000 Rohingya—who are denied citizenship and other rights in Buddhist-majority Myanmar—fled to neighboring Bangladesh to escape alleged atrocities committed against them by security forces.

Since then, nearly 40 civilians, including several ethnic Rakhine people, have been killed and more than 20 have gone missing or been abducted, according to the government.

Troops in northern Rakhine have been put on high alert in the area following other attacks by Muslim militants, though a state parliamentary official and political parties have called for increased security.

In February, the U.N. said in a report that the campaign against the Rohingya “very likely” amounted to war crimes, and three months later the rights council ordered Indira Jaising of India, Radhika Coomaraswamy of Sri Lanka and Christopher Dominic Sidoti of Australia to “urgently” investigate reported abuses against the ethnic group by security forces—including rape, torture, and murder.

Aung San Suu Kyi has said a U.N. fact-finding mission would raise tensions in Rakhine, and Myanmar officials say a domestic investigation and a commission headed by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan—which is not mandated to investigate human rights abuses—are sufficient to address problems in the region.

Journalist access

Myanmar’s government on Wednesday granted access to 18 Myanmar nationals and foreign correspondents representing international media, including RFA’s Myanmar Service, to northern Rakhine state for the first time since the security crackdown in October last year.

Myo Myint Aung, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Information, told RFA that priority had been given to foreign media for the five-day government-escorted visit, during which reporters will travel to Buthidaung and Maungdaw—where most residents are Rohingya.

Reuters News Agency quoted Thet Swe, a director at the ministry's News and Periodicals Enterprise, as saying that journalists would face “no restrictions” regarding areas they could report from, and stressing that no “for show” areas had been arranged to mislead them about the situation on the ground.

The itinerary does not include visits to villages at the center of a two-week offensive in mid-November, where numerous abuses have been documented, but Thet Swe said it is “not fixed” and subject to changes due to weather and security concerns.

Reporters would be taken to the village of Tin May, where security forces killed two suspected militants and arrested one after they detonated a bomb on Sunday, Reuters reported, citing an announcement from Aung San Suu Kyi's office.

Rights envoy

Also on Wednesday, nearly 100 people gathered at the airport in the Rakhine capital Sittwe to protest the arrival of U.N. special rapporteur on human rights Yanghee Lee as part of her July 10-21 visit to Myanmar to investigate developments in the country’s human rights situation.

The protesters, who were given permission to protest by authorities and are believed to be members of a small local group known as the Rakhine Ahlin Takar, held signs which read “get out Yanghee Lee” and “sorry Yanghee Lee, not welcome” as the rights envoy left the airport in a car.

Ma Kyaut Sein, a protester in Sittwe, told RFA that Lee “discriminates against the ethnic Rakhine” in favor of “Bengalis,” using a pejorative term for the Rohingya which suggests they have illegally entered Myanmar from neighboring Bangladesh.

“Every time [U.N. officials visit and] return home, we end up with more problems and more terrorist attacks in Rakhine state,” she said, adding that it is better for the U.N. “not to come at all.”

Another protester named May Phyu told RFA that in the six times Lee had visited Myanmar, “she hasn’t done anything for the Rakhine people.”

“She only helps the Bengali Muslims, claiming they are a minority [of Myanmar that should have the rights of citizenship],” she added.

After her arrival, Lee met with residents and community leaders, who told her they want the government to set up thorough checks on the Rohingya to determine who is entitled to citizenship, and asked her advice on how members of the two ethnic groups can live together peacefully in Rakhine.

They also called for the government to bring stability to the region, adding that rule of law can only be achieved when acts of terrorism by both sides are ended.

Lee later left for Buthidaung, where she was met by another group of around 100 protesters, and was expected to continue on to Maungdaw for the evening.

On Tuesday, Lee met with residents of Rakhine state’s deep-water port town of Kyaukphyu to hear from those whose rights have been affected by special economic zones and other mega-projects that they say have not benefited them.

Reported by Thiri Min Zin and Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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