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'Rakhine State remains in crisis'

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezJanuary 19, 2015

Following her ten-day trip to Myanmar, UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee tells DW she is 'disturbed' by how minorities are being targeted and says violence is a significant barrier to peace and prosperity in the country.

Myanmar Rohingya Flüchtlinge
Image: Reuters

The UN Special Rapporteur undertook her second official visit to the country from January 7-16 to focus on the human rights situation in the Rakhine and Northern Shan States, among other issues. Lee's visit was met by protests by hundreds of Buddhist monks, including firebrand monk Wirathu, who has reportedly been instrumental in inflaming sectarian tensions since 2012.

Myanmar's quasi-civilian government - which to date has refused to grant the majority of them citizenship - describes the estimated 1.1 million Rohingya as "Bengali," a term which many members of the minority group object to strongly. Under a controversial government-backed plan, the Rohingya would be forced to identify themselves as Bengali in order to apply for citizenship. Those who refuse would be forced to live in camps.

Many Rohingya live in Apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine state on the western coast of the predominantly Buddhist country. Since sectarian violence erupted in 2012, an estimated 140,000 displaced people - mostly Rohingya - have been living in camps. Moreover, both the US and UN have raised particular concerns about a set of controversial laws proposed by President Thein Sein in response to campaigns by hard-line Buddhist monks. The draft legislation includes curbs on interfaith marriage, religious conversion and birth rates.

Myanmar UN Beobachter Yanghee Lee
Lee: 'Tensions and violence between different religious communities is a significant problem in Myanmar'Image: Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images

In a DW interview, Yanghee Lee talks about the current state of human rights in Myanmar as well as its implications for the nation's future.

DW: After your trip to the country, what is your assessment of the human rights situation both in the Rakhine and the Northern Shan states?

Yanghee Lee: The purpose of my visits to Rakhine and the Northern Shan states was to assess inter-communal relationships and recovery from the inter-communal violence that was experienced in each of these states.

Inter-communal violence, both inter-ethnic and inter-religious, continues to be a significant barrier to peace and prosperity in Myanmar. In this era of reform where a new national identity is emerging, I am disturbed to see some minorities continuing to be targeted through rumors, discriminatory policies and in extreme cases, hate speech.

I had the opportunity to visit Lashio in the Northern Shan State to assess the follow up since the inter-communal violence in May 2013 where an organized Buddhist mob had violently attacked the local Muslim community. I commend the authorities and community of Lashio for their cooperative recovery from this incident. I was particularly impressed with the commitment of inter-religious leaders from the Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and Christian communities to work together towards maintaining a peaceful community.

I was disappointed to see that the Muslim orphanage and Hindu premises burnt in the attack have not yet been rebuilt, due to administrative delays. I urge the authorities to speed up this process so that the Lashio experience can serve as a model for other regions in Myanmar where such cooperation has been more difficult to achieve.

However, in the Rakhine State the situation remains in crisis. Efforts are being made to address certain issues, but much more is needed. I urgently call on the government to protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all inhabitants of Rakhine State regardless of legal status, to allow full and immediate access for humanitarian agencies across the state and to allow the safe return of all internally displaced peoples (IDPs) to their communities of origin including to their land.

Myanmar Gewalt zwischen Rohingya Muslime und Buddhisten
Many Rohingya live in Apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine state on the western coast of the predominantly Buddhist countryImage: Reuters

How is the situation in the camps for internally displaced people?

I visited Myebon, including the Muslim IDP camp where the Citizenship Verification pilot exercise has been carried out. The lives of the IDPs who have received their citizenship cards in Myebon camp have not changed. They remain inside the camp with minimum food rations, limited access to health care and to other essential services. The despair that I saw in the eyes of the people in the Myebon IDP camp was heartbreaking. The Chief Minister confirmed that the atmosphere remains hostile, a fact that was confirmed in my discussions with local elders.

I do not regard this as an acceptable situation. The severe curtailment of the rights of the IDPs in conditions of detention, with limited access to essential services must be immediately addressed. Until my arrival, international NGOs had been granted limited access to the camps once per week.

I understand that permission has now been granted for visits three times a week. This is still far too inadequate. Health services remain abysmal and there is highly limited access to education.

Freedom of movement should be available to all IDPs, as well as access to their land and to all other rights enjoyed by other persons in the Rakhine State. Collective punishment of the entire Muslim population of the Rakhine State for the deeds of a limited number of perpetrators from the violence in 2012 is not the answer.

What could be the implications of the prevailing situation in the Rakhine State in terms of inter-religious violence and intolerance?

The continuance of the current situation of restricting the rights of Rohingya Muslims is merely serving to exacerbate tensions and anger. It also creates a host of challenges for the forthcoming election that will be difficult to address.

The issues in the Rakhine State also have international implications which are of concern to all member states. In particular, the human rights violations being committed are encouraging people smuggling and are generating large numbers of asylum seekers, often leading to tragic suffering and loss of life.

What is your view on the draft legislation proposed by President Thein Sein which foresees curbs on interfaith marriage, religious conversion and birth rates?

I am concerned about this package of four bills that have been tabled for consideration in the next session of the country's parliament. It includes: The Religious Conversion Bill, Population Control Bill, Myanmar Buddhist Women's Special Marriage Bill and the Monogamy Bill.

I was informed that the bills seek to protect the health, welfare and rights of women in particular, as well as addressing administrative needs such as the registration of religious conversion. However, I respectfully maintain my concerns with these laws and call upon all parliamentarians to thoroughly scrutinize these bills and to play a role in building a more tolerant and inclusive community.

Furthermore, tensions and violence between different religious communities is a significant problem in Myanmar. Inter-community education and reconciliation are urgently needed. Already significant steps forward have been taken through interfaith dialogues and more integrated communities like I saw in Lashio, in the Northern Shan State.

Myanmar Präsident Thein Sein 29.04.2013
'I am concerned that the four bills proposed by President Sein could inflame existing inter-communal tensions,' says LeeImage: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

But I am concerned that these four bills could inflame already existing tensions between religious groups. I therefore strongly urge all Parliamentarians to closely scrutinize these bills, in full consultation with affected communities, and to reject them in their entirety.

Areas requiring regulation, such as laws for marriage, divorce and succession, should be the subject of a law common to all people of Myanmar, irrespective of their race and religion, in full compliance with international human rights norms. If these bills are passed, it could be viewed as one of the indicators of backtracking in the political reform process.

How important do you think this year's upcoming elections will be?

The upcoming elections will be an important step forward in the process towards democratization. Yet several challenges will need to be overcome if this election is to result in a future of genuine democratic governance. One of the areas I examined during my visit is the extent to which the people of Myanmar can express their opinions openly and freely.

The opening up of democratic space in Myanmar has been widely acknowledged as one of the significant achievements in the country's reform process. However, following my visit in July 2014, I expressed concern that significant challenges remain and highlighted the need for accelerated efforts if such achievements are to be maintained. I noted particular concerns among my interlocutors with article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act.

A free and independent media is another important indicator of democratic society. I am informed that the Government is in the process of reforming media governance and has worked with journalists to this end.

Myanmar Birma Unruhen
An estimated 140,000 displaced people have been living in camps since sectarian violence erupted in 2012Image: Reuters

But much remains to be done. I received complaints that insufficient consultation had taken place in the development of the current Broadcasting Law. Concerns were also expressed that the publishing and media laws stifle independent media and are unnecessarily restrictive.

I was also informed that journalists face regular intimidation and harassment. Instead of facilitating free expression which is fundamental to credible democratic reform, these events serve to encourage self-censorship and caution. I urge the Government to ensure that space for expression of dissent and demands for accountability is both protected and expanded. Maintaining the space available for independent election reporting will be a key challenge during 2015.

Yanghee Lee is the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. She is also a professor at Sungkyunwan University in South Korea.