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A minefield of fear in Myanmar

A minefield of fear in Myanmar

SATURDAY, January 28, 2017

UN human rights envoy has given troubling insights into the violations, but does the world care?

The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has been on a very important mission. The Korean professor is one of few key figures from the international community to have actually witnessed the situation on the ground in Rakhine State, where gross human rights violations, that border on genocide, have been going on for some time. 
Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar have viciously attacked Lee, almost from day one. On an earlier visit, a prominent but controversial monk, Wirathu, called her a “whore” and told her to get out of their country.
But while Wirathu has an agenda, what’s sad about the whole series of events is that Buddhist nationalist leaders have turned a blind eye to these atrocities. 
Once a beacon of hope, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi also decided to play it safe – to not speak out despite many reports of Army abuses in the troubled region. 
Lee is up against a lot of resistance. And with each trip, things tend to get worse. Last week, Lee issued a public statement expressing her worry about possible reprisals against the people she met and interviewed during her recent visit to Myanmar. 
She said she was particularly struck by the fear in some of the people she spoke to. They “were afraid of what would happen to them after talking to me”, Lee in a press statement after her January 9-21 visit to the country.
“There is one word that has hung heavily on my mind during this visit – reprisals,” she said.
Lee said she was deeply concerned for those who are “critical of the government, those defending and advocating the rights of others, and those who expressed their thoughts and opinions, which did not conform to the narrative of those in the position of power”.
Lee’s concerns are not without basis. Section 66 (d) of the Myanmar Telecommunications Law has been used against many people “merely for speaking their minds”.
Moreover, the so-called counter-insurgency operation – more like a blind sweep to hunt down a group of armed dissidents – in villages near Maungdaw has resumed with raids. Reports of arbitrary arrests and illegal detention have little effect on the local and national authorities, who seem unfazed by these serious allegations, which include rape and torture.
Another sad part of the whole development is the hope for a better Myanmar has looks to have faded quickly among the country’s people and it has been little more than a year since the general election that brought Suu Kyi to power on a Faustian deal with the country’s notorious military.
The Special Rapporteur said she regretted that she was denied access to Kachin State, where the situation is deteriorating. The government said it refused to let Lee travel to the far north for security reasons.
“Those in Kachin State tell me that the situation is now worse than at any point in the past few years. Whilst I was not able to travel to the areas most severely affected, the situation is now such that even in Myitkyina, the capital of the state and home to over 300,000 people, residents are afraid – and now stay home after dark,” Lee said.
The fear of reprisal is not confined to the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. Prisoners serving time at a hard labour camp in Mon State, according to Lee, also faced the same predicament. 
Lee noted the appalling conditions – the use of shackles as a form of additional punishment and the lack of transparency – and the absence of a complaint system at the camp. She added that she was struck by the fear of prisoners “who were afraid of what would happen to them after speaking to me”.
Her report will be submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in March. It is not very clear what the UN and the world community will do after reading it. Probably nothing much, if recent history is any indication. The idea of using creative diplomacy to persuade the Burmese, and notably the Tatmadaw (military), to resolve crises in Rakhine and Kachin States, plus other rights issues seems like a pipe dream.