The new U.N. human rights envoy to Myanmar Yanghee Lee on Wednesday visited Mandalay city, the latest flashpoint in the country’s deadly communal violence, on the sixth day of her 10-day fact-finding visit, officials said.
Lee, a South Korean who took over as the new U.N. Special Rapporteur on Myanmar in June, held discussions with community leaders in the country’s second biggest city and visited the sites affected by the Buddhist-Muslim violence early this month which left two people dead and more than a dozen injured, a local leader said.
One of the sites included a mosque damaged by riots triggered by a social media report, which was subsequently declared false by authorities, that two Muslim men had raped a Buddhist woman.
Thein Than Oo, a member of the Mandalay Peace and Stability Committee, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the panel reported to Lee details of the incident before she toured the riot-hit sites.
“The committee reported to her what happened in Mandalay,” he said. “Among the places she visited was a damaged mosque.”
Sectarian violence in largely Buddhist Myanmar has left up to 280 people dead and another 140,000 homeless since 2012—mostly Muslims, according to rights groups. Much of the violence was in western Rakhine state.
Muslims account for about 4 percent of Myanmar's roughly 60 million people.
Lee had also visited Rakhine state, a day after her arrival in Myanmar on July 17, warning that religious conflict could adversely impact the tenuous democratic transition and peace process.
“The grievances that fuel or result in the current tensions and conflict … are still ongoing,” she said at a meeting with the Rakhine state government in the capital Sittwe.
“If we do not address the situation, I am afraid it will undermine democratic reform and the peace process,” Lee warned.
In March, Buddhist mobs had attacked the offices of various international nongovernmental organizations [INGOs], including the U.N., reportedly sparked by the removal of a Buddhist flag from the building of German medical aid group Malteser International.
Buddhist flags have been flown as symbols of opposition to the ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority, who Rakhines perceive as receiving preferential treatment from INGOs.
Cooperation and coordination
During Lee’s visit, Rakhine Chief Minister Maung Maung Ohn emphasized that cooperation and coordination between the government and INGOs is paramount.
“Whether INGOs or the government are involved in humanitarian issues in Rakhine state, we have to work [together],” he said. “If there are weaknesses, they would delay what we want to achieve in the future.”
He said that government concerns over future riots have also compelled the authorities to encourage ethnic Rakhines and Rohingya Muslims to live separately.
In addition to her meeting with officials of the Rakhine government, Lee also visited Sittwe Prison and various refugee camps as part of her tour of the state.
Lee also toured the country’s war-torn Kachin state on Tuesday and Wednesday, visiting a prison as well as three camps packed with refugees who had fled fighting between the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and government troops, officials said.
The United Nations says more than 100,000 Kachin have been displaced since clashes resumed in 2011 between the military and the KIA after the breakdown of a 17-year cease-fire agreement.
Lee visited the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps for ethnic Kachins and Shans and was briefed by Kachin state government officials.
“She asked me about IDPs’ return home,” Sein Myint, the administrator of Kachin’s Bhamo District, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“I told her that we will arrange something for them if they want to return to their homes. She wanted to know what these IDPs would do to work for their survival if they go back to their homes,” he said.
Lee also met with local Shan leader Sai San Wai, who gave her an open letter criticizing the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political arm of the KIA.
The letter complained about alleged KIO abuses on Shans, including “extortion.”
“[The letter] said that Shans are among the worst victims of violence in [Kachin] state. It also accused the KIO of committing abuses, including extorting money from people,” said Sai San Wai.
Lee took over as UN human rights envoy from her Argentinean predecessor Tomas Quintana.
Qintana served as UN envoy during the transition from iron-fisted military rule to fledgling democracy, and had a sometimes tense relationship with the Myanmar government.
At the end of his term, he said that severe shortages of food, water, and medical care for the minority Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state are part of a long history of persecution that could amount to "crimes against humanity.”
“A frank and open exchange of views will be vital to help me better understand the realities on the ground,” Lee said in the statement.
“And it is my intention, as Special Rapporteur, to work closely with the government and people of Myanmar, towards the promotion and protection of human rights in the country.”
Lee has previously served as chairperson of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child and is currently a professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul. She also serves on the Advisory Committee of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea.
The human rights expert will submit her first report following the ten-day country visit, which will be presented to the U.N. General Assembly in October.
Reported by Kyaw Myo Min, Set Paing Toe, Kyaw Thu and Khin Pyaesone for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar and Kyaw Kyaw Aung. Written in English by Di Hoa Le.