UN Envoy Slams 'Deplorable' Conditions in Myanmar Camps

By Richard Finney
U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee (C) speaks at a press conference prior to her departure from Yangon, July 26, 2014.

A senior United Nations envoy on human rights has criticized what she called “deplorable” conditions in displaced-persons camps in Myanmar’s communal-violence-wracked Rakhine state following a 10-day visit in which she also noted “backsliding” on democratic reforms in the formerly military-ruled country.

Yanghee Lee—Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar—said that thousands of Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims made homeless by fighting in Rakhine state over the last two years still languish without rights in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.

“The situation is deplorable,” Lee, a South Korean, said at the conclusion of her visit—her first to Myanmar since being appointed to her post last month.

“Many have remained in the camps for two years, and I do not believe that there is adequate access to basic services,” she said In a statement released at the weekend before leaving the country.

Though poor conditions—including lack of access to adequate sanitation and health care—prevail in all the camps she visited, “the health situation in the Muslim IDP camps is of particular concern,” Lee said.

“I have received disturbing reports of people dying in camps due to the lack of access to emergency medical assistance and due to preventable, chronic or pregnancy-related conditions.”

Rights groups have also said in the past that Rohingyas in severely restricted northern Rakhine state suffer from soaring malnutrition and maternal mortality rates.

Rohingyas, who are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, often cannot travel, marry, or seek medical treatment without official permission.

Lee also said that restrictions on freedom of movement in both Buddhist and Muslim IDP camps in Rakhine have had negative impacts on other basic rights such as access to livelihood, food, water, and education.

Communal violence

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 Rakhine state.

Muslims account for about 4 percent of Myanmar's roughly 60 million people.

During Lee’s visit, the Rakhine government announced that it had invited Paris-based Doctors Without Borders (MSF) back to the state following its expulsion in February and also called for the return of other international aid organizations which fled a month later after Buddhist mobs disrupted their work helping displaced Rohingyas.

In March, Buddhist mobs in the Rakhine capital Sittwe 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.

“More must be done to stop misinformation which only serves to heighten tensions and hostility and to increase the sense of [favored] treatment,” Lee said, adding, “The conditions of both camps and the situation of both communities must be accurately reflected and seen for what they are.”

Official discrimination

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s Muslim community in Rakhine continues to face official discrimination, including restrictions on travel and on marriages and birth registrations, Lee said.

“I have received continuing allegations of violations against the Muslim community, including arbitrary arrests, torture and ill-treatment in detention, death in detention, the denial of due process and fair trial rights and rape and sexual violence.”

“I believe these allegations are serious and merit investigation, with perpetrators held to account,” she said.

Lee also noted “worrying  signs of possible backtracking” in Myanmar on media freedoms and the right to protest despite political reforms enacted over the last three years by President Thein Sein’s administration.

These included efforts made to harass and intimidate journalists reporting on corruption and other politically sensitive issues and activists campaigning against land grabs “or trying to help communities affected by large-scale development projects,” Lee said.

“The enjoyment of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association and peaceful assembly are essential ingredients for Myanmar’s democracy and for debating and resolving political issues,” Lee said—particularly in the run-up to national elections next year.

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