New UN Envoy Visits Prison, Probes Rights Issues in First Visit to Myanmar

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Yanghee Lee in an Oct. 13, 2010 photo.
UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

The United Nations' new human rights envoy to Myanmar kicked off her first official visit to the country on Thursday with an inspection of Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison and talks with the local human rights commission.

Yanghee Lee of South Korea, who took over as the new U.N. Special Rapporteur on Myanmar in June, is on a ten-day mission that will include visits to communal strife-torn Rakhine and war-ridden Kachin states.

On Thursday, she met with Win Mya, chairman of the government’s Myanmar Human Rights Commission, to discuss the panel’s work since it was established in September 2011.

“This is her first time in Myanmar, so we explained what the commission has done on human rights issues in the country,” Win Mya told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“We also told her about the areas we have visited to report on human rights issues, such as humanitarian assistance, people displaced by conflict, education, land mines, soldier recruiting for both [the government and ethnic rebel armies], and child soldiers in Kachin state.”

Win Mya said that the rights commission also explained the reports it had released concerning a crackdown by authorities on a protest against a Chinese-owned copper mine, as well as on violence in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state which has left hundreds dead and tens of thousands displaced since 2012.

He said that the commission had received around 6,000 letters from the public to investigate human rights complaints.

New envoy

The chairman expressed optimism that Lee would have a more comprehensive understanding of Myanmar’s rights issues than her predecessor, Tomas Quintana, whose six-year term as rights envoy to the country ended in May.

Quintana, whose relationship with the government was tense at times, said at the end of his term that severe shortages of food, water, and medical care for the minority Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state were part of a long history of persecution that could amount to "crimes against humanity.”

“The former envoy was from Argentina on the other side of the world and she [Lee] is from our [Asia] region,” Win Mya said.

“I believe an Asian could have a better understanding of the problems facing an Asian country. I hope her report on her findings in Myanmar will be beneficial to the country because of her Asian perspective.”

Tomas Quintana's term as envoy witnessed Myanmar’s transition from a ruthless military regime to fledgling democracy after President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took power from the former junta in 2011, but also saw large-scale rights violations following a new outbreak of military clashes with rebels in Kachin state and communal violence in Rakhine state.

Win Mya urged Lee to maintain her status as an independent reporter on her findings in Myanmar.

“There could be some difficulties in achieving good results if she submits her reports based on political pressure,” he said.

First visit

Ahead of her visit, the U.N. said in a statement that Lee will also travel to Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, former capital Yangon, and the country’s second city Mandalay, where recent clashes between majority Buddhists and minority Muslims left two dead and several injured.

In addition to meeting with members of parliament—including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi—and other officials, Lee also plans to hold discussions with religious and community leaders, civil society representatives, victims of human rights violations, and members of the international community.

“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 Sungkyunwan 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 country visit, which will be presented to the U.N. General Assembly in October.

Reported by Myo Zaw Ko for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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