The Myanmar government has barred a United Nations human rights envoy from visiting the Southeast Asian nation to assess the rights situation for the rest of her tenure after it deemed a previous mission report she issued was biased and unfair.
Yanghee Lee, a U.N. special rapporteur who works with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, was scheduled to visit Myanmar in January to evaluate rights developments, particularly in violence-wracked Rakhine state where the military has carried out a brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims.
“I am puzzled and disappointed by this decision by the Myanmar government,” Lee said in a statement issued on Wednesday. “This declaration of non-cooperation with my mandate can only be viewed as a strong indication that there must be something terribly awful happening in Rakhine, as well as in the rest of the country.”
More than 650,000 Rohingya from northern Rakhine state fled across the border to Bangladesh during the crackdown which began in late August to escape attacks and village burnings by the military and ethnic Rakhine mobs.
Lee’s last visit in July came 10 days after the Myanmar government said it would deny visas to members of a U.N. fact-finding mission appointed under a resolution in March to investigate atrocities that Myanmar security forces committed against the Rohingya during a previous four-month security sweep in Rakhine’s northern townships that began in October 2016.
After that trip — her third visit to Myanmar under the civilian-led government of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party — Lee said the situation of the Rohingya had hardly improved and that she had continued to receive reports of violations by security forces.
Since then, Lee and other U.N. officials have been highly critical of the government’s response to attacks on the Rohingya during the crackdown that began in August, of its denial of access by independent media and international humanitarian groups to areas affected by the violence, and of its refusal to let in the U.N.-appointed fact-finding mission.
“Only two weeks ago, Myanmar’s permanent representative informed the Human Rights Council of its continuing cooperation with the U.N., referencing the relationship with my role as special rapporteur,” Lee said in the statement issued on Wednesday.
“Now I am being told that this decision to no longer cooperate with me is based on the statement I made after I visited the country in July,” she said.
Nevertheless, Lee said she hopes Myanmar will revisit the decision.
An ‘outrageous’ decision
News of Lee’s denial of entry into Myanmar spurred both criticism and praise.
Human rights groups, including London-based Amnesty International, were quick to take the government to task for banning the envoy from the country.
“The Myanmar government’s decision to bar the special rapporteur from accessing the country is outrageous,” said James Gomez, director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. “It is a further indication that authorities will do anything they can to avoid international scrutiny of their human rights record.”
Tun Khin, a Rohingya activist and president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, said the military is behind the ban on Lee.
“It is clear,” he told RFA's Myanmar Service. “Because the Myanmar government and military are involved in this genocide, they have gotten worried that Yanghee Lee will find out more information on this issue during her visit. That’s why they banned her.”
“Every military government operates this way,” he said. “Nothing has changed in Myanmar. Myanmar’s democracy is backwards.”
Aung Myo Min, director of Equality Myanmar, an NGO dedicated to human rights education and advocacy programs, expressed surprise at the announcement.
“I’m surprised to see Myanmar ban Yanghee Lee and say it won’t collaborate with her anymore,” he told RFA. “I don’t want the relationship between her and Myanmar destroyed. If so, it would be like Myanmar has received a red card on the U.N.’s record.”
“Refusing to collaborate with her means the current government is doing the same as military governments did in the past,” Aung Myo Min said, referring to the 50 years when an army junta ruled the country following a coup in 1962.
“The Myanmar government is responsible for allowing the international community and media to freely cover news in the crisis area and for granting them permission to question all related communities so they can obtain the truth,” he said.
Government’s decision is ‘right’
But Monywa Aung Shin, a spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), said he agreed with the government’s move.
“I think the government’s decision to ban Yanghee Lee is right,” he told RFA.
“She has visited Myanmar many times, and she didn’t get along with Myanmar authorities, Monywa Aung Shin said. “I don’t mean she has to say only what we want her to say. She saw actual and on-the-ground situations and evidence, but she said one thing in Myanmar and something different in other countries.”
“Myanmar has been experiencing calculated problems caused by other countries,” he said. “What I think is that things will get worse, and we will have more problems if we allow her to enter the country. And the ban on her is not permanent, but just for this time.”
Sit Myaing, vice chairman of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, questioned whether those like Lee who write special reports on Myanmar’s rights situation demonstrate good will toward the country when it comes to improving human rights.
“We have seen that some U.N. officials had given their comments and opinions on Myanmar even before they visited,” he said. “It’s sad. They should have made comments, suggestions, and conclusions on the report [on Myanmar] only after they investigated and raised questions while on the ground.”
“The principle of human rights is that no one, no organization, can be biased,” he said. “This principle also applies to those who write human rights reports on Myanmar. They must not be biased.”
Former information minister Ye Htut said the government’s decision to not allow Lee into the country will likely lead to more pressure and criticism of Myanmar from the outside.
In contradiction to Lee’s previous comments that she could not travel everywhere she wanted to in Myanmar during her July visit, Ye Hut said the government allowed her to go wherever she wished during that time and that Aung San Suu Kyi had explained to her various issues concerning the country’s human rights situation.
“The Myanmar government believes that Yanghee Lee’s report doesn’t reflect what it and Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi explained to her,” he told RFA. “I think that’s why the Myanmar government has banned her. Myanmar has lost its trust in Yanghee Lee.”
“As I understand it, the Myanmar government has tried to say it wants impartial participation [from Lee],” he said. “At the same time, the Myanmar government also needs to create an opportunity for the international community and media to observe [what’s happening] in the country, to show that the information that the Myanmar government has given her is true.”
Sanctions ‘must be made to work’
In a report to the United Nations General Assembly in October, Lee slammed the Myanmar government and military commander-in-chief for their response to the exodus of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing atrocities in northern Rakhine.
That same month, the European Union decided to cut its exchanges with Myanmar’s top military officers as first step to increase sanctions. A month later, the United States also said it was eliminating invitations to Myanmar’s top generals and would pursue possible targeted sanctions on individuals who committed atrocities.
Rights groups have called for the U.N. Security Council to impose an arms embargo against Myanmar's military and targeted sanctions against the country.
On Wednesday, Lee told Reuters that targeted sanctions imposed upon Myanmar’s top military officers “must be made to work.”
Ye Htut, however, said that two of Myanmar’s closest allies will likely prevent that from happening.
“There will be more pressure on and comments about Myanmar, but in my opinion, Myanmar won’t have serious sanctions imposed on it as long as China and Russia are backing us,” Ye Htut said.
The Human Rights Council appointed Lee, a South Korean national, to her current position as special rapporteur in 2014. The rapporteurs are part of the Council’s Special Procedures, comprising a body of independent experts and independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address specific country situations or thematic issues around the world.
Thematic special rapporteurs are usually appointed to serve for three years, after which their mandates can be extended for another three years.
In all, Lee has made six trips to Myanmar and issued constant warnings about the persecution of the Rohingya, a stateless minority group denied Myanmar citizenship and access to basic services because its members are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Reported by Kyaw Kyaw Aung, Khin Khin Ei, and Thinn Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.