A United Nations human rights envoy to Myanmar met on Wednesday with Muslim and Buddhist residents of the country’s troubled Rakhine state at the airport in the state capital Sittwe, though the state’s dominant local political party turned down her invitation for a discussion.
“I come here as I did on my very first trip as a true friend of Rakhine,” said Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.
Lee is on a 12-day visit to the country through July 1 to address a range of human rights issues with authorities and various stakeholders and compile information for a report she will submit to the U.N. in September.
“I come here with sincerity, and I am here to facilitate the process here so that everybody benefits from the new changes here,” she said.
This is Lee’s fourth mission to Myanmar since she was appointed as the U.N. envoy to the country in 2014.
Since her last trip in August 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party has come to power and created a committee to work on peace and development in Rakhine.
The government also plans to spend more than 70 billion kyats (U.S. $5.9 million) to finance goods and services that promote human resources there.
During her visit, Lee will observe the situation of Myanmar’s 1.1 million stateless and persecuted Rohingya Muslims, tens of thousands of whom have lived in squalid conditions in internment camps after they were displaced by communal violence with majority Buddhists in 2012.
The government does not consider the Rohingya to be full citizens of Myanmar and denies them basic rights, freedom of movement, and access to social services and education.
Buddhists call the Rohingya “Bengalis” because they consider them illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh, though many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
Rakhine has also suffered from fighting between armed ethnic groups and the Myanmar military, forcing thousands of residents from their homes.
Lee told Rakhine State Chief Minister Nyi Pu that she will help people there obtain development aid.
In response, Nyi Pyu said all stakeholders must offer support to ensure peace and development in Rakhine.
Yang Hee Lee also met with Muslims living in Ponnagyun and Kyauktaw townships, who have refused to accept new government-issued national verification cards, or “green cards,” as part of a citizenship verification pilot program in three predominantly Muslim townships in the state.
They object to the omission of their race and religion on the cards, and fear they will lose the right to become citizens.
Lee wanted to meet with leaders from the Arakan National Party (ANP), which represents the interests of the Rakhine people in the state, but they turned down her invitation in a statement issued Wednesday.
“Yanghee Lee has been constantly favoring the Muslims since 2012,” said ANP chairwoman Aye Nu Sein.
“We don’t believe she will submit a fair report in Geneva even if we were to meet her this time,” she said.
“We have met with many representatives from the U.N., and they have ignored our feelings and opinions,” she said. If they had considered what we told them and made fair decisions, then we wouldn’t have this kind of situation where we refuse to meet her.”
On Tuesday, the ANP rejected a government order mandating use of the phrase “Muslim community in Rakhine” to refer to the Rohingya—a divisive term—during Lee’s visit. Instead, the ANP said it would continue using “Bengalis,” even though the government’s order also forbade the use of this word.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto national leader, told Lee during a face-to-face meeting on Monday in Naypyidaw that the government would avoid using the word and refer to the Rohingya as the “Muslim community in Rakhine state.”
“[Lee] submitted the phrase ‘Muslim community in Rakhine state’ to the U.N. [Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights] in Geneva, [Switzerland], and Myanmar’s information minister has asked the media to use this phrase," Aye Nu Sein said. “We feel like it causes the ethnic Rakhine people to lose their name.”
On Thursday, Lee will meet with Rakhine and Muslim leaders in Sittwe and visit displaced persons camps in the township.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Khet Mar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.