A United Nations human rights envoy met on Tuesday with residents of the deep-water port town of Kyaukphyu in western Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state, where tensions between Buddhists and Muslims have been on the rise and the security situation is intensifying.
Yanghee Lee, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar stopped in the town on her latest visit to the nation to hear from those whose rights have been affected by special economic zones and other mega-projects that they say have not benefitted them.
Kyaukphyu is home to a 4,000-acre special economic zone that started out as a joint venture between the Chinese and Myanmar governments, but is now in the hands of a private Singapore-based consortium of developers. The area has a natural deep-sea harbor and abundant oil, natural gas, and marine resources as well as land for industrial development.
Local residents, including representatives from the Kyaukphyu Rural Development Organization and Kyaukphyu Fishermen’s Association, complained to Yanghee Lee about the lack of benefits from the U.S. $2.5 billion Shwe pipeline project and deep-water port, which transports oil and natural gas from the country’s offshore reserves overland to China.
“Local residents told her that they are not receiving any benefits from the Shwe gas pipeline and special economic zone,” said Tun Kyi from the Kyaukphyu Rural Development Organization.
“We don’t have enough technology and education to get jobs at these projects,” he said. “We talked with her about the poverty in our state because of the current constitution,” which requires that the central government spread wealth generated from natural resources around the country.
They also voiced concern about farmers and fishermen losing their land and livelihoods as a result of the projects and the projects' failure to deliver expected job opportunities to the region.
Residents from Maday Island also attended the meeting and asked Lee to inform the central government about the situation when she meets with Myanmar government officials, they said.
The local office of the Chinese state-owned oil company China National Petroleum Corporation, or PetroChina, which operates the tankers in the area, is based on Maday Island.
In May, protesters demanded that officials do something to ensure fishermen’s survival and provide adequate health care and education so they could eke out a living after Myanmar’s Fisheries Department banned them from fishing in the area to allow oil tankers to operate.
‘Escalating security situation’
Lee arrived in the commercial capital Yangon on Sunday for her sixth information-gathering visit to Myanmar amid a string of disappearances, murders, and attacks on security forces that have occurred in northern Rakhine state since deadly attacks there on border guard stations by an obscure group of Rohingya Muslim militants.
A four-month security crackdown followed the attacks, during which an estimated 1,000 were killed and 90,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh to escape alleged atrocities committed against them by security forces.
Since then, nearly 40 civilians, including several ethnic Rakhine people, have been killed and more than 20 have gone missing or been abducted, according to the government.
Troops in northern Rakhine have been put on high alert in the area following other attacks by Muslim militants, though a state parliamentary official and political parties have call for increased security.
“I am especially concerned with the escalating security situation in many parts of the country which have grave consequences for human rights in Myanmar,” Lee said in a statement issued on July 7 by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
Lee will be in Myanmar until July 21, visiting Rakhine, conflict-ridden Shan state, and southeastern Myanmar’s Kayin state in addition to Yangon and the administrative capital Naypyidaw, the statement said.
She will evaluate recent developments in these areas and address human rights issues with authorities and other stakeholders, such as political and community leaders, civil society representatives, victims of human rights violations, and members of the international community, it said.
Firebrand Myanmar monk Wirathu, who has criticized Lee in the past calling her a “whore” and a “bitch,” embarked on Tuesday on a trip to Maungdaw, part of the tri-township area in northern Rakhine where state lawmakers, ethnic Rakhine residents, and political parties have called for more security.
Local police are providing security for Wirathu, a prominent monk in the ultranationalist Ma Ba Tha movement, who has been banned by the state’s top religious authorities from giving sermons for one year because of his repeated hate speech and anti-Muslim rhetoric.
“He can go to Maungdaw because there is no fighting there,” said Rakhine state police official Colonel Sein Lwin. “There is fighting in some places far from Maungdaw. We are working on security for everybody who travels in the Maungdaw area. He is traveling only to donate food and clothing to people.”
UN fact-finding mission
Lee’s visit comes 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 allegedly committed against Rohingya Muslims during the four-month security sweep in Rakhine’s northern townships.
On Monday, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in New York, said the Myanmar government should allow the mission to investigate the allegations.
“No one should face discrimination or violence because of their ethnic background or religious beliefs,” she said in a statement. “It is important that the Burmese government allow this fact-finding mission to do its job. The international community cannot overlook what is happening in Burma—we must stand together and call on the government to fully cooperate with this fact-finding mission.”
“Violence in Rakhine state against ethnic and religious communities continues to claim lives,” she said.
In a related development, Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, called on the Myanmar government on Monday to quickly resolve the Rohingya refugee problem in neighboring Bangladesh, where more than 70,000 Muslims from northern Rakhine fled following the security crackdown, Myanmar’s Mizzima news website reported.
Grandi made the comment during a news conference in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka at the end of a 10-day visit to Bangladesh, Thailand, and Myanmar, where he met with de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
While he was in Bangladesh, Grandi visited two camps housing Rohingya refugees in the country’s southeastern Cox’s Bazar district.
To resolve the Rohingya refugee issue, Myanmar must speed up the citizenship verification process for them, Grandi said, adding that his office has offered technical expertise to support the process, the report said.
Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.