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Statement by Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar at the 70h session of the General Assembly

By Yanghee Lee  •  October 28, 2015

Mr. Chair,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to begin by renewing my deepest sympathies to all those affected by the floods and landslides in Myanmar in recent months. I was able to witness first-hand the Government’s quick response to the situation. In the face of widespread devastation and human suffering, I remain inspired by the solidarity and strength of spirit shown by the people of Myanmar. I extend my hand in friendship and renew my call to the international community to continue to provide the necessary assistance and support to see Myanmar through the long process of rebuilding.

Since my last report to the General Assembly, I have conducted two visits to Myanmar in January and August of this year. I thank the Government of Myanmar for these invitations and its cooperation with my mandate. Nevertheless, I regret that my last visit in August was reduced in half to only five days. Additionally, I was not granted access to all the areas I requested to visit and meetings with Government interlocutors were cancelled or changed at the last minute without prior notice. In the future, I trust that the Government will continue to strengthen its cooperation and engagement with my mandate.

Mr. Chair,

Four years of reforms have undeniably improved the human rights situation in Myanmar. The elections, which will take place in 11 days, will be an important milestone in the democratic transition process. In my report, I welcome measures taken to address some of the shortcomings of the 2010 elections as well as measures to increase the transparency of the process.

The environment and preparations for the elections, and their actual conduct, are important in determining whether they are transparent, inclusive, participatory, free and fair, in line with international standards.

In this regard, the disqualification of a reported 61 candidates (the majority being Muslims) on grounds related to their citizenship or the citizenship of their parents is of concern. This includes parliamentarians who were previously deemed eligible to stand for elections in 2010. While 11 candidates have been reinstated, many remain disqualified. Disqualifications should not have a discriminatory effect which would be inconsistent with international law.

I am also concerned by the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of individuals from across Myanmar society. This includes Rohingya and individuals of Chinese and Indian descent who previously held temporary registration cards and had the right to vote in past elections. Given its disproportionate impact on minority communities, in particular the Rohingya, this decision is discriminatory. Also, the cancellation of voting rights without due process runs counter to international human rights standards and good practice.

Migrant workers, internally displaced persons, refugees and those living abroad also face potential disenfranchisement as do individuals living in flood-affected and conflict-affected areas. In this regard, I note the announcement by the Union Election Commission that polling will not take place in over 500 village tracts for security reasons – a decision which will likely affect hundreds of thousands of individuals. Additionally, I note concerns regarding errors in voter lists and the low number of women candidates.

While I welcome the invitations extended to national and international observers, the recent announcement that advance voting out of home constituencies – a category that includes advance voting by the military – will not be open to observers is disappointing; this goes against the assurances given to me by the Chair of the Union Election Commission.

The period after the elections, prior to the election of a new President and the formation of a new Government, may see instability and tension if the election outcomes are not widely accepted as credible and legitimate. It is therefore vital that the United Nations system and the international community at large continue to remain engaged and to monitor the situation closely.


My report emphasises the need for elections to be conducted in an environment that encourages participation from all sectors of society. I therefore reiterate that the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association are essential for the effective exercise of the right to vote.  Genuine elections cannot be achieved if these rights are curtailed.

I am therefore concerned by ongoing restrictions on these rights; continuing arrests and convictions of persons attempting to exercise these rights; excessive use of force against protestors; and increasing intimidation, harassment, monitoring and surveillance of human rights defenders and civil society actors. Such trends undermine democratic space and risk excluding some independent voices from public debate ahead of the elections.

Numerous individuals continue to be charged and detained under legislation which does not conform with international human rights standards. This includes the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Processions Law and several sections of the Penal Code. In a recent worrying development, two individuals, Chaw Sandi Tun and Patrick Kum Jaa Lee, have been detained over Facebook posts deemed insulting to the military.

I also highlight incidents where there have been allegations of excessive use of force to break up peaceful protests. I visited the site of the violent police crackdown on protesters against the National Education Law in Letpadan (March 2015) and met with some of those detained in Tharyawaddy prison. Over 50 individuals, detained following this crackdown, remain behind bars.

Journalists continue to face legal action under defamation provisions for reporting critical views. This creates a climate of fear and uncertainty. I also continue to receive worrying reports of increased monitoring and surveillance of human rights defenders, including those with whom I met during my visits. They are being followed, photographed, questioned or harassed by security officials. Women human rights defenders are particularly vulnerable and have been subjected to sexual harassment. I call on the Government to immediately bring an end to these unacceptable practices.

Distinguished Delegates,

I am also concerned by the increasing influence of extreme religious nationalist movements in the political process, including through recent statements by the MaBaTha and the intimidation or harassment of candidates. The abuse of religion for political purposes is prohibited under the 2008 Constitution (article 364); additionally, calling for votes on religious grounds is also prohibited under Myanmar’s election laws (article 58 (c)).

I continue to observe disturbing calls by religious leaders and members of political parties to incitement to hatred against minorities. I also note reports of intimidation and harassment of civil society actors, political figures and journalists who seek to protect the rights of minorities.

I was shocked by the video of a public rally in May 2015 where the Chair of the Peace and Diversity Party publically called for the killing and burying of the Rohingya. I am not aware of any legal action taken on this case. By stark contrast, Htin Lin Oo, who gave a speech discouraging the use of Buddhism as a tool for extremism, was sentenced to two years in prison with hard labour in June 2015 for “insulting religion or religious belief”.

It is vital that divisions and tensions are not manipulated for political purposes. Greater efforts must be made to condemn, prevent and combats acts of incitement to discrimination and to address underlying root causes. I made recommendations in this regard based on international human rights standards.

Friends and Colleagues,

I regret that my request to visit Rakhine State in August was denied well before the start of my mission. I was originally informed that I could not visit Rakhine State because of the “sentiments of the local people in the area.” I was subsequently informed that the flooding situation prevented my travel. While I continue to believe that it is important for me to make assessments based on the realities on the ground, I nevertheless welcomed the opportunity to engage constructively with the Chief Minster, members of the Emergency Coordination Centre and some Rakhine Elders who were specifically brought to Yangon, while dealing with a natural disaster.

The need to address the long-standing development challenges in Rakhine State is urgent. As a university professor, I strongly believe in the power of education as a force for change. Taking concrete steps to improve education opportunities for all communities in Rakhine State should be a priority. Travel restrictions, which prevent Rohingya students from attending any form of university education, must be lifted immediately.

I welcome the Government’s efforts to relocate several thousand households from internal displacement camps. However, three years after the outbreak of communal violence, some 140,000 displaced persons remain in camps, living in dismal conditions with severely limited access to adequate basic services. Durable solutions must be found and should include voluntary returns to places of origin in line with international principles. Returns and resettlement should not be linked to participation in the citizenship verification process.  Permanent segregation of communities must be avoided.

While there have been no new incidents of communal violence, there has been no significant improvement in the human rights concerns I previously highlighted, in particular the long-standing and institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya community. They continue to face severe restrictions on basic rights, including curfews, requirements to obtain permission for travel and marriage, and restrictions on family sizes in some areas. The Rohingya also remain vulnerable to other human rights violations, with inadequate action taken to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators.

There has also been little progress in resolving their legal status and the citizenship verification process which was piloted in June 2014 has stalled. Those that were granted citizenship remain in camps, reportedly for “their own safety.”

Restrictions on access to basic rights, deteriorating living conditions and poverty are catalysts which drive irregular migration flows to other countries. I commend the Government’s search and rescue efforts in May and July. However, with the so called “sailing season” approaching, the adoption of a comprehensive human rights response to the crisis is urgently needed. This would entail fully recognising the root causes and push factors behind people who are desperate to make the journey and why they fall prey to criminal smuggling and trafficking networks.

I therefore call on the Government to revise discriminatory laws and policies and resolve questions regarding legal status and access to citizenship. I believe that these are some of the main root causes for the exodus out of Myanmar (Rakhine State) and their resolution will be key for peace and reconciliation in Rakhine State.

Mr. Chair,

I welcome the signature on 15 October of a National Ceasefire Agreement as a significant milestone for Myanmar. However, I note that only eight of 15 armed groups are signatories and I hope that there will be efforts made for greater inclusiveness in the peace process.

In order to build long-term and sustainable peace, it is essential for human rights to be placed at the heart of any political dialogue. That dialogue must address complex issues related to accountability for past and present human rights violations, discrimination and historically entrenched inequalities, as well as land and natural resource rights issues, which lie at the heart of decades of conflict.

Greater effort must also be made to ensure the full involvement of women in the peace process in line with relevant Security Council resolutions. Full consultation with local communities and civil society, and their full participation in any political process going forward, should be ensured. This would foster greater confidence and a sense of shared ownership in the process.

At the same time, I remain concerned about the impact of ongoing conflict in Kachin and Northern Shan States, including the Kokang Self-Administered Zone. Recent clashes in Northern Shan State are reported to have displaced more than 2500 people.

The rights and needs of those displaced and affected by the conflict must be prioritized. The United Nations and partners should have regular, independent and predictable access to provide humanitarian assistance.

I continue to receive allegations of attacks against civilians, forced recruitment, forced labour and sexual violence committed by all parties to the conflict with impunity. It is vital that prompt, effective and impartial investigations are conducted into all allegations of human rights violations and that appropriate redress is provided to victims.

I welcome the Governments signature of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on children and armed conflict in September 2015 and the discharge of 51 underage recruits by the military in June 2015. Yet recruitment of children by numerous actors continues, as does the detention of children as “deserters.” I call on the Government to address these issues as well as to strengthen age verification and monitoring oversight mechanisms for recruitment.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Myanmar is a country of rich natural resources. A rights-based and people-centred approach is needed to ensure sustainable development and to ensure that these resources bring benefits to all. I therefore welcome the Government’s signature of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in July 2015 and hope that it will be ratified expeditiously.

Given the impact of large-scale development projects, environmental and social impact assessments should be consistently conducted in a transparent manner with meaningful consultation.

I am troubled by continuing reports of land grabbing, land confiscations and forced evictions for large scale development projects, mining and other natural resource extractive industries – often with little or no compensation provided.

While various government and parliamentary committees investigate land-related complaints and return confiscated land, progress has been slow, particularly given the complex and fragmented legal framework on land issues.

I am also concerned by the continued intimidation, harassment and arrests of farmers and land rights activists. There are worrying examples of the excessive use of force against peaceful protesters, such as the crackdown on the Letpadaung copper mine protest in December 2014, which left one protester dead.

Distinguished Delegates,

My report highlights the need for continuing legislative and Constitutional reforms. I welcome steps taken by the Government to review and amend some laws that do not meet international human rights standards. Yet many such laws remain on the books.

The legislative reform process is also opaque and does not systematically and consistently allow for consultation with relevant stakeholders. Thus, even some revised laws still fall below international standards, while other newly enacted laws, notably the package of four “protection of race and religion” laws clearly violate Myanmar’s human rights obligations. This represents a major setback to the legislative reform process.

The Government has stated that the four “race and religion” laws were adopted after consultation and scrutiny, taking into careful consideration Myanmar’s international obligations. Yet, various human rights mechanisms, including myself, have provided detailed legal analyses to the Government outlining all the shortcomings of these laws, in particular their divisive and discriminatory intent.

Despite concerns expressed by multiple international and national actors, these four laws were adopted quickly and subsequently publicly portrayed as a noteworthy achievement of the current Government.  In recent months, I am aware of two cases that have been brought forward under the Monogamy Law.

Mr. Chair,

To conclude, my report highlights the main human rights challenges that the new Government of Myanmar will have to address after the elections. As the current Government has rightly stated, these are not insurmountable challenges, but they cannot simply be swept under the rug.  Myanmar must continue to prioritize human rights in its reform process.

I am fully aware of the complexities of the situation in Myanmar and the reform process.  And I am also fully aware of how far Myanmar has progressed in four short years. But I cannot hold Myanmar to a different or lower standard, nor can I make comparisons with other countries in the region. I must continue to objectively assess the situation against the country’s own international human rights obligations.  That is my mandate.

I urge the international community to remain constructively and critically engaged on human rights issues in Myanmar. The international community should also provide necessary assistance and support to further the reforms. Now, more than ever, it is vital that all actors work together to ensure human rights are respected and protected across Myanmar.

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This post is in: 2015 Burma Elections, Press Release

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