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UN Special Rapporteur’s Visit Highlight ongoing Human Rights Issues in Burma

By Burma Partnership  •  July 6, 2016

Yanghee-LeeLast week, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Ms. Yanghee Lee, completed a 12-day tour of Burma – the first visit of its kind under the new NLD-led Government. During her circuit, which is intended to produce an up-to-date account of the human rights situation inside the country to be submitted to the upcoming UN General Assembly in New York, Ms. Yanghee Lee attended meetings with members of the Union Government, parliament, civil society actors along with visits to Arakan, Kachin and Shan States. While cautiously optimistic about how the NLD has handled certain human rights issues, she later remarked that the general human rights situation was no better than under the previous military-backed government.

In her end-of-mission statement, Ms. Yanghee Lee left a few favorable observations, including the current government’s commitment to democratic reform, the role of parliament in advocating for accountability and the wide-ranging desire to strengthen the rule of law. At the same time, she was critical of a number of issues that demand the attention of the NLD-led Government.

Ms. Yanghee Lee also criticized the continued existence of outdated and oppressive laws and the military drafted constitution. Her mention of laws that “continue to limit the full enjoyment of human rights” is likely a reference to laws such as Article 505(b) of Burma’s penal code, which has been used to clamp down on freedom of expression during peaceful protests. Recently, Human Rights Watch released a report that claimed that 150 people were currently facing charges relating to Article 505(b), proving it to be an effective tool of silencing public and media opposition. Efforts by the NLD-led government to dissolve other outdated and oppressive laws have been criticized for not going far enough. The proposed amendment of the oppressive Peaceful Processions and Peaceful Assembly Law, for instance, has been criticized for being overly broad and still conflicting with international standards.

These laws contribute to a diminished democratic space, another critical issue stressed by Ms. Yanghee Lee. Recent attacks on freedom of expression, such as the censorship of a film at a recent human rights film festival, “Twilight Over Burma” which talks about the Burma Army coup of 1962, and the cancellation of a Ta’ang Women’s Organization’s press conference to launch a report, “Trained to Torture” which details human rights abuses committed by the Burma Army in northern Shan State, shed light on the impunity the country’s largest state institution enjoys and the limitations that are preventing a vibrant civil society from being established. Reports of the NLD’s unwillingness to adequately engage with civil society during the reform process are a further concern for the future of political and economic transition in Burma.

Ms. Yanghee Lee also devoted much of her statement to highlighting the continued conflict in Arakan, Kachin and northern Shan States. As noted during the recent World Refugee Day, Burma’s civil war has contributed to extensive displacement, including the over 100,000 internally displaced persons that have been displaced as a result of ongoing conflict in Kachin and northern Shan States. Unfortunately, the possibility of an inclusive and meaningful “21st Century Panglong Conference” appears increasingly farfetched as conflict escalates in regions of Shan and Kachin States – due to the aggressive military actions of the Burma Army.

Further, while welcoming the creation of the Ethnic Affairs Ministry, Ms. Yanghee Lee’s statement urged the government to establish the necessary institutional, legal and policy framework to ensure greater respect for minority rights. She further urged the Government to enact laws or policies that “ensure that minorities can exercise their rights without any discrimination and in full equality before the law.” She also insisted that the Government must speak out against religious intolerance and “take prompt action, including by conducting thorough investigations and holding perpetrators to account.” Two recent attacks on Muslims make this issue particularly relevant. On 1 July, 2016, a Muslim mosque was torched by a violent mob in Hpakant Township, Kachin State. A further act of violence against Muslims took place on 23 June, 2016, in a village in Bago Region. During this attack, a Buddhist mob of about 200 people assaulted a Muslim man and raided his home, before destroying a mosque, another building and a Muslim cemetery. The incident resulted in roughly 200 Muslim residents vacating their homes, as many believed their safety and that of their families was compromised.

While Burma celebrated its most free and fair election since 1990 in November 2015, allowing the NLD to share power with the military after its landslide victory, Ms. Yanghee Lee’s report makes it clear that there is still much work to be done. In order for continued democratic reform and a meaningful improvement of the human rights situation, the Burma Government must take her recommendations seriously. In order to best promote and protect human rights, the Government can begin by eliminating oppressive legislation, support the development of independent civil society and media through the protection of freedom of expression and assembly, drive an inclusive peace process that seeks to address the root causes of Burma’s long-running armed conflicts and ensure greater religious tolerance and the protection of minority rights.

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