Last Friday, 21 July, 2017, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Ms. Yanghee Lee, concluded her third country visit under the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led Government.
Her 12-day visit occurred amidst a precarious backdrop. In northern Rakhine State, security forces stepped up efforts arbitrarily rounding up suspected militants as a government-guided media delegation (the first to include foreigners) attempted to interview victims of human rights abuse committed by security forces in the area. In Mon State, over 2,000 locals protested a coal-powered cement factory as communities across the country pitted themselves against environmentally-destructive energy production. In northern Shan State, hundreds fled their villages amidst allegations of extortion by the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and fears of impending clashes between the Myanmar Army and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). Abroad, in Thailand, Myanmar refugees from Mae La Refugee Camp, facing exacerbating funding cuts, made the difficult decision to return, and the Myanmar military, in adding yet another prick to the peace process, successfully compelled Thai authorities to ban a meeting of the Committee of Shan State Unity (CSSU) that was originally slated for 20-22 July in Chiang Mai. Meanwhile, the campaigns to review and amend the Telecommunications Act and the Unlawful Associations Act continued, as dialogues surrounding the 70th Martyrs' Day and ongoing tirades of ultranationalist monk U Wirathu served as reminders of the identity conflicts at the root of many of the country's nation-building and human rights issues.
In her end-of-mission statement, the Special Rapporteur highlighted her dismay over much of the same themes that dogged her visit—killings, torture, and restrictions to access by various actors in conflict-affected areas, allegations of forced recruitment by EAOs, livelihood and health concerns of those caught in areas of resource extraction and development, the repatriation dilemma facing internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, difficulties faced by minorities in obtaining civil documentation, as well as the increasing, disproportionate usage of defamation charges.
But perhaps what's most disappointing for the Special Rapporteur — as she alludes to herself in her statement — is that, after six country visits, she still finds herself facing the same restrictions that she did several years ago. That, despite the country's ostensible departure from a military dictatorship, the Myanmar military, with the tacit approval of the government, continues to exert undue influence on the information-gathering process.
Unsurprisingly, the military's presence was most evident in the "more sensitive areas," as the Special Rapporteur noted. Despite the deteriorating security situation in northern Myanmar and thus the urgent necessity for establishing the facts on the ground, the Special Rapporteur was denied access to northern Shan State, with the exception of Lashio, an administrative urban center shielded from the bulk of fighting. She was also prevented from visiting Hsipaw Prison, where the three journalists charged by the military under Section 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act remain detained — despite the fact that, as the Special Rapporteur pointed out herself, Hsipaw is a tourist hotspot frequented by foreigners. Even near the relatively stable Karen State capital, Hpa-an, the Special Rapporteur was denied access to the military-owned Myaing Kalay cement factory due to "security concerns."
The military's determination to maintain control was also clear in the restrictions of people that the Special Rapporteur could meet. As highlighted in her statement, she requested but was ultimately unable to meet with anyone from the military — not the Commander-in-Chief nor any representatives from the military-controlled ministries for Defense and Home Affairs.
Civil society organizations (CSOs) that met with the Special Rapporteur, too, note the background influence of the military. Per testimony relayed to Progressive Voice by two CSOs, security forces were visibly stationed outside the meeting premises in Hpa-an, Karen State, and at least one member of the Special Branch (SB) police force entered the meeting room to ask questions and perform "security checks" ahead of the meeting. In Yangon, CSOs reported receiving phone calls from the SB, and being interviewed and photographed by intelligence pretending to be the media. As the Special Rapporteur highlighted in her statement, "individuals who meet with me continue to face intimidation, including being photographed, questioned before and after meetings and in one case even followed."
While the NLD-led Government does not oversee the security forces, it still played an active role in enabling their influence. As the Special Rapporteur notes, the government, as per usual, delayed confirmation of the dates of her visit and then used the excuse of short notice to deny access to certain sites. Also concerning is how the government, well-aware of the history of intimidation against the Special Rapporteur, tacitly encouraged demonstrations against her visit — in Rakhine State's Sittwe Airport, the Special Rapporteur was met with 200 government-approved protesters holding signs reading "get out Yanghee Lee" and "sorry Yanghee Lee, not welcome."
Ultimately, we are left to wonder what the Myanmar Government is trying to achieve. In failing to do its utmost to facilitate the discharge of the Special Rapporteur's mandate and thereby begin the project of dismantling the military's control, it chose to feed directly into the military's campaign to shield itself from accountability. At the end of the day, the Myanmar Government served only to undermine its own credibility as it calls for trust in its domestic mechanisms while obstructing access to the UN-mandated investigations.
Going forward, the Myanmar people deserve answers, not more questions. They deserve to know the full truth of what is happening in their own country — and a democratically elected government should give them nothing less.
One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term 'Myanmar' in acknowledgment that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of 'Myanmar' rather than 'Burma' without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten.