UN Myanmar envoy raises land rights and media freedom

- Special rapporteur on human rights says humanitarian situation in Rakhine remains in 'crisis'.

By Joshua Carroll

YANGON, Myanmar (AA) – The UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar finished her second visit to the country Friday as radical Buddhist monks took to the streets to protest her stance on the country’s minority Muslims.

Yanghee Lee said before her departure that the humanitarian situation in Rakhine state remained “at crisis stage.” Around 140,000 displaced Rohingya Muslims are confined to disease-ridden camps on the outskirts of state capital Sittwe following riots in 2012.

She called for “focus on addressing the urgent humanitarian and human rights needs that continue to exist throughout the state.”

While praising the efforts of Myanmar’s nominally civilian government, which took over from the military junta in 2011, in improving healthcare, education and people’s livelihoods, she warned of increasing signs of backsliding in areas such as media freedom and land rights.

Lee said she had received complaints of “unfair land confiscation, forced evictions and concerns with land use policy,” throughout her visit.

She also called for a criminal investigation into the death of Par Gyi, a journalist who many believe was tortured and murdered by the military. Myanmar’s journalists “face regular intimidation and harassment,” Lee said. “The tragic death of Ko Par Gyi is an extreme example of this.”

Her ten-day visit ended with scenes of hundreds of Buddhist monks protesting in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. Among them was Ashin Wirathu, a prominent anti-Muslim monk who has described himself as the Burmese Bin Laden.

A UN resolution in November called on Myanmar to grant citizenship to its stateless Rohingya, a minority of around one million who have faced decades of violence and persecution from the government and Buddhist extremists.

Many live under apartheid-like conditions in western Rakhine state, where they are subject to severe travel restrictions and sporadic mob attacks.

At least 240 people died in religious rioting that erupted in Sittwe in 2012. Most of the victims are Rohingya and other Burmese Muslims.

Muslims in the camps around Sittwe are mostly barred from travelling to Buddhist areas although Buddhists are free to travel to Muslim areas.

Lee said the debate over the use of the term Rohingya, which many Buddhists object to, has “paralyzed progress on important issues.” She faced severe criticism on her last visit for using the word.

The government and many Buddhists insist on the term Bengali instead, claiming the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

“Without wanting to invalidate either perspective, I would like to suggest that this fixation on which word to use has paralyzed progress on important issues,” Lee said.

Earlier on Friday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski described the use of religion to divide people in Myanmar as “incredibly dangerous.”

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