Critical and independent voices are vital partners not threats – UN rights expert

12 August 2015
Critical and independent voices are vital partners not threats – UN rights expert
Union Election Commission Chairman U Tin Aye meets Ms Yanghee Lee, United Nations Special Rapporteur in Yangon on August 6, 2015. Photo: MNA

As Myanmar looks ahead to the upcoming elections in November – a milestone in the country’s transition to democracy – the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, urged the Government to reconsider its fear and opposition to critical and independent voices a press release from the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner (UNHCR) stated on 12 August.
“Civil society actors, journalists and ordinary citizens exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association are not threats, but should be seen as partners in contributing to a robust democracy,” Ms. Lee stressed at the end of her five-day official visit to the country.
During her visit, the human rights expert noted the continuing arrests and convictions of civil society actors including students, political activists, workers, union leaders, farmers, community organisers and journalists, and met with several of these individuals detained in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons. “Many emphasized that they were not against the Government and simply wanted to bring about positive changes in the country,” she said.
Given their vital role in any democratic society, prior to, during and after elections, the expert called for the immediate release of all such political prisoners, including those detained in connection with the Letpadan incident on 10 March 2015, during a police operation against student demonstrators and their supporters.
Of grave concern to the Special Rapporteur was the “disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of individuals who previously held temporary registration cards (white cards) who were allowed to vote in the 2010 elections but lost this right in 2015.”
Given the impact of the ongoing conflict on the holding of inclusive and peaceful election, Ms. Lee also drew attention to the “possible disenfranchisement of migrant workers, internally displaced persons and refugees, and those living in conflict-affected areas such as Kachin and northern Shan States.” She called for the full integration of human rights issues and the full participation of women in all stages of the peace process.
Additionally, while hailing the efforts of religious leaders and civil society actors in building a more tolerant and inclusive society, she warned of the “increased influence of religious extremists in this pre-electoral period” and the lack of action taken against them in cases of intimidation or incitement.
“The Government must do more to combat hate speech and incitement to violence,” the rights expert said.
Although Ms. Lee met with representatives of the Rakhine State Government, including the Chief Minister, her request to visit Rakhine State was denied. “I cannot shy away from continuing to highlight serious human rights violations in Rakhine State and make principled but constructive recommendations,” Ms. Lee noted. ”More must and can be done to address the legal status of the Rohingya and the institutionalized discrimination faced by this community.”
“One practical step that could go a long way to improve the situation of youth in Rakhine State is to give priority emphasis to improving education opportunities and access to higher education.”
During her five-day visit, the expert met with Government officials, members of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, members of the Myanmar Peace Center and civil society in Nay Pyi Taw and Yangon. She regretted, however, that the Government reduced her visit from 10 days to five and that she was not able to meet with all interlocutors as planned. Nevertheless the Special Rapporteur reaffirmed her commitment to engage constructively with the Government and all stakeholders.
Ms. Lee also expressed her deepest sympathies to the victims and all those affected by the devastating floods and offered her assistance and that of the international community.
The Special Rapporteur will submit a report to the UN General Assembly in October 2015, which will include her observations and recommendations to the Government of Myanmar.