the new Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma, Ms. Yang Hee Lee, said that she was told repeatedly told not to use the term “Rohingya” as this ethnic group is not recognized by the Burmese government.
Chittagong, Bangladesh: At a press conference held at Rangoon International Airport on July 26th, the new Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma, Ms. Yang Hee Lee, said that she was told repeatedly told not to use the term “Rohingya” as this ethnic group is not recognized by the Burmese government.
Ms. Lee’s use of the term “Rohingya” is consistent with her obligation to promote international human rights law, which guarantees minorities the right of self-identification. However, Burmese government officials insisted that she refrain from using the word “Rohingya” throughout her trip to Arakan State.
On their website, the NGO Burma Partnership said that given Ms. Lee’s commitment to international human rights norms the NGO was reassured by her use of the word “Rohingya” and believes Ms. Lee will continue to use the term when appropriate in the future.
Nevertheless, the office of Burma’s President Thein Sein released a statement on July 29th which said Ms. Lee needs to pay “serious consideration to [use of] the term ‘Rohingya’ if a long-term solution to the problems in Rakhine State is to be achieved.”
“While the people of Myanmar have been ready….to accept as citizens those individuals who meet the 1982 Citizenship Law criteria, we do not accept the term ‘Rohingya,’ which has never existed in the country’s history,” the statement said.
In her statement on July 26th, Ms. Lee said that “I also note that various human rights treaty bodies and intergovernmental bodies—including the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which I chaired for four years and of which I was a member for 10 years—[along with] the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly use the term ‘Rohingya’.”
“As a human rights independent expert, I am guided by international human rights law. In this regard, the rights of minorities to self-identify on the basis of their national, ethnic, religious and linguistic characteristics is related to the obligation of states to ensure non-discrimination against individuals and groups, which is a central principle of international human rights law.”
Ms. Lee outlined her initial findings at Rangoon airport in a statement as she wrapped-up her 10-day mission in Burma. Ms. Lee said her concerns about Burma include the shrinking of the country’s democratic space; ongoing religious violence and discrimination; the deteriorating humanitarian conditions of internally displaced persons– especially Muslims– in Arakan State; the severe human rights abuses in Kachin State; the urgent necessity for legislative reform and establishing the rule of law; the lack of involvement of women in both the peace process and governance; the exclusion of local people in large-scale development projects; the impact of such projects on vulnerable communities; and the continuing incarceration of political activists, according to Burma Partnership’s website.
“In my discussions on the question of citizenship for the Muslim community, I was repeatedly told that the rule of law should be respected; in this regard, strong opposition was voiced by many against review and reform of the 1982 Citizenship Law. Yet laws by nature are forever evolving. As the reform process in Myanmar has demonstrated, they can be and should be amended whenever there are deficiencies and are not in line with international standards. The 1982 Citizenship Law should therefore not be an exception,” Ms. Lee stated at the press conference.
Since the 1993 report by the first Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, various forms of human rights violations faced by the Muslim community have been regularly documented by successive Special Rapporteurs. These include enforced disappearances; torture; forced labor; forced displacement; [and] sexual violence, Ms. Lee noted in her statement at Rangoon airport.
In this regard, Ms. Lee said that she has received “continuing allegations of violations against the Muslim community, including arbitrary arrests, torture and ill-treatment in detention, death in detention, the denial of due process and fair trial rights, and rape and sexual violence. I believe these allegations are serious and merit investigation, with perpetrators held to account.”
By virtue of their legal status (or lack thereof), the Muslim community in Arakan State has faced and continues to face systematic discrimination, which includes restrictions on the freedom of movement; restrictions on access to land, food, water, education, and health care; and restrictions on marriage and birth registration.