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17:22 21 January 2017

U.N. rights envoy warns Myanmar over Rohingya issue

YANGON, Jan. 21, Kyodo

The U.N. Human Rights envoy to Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said Friday the country's government would lose credibility if it continues to defend the reported human rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims.

Speaking at a press briefing held in Yangon at the end of her 12-day visit to the country, Lee said the Myanmar government helmed by its leader Aung San Suu Kyi would "appear less and less credible" if it continues being defensive in response to allegations of persistently reported serious human rights violations.

Lee arrived in Myanmar on Jan. 8 to assess the recent developments in the human rights situation in the country, especially in conflict-riddled Rakhine State. Human rights abuses by security forces were reported there as the military conducts "clearance operations" following coordinated attacks by hundreds of Muslims in the area on border guard outposts that left nine police officers dead.

It was the fifth visit by the 60-year-old South Korean university professor since she became "special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar" in 2014.

Lee toured Maungdaw in northern Rakhine State for four-days, visiting the villages and sites of attacks and human rights abuses and meeting representatives of the Muslim community who calls themselves Rohingya as well as government officials and senior police officials to gather facts for her report, to be submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March 2017.

After returning from the tour, Lee met privately with Suu Kyi in the capital Naypyitaw Wednesday to discuss the security situation in northern Rakhine State, which has been under lock-down since the October attacks.

Widespread reports of security forces committing atrocities against Rohingya Muslims who live in northern Rakhine State have emerged as the military conducts operations in the area following the attacks, raiding Muslim villages to search for the culprits and recover lost arms.

But the government has been persistently denying virtually all the reports as fabricated news, while preventing the media and international observers from accessing the area.

Lee said the government's current response to all of these problems seems to be to defend, dismiss and deny, which is not only counterproductive but also drains away optimism in the country.

"But I do believe it is not too late to reverse this trend, and during my visit, I also met many people who are doing their best in very difficult situations. I met groups working tirelessly to bring communities together," Lee added.

Reading her statement to the press Friday, Lee condemned the deadly Oct. 9 attacks on the border guard posts, but said the persistent ill-treatment towards the population in the area should be considered.

"I must remind again that these attacks took place in the context of decades of systematic and institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya population," she said.

Lee said that the government should ensure justice, accountability and the rule of law, to improve the situation in Rakhine State.

Lee said she found during her visit that the optimism of the people in Myanmar is fading slowing, a year after the historic landslide election win by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy that has since formed the current government.

"It pains me to see when talking to the ordinary people during this visit their feelings of optimism and hope slowly fading just after one year when the whole country was elated with the outcome of the last general elections," she said.

The envoy however expressed optimism, saying government officials are committed to improve the situation.

"From my meetings and conversations with the state counselor and various officials, I can see their genuine commitment and dedication in improving the lives of all in Myanmar. Somehow, this commitment has yet to translate into real actions that are felt on the ground," she said.

"I encourage the government to appeal to communities in the country to be more open and have understanding of each other, to respect each other, instead of scapegoating others for the sake of advancing their own self-interests," she said.

While Rakhine State has long been affected by conflicts between ethnic Buddhists and the growing population of minority Muslims there, the latest round of violence in October further escalated the existing tension between the two sides.

The military "clearance operations" caused tens of thousands of people to flee their homes. Nearly 100 people, including 17 security officers, have been killed since the Oct. 9 attacks.

The United Nations has said around 65,000 Rohingya Muslim villagers from northern Rakhine have fled across the border into Bangladesh over the past three months.

During her trip, Lee also visited the country's northern Kachin State and met with villagers at camps displaced by the ongoing civil war between the military and ethnic Kachin rebels.

Lee said the conditions in Kachin and the northern borders are deteriorating, saying the situation is now "worse than any point in the past three years."

"The situation is now such that even in Myitkyina, the capital of the state and home to over 300,000 people, residents are afraid and now stay home after dark," she said.

==Kyodo

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