Myanmar blocks UN rights investigator weeks before visit

The UN independent investigator into human rights in Myanmar is calling for stronger international pressure to be exerted on Myanmar's military commanders after she was barred from visiting the country for the rest of her tenure.

Special rapporteur had been due to assess alleged abuses against Rohingya, among other things

Yanghee Lee, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, speaks during the 34th session of the Human Rights Council at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva on March 13. Lee says she has been barred from entering the Southeast Asian country. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via Associated Press)

The UN independent investigator into human rights in Myanmar is calling for stronger international pressure to be exerted on Myanmar's military commanders after she was barred from visiting the country for the rest of her tenure.

Yanghee Lee said she had been due to visit in January to assess human rights across Myanmar — including alleged abuses against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.

But Myanmar told her she was no longer welcome.

"From what I see right now, I'm not sure if they are feeling pressured. I'm not sure if there is the right kind of pressure placed on the military commanders and the generals," she later told Reuters by phone from Seoul.

She said it was alarming that Myanmar was strongly supported by China, which has a veto at the UN's top table in New York. Other countries, including the United States, and human groups were advocating targeted sanctions on the military, she said.

"I think the United Nations and its member states should really try to persuade China to really act toward the protection of human rights."

More than 650,000 Rohingya fled into Bangladesh after attacks by Muslim insurgents on the Myanmar security forces triggered a crackdown by the army and Buddhist vigilantes.

Demonstrators in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine hold up protest signs as Yanghee Lee's motorcade passes by in Sittwe on July 12. (Min Thein Khine/Associated Press)

Surveys of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh by aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres have shown at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in Rakhine state in the month after violence flared up on Aug. 25, MSF said last week.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein has called the violence "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing" and said he would not be surprised if a court eventually ruled that genocide had taken place.

'Nothing to hide'

Lee had planned to use her visit to find out procedures for the return of Rohingya refugees, and to investigate increased fighting in the Kachin and northern Shan areas of Myanmar.

In an earlier statement, she said Myanmar's refusal to co-operate with her was a strong indication there must be "something terribly awful happening" throughout the country, although the government had repeatedly denied any violations of human rights.

"They have said that they have nothing to hide, but their lack of co-operation with my mandate and the fact-finding mission suggests otherwise," Lee said.

Lee said that Myanmar's Ambassador in Geneva Htin Lynn had told the UN Human Rights Council only two weeks ago that it would continue to cooperate.

Newly set up tents cover a hillock at a refugee camp for Rohingya Muslims who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, in Taiy Khali, Bangladesh, on Sept. 22. (Dar Yasin/Associated Press)

"Now I am being told that this decision to no longer cooperate with me is based on the statement I made after I visited the country in July," she said.
 
Lee's mandate requires two visits to Myanmar each year and she has visited six times since taking up the mandate in June 2014, although the government has consistently refused access to some areas, citing security concerns, the statement said.

Lynn did not respond to a request for comment. Neither Zaw Htay, spokesperson for Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, nor Kyaw Moe Tun, a spokesperson for the ministry of foreign affairs that Suu Kyi heads, was immediately available.