The United Nations human rights envoy in Burma has wrapped up her tour of Arakan State, during which she was reportedly denied the opportunity to speak directly to locals living in a village where police filmed themselves beating detained Muslim men in November.
Special rapporteur Yanghee Lee touched down in Rangoon on 8 December for a 12-day trip, tasked with investigating the country’s human rights progress nine months into the National League for Democracy government’s term.
Lee found her access restricted over the weekend while attempting to meet with community members in Maungdaw Township, the scene of 9 October attacks on police outposts that kicked off renewed communal violence and a harsh “clearance operation” to hunt down the attacks’ perpetrators.
The government cited “security concerns” as justification for barring Lee from certain areas, according to a report by Al Jazeera.
Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist and writer for the website Rohingya Blogger who is based in Europe, told DVB his sources had indicated that Lee was “very angry” at being denied the chance to visit Koe Tan Kauk, the village in the leaked police video.
“She was taken to Koe Tan Kauk BGP [border guard police] outpost but not to the village. According to some sources, the authorities took her to Tha Wun Chaung village which is in Maungdaw south, instead of Koe Tan Kauk village.”
“When she asked the Tha Wun Chaung villagers about Koe Tan Kauk, the villagers responded that she is already in Maungdaw now, and had passed Koe Tan Kauk [village],” he said via email.
Authorities have kept much of northern Arakan State under lockdown since 9 October. The search to apprehend the Muslim militants said to be responsible for the attacks, in which nine police officers were killed, is ongoing.
The government has denied nearly all accusations of human rights abuses by security forces, which have been levelled by Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and human rights organisations, including the rape of women and girls and the destruction of homes and villages. The emergence of the police tape last month forced the government to launch an investigation into the incident, but the President’s Office has maintained that the abuse was an isolated event.
On 3 January, an interim report released by a Union government-appointed commission tasked with investigating claims of rights abuses claimed it could find no evidence to support accusations that security forces had acted outside of the rule of law.
Local media in Maungdaw have accused Lee of lacking transparency during her tour of the area. The envoy reportedly requested private meetings with locals in a bid to ensure villagers spoke openly, according to Min Aung, the Arakan State development minister.
“She just left [Sittwe] now,” Min Aung said on Saturday. “She said she wanted to travel and meet with locals freely unlike back in Kachin [State] where she was not allowed to go anywhere. Also, she told security personnel to wait outside when she goes to villages because she wants to interview the locals freely.”
“We also warned her to take caution with the interviews as recently there have been murders of individuals who gave real information,” he added.
Aye Win, the UN Information Centre representative in Burma, said the rapporteur’s investigation required security and media personnel to leave the room while she conducted interviews.
“This is the nature of her work — she has to speak freely with the people she is meeting. This is the same arrangement in her previous visits. She had conducted exclusive interviews [with locals],” said Aye Win.
While members of the Arakan National Party reportedly refused to meet with Lee, a representative for the state-level Arakan commission, a body formed by the state legislature in October that is separate from the Union-level investigative commission, told DVB the panel still hopes to arrange a sit-down discussion.
“I hope we can see her … in the coming days we will arrange with the UN representative and our commission. Whether it will take place or not, we are preparing for that meeting, we are hoping for a meeting,” Zaw Myint Pay said.
Lee is due to hold a press conference about her latest visit on Friday in Rangoon.