The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has hit back at the “sexist, insulting language” directed at envoy Yanghee Lee during her recent 10-day visit to Burma.
In a statement issued from Geneva on Wednesday, Al Hussein said, “The sexist, insulting language used against the UN’s independent human rights expert on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, by an influential monk during Ms Lee’s official visit to the country is utterly unacceptable. It is intolerable for UN Special Rapporteurs to be treated in this way and I call on religious and political leaders in Myanmar to unequivocally condemn all forms of incitement to hatred including this abhorrent public personal attack against a UN-appointed expert.”
The influential monk in question is undoubtedly Wirathu, who led a counter-demonstration in Rangoon against Lee’s visit on Friday when he blasted her for alleged bias towards Rohingya Muslims, calling her a “whore”.
The UN has consistently denied bias in the tense inter-religious conflict between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan State. Wednesday’s OHCHR statement defended the UN rapporteur’s role in mediating the situation, as well as helping to work towards a peaceful resolution of hostilities in northern Shan and Kachin states between Burmese government forces and ethnic rebels.
“Ms Lee, as required by her mandate, was addressing key human rights issues and the situation of minorities in the country, particularly the Rohingya Muslim community,” it said. “Indeed she expressed admiration for the commitment of inter-religious leaders to work together in the town of Lashio in Northern Shan State towards maintaining peaceful relations between communities. Ms. Lee raised serious concerns about the situation in Rakhine [Arakan] State and the plight of internally displaced Muslims living in camps in very difficult conditions. She also warned that a package of four bills proposed, if passed, would institutionalise discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities.”
The UN’s high commissioner on human rights concluded by inviting Burma’s community, religious and political leaders “to tackle the substance of her concerns.”
Before leaving Burma on Friday, UN Rapporteur Lee expressed dismay at the hostile reception she had received in many parts of the country. “During my visit I was personally subjected to the kind of sexist intimidation that female human rights defenders experience when advocating on controversial issues,” she said.
In Sittwe, capital of Arakan State, Lee was met on arrival and departure at the airport by protestors, including Arakanese political leaders and Buddhist monks who have said they will boycott the UN and other international groups that they perceive as being biased against Arakanese Buddhists.
However, it was a 500-strong rally in Rangoon on Friday that highlighted the depth of the anger towards the UN. Taking to a podium at the Kyeikkasan Grounds in Rangoon’s Tamwe Township, controversial monk Wirathu, who is renowned for his firebrand anti-Muslim rhetoric, directed a foul-mouthed personal attack at Lee.
“Don’t assume you are a respectable person, just because you have a position in the UN,” he thundered. “In our country, you are just a whore.
“If you are so willing, you may offer your arse to the kalar [racist term meaning ‘blacks’]. But you will never sell off our Arakan State!”
Wirathu’s comments were met with widespread scorn on social media and among the international community, though few influential monks or politicians in Burma have stood up to denounce him.
David Mathieson, the senior researcher on Burma at the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, said, “Wirathu’s comments are unbecoming of a member of the clergy or a gentleman, and this misogynist slur against Special Rapporteur Lee should be roundly denounced by senior members of the Sangha [Buddhist monkhood] and all of Burma’s political leaders. As an independent expert working for the UN to report on Burma’s human rights situation, she [Lee] has done an excellent job in a short time in difficult circumstances. This hate-filled xenophobic tirade is not reflective of a broader Burmese desire for peaceful improvement of the countries vexed conflicts.”
Wirathu, for his part, has refused to apologise for the derogatory remarks. In an interview with AFP earlier this week, he said, “That [whore] was the harshest word (I could think of), so I used it. If I could find a harsher word, I would have used it. It is nothing compared to what she did to our country.”