YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — A U.N. human rights envoy on Friday ended a 12-day visit to Myanmar with a bleak evaluation of the government's ability to deal with the problems facing the country's ethnic minorities.
U.N. rapporteur Yanghee Lee in a statement before her departure criticized the government's aggressive response to problems including fighting with the Kachin minority in the country's north and a crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in the west. Myanmar's military has been accused of human rights abuses in both areas.
"The government's response to all of these problems seems to currently be to defend, dismiss and deny. And this response is not only counterproductive but is draining away the hope that had been sweeping the country," she said, adding that she believed it was not too late to reverse the trend.
Lee said she was barred by the government from travelling to parts of Kachin state, but that it was clear that the situation there was deteriorating. People who live there told her "the situation is now worse than at any point in the past few years," she said.
More than a dozen ethnic minorities have been battling for decades for greater autonomy, but most have reached an accommodation with the government. However, fierce though intermittent fighting continues in Kachin state.
Lee also criticized army actions in Rakhine state, where a crackdown has driven an estimated 65,000 Rohingya to flee across the border to Bangladesh in the past three months. She said the military had conducted security operations there with seemingly little regard for the rights and dignity of the Rohingya.
The crackdown began in October after nine policemen were killed in attacks by a shadowy group along the border. The army denies abuses, but Rohingya sympathizers say hundreds of civilians have been killed. The claim cannot be independently verified because authorities have limited outsiders' access to the area.
Human rights groups and Rohingya advocates charge that the security forces have burned down more than 1,000 Rohingya homes. Lee said the government told her the houses were burned down by their own residents because they were of poor quality and the expected international aid would allow them to build better homes.
"The authorities offered no evidence for this, and I find this argument quite incredible," she said, noting that in some cases these may be where families lived for generations, and they might be displaced for an indeterminate period.
The estimated 1 million Rohingya face official and social discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Most do not have citizenship and are regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even when their families have lived in Rakhine for generations. Communal violence in 2012 forced many to flee their homes, and more than 100,000 still live in squalid internal displacement camps
Lee said that the attacks on security forces in Rakhine were not justified but "took place within the context of decades of systematic and institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya population. Desperate individuals take desperate actions."
Lee also met with the country's leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and other Cabinet ministers, but that the country's military commander, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, declined to see her.
Lee expressed concern about the fear of reprisals against ordinary people she spoke with or wanted to speak with and asked officials to make sure that people who spoke frankly to her would not face retribution.
"Yet distressingly, several people I met during this visit would say to me, 'I don't know what will happen to me after our meeting,'" she said.
She added: "In one case, an individual directly told me they thought they would be arrested following our conversation. In another village, where there were more than two communities living separately but side by side, I asked if that person was comfortable talking to me. The response: 'I am afraid I will not give the right answer.'"