I was repeatedly told not to use the term ‘Rohingya’ as this was not recognized by the Government: Ms. Yang Hee Lee, UN Special Rapporteur

Chittagong, Bangladesh: The new Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Ms. Yang Hee Lee stated during a press conference at Rangoon International Airport, Burma, on July 26 that she was told repeatedly not to use the term ‘Rohingya’ as this was not recognized by the Government.


The new Special Rapporteur,Ms. Yang Hee Lee stated during a press conference at Rangoon International Airport, Burma,
Ms. Lee’s open and honest discussion of the term “Rohingya” and her pledge to be guided by international human rights law as regards the use of this term. This was despite the insistence of government officials not to use the word “Rohingya” throughout her trip to Arakan State. On the basis of this principled stance, we are reassured that Ms. Lee will not flinch from using the term when appropriate in the future, according to Burma Partnership –Strengthening cooperation for a free Burma – website.

But, the President’s Office statement released on July 29 that the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, needs to pay “serious consideration to [using] the term – Rohingya” if a “long-term solution” to problems in Rakhine are to be achieved.

“While the people of Myanmar are ready, and as it has been the case, to accept those who meet the criteria of the 1982 Citizenship Law as citizens, we do not accept the term “Rohingya” which has never existed in the country’s history,” the statement said.

“I also note that various human rights treaty bodies and intergovernmental bodies, including the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which I chaired for four years and of which I was a member for 10 years, the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly use the term “Rohingya”,” Ms. Lee stated in her statement at Rangoon International Airport, Burma, on July 26.

“As a human rights independent expert, I am guided by international human rights law. In this regard, the rights of minorities to self-identify on the basis of their national, ethnic, religious and linguistic characteristics is related to the obligations of states to ensure non-discrimination against individuals and groups, which is a central principle of international human rights law.”

Ms. Lee outlined her initial findings at Rangoon airport in a statement just as she finished her 10-day mission in Burma, highlighting the shrinking of democratic space, the ongoing religious violence and discrimination, the deteriorating humanitarian conditions for internally displaced persons (IDPs) – especially Muslims – in Arakan State, the severe human rights abuses in Kachin State, the urgent necessity for legislative reform and the rule of law, the lack of involvement of women in both the peace process and governance, the exclusion of local people in large scale development projects and the impact of such projects on vulnerable communities, and the continuing incarceration of political activists, among other issues, the Burma Partnership website highlight.

In my discussions on the question of citizenship for the Muslim community, I was repeatedly told that the rule of law should be respected; in this regard, strong opposition was voiced by many against the review and reform of the 1982 Citizenship Law.  Yet, laws by nature are forever evolving.  As the reforms process in Myanmar has demonstrated, they can be and should be amended whenever there are deficiencies and are not in line with international standards.  The 1982 Citizenship Law should therefore not be an exception, stated at the press conference in Rangoon airport.

By virtue of their legal status (or lack of), the Muslim community has faced and continue to face systematic discrimination, which include restrictions in the freedom of movement, restrictions in access to land, food, water, education and health care, and restrictions on marriages and birth registration.  Since the 1993 report of the first Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, the various forms of human rights violations faced by the Muslim community has been regularly documented by successive Special Rapporteurs.  These include enforced disappearances, torture, forced labour and forced displacements, as well as rape and other forms of sexual violence, Ms. Lee highlight in her statement at Rangoon airport.

“In addition, I have received continuing allegations of violations against the Muslim community, including arbitrary arrests, torture and ill-treatment in detention, death in detention, the denial of due process and fair trial rights and rape and sexual violence.  I believe these allegations are serious and merit investigation, with perpetrators held to account.”

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