SITTWE, Myanmar — The U.N. human rights envoy for Myanmar arrived Friday in tense Rakhine state, where soldiers are accused of widespread abuse of members of the Muslim ethnic Rohingya minority, including torture, rape and killing of civilians and the burning of thousands of homes.
U.N. rapporteur Yanghee Lee began a three-day visit to western Myanmar to probe the situation in northern Rakhine, where an army crackdown has driven an estimated 65,000 people to flee across the border to Bangladesh in the past three months.
The crackdown began in October after nine policemen were killed in attacks by a shadowy group along the border. The army denies any abuses, but Rohingya sympathizers say hundreds of civilians have been killed. The claim cannot be independently verified because authorities have limited access of aid workers and journalists to the area. Official figures put the death toll under 100 and don’t make clear the circumstances under which the deaths took place.
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 is on a 12-day visit to Myanmar at the invitation of the government, during which she is to meet political and community leaders, representatives of civil society, victims of human rights violations and members of the international community. Lee said she will present a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March.
On Friday, Lee visited the Rakhine capital, Sittwe, in the southern portion of the state, where she said she was hopeful she could get permission to visit the most affected area in the north.
She visited an enclave in Sittwe where 4,000 Rohingya are confined, but residents there were pessimistic that her mission would improve their situation.
“We want to tell her about the difficulties we have here. We are so much in trouble. We have been living in here like in prison for almost five years,” said Tin Soe, a 46-year-old Rohingya man in the Aung Mingalar community.
“In five years, there have been many things that the government and international communities are doing, but nothing has changed for us here,” he said, adding that only Myanmar’s government could improve their conditions.
“We have been living here for generations and the government keeps saying that we are not citizens of this country. It really hurts me. We should have our citizens’ rights,” he said.
Forty-year-old Zaw Zaw, another Aung Mingalar resident, also questioned why nothing had changed despite several previous visits by Lee to the area.
“We live here without any freedom inside this area, which is like living inside a box. We are all controlled in many different ways under the law by the government,” he said. “My potential is wasted because I am not allowed to work anywhere.”
This is Lee’s fifth mission to Myanmar. Previous visits provoked the wrath of extreme Buddhist nationalists. One, a firebrand monk named Wirathu, branded her a whore after she criticized laws on race and religion.
The crisis in Rakhine state has been the biggest test for the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi since it took power last year.
“We understand that the current government is also facing a lot of challenges but as a government, they should grant our rights as citizens who were born here. This is what we are requesting,” Zaw Zaw said.