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Myanmar Bans U.N. Official Investigating Human Rights Abuses Against Rohingya


Yanghee Lee has been the United Nations' special rapporteur on Myanmar for more than three years. She's documented violence that has driven 650,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee Myanmar. The U.N. high commissioner for human rights and others have called it ethnic cleansing.

YANGHEE LEE: Houses are being burned. People are being tied in the houses and set on fire. Children are being thrown into the fire, people being stabbed and thrashed and gang-raped for women.

SHAPIRO: Lee detailed all of this over repeated visits to Myanmar in 2017. She was set to visit again next month. The country now says she is no longer welcome. It says her latest report was unfair, biased against Myanmar's Buddhist majority.

LEE: I've asked the government, tell me exactly what is unfair and what is biased? And they will say, well, we told you that we don't have Rohingyas. We don't have any more political prisoners. But they're still there. They say that I don't bring out the grievances of the Buddhist community, but I have.

SHAPIRO: Do you think the government of Myanmar is trying to hide something from the U.N. by keeping you out of the country?

LEE: Well, doesn't it look like that they are doing something very similar, that - Myanmar can't escape criticisms that they're trying to hide something. And I've been the only person from the human rights mechanism that had access this past year, and now they're blocking that.

SHAPIRO: So how worried are you about what is happening?

LEE: I'm very worried. I'm very worried because consistently I saw that things were backsliding. People are being silenced more. Journalists are being detained or even civilians, people who post blogs. They've been charged with either defamation law or telecommunications or even unlawful associations law. And these are very serious charges.

SHAPIRO: So tell me what specifically you were planning to do on this next visit in January.

LEE: I planned on looking into economic and social cultural rights like land evictions, labor laws, farmers who had their land evicted, of course the political prisoners situation, freedom of expression. That's what I do. And this is what I had planned to do again.

SHAPIRO: By keeping you out of the country, Myanmar is effectively thumbing its nose at the international community and the United Nations. Does the country pay any price for that? Are there any consequences?

LEE: I - you know first I would like to emphasise that I sincerely do hope that the Myanmar government revisits their decision because there could be consequences in the long run.

SHAPIRO: What do you mean by that?

LEE: For instance, if countries or enterprises want to invest or - you know, these variables are going to be factored in.

SHAPIRO: I sense that even now, you may be trying to answer questions diplomatically because while you might be documenting abuses by the government of Myanmar, you also may be allowed back into the country with the government's good graces.

LEE: Well, I'm not sure, no. But I don't want to stab them again with a lot of criticisms, at least not yet because Myanmar has and the people of Myanmar has fought so hard for a free and democratic Myanmar. And it's really - I'm really saddened that they're taking this route.

SHAPIRO: I wonder whether you agree that what we're seeing in Myanmar is ethnic cleansing.

LEE: I think it - and I would agree with the high commissioner. It is a textbook case.

SHAPIRO: Yanghee Lee is the U.N. special rapporteur on Myanmar speaking with us on Skype from Seoul. Thank you very much.

LEE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.