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New UN rights envoy to Myanmar to visit tense area

July 16, 2014

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — The new U.N. special envoy to Myanmar for human rights arrived Wednesday on her first mission to the Southeast Asian nation, coming at a time of renewed political stress and sectarian tensions.

Korea’s Yanghee Lee succeeds Argentina’s Tomas Ojea Quintana in the job to gather firsthand information on the country’s human rights situation during a scheduled 10-day visit.

A statement from the United Nations said she will visit areas in western and northern Myanmar where there has been violent ethnic strife, as well as the central city of Mandalay, where recent clashes between majority Buddhists and minority Muslims left two dead and several injured.

She will also visit Yangon’s notorious Insein prison and travel to the capital Naypyidaw to meet Cabinet ministers and key lawmakers, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation, has been grappling since 2012 with sectarian violence that has left at least 300 people dead and 140,000 others homeless, most of them Muslims attacked by Buddhist extremists. Most of the conflict has taken place in western Rakhine state.

Just before completing his six-year tenure, Quintana raised the alarm on abuses against Rohingya Muslims there, declaring that severe shortages of food, water and medical care in their resettlement camps could amount to “crimes against humanity.”

Longstanding struggles by other minorities seeking autonomy from the central government are also unresolved, especially in northern Kachin state, where the Kachin minority continues armed confrontation with government forces.

Tensions are also high in the jockeying for power before the scheduled 2015 general election. Myanmar had been under military rule for almost five decades before an elected civilian but military-backed government came to power in 2011.

Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy is seeking to have the army-imposed constitution amended to reduce the military’s influence and to remove a provision that effectively bans her becoming president. Ethnic minorities also are seeking constitutional change.

Lee will also meet with the supervisory state Union Election Commission. Even before the 2015 polls, Myanmar is due to hold by-elections to fill more than 30 vacant parliamentary seats.

The United Nations has sent human rights envoys to Myanmar since 1990. Their efforts to improve the human rights situation achieved very little result in the past but conditions have improved since the nominally civilian regime came to power, with the release of many political prisoners and increased freedom of information.

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