In Myanmar, ‘pervasive hate speech and shrinking freedom’

UN expert on Myanmar decries ‘shrinking democratic space’ in new report, urges ‘concrete action’ from global community.

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar Lee gives her report in Geneva
Yanghee Lee was denied entry to Myanmar, with the government saying her visits were counterproductive [File: Denis Balibouse/Reuters]

The United Nations human rights investigator on Myanmar has expressed alarm over the “pervasive nature of hate speech” in the country, including material in textbooks that reportedly teach fourth-grade students to “loathe those of mixed blood”.

In a report published on Tuesday, Yanghee Lee described hate speech as “institutionalised” in Myanmar, where the government is under fire over an August 2017 military crackdown that sent hundreds of thousands of members of the mostly Muslim Rohingya minority fleeing into neighbouring Bangladesh.

The UN special rapporteur was denied entry to the country for her research.

The government, led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, told Lee in a December letter that her visits were “counterproductive”, claiming her previous reports lacked “objectivity and impartiality”.

“The people of Myanmar have endured decades of abuse; international inaction, or delayed action, is a further injustice,” Lee said in Tuesday’s report, urging the global community to take “concrete action” to advance human rights in the country.

There was no immediate comment from the Myanmar government.

Here are some key takeaways from Lee’s report, which the UN envoy is expected to present to the UN Human Rights Council on March 11.

Institutionalised hate speech

“The pervasive nature of hate speech is alarming, particularly that it is used by senior government officials,” Lee said, referring to comments by Thura Aung Ko, minister for religious and cultural affairs, who was accused in November of describing Islam as an “extreme religion”.


Meanwhile, the national elementary school curriculum includes lessons and textbooks that contain discriminatory and incendiary material, Lee said.

“For example, there is a fourth-grade lesson on ‘Wunthanu Spirit’, meaning nationalistic and patriotic spirit. The lesson says ‘we loathe those of mixed blood, for they prohibit the progression of a race’. Teaching children these ideas promotes racial superiority and communal disharmony,” she added.

Groups linked to the military and members of the government continued to proliferate hate speech and misinformation on Facebook, she said, urging the social media platform to do more to protect human rights in Myanmar.

Rohingya repatriation

Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed an agreement to repatriate the more than 730,000 Rohingya who fled the military’s campaign of mass killings and rape in western Rakhine State, but “conditions for voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable returns do not exist,” Lee said.

Rohingya were continuing to leave Rakhine for Bangladesh, she said, with newly arrived refugees reporting recent acts of violence against them and their family members.

Bangladesh, which said it could not take any more Rohingya refugees, has proposed setting up “safe zones” inside Rakhine, but the very “need for ‘safe zones’ undermines the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable nature of repatriation”, she said. 

Also, “confining returnees to ‘safe zones’ could result in their being more vulnerable, would further constrain their freedom of movement and would segregate them from other communities,” she said.

Taking note of Aung San Suu Kyi’s call for investment in Rakhine during a trade fair in February, Lee said investors must be cautious of the many risks to human rights by the various conflicts in the crisis-hit state. 

‘Plagued by conflict’

Expressing concern over ongoing clashes between the military and ethnic armed groups in the north and east of the country, Lee said: “Myanmar continues to be plagued by armed conflicts and violence.”

Recent fighting in Rakhine between the military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed group that seeks greater autonomy for the people of the state, has resulted in several civilian deaths, including of children, and displaced more than 5,500 people, she said. 


Meanwhile, the continued instability in other border areas was preventing hundreds of thousands of displaced people and refugees from returning to their homes, she said, voicing worries over the slow pace of progress in peace talks between the rebels and the government.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has promised to prioritise ending the decades-old conflicts with Myanmar’s various ethnic groups, and Lee stressed “meaningful, open and inclusive dialogue” was necessary to the process. 

‘Shrinking democratic space’

There was a large number of people imprisoned or detained for political activity, including 33 who are serving sentences and 311 awaiting trial, she said, labelling the development “totally unacceptable in a democratic society”. 


The figure included Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are serving seven-year prison sentences for breaching Myanmar’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act during their reporting of the killing of 10 Rohingya men in Rakhine.

The “decreasing space for expression of views that are critical” of the government could leave abuses of power unchecked and stymie Myanmar’s transition to democracy, she said.


Examining the role of military-run conglomerates in Myanmar’s mining industry, Lee said fresh sanctions should be considered against the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). 

The two conglomerates, which have received significant international investment since 2011, provide “off-budget financing” to the military, she said, and were involved in natural-resource extraction, where reports of rights abuses were rife. 

“The unaccounted profits and loss of revenues from resource extraction, and the commercial interests of military-owned and military-affiliated entities is a concern for human rights in Myanmar,” she said.

“These economic structures sustain the power and influence of an institution that obstructs democracy and commits egregious crimes with impunity.”

Source: Al Jazeera