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Myanmar Muslims Hope UN Envoy's Visit Will Bring Change

FILE - Yanghee Lee, U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, concludes a three-day visit, Jan. 15, 2017, to probe the situation in northern Rakhine, where an army crackdown has driven an estimated 65,000 Muslim ethnic Rohingya to flee across the border to Bangladesh in the past three months.

Muslim villagers in western Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state said Sunday that they hope positive change will result from a U.N. envoy's visit to the region, where soldiers are accused of widespread abuses against minority Muslims, including murder, rape and the burning of thousands of homes.

U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Yanghee Lee concluded a three-day visit Sunday to probe the situation in northern Rakhine, where an army crackdown has driven an estimated 65,000 Muslim ethnic Rohingya to flee across the border to Bangladesh in the past three months.

"We really hope that her visit brings a positive change for Rohingya and we hope to gain our human rights," a displaced Rohingya man living temporarily in Kyee Kan Pyin village said on condition of anonymity due to security reasons.

The crackdown began in October after nine policemen were killed in attacks by a shadowy group along the border. The government and the army have rejected the accusations of abuses and killings, saying recently that they have simply been conducting a "clearance operation" in the region. Rohingya villagers and activists say hundreds of civilians have been killed, but the number cannot be verified because authorities have limited access of aid workers and journalists to areas where the deaths occurred. Recent satellite images showed thousands of houses were burned.

"We have received hundreds of villagers whose houses were burned and they are living in our village and they have nowhere to go," said Kyee Kan Pyin resident Mohammad Hussein.

Despite living in Myanmar for generations, an estimated one million Rohingya are barred from citizenship in the Buddhist-majority nation of 50 million, and instead live as some of the world's most persecuted people. More than 100,000 Rohingya still live in squalid internal displacement camps.

Lee is on a 12-day visit to Myanmar to assess the human rights situation, less than a year after the formation of the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. She is focusing her attention on the Rohingya, who mostly live in Rakhine state. She said she would present a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March.

During her visit to Kyee Kan Pyin on Sunday, Lee met hundreds of people who are temporarily living in the village after their houses were burned during the army's clearance operation.

"We warmly welcome her visit," said the Rohingya man who did not want to be named. "It is such a hopeful thing that the U.N. envoy came and met us in this kind of situation. But at the same time, we are worried for our security for talking to her because some villagers who have spoken to diplomats and international people have been arrested recently."

On Saturday, Lee visited the northern Rakhine prison where authorities say they are holding hundreds of Rohingya suspects in the October attacks that killed the nine policemen. It was unclear whether she had access to any of the prisoners.

On Friday, she visited Rakhine's capital, Sittwe, in the southern portion of the state. She visited an enclave in Sittwe where 4,000 Rohingya are confined, but residents there were pessimistic that her mission would improve their situation.

This is Lee's fifth mission to Myanmar. In November, she spoke out forcefully about the alleged abuses and called for an immediate and independent inquiry.