Last February, in Myanmar, the military carried out a coup and took control of the country, declaring a year-long state of emergency. Even though Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader won the general election, the armed forces had backed the opposition and claimed widespread fraud. The coup took place as a new session of parliament was set to convene. The protests over the coup are carrying out a demonstration for democracy, and the armed forces are using violence against them. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), more than 400 protesters have been killed, and about 20 children were brutally killed. In Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU), there is a person who made an effort for Myanmar’s democracy and human rights improvement for a long time. The person is Yanghee Lee, Professor of the Department of Child Psychology and Education, who also worked as a special rapporteur for the United Nations (UN) in Myanmar from 2014 to 2020. The Sungkyun Times (SKT) would like to introduce Professor Yanghee Lee, the human rights activist.
|Myanmar People Holding Candles (asia.nikkei.com)|
Becoming A Human Rights Activist
Q1. Please introduce yourself.
My name is Yanghee Lee. I served as chairperson of the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and worked as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar for six years. I am currently teaching students in the major of Child Psychology and Education at SKKU and participating in the Convergence Innovation Society Program. I have worked at SKKU for 30 years, and I am planning to retire this August.
Q2. Did you have some special motivation for becoming interested in human rights?
Well, I don’t think that there was any special motivation. I became interested in human rights naturally. I went into exile as a result of the coup in Korea when I was six. Since then, I have thought strongly about human rights and human dignity. When I was in elementary school, I protested for the overthrow of the dictatorship in front of the White House with my parents even though I did not know about “human rights” at that time. Also, when I did research on developmental disorders, I realized that the human rights of the disabled, especially children with developmental disabilities, were too weak. I started to work towards becoming a human rights activist after this.
Q3. How did you start to work at the UN?
I did not dream of working at the UN. But the chance came in 1991. Back then, Korea had to submit a report to the Human Rights Council to confirm that the government complies with obligations stated in the international human rights law as the UN Convention on the Rights of Children was ratified. At that time, I was doing research on counseling for developmental disorders in children and their families. Also, I could co-found the Children’s Rights Society by chance. Then I got a call from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying that they wanted me to assign to the CRC, so I started to work for the UN.
Yanghee Lee as Human Rights Activist
Q4. What did you do at the UN?
I started to work at the UN on children’s rights first, so I’ll talk about it from the aspect of children’s rights first. As mentioned, countries that ratify the UN Convention must submit a report on the situation of child rights in the country. I worked for the CRC for 10 years, monitoring whether countries in the UN comply with their obligations as reported and further urging them to follow up on those recommendations and establish accountability. Then, since 2014, I started to work as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. I investigated and monitored Myanmar’s rights from civil, political, cultural, and economic perspectives.
Q5. You have studied children and adolescents' rights for a long time and have authority over this. Is there any reason to work as the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar?
I submitted reports on Myanmar twice while I was working for the CRC. While working on its monitoring and documentation, all members of the committee looked deeply into the country’s children’s rights situation, but particularly among them, the Special Rapporteur is chosen. The Special Rapporteur plays a leading role in a specific country’s human rights. And in the case of Myanmar, I was chosen as the Special Rapporteur at that time. While being the Special Rapporteur, I found many similarities between Korea and Myanmar. The history of colonization, dictatorship, and coups are some of those. In contrast to the current situation, Myanmar was the wealthiest country in South East Asia when it maintained democracy. They also had all the natural resources what most people might know about. But now, Myanmar is one of the poorest countries involved with several problems like civil war and suppression of ethnic minorities. That’s the reason why I especially have an interest in Myanmar.
|Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar (mmtimes.com)|
Q6. What do you think of Myanmar’s current situation?
The current crisis in Myanmar is deeply shocking and horrifying. I think Korea is not speaking out much even though it also had to win democracy and experienced the Gwangju Uprising, a righteous movement of citizens for democracy. Now, even students and young children in Myanmar are being shot by the military. It is urgent that the military must put down its weapons and release the president and Ms. Suu Kyi. They also have to respect the results of the general election held in November 2020. But the most important thing is that the military has to stop being violent. I quit the role of Special Rapporteur, but I am still forming solidarity with the citizens in Myanmar. After the coup, I co-founded the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar with my colleagues. I am going to keep monitoring its situation and report to the international society. I will work as a speaker of the civil activist’s voice.
Q7. What is the hardest thing about working as an activist?
The hardest thing is watching the situation unfold and knowing that I cannot help. The Rohingya people in Myanmar are being slaughtered, and more than one million people are being pushed into a refugee camp. In the rainy season, that refugee camp will see the water rise to people’s knees, and debris will be floating in that water. Children living there have to spend time in the vulnerable place for several months, years, or even their whole lives. Watching the situation where I cannot help is the most difficult thing because I feel so helpless.
Yanghee Lee in the Future
Q8. As you said, you are going to retire this August. What are you going to do as a human rights activist after the retirement?
“Human rights” is a universal value. It is not just for me or Koreans. I am going to continue to work for the children’s rights that I have been doing for all of these years. I will operate a non-governmental organization for children’s rights. In addition to that, I will keep communicating about the situation in Myanmar as a special advisor.
Q9. What is the worst human rights problem that you could wish to solve?
I want to solve the problem of inequality. I want to tear down the wall between people who have and don’t have. In Korea, there are some aspects where equality between women and men is scarce. Some people cannot enjoy equal rights for such reasons like their gender identities or disabilities. Unregistered migrants, also known sometimes as “illegal workers” can also find their rights affected. Inequality is a widespread problem, so I want to get rid of inequality if I had the choice of solving just one human rights problem.
Q10. Any last words for the Kingos who might dream about being human rights activists?
Even though you might hear about it somewhere, you have to think about the fairness of inequality and justice. Not only with words, but you also have to practice and feel it sincerely. Also, you have to know the prejudice you have. Reducing your prejudices is the first step to being a human rights activist. Besides this, I want to say that human activism is not fancy work.
|Professor Yanghee Lee (stopgenocide.org)|
<저작권자 © THE SUNGKYUN TIMES, 무단 전재 및 재배포 금지>