Crowds protest UN rights visit to Myanmar

YANGON - Hundreds of demonstrators protested outside an airport in restive western Myanmar on Thursday against a human rights visit by a United Nations envoy, police told AFP.

Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, flew into Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, on Thursday evening and was greeted by crowds of chanting, placard-waving protesters.

The state has seen spates of deadly religious violence between local ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingya minority in recent years.

In August 2013 a previous UN rights envoy was forced to abandon plans to visit Rohingya displaced by a spate of anti-Muslim violence in the town of Meiktila, central Myanmar, when his convoy came under attack by an angry mob.

Lee's visit comes days after the UN adopted a resolution urging Myanmar to grant citizenship to the minority group, viewed by the state as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants with restrictions placed on their movement, marriages and economic opportunities.

Police said around 1,000 people, including 100 monks, had gathered at the airport. Some chanted "Yanghee Lee Get Out".

"We will give full security to her (Lee) when she arrives," a police officer in Sittwe who requested anonymity said before the envoy's arrival.

Lee was ushered from the airport to meetings with the state's chief minister in town, where there were no signs of fresh protests.

The UN has previously described the Rohingya as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.

Thousands of Rohingya have fled Rakhine since clashes erupted between them and Buddhists in 2012, leaving about 200 people dead and up to 140,000, mostly Rohingya, displaced.

The exodus has seen most head for mainly Muslim Malaysia in treacherous journeys by sea, with many falling into the hands of unscrupulous people-traffickers.

Rights groups say hundreds of boatpeople from the region may have died making the dangerous journey south, while thousands more have ended up in Thailand where they are open to exploitation by people smugglers or find themselves held in state camps.

Lee arrived in Myanmar on Tuesday for a 10-day visit to the former junta-ruled country to gather first-hand information on the current human rights situation in Rakhine as well as northern Shan state.

Parts of Shan - and neighbouring Kachin state - have long been racked by a civil conflict between government troops and ethnic rebels. Around 100,000 people have fled their homes in the two states since a 17-year ceasefire with ethnic Kachin rebels ended in 2011.