Bangkok: Myanmar has barred a top United Nations investigator from visiting the country in what appears to part of a campaign to cover-up atrocities against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.
Yanghee Lee, the UN's Special Rapporteur, lashed out at the government led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, saying she is "puzzled and disappointed by the decision" made only days before she due was to make an official visit.
"This declaration of non-cooperation with my mandate can only be viewed as a strong indication that there must be something terrible happening in Rakhine, as well as the rest of the country," Lee said in a statement released in Geneva.
Suu Kyi's government and Myanmar's military have rejected widely documented atrocities in Rakhine that the UN Human Rights Council has described as "very likely" crimes against humanity and human rights groups label genocide.
Almost 650,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh since August, creating an unfolding humanitarian emergency in squalid refugee camps.
The government has for months refused to allow a fact-finding mission appointed by the Human Rights Council to enter Rakhine, where more than one million Rohingya have been persecuted and denied basic rights, including citizenship, for decades.
Independent researchers and journalists have also been banned.
Myanmar's military has claimed an internal investigation had shown that not one civilian had been killed in Rakhine since its forces launched "cleaning operations" against insurgents, after attacks on police posts on August 25.
But a survey of survivors in the camps indicates as many as 13,000 Rohingya could have been killed in the latest wave of atrocities.
Lee's ban comes amid international condemnation of the arrest of two Reuters journalists after they had allegedly obtained photographs from residents of a village in Rakhine where a mass grave has been found.
Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, have been held incommunicado for a week under a colonial-era law, prompting calls for their release from the United Nations, Western countries including the United States and media and rights groups.
The pair face up to 14 years jail if convicted under the Official Secrets Act.
Myanmar officials say that the office of the president authorised police to proceed with the case against the reporters.
Myanmar's independent Frontier news outlet said in an editorial the arrests are a "brazen attack on the media and principles of democracy."
"This is not about national security. This is about protecting the interests of the Tatmadaw (military) and silencing those who do not blindly follow the official line," it said.
Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, said Myanmar is looking every day like a throwback to the "bad old days" when the country was ruled with an iron-fist by the military.
He said Lee's banning is another "shameful tactic" by the government.
Only two weeks ago Myanmar diplomats told the UN that Lee's visit could proceed despite growing criticism of the country's treatment of Rohingya.
The UN mandates that its Special Rapporteur makes at least two visits to the country each year ahead of reports to the UN Human Rights Council.
Lee has made six previous visits since taking up the mandate in 2014 although authorities prevented her going to some violence wracked areas, citing security concerns.
"It is a shame that Myanmar has decided to take this route," Lee said.
"The government has repeatedly denied violations of human rights are occurring throughout Myanmar, particularly in Rakhine State," she said.
"They have said that they have nothing to hide but their lack of cooperation with my mandate and the fact-finding mission suggests otherwise."