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Statement of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar

By Tomas Ojea Quintana  •  May 23, 2011

This is the final day of my mission to Thailand which began on 16 May 2011. I visited Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son and Bangkok this time in my efforts to gather information about the situation inside Myanmar where I have not been able to visit. This information is important for preparation of my next report to the UN General Assembly later this year. I met with various stakeholders including civil society and community based organizations, experts, UN officials, and diplomats. I also met with the Foreign Minister of Thailand and Myanmar’s Ambassador to Thailand. I spoke with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi by telephone.

The UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution shortly after I presented my last report this March that asked me: “to provide an assessment of any progress made by the Government in relation to its stated intention to transition to a democracy to the General Assembly.”

My findings from this mission are that the situation of ethnic minority groups in the border areas presents serious limitations to the Government’s intention to transition to democracy. Violence continues in many of these areas. Systematic militarization contributes to human rights abuses. These abuses include land confiscation, forced labor, internal displacement, extrajudicial killings and sexual violence. They are widespread, they continue today, and they remain essentially unaddressed by the authorities.

I am concerned that the Government is not finding a political solution to solve the ethnic conflicts. The authorities have now reached the final step of their 7-step roadmap to democracy, but democracy requires much more. The Government has said that the Parliament is the only venue for discussion on national reconciliation. Even though the establishment of national and state and regional legislatures is important, these venues alone are not sufficient. These democratic institutions are very new, and I see some positive signs in them, but it is too early for them to function effectively and to manage this important and complex issue that has a direct impact on ongoing human rights abuses and compromises stability. We also have to keep in mind that the electoral process excluded several significant ethnic and opposition groups, so their voices are not being heard in these fora.

In Mae Hong Son, I met with a number of Karenni groups. Kayah State is one of Myanmar’s smallest but most militarized states. The groups told me of their concern about the new conscription laws. According to their information, which has also been echoed by other ethnic groups from other states, village head men have been requested to provide lists of names of people to serve. A number of refugees have fled out of fear of being conscripted including women. Only Karenni living in towns but not in villages have birth certificates or identification which would pose a serious problem for verifying who is over the age of 18. This could exacerbate Myanmar’s critical problem of child soldiers.

Another issue that was raised was the problem of infrastructure projects in Kayah State. These projects have been leading to well-documented human rights abuses throughout Myanmar. Now there appear to be several more new projects in development. Myanmar requires strong rule of law in order to guarantee the rights of the people in context of these infrastructure projects. Communities need to be consulted in a meaningful way, which does not appear to have been done in most cases. Revenues from these projects should be recorded appropriately and be used to benefit the people of Myanmar for the realization of their economic, social and cultural rights. The private companies that are involved in these projects also have a responsibility to not be complicit in human rights abuses.

Finally, the groups highlighted the dire situation of economic, social and cultural rights in Kayah State. Young people leave for jobs in neighboring countries. Children are sent by parents to refugee camps in Thailand for basic education opportunities because schools are not available in much of the state and the quality of the schools is inadequate.

In respect to the recently announced release of prisoners, I must say that the release was insufficient because most of the prisoners of conscience remain in prison. It was not an amnesty but a commutation of sentences by one year only. This decision of the Government was also a disappointment because it did not provide the strong signal of commitment to national reconciliation. National reconciliation requires the full participation of all key stakeholders, including prisoners of conscience, some of whom are ethnic minority leaders. I would like to see a concrete and timebound plan announced by the Government for the systematic release of all prisoners of conscience. In previous reports, I highlighted the situation of elderly and sick prisoners to be of special attention.

Also key to national reconciliation is the issue of truth, justice and accountability. The Government and the people of Myanmar need to address this matter urgently as I have repeatedly said in my reports and statements. I have also stated that the primary responsibility lies with the Government to undertake independent, impartial, and timely investigations of serious human rights violations. The international community also has a role to play particularly if the Government fails to meet this responsibility. As I have suggested previously, a commission of inquiry might be one way to address the issue. I discussed the issue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She supports a commission of inquiry absolutely. She said a commission of inquiry is a commission of inquiry, not a tribunal. I agree with her. The idea of a commission of inquiry is that it would be an instrument to bring about transition to democracy, national reconciliation and establishment of accountability. It should pursue the truth and facilitate reparations. It should also end and prevent ongoing human rights abuses.

Through this mission, I see some positive signs in the developments. In the first and only sitting of the Parliament so far, MPs despite limitations were able to raise some important questions from the human rights perspective. These questions included the possibility of a cease fire in Kayin State, the issue of citizenship status of Rohingyas, and whether amnesty would be granted to Shan political prisoners.

Some interesting discussions about economic, social and cultural rights seem to have begun, including a national seminar on poverty reduction that is taking place right now. I have started to address the important matter of economic, social and cultural rights in my last report to the Human Rights Council. At the state level, there appears to be some participation by ethnic minority parties in the legislatures. Finally, the new President’s speeches have led to some expectations for positive change. He provides some interesting ideas that could be developed into benchmarks for progress. We will have to watch closely to see how this is translated into action.

It is my hope to be able to visit Myanmar as soon as possible to continue discussions with the authorities and other stakeholders about progress being made towards the transition to democracy and concerns about the ongoing serious human rights situation in the country.

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This post is in: Crimes Against Humanity, Press Release, Spotlight

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