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Rights body shake-up under fire

Originally appeared in The Myanmar Times

September 29, 2014

A former member of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission has questioned the legality of a recent commission reformation amid concerns that some of its more outspoken members have been jettisoned. Rights groups, meanwhile, described the changes as disappointing but said they were indicative of the broader failings of the commission, including a lack of transparency.

State media on September 25 announced the previous 15-member commission, set up in September 2011, had been disbanded and replaced by a new 11-member body.

The change was prompted by the enactment of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission Law in March. Parliamentarians had refused to fund the previous body because it was formed by presidential decree rather than legislation.

The reformation saw seven junior members of the previous commission replaced but senior members, including chair U Win Mra, were kept on the new body. All members are former civil servants, including one from the prisons department.

The announcement was published the day that Burma Partnership, a coalition of Myanmar-focused NGOs, was due to release its report on the perceived failings of the commission since its formation three years ago.

Asked about the timing, U Win Mra said he had not yet read the report and had no knowledge of when it would be released. “I don’t know … whether it’s a coincidence or not,” he said.

He said he couldn’t comment on the new make-up of the committee as it was the decision of President U Thein Sein and his advisers.

Burma Partnership director Ma Khin Ohnmar said the government’s announcement was both unexpected and disappointing, as she had expected a reshuffle to take place following a “transparent and participatory” process that included citizens and civil society members.

“We were not expecting the president to come in with his very top-down approach,” she said. “[It is] quite a backsliding of the process that we hoped to see.”

The announcement was also disappointing for at least two former commission members, who said they were surprised to have been dumped from the body.

Asked by email why he had been dismissed, U Lahpai Zau Goone, an ethnic Kachin who spent several decades in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, simply responded, “I wish I knew.”

While U Lahpai Zau Goone said the reasons behind the reshuffle were likely complex, the nationalities of the purged commissioners made him suspicious. “A Karen, a Chin, a Shan and a Kachin member [were dismissed] … Funny, isn’t it?”

Former member U Hla Myint told The Myanmar Times that he had helped draft the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission Law and had written sections that were supposed to make the selection process for new members transparent.

This includes the formation of a selection board comprising the chief justice; minister for home affairs; minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement; attorney-general; a Bar Council representative; two Pyidaungsu Hluttaw representatives; a representative from the Myanmar Women’s Affairs Federation; and two representatives from registered non-government organisations.

This committee is required to nominate 30 potential members, from whom the president, in coordination with the speakers of the upper and lower house, can appoint to sit on the commission.

U Hla Myint said he was unsure who had been selected to sit on the selection board, or if it had even been created. “Did they do the selection by the law? I’m not so sure … I don’t know how much they followed the law,” he said.

Asked why he was dismissed, U Hla Myint said he had no idea but suggested it may be because he was one of the more “outspoken” members. “I had disagreement with the other members,” he said. “Maybe they don’t like me.”

He said these disagreements were more about the functioning of the commission than specific human rights issues; U Hla Myint said he wanted to streamline the group’s mechanisms for receiving and reviewing complaints.

A former ambassador to Australia and Ministry of Home Affairs official, U Hla Myint said President U Thein Sein had contacted several members of the committee, including chair U Win Mra, to seek their advice ahead of the reshuffle but he had not been consulted.

Lack of transparency was one of many issues highlighted in Burma Partnership’s report on the commission. Titled All the President’s Men, it “highlights the lack of effectiveness and independence of the MNHRC, covering significant events and trends of the latter half of 2013 and the first half of 2014”.

The report states that the commission’s ability to conduct fair and independent investigations is limited because it receives funding directly from the President’s Office, which also decides who sits on the body.

The authors cited examples from Kachin and Rakhine states where it said alleged human rights violations have been either ignored or not investigated properly. “An independent [National Human Rights Commission] should not be used as a tool to cover human rights atrocities committed by a state institution,” it said.

Most damningly, the report states that “the MNHRC has still not successfully investigated and taken effective action on any case submitted to it”.

But U Win Mra said the report had ignored much of the commission’s important work, including its investigation of the alleged Du Chee Yar Tan clash in Rakhine State.

In Kachin State, the commission has helped to address the issue of land mines, child soldiers and torture, as well as called for more humanitarian assistance, he said.

“I think it’s no use just criticising the [commission’s] activities,” he said, adding that members are committed to a longer-term strategy of building up awareness of human rights practices.

“We are concentrating a lot on the promotional aspect … We have workshops for the government as well as other stakeholders [who] come to understand important core human rights conventions.”

While he admitted that the commission had “not addressed every violation”, he said that their educational activities coupled with administrative tasks made addressing violations difficult, particularly given the commission was set up only three years ago.

But Ma Khin Ohmar said these external factors do not excuse the commission’s failures. Rather, they are a result of the structure of the commission itself. “It’s all about this mindset, entrenched from the previous regime, of taking orders from above, not having the guts to do anything outside of the box,” she said. “That’s the mindset in this commission.”

While disappointed at the selection process for the new commission, U Hla Myint defended its work over the past three years. He said its members had been much more active than those on similar groups in the region.

“We have done a lot of work,” he said, adding that critics “don’t look at the details”.

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