RANGOON — In the wake of the National League for Democracy’s emphatic election victory, and a United Nations review into Burma’s human rights record, international rights advocates have told The Irrawaddy that the current government should take action on a number of urgent rights concerns before the next administration takes office.
The UN Human Rights Council’s second Universal Periodic Review for Burma, published on Nov. 10, outlined 281 recommendations from foreign governments, rights groups and civil society organizations.
Burma acceded to less than half of the recommendations made during the review, confirming in the minds of a number of human rights activists that the government had moved away from the commitments to political reform President Thein Sein made at the beginning of his term.
“The reform process in Burma has been backsliding since its first UPR session in 2011. It’s worrying that the government is exhibiting such flagrant disregard for basic rights standards at such a critical juncture in Burma’s so-called transition,” said Shaivalini Parmar, the local program officer for the Stockholm-based Civil Rights Defenders.
On the Western Front
Among the recommendations rejected by the Burmese government were all those calling for the restoration of civil and political rights to the country’s stateless Rohingya Muslim minority, estimated to be 1.1 million people overwhelmingly concentrated in northern Arakan State.
Most Rohingya, who were permitted to vote in the 2010 election, were stripped of their voting rights earlier this year, and those living in urban centers have resided in segregated ghettos since the outbreak of vicious intercommunal riots in 2012.
“It is deeply disappointing—but not surprising—that the Myanmar authorities rejected outright all recommendations referring to the persecuted Rohingya minority,” said Laura Haigh, senior Burma researcher for Amnesty International.
“This is a clear indication that the authorities are not committed to addressing the situation of the Rohingya in any way that will respect their dignity or rights. There needs to be a wholesale change in government policy regarding the Rohingya which puts human rights at its center, and includes a clear path for them to access citizenship rights,” she added.
The Rohingya are excluded from recognition in Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law. The week before the elections, Qatari news channel Al Jazeera broadcast a documentary weighing evidence of whether the ethnic group were the victims of “acts of genocide”, assisted by research from Fortify Rights and the Yale University Human Rights Law Clinic.
On Nov. 9, the same day that Burma’s rights record was to be considered before the Human Rights Council, state-run media carried a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs slamming Al Jazeera for broadcasting “fabricated news”, accusing rights groups of timing the release of their reports to influence the Nov. 8 election and the Universal Periodic Review.
“The Government and people of Myanmar do not recognize the term ‘Rohingya’ as it is an invented terminology,” read the statement. “Such unfounded allegations are interfering in the internal affairs of Myanmar and disturbing the peace and tranquility of the country, as well as causing distrust towards the peace loving people of Myanmar. Therefore, Myanmar strongly rejects such malicious acts.”
Early in his term, President Thein Sein promised the release of all political prisoners by the end of 2013.
Despite a number of presidential pardons since 2012, by the beginning of November the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners reported there remained 112 prisoners of conscience in Burma and a further 486 facing trial for political activities. The numbers of prisoners of conscience, along with criminal cases involving acts of public protest or free expression, has risen substantially since the beginning of 2014.
Among those detained are 50 student protesters in Thayawady Prison, Pegu Division, for their role in nationwide demonstrations against the government’s 2014 National Education Law. All remain behind bars despite hope that the NLD’s victory would expedite their release, and most have now been languishing in Thayawady for more than eight months in a trial marked by constant delays and sudden adjournments.
The defendants were taken to the Letpadan court once again on Tuesday morning, where the case was adjourned until next week. With the NLD pledging to make the release of prisoners of conscience a priority, observers said that the incumbent government should intervene to halt prosecutions and pardon political prisoners as a matter of urgency.
“The government does not need to wait until next year to release those unjustly imprisoned after having endured unfair trials or arbitrary detentions,” said Vani Sathisan, a Rangoon-based legal adviser with the International Commission of Jurists. “The writ of habeas corpus protects against arbitrary deprivation of liberty and such protections are a cornerstone of the rule of law.”
Five of the Universal Periodic Review’s recommendations called for greater powers for the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC), a body formed by Thein Sein and staffed by a panel hand-picked by the president.
Though the commission released a report critical of the violent police conduct seen during the Letpadan crackdown, no legal action has been taken against any officers present on the day. In other high-profile cases, such as the shooting to death of 14-year-old Kachin schoolgirl Ja Seng Ing or the death in military custody of freelance journalist Par Gyi, the commission has been criticized for ignoring testimony that could have implicated the military in human rights violations.
“It’s time to end the era of complacent, fainthearted rights investigations and ensure that the MNHRC plays a role that makes government officials recognize that their failures to respect rights could result in them being investigated and facing real punitive consequences,” said Phil Robertson, Asia division deputy director for Human Rights Watch.
Critics have alleged the commission’s relationship to the President’s Office impedes its ability to investigate human rights abuses, and have called for reform to the body when the next government takes office.
“The next government should make it clear that respect for rights is central to their agenda,” said Parmar of Civil Rights Defenders. “This should include implementing concrete reforms to ensure that the MNHRC is able to undertake impartial and independent investigations.”
Hope for the Future
The government accepted 124, noted 69 and deferred 88 of the recommendations made during the UN review. Amnesty have called for Burma’s human rights record to be raised again in the UN General Assembly, raising concerns over ongoing armed conflict in Shan and Kachin states, along with the government’s refusal to allow UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee access to Arakan State in August.
Leading human rights activists expect that with the NLD securely in control of the next parliament, the new government will move quickly to reconsider some of the delayed or rejected submissions to review.
“The incoming government can review and reconsider the decision and accept core UPR recommendations, which were rejected by the current government,” said Burma Partnership coordinator Khin Ohmar. “[They] must prioritize addressing human rights violations and ending the impunity of the State authorities, particularly of the Burma Army.”