‘The UN Human Rights Mandate Is Very Well-known in the Country’

By Thein Lei Win 24 February 2014

BANGKOK — Tomas Ojea Quintana, United National special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, spoke to Thomson Reuters Foundation about ceasefire prospects in the north and other human rights concerns, in addition to calling for an independent investigation into the alleged January massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Arakan (Rakhine) State.

Quintana had just returned from his last official mission to Burma/Myanmar as his six-year mandate draws to a close.

Question: Are you concerned religious violence could escalate before the 2015 elections?

Answer: It has calmed down a little and I think that’s because the government understands that the escalation of violence is not only serious from a human rights point of view but it will also not help with the transition, the government, the Thein Sein administration. I think everybody wants to see the 2015 elections in the best environment as possible. This will be the first election after the changing of the government.

The other problem is the ethnic minority groups and whether a ceasefire could be agreed before the elections.

Q: You mentioned a possible nationwide ceasefire accord in April 2014. Is that likely?

A: That [timeline] is coming from the government side. The ethnic minority groups, including the KIO [Kachin Independence Organisation, which is still fighting the army], expressed that they’re willing to sign a ceasefire agreement but they’d like to see, immediately after, a political dialogue. The problem is that they do not trust the current government.

I also visited Laiza [controlled by the KIO]. It was a very important and good gesture from the government to the ethnic groups, saying, “Look, we’re allowing the special rapporteur to go to your controlled area”.

Now the issue is what are the guarantees from the government that after the ceasefire that you will reach a political agreement. I hope they’re working on that at this moment.

Q: What about the army? It’s not just the government and ethnic groups who have to agree to a ceasefire, right?

A: You’re right. This was raised by the KIO. They said, “Mr. Quintana, we want to stop fighting. While we’re negotiating with the government, the army is now moving all over our area and advancing. We cannot trust [them].”

I raised this with the Minister U Aung Min [who is leading the peace negotiations] and he said, “We need coordination at the government level.”

I think they might be able to work it out. Maybe not to the extent that the KIO wants but at some point both parties – the government and ethnic groups – are starting to feel the pressure towards the 2015 election.

The international community wants to see an agreement before the elections take place and there’s not much time.

As a human rights rapporteur, what I’m concerned is that whatever the negotiations, the army and the ethnic groups should abide by humanitarian law because the villagers have suffered a lot.

Q: Did you have the opportunity to meet the military leaders?

A: Throughout my mandate – six years – I always asked to meet the Commander-In-Chief or Regional Commanders. I met the Commander-In-Chief only once but after that, never. So I never had the possibility to have meaningful discussions with those in charge of the army.

Q: What do you think is your biggest achievement in the six years as a U.N. envoy?

A: I’m really happy that the human rights mandate from the United Nations is very well-known in the country. I travelled all over the country and in all places, aside from Rakhine [Arakan] state, people value the mandate. They are happy I’m voicing their concerns. This is why I decided to become a rapporteur.

Q: You also visited Thilawa special economic zone and the controversial Chinese-backed Letpadaung copper mine, which caused protests against land grabs in 2012 and ended with a police raid that injured more than 100 people, including many monks.

A: I’m concerned about the consequences of these big infrastructure projects. What is the responsibility, not only of the government of Myanmar but also of foreign investors?

We must not forget Myanmar was under military rule for over 40 years. Military rule, not rule of law. This means Myanmar lacks the concept of the rule of law and accountability. So if these infrastructure projects really affect the livelihoods, the local community and the environment – and they will – what will be the rule of law that will protect them?

There is none. Of course it is the responsibility of the government to start working on that but foreign investors need to realize they also have to be involved in the question of accountability and rule of law.

Q: What other rights issues are you concerned about in the next few years?

A: There is little space for backtracking. The transition is still fragile and the government recognizes that.

The space for political expression, freedom of expression, and also the media, is opening but face some limitations, like the four Myanmar journalists who were arrested and visa restrictions.

The other thing is the participation of the civil society organizations. This is growing in Myanmar. To what extent are the current authorities going to allow civil society organizations to also become part of the transition? At the moment, there is draft Association Law, which has been seriously criticized.

And human rights should still be on top of the reform agenda.

Q: How has Burma changed during your mandate?

A: When I started the mandate in 2008, there were almost 2,000 political prisoners in the country. That has changed completely. The media now has a lot of space to work. There’s political participation – you see NLD [National League for Democracy] and Aung San Suu Kyi participating.

The [government’s] cooperation with the United Nations has improved a lot. Although the government has always allowed me to go into the country when I started the mandate, those missions were quite difficult. I did not have too much freedom of movement. That has changed too.

But many of the authorities and ministers that I met during the military time remain in some other position in this new government.

People can change. I really believe that President Thein Sein has been quite consistent in moving the reforms forward and we need to support that.

But the dynamics within the government are quite complicated and that’s why the process of transition is still fragile. I think that will continue for the coming years and that will be the challenge for my successor.