Assessment Highlights Ongoing Deficiencies of Burma’s Human Rights Commission

By Yen Saning 19 November 2015

RANGOON — Burma’s human rights commission is at risk of being viewed as an “alibi institution” in the service of the government, according to the findings of a fact-finding mission, presented at a press conference in Rangoon on Wednesday.

FORUM-ASIA and Burma Partnership, together with Smile Education and Development Foundation and Equality Myanmar, led a mission to the country from Nov. 16-18 to assess the impact and effectiveness of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHCR), over a year since its reconstitution.

The observation team, which included the former chair of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea Professor Kwong-Whan Ahn and chair of the National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia Nur Kholis, noted in a statement Wednesday that the human rights situation in Burma remained grave and, in some respects, was regressing.

“While there have been positive developments in some areas relating to democratization and human rights in Burma… progress has stalled and the situation has even worsened in many other areas,” the statement said.

“These include issues such as illegal land grabbing and abuses related to extractive industries, restrictions on the rights to freedoms of expression, association and assembly through repressive and archaic legislation, the tenuous peace process and human rights violations in the ethnic areas, among others.”

Professor Kwong-Whan Ahn said there were ongoing doubts over whether the MNHRC, first established by presidential decree in September 2011, was genuinely independent of the executive. He noted serious deficiencies in the commission’s investigation into the death of journalist Par Gyi in military custody in October last year, claiming Ma Thandar, the deceased’s widow, had been denied access to the rights body.

In September, the commission, which is headed by Win Mra, a former ambassador to the UN in New York under the previous military junta, drew a rare commendation from lawyers and activists after calling for action against police personnel who “failed to follow the procedures” during the violent dispersal of student protesters at Letpadan in Pegu Division on March 10.

However, Kwong-Whan Ahn criticized the MNHCR for failing to cite human rights violations and remedies in addressing the crackdown. Betty Yolanda of FORUM-ASIA, who headed the mission, said the case of Letpadan also involved the right to freedom of assembly, which was not cited by the rights body.

Aung Min Khaing, one of scores of students and their supporters detained following the crackdown, said at Wednesday’s press conference he was badly beaten by police. He was only 16 years old and remained in detention at Thayawady Prison for two months.

Soon after his release, he filed a complaint with the MNHRC over his treatment.

“We asked [the MNHRC] whether they could help us to sue the authorities over violations of our human rights. They replied that… they can only release a statement, help find proof or send a letter to government,” he said.

The civil society mission noted that the commission had increased its activities as it sought international recognition in a crucial year for the body. The commission is due to have its accreditation assessed by the International Coordinating Committee (ICC) for National Human Rights Institutions this month.

The ICC accreditation system will determine whether the MNHRC is in compliance with the Paris Principles which set internationally recognized benchmarks for national human rights institutions to abide by.

Myo Win, director of Smile Education and Development Foundation, said the MNHRC should be more transparent in the selection of its commissioners and in the handling of complaints and that its investigations should include calls for accountability for human rights abuses.

“The investigations conducted by the MNHRC appear to sometimes be riddled with inconsistencies and discrepancies. In some instances, the human rights perspective has been grossly overlooked,” the joint fact-finding mission said in a statement.

“This not only undermines the MNHRC’s own credibility, but also allows injustice to continue.”

The groups’ urged the commission to “fearlessly” and “systematically” investigate human rights abuses and rigorously monitor for the implementation of its recommendations.

Burma’s human rights record was recently assessed by the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review mechanism, just two days before the country’s general election.

The Human Rights Council’s report, published on Nov. 10, outlined 281 recommendations from foreign governments, rights groups and civil society organizations. Of these, the government accepted 124, noted 69 and deferred 88.

Five of the Universal Periodic Review’s recommendations called for greater powers for the MNHRC.