Burma’s President Seeks Less EU Scrutiny Amid ‘Backsliding’ Concerns

By Nobel Zaw 21 October 2014

RANGOON — President Thein Sein last week urged the European Union to stop submitting annual reports on human rights in Burma, even as a UN report was released noting with concern “possible signs of backsliding” on reforms implemented by his government.

Burma’s president on Friday told European leaders that while Burma’s transition to democracy was at a “delicate” stage, “the government is committed to overcome the challenges and to continue the reform process without backtracking,” according to a President’s Office statement.

The President’s Office website said Thein Sein made the request at the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting in Milan, Italy.

Citing the creation of a National Human Rights Commission and the establishment of a reporting mechanism for human rights violations, the President’s Office went on to state that “considerable progress in human rights protection has been made in Myanmar but the international community has not recognized the progress enough.”

A UN report made public on Friday, however, presented a less rosy picture. In it, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, called the arrest of journalists and protesting activists in Burma “troubling,” and also noted allegations of ongoing rights abuses in areas of ethnic conflict and “systematic discrimination” against Rohingya Muslims in western Arakan State.

The report, dated Sept. 23, will be presented to the UN General Assembly next week.

“The important transition and far-reaching reforms in Myanmar must be commended,” it states. “Yet, possible signs of backsliding should be addressed so as not to undermine the progress achieved.”

Asked by The Irrawaddy about the president’s remarks in Milan, Aung Myo Min, a human rights activist and director of Equality Myanmar, said human rights abuses in Burma remained a concern.

“Compared with the previous military government, there is a little reduction in human rights violations in some cases, and I don’t want to deny this. But compared with international standards, it leaves a lot to be desired,” he said.

The activists added that Thein Sein might be seeking the economic benefits that could come with less scrutiny on Burma’s human rights record.

“If the international community recognizes an improvement on human rights, the government will get more investment; a reduction of the other remaining sanctions; financial support from foreign countries and international organizations,” he told The Irrawaddy.

Thein Sein’s government launched a series of widely lauded reforms beginning in 2011, but the UN report is just the latest assessment contributing to a growing sense of uncertainty over the direction of the country.

Yanghee visited Burma from July 17 to 26 and held meetings in Naypyidaw and Rangoon, as well as traveling to Mandalay, and Arakan and Kachin states. The special rapporteur also paid visits to political prisoners in prisons in four cities.

Aung Myo Min said the most frequent and persistent human rights violation in Burma was the detention and prosecution of peaceful demonstrators, many of whom are charged under the controversial Peaceful Assembly Law, which requires prior approval from authorities to stage a demonstration.

The UN report said “the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly should not be subject to authorization by the authorities and that a prior notification should be sufficient.”

In bolstering his case for the EU to drop its human rights scrutiny, Thein Sein pointed to the founding in 2011 of the National Human Rights Commission, but Aung Myo Min said the commission still “doesn’t handle complaints effectively” and was “very weak in cooperating with civil society,” with the activist adding that these were the main responsibilities of a human rights commission, according to international guidelines known as the Paris Standards.

Burma has been subject to human rights assessments from a UN envoy since 1992, at the urging of the European Union, which began issuing its reports on the human rights situation the same year.