Myanmar Human Rights Commission Ineffective, Needs Reform: Civil Society Groups

By Zaw Zaw Htwe 9 December 2019

YANGON—Civil society groups are calling for the government to reform the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) and for the President to replace the current human rights commissioners with experts who have the experience in human rights affairs necessary to protect and promote human rights in Myanmar more effectively.

In a statement released on Monday, 20 civil society groups said that the MNHRC is currently hampered by a “lack of human rights mindset of the commissioners and structural issues at the heart of the MNHRC law, contributing to an institution that is beholden to the Myanmar military.”

The statement accompanied a report on the performance of the MNHRC produced by the 20 civil society organizations, including groups working on ethnic issues, politics, human rights, labor issues, and peace.

The report, titled ”Myanmar: A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action Please” analyzes the performances of the MNHRC on cases from 2018 and 2019 and determines that the rights body failed to address human rights violations, especially those committed by the Myanmar military.

”In order for the MNHRC to effectively handle human rights issues, the current commissioners must be replaced with people who genuinely respect and exercise human rights,” said Maung Saungkha, from Athan, a group advocating for freedom of expression.

He added that the MNHRC law must also be amended in order to expand the commission’s mandate. The civil society statement also said the commission has been unable to effectively protect human rights, instead focusing primarily on promoting human rights.

MNHRC Vice-Chair U Sit Myaing told The Irrawaddy on Monday that the commission has faced security issues in their attempts to investigate cases of human rights violations in conflict areas. He also said that the commission is prohibited by law from intervening in cases that are currently being processed in court.

”Our experienced commissioners are trying their best but we haven’t met the goals of human rights protections that people expected. It is difficult to reach this goal,” said U Sit Myaing, who is also a former military officer.

”How can we have commissioners that can effectively promote and protect human rights when the MNHRC is comprised of people who lack understanding in fundamental human rights, and have either formerly served in or have close ties to the military, which negatively impacts their reputation?” said Ma Suu Chit, a member of the Seagull, an organization based in Mandalay working on human rights, peace and development.

Three members of the MNHRC, including the vice-chair, are former military officers. Other members of the commission are former members of the military government and of the quasi-civilian government under President U Thein Sein.

The civil society report notes that the rights commission has failed to properly investigate the arrests of 275 civilians and the killings of six civilians by the Myanmar military in Rakhine State in 2019.

The civil society groups also say the rights body failed to investigate the murders of two ethnic Kachin villagers in 2018 despite the fact that there were eyewitnesses, instead agreeing with the Myanmar military’s claim that the two victims were members of the Kachin Independence Army.

The civil society groups also said that the MNHRC has failed to protect human rights in the cases of the performers in the Daungdohmyoset (Peacock Generation) Thangyat Troupe (thangyat is a traditional Myanmar performing art). The performers have been sued several times by the military in different jurisdictions for criticizing the military in their satirical performances.

The groups also pointed out that the MNHRC law mandates the rights commission be reformed every five years but that this deadline passed in September. The MNHRC was formed by presidential decree in 2011 and reformed in 2014.

“According to our sources, a list of 30 nominations for [human rights] commissioner seats has already been sent to the president of Myanmar. But, [civil society groups] don’t know [who is on] the list. We also don’t know how they selected the list of nominated commissioners,” said Aung Zaw Oo, a member of the Association of Human Rights Defenders and Promoters.

Civil society groups also said that there is no transparency in the process to select the commissioners, despite the groups’ continued calls to get involved in the process.

In 2016, the rights commission drew intense criticism for their recommendation that the families of victims in the Yangon tailor abuse case accept monetary compensation for the crime. Following the abuse case, some senior commissioners were forced to resign from the MNHRC.

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