National Human Rights Commission Strongly Criticized by Lawmakers

By San Yamin Aung 29 July 2016

RANGOON — Lawmakers in a joint-session of the Union Parliament directed heavy criticism at the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) for its poor record on securing and monitoring the compliance of government ministries with their recommendations.

Lawmakers also highlighted what they considered to be weak collaboration from the commission with civil society, weak promotion of prisoners’ rights—including access to adequate healthcare—and a reluctance to investigate alleged human abuses on their own initiative.

During the session on Thursday, 16 lawmakers from the Upper and Lower houses of Parliament were debating the human rights commission’s annual report for 2015, which had been presented by the commission’s chairman to the Union Parliament on Monday.

The commission was formed under the orders of former President Thein Sein in September 2011, and was reformed in 2014 with tougher requirements for ministries to report on their implementation of the commission’s recommendations within 30 days.

The commission currently has 11 members (reduced from 15), comprised of retired civil servants, military officers, professors and ambassadors.

The commission has delivered human rights workshops to government and military officers, conducted community outreach, monitored standards in prisons, and undertaken investigations on receipt of reports of rights abuses—although critics in civil society have claimed that the majority of submitted cases have gone unaddressed.

“We know the [commission] received 1,287 complaints in 2015. But we know from reports across the country, including in ethnic minority areas, that there were more human rights abuses than that,” said Lower House lawmaker Ma Thandar, an award-winning human rights defender and the widow of a journalist who died in military custody in Mon State in October 2014.

Two soldiers said to be implicated in the death of her husband, known as Par Gyi, were brought before a military tribunal but were acquitted in May 2015. Former President Thein Sein ordered an investigation from the national human rights commission, which released its findings in a report that Ma Thandar slammed as “fabricated.”

Ma Thandar told the Thursday session of parliament that the commission was weak in following up with ministries regarding their recommendations.

She mentioned that 19 recommendations from separate investigations by the commission in 2014 had been directed at ministries including Defense and Home Affairs, but the commission had failed to publish which ministries had failed to transparently respond to them.

She said she had not seen the commission applying the necessary pressure on government ministries, calling into serious doubt their claims to be independent and transparent.

Upper House lawmaker Ye Htut from Sagaing Division mentioned several high-profile cases where justice had not been delivered: including the killing of the journalist Par Gyi; the shooting dead by police of Khin Win, a woman protesting land grabs linked to the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division, in 2014; and the rape and murder of two ethnic Kachin schoolteachers in northern Shan State in early 2015, blamed on Burma Army soldiers.

He called for an end to such impunity: “we need to make sure that no one is above the law.”

Lawmakers also recommended that the commission include more people who “understand human rights” and “stand with the people”—an expression of distrust with the current membership, comprised largely of former government servants.

During the parliamentary session, commission chairman Win Mra vowed to take the lawmakers’ suggestions seriously and present a more comprehensive report next year at the Union Parliament.

The chairman also stressed the limitations of their current mandate, to account for the spotty compliance of government ministries with their recommendations.

“The government prescribes laws related to human rights protection and implements them,” he said, saying the commission’s role was only “consultative.”

“When we receive complaints, we investigate and present [our findings] to relevant government departments. We pressure them if they don’t respond within 30 days, although we didn’t mention this in the report,” the chairman said.

He admitted that cooperation from ministries had been weak, citing that only 23 percent of their recommendations had received responses within 30 days. Of the remainder, 32 percent had received responses within 90 days. More than 100 letters had received no response at all.

The chairman expressed his gladness at the discussion in parliament, despite the strong criticism, stating that it would help “strengthen our commission for the future.”

Upper House lawmaker Khin Maung Myint from Kachin State urged the commission to investigate recent cases in Kachin State and hold the perpetrators accountable.

This included the gunning down by three men of Nandar Hlaing, a village tract administrator in Hpakant Township’s Sai Taung Village, in May; the fatal shooting by a Burma Army soldier of ethnic Kachin student Gum Seng Awng in the state capital Myitkyina in June; and the killing of dozens of small-scale minors and local residents in landslides in the jade mines of Hpakant.