Opinion

Parallel Battles for Burma and Asean’s Human Rights Commission

By Aung Myo Min 31 May 2012

The Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) will meet in Rangoon starting this Sunday to finalize the draft of the long-awaited Asean Human Rights Declaration (AHRD). Held in a country that has for the past year made headlines in the international media for its reforms, this event might be seen by some as evidence of a “new” Asean and a “new” Burma. However, looking at it as an Asean citizen and a longtime activist for democracy and human rights in Burma, I see something entirely different.

While the AICHR will be discussing a human rights document that is supposed to protect our fundamental rights, I will be thinking of my Kachin brothers and sisters. For the past year, they’ve seen their villages burnt, fathers and brothers tortured or killed, and had mothers, sisters and daughters raped by Burma Army soldiers.

I will also be thinking of my colleagues still languishing in prisons for the simple reason that they decided to speak up for people’s rights and for a better Burma. There are still hundreds of them behind bars, forgotten by the international community.

That Burma is changing is hard to deny, but for activists, ethnic people or myself, Burma is still a long way from being a country where people’s human rights can be  respected and protected.

Some will say that it doesn’t matter where the AICHR meetings are held—what matters is what the commission does. But at the same, the international community must not make the mistake of believing that simply playing host to the commission’s meeting is any indication of Burma’s commitment to combating human rights abuses.

Indeed, you don’t have to dig very deep to realize that the AICHR itself is nothing more than a cover for the poor human rights records of most Asean governments.

AICHR’s current way of functioning bears unfortunate similarities to how Burma’s government operates. The commission’s opaque manner is inconsistent with its stated aims and democratic principles. Its key documents, including the draft of the AHRD, have not been made public despite an appeal by more than 100 civil society organizations and networks all across the Asean region.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, highlighted the flaws in the AIHCR’s way of doing things when she said: “The process through which this crucial Declaration is adopted is almost as important as the content of the Declaration itself. … I very much hope that AICHR recognizes the value of holding meaningful consultations with people from all walks of life, in every country across the Southeast Asia region.”

Consultations at the national level started but only in countries where the representatives were willing to do so, namely Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and soon Malaysia. Moreover, since the consultations are done without access to the draft document, it seems more like a face-saving exercise than a genuine interest in hearing people’s voice.

The AIHCR’s lack of transparency unfortunately matches that of Burma’s own corresponding body, the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC), formed 10 months ago. Like the AICHR, the MNHRC is currently drafting its enabling law. Regrettably, despite the calls of civil society to see the draft, its content remains secret—a ridiculous situation given that the new law is supposed to establish the commission in charge of protecting and promoting the rights of Burma’s citizens.

Any law that can’t stand public scrutiny is likely to be little more than a placebo. Moreover, similar procedures are used in the Parliament, where new draft laws are adopted without a chance for the public to comment on, add to, or discuss the very texts that are meant to guarantee the rights of Burma’s people.

However, thanks to the perseverance of regional civil society groups, a leaked draft of the AHRD was finally obtained. I had a glance at the leaked document and it was like a bad case of déjà vu.

The limits placed on people’s enjoyment of human rights in the declaration are purposely vague and broad, making it easy for the government to interpret them for its own convenience. Terms such as “national security” and “moral values” litter the document, providing the authorities with handy pretexts for restricting rights whenever they see fit.

Worryingly, the draft law echoes Burma’s military-drafted 2008 Constitution, Article 354 of which states that people can enjoy the freedom to express themselves, assemble and form associations “if not contrary to the laws, enacted for Union security, prevalence, law and order, community peace and tranquility or public order and morality.” One needs only to look at the list of remaining political prisoners in Burma to see how such a limitation is used to stifle freedom of expression and assembly.

Given these shortcomings, it seems to me that the AICHR is more likely to protect our governments and leaders than us, just as Burma’s reform process will benefit the army and its business cronies far more than it will ordinary citizens.

With the AICHR meeting approaching, I, as an Asean citizen, question why I don’t have the right to access and comment on a document that is supposed to protect my human rights. Similarly, as a person from Burma, I also question why I can’t freely participate in the changes that I have been fighting for for more than two decades.

I would therefore like to tell Burma’s representative at the AICHR that it is not too late: if Burma is truly on the way to greater democracy and transparency, the AICHR must organize a public consultation with the independent civil society, community-based organizations and networks of our country.

I would also like to tell Burma’s government and MPs not to be afraid of the people’s ideas and their participation in the public life of our country. Unless the people can take ownership of the transition process, it is bound to fail.

Aung Myo Min is the founder and director of the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma. The views expressed here are his own.

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