Statement of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar
By Tomás Ojea Quintana, 21 August 2013, Yangon International Airport, Myanmar
I have just concluded my ten-day mission to Myanmar – my eighth visit to the country since I was appointed Special Rapporteur in March 2008. I would like to express my sincere appreciation to the Government of Myanmar for its invitation, and in particular for granting me an extended visit this time, which has enabled me to cover more ground than I have done previously during my five-day missions.
In Naypyitaw, I met with the Minster of Foreign Affairs; the Minister of Immigration and Population; the Ministers of the President’s Office; the Minister of Education; the Minister of Health; the Minister of Labour, Employment and Social Security; the Minister of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement; the Deputy Minister of Defence; parliamentarians and members of parliamentary committees, including the Bills Committee and International Relations Committee of the Amyotha Hluttaw; the Attorney General; the Chief Justice and other members of the Supreme Court; members of the Letpadaung Implementation Committee; Advisors to the President; and the Chief of Police. I also met with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
In Yangon, I met with prisoners of conscience released since my last visit; members of the prisoner review committee; members of the media, including the social media; members of the 88 Generation; political party representatives; a range of civil society organisations; the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission; lawyers; members of interfaith organisations; and land activists. While in Yangon, I visited Insein Prison and met with five prisoners of conscience, and made a tour of the prison, including the female wards. And I met with members of the United Nations Country Team and briefed the diplomatic community. I would like to thank the Resident Coordinator and the Country Team for the support provided to me during my mission.
I visited Rakhine State, including Buthidaung Prison, Sittwe Prison, Sittwe Hospital, Shwe Kyaung Monastery and Aung Mingalar quarters. I visited Kachin State, and went to Myitkyina where I met with state officials as well as Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) officials. I visited Mindat and Kanpalet in Chin State and met with state officials, community and religious leaders, and civil society. In Mindat, I visited a Border Areas National Races Youth Development Training School (Na Ta La) where I met with teachers and students. I visited Shan State and went to Lashio to meet with state officials and national groups and local monks. I made a tour of the areas affected by the intercommunal violence there last May, and met with members of the Buddhist and Muslim communities affected by the violence. I also visited Lashio Prison to meet with persons detained in connection with the violence. In Shan State, I visited Namhsan and met with representatives of the Palaung self-administered zone and representatives of workers and civil society organisations there. I visited Mandalay and met with regional government ministers and went on to Meiktila township, and in Naypyitaw met with residents of Meiktila who had been affected by the March violence. I would like to thank the Government for organising this wide-ranging visit, and for the freedom of movement and access I was granted, which enabled me to develop a comprehensive assessment of the human rights situation on the ground.
In my visit to Kachin State, I met state authorities and the KIO technical team that had recently opened an office in Myitkyina, where I discussed ongoing human rights and humanitarian concerns. I received further information about the seven-point agreement signed by the government and the KIO on 30 May 2013, which I welcome, and I was encouraged by the inclusion of an agreement to undertake relief, rehabilitation and resettlement of internally displaced persons. However, there remains a serious challenge regarding the implementation of this provision. I learnt that UN humanitarian agencies had only been provided with access to non-government controlled areas once between July 2012 and July 2013. The information I have received about these areas is extremely concerning, particularly with regard to food security. I also attempted to visit Laiza during this mission, but unfortunately the state and central government were unable to grant clear permission. This pattern of denying access not only to address humanitarian shortcomings, but also serious human rights concerns, needs to change immediately.
Over the years there have been serious allegations of human rights abuses against villagers from Kachin, though I believe these have reduced following progress with ceasefire negotiations. However, some clashes continue to occur in Northern Shan State. What is also concerning is the information I received about the lack of consultation with internally displaced communities on their return. Any initiative to return IDPs to their places of origin has to be done with the free, prior and informed consent of the ethnic communities concerned, and also involve consultation with humanitarian agencies working in the State, including UN agencies.
In Myitkyina, I went to Jamai Kawng IDP camp and met with Buang Shawng, who I had met in detention during my previous visit and who had been recently released. As well as welcoming his individual release, I hope this will be a sign that the Government will stop the practice of detaining people for their alleged association with non-state armed groups.
I also met with members of the large Shan community living there, and listened to how they had been affected by the ongoing conflict. It is vital that the ceasefire and political negotiations in Kachin State also address the concerns of this group.
I visited Chin State for the first time, and observed the beauty of the environment and how friendly and open the people were. There, I went to Mindat and Kanpalet, and noted that restrictions on Christians have eased notably in 2013, though there remain some shortcomings in terms of bureaucratic obstacles towards opening spaces for Christian worship. Also, in the Na Ta La schools, equal access for both Buddhists and Christians needs to be ensured. In my meeting in Mindat with State Government officials and community and religious leaders, there was a frank but respectful dialogue about State policies and their negative impact on different communities. I found this discussion an example of good democratic practice emerging in Myanmar.
Chin State has serious levels of underdevelopment. Many of the roads I travelled on were nothing more than dusty dirt tracks and the communities I met spoke to me about their frustrations with intermittent access to electricity and uneven access to drinking water. With the country opening up, development will come, but it is important that this process occurs in a participatory, transparent, accountable and equal manner. Environmental considerations should also be at the forefront of developmental policy. Most importantly, the process of development and the exploitation natural resources there should benefit the Chin communities, who have suffered from neglect from the central government over the years.
I went to Rakhine State for the fourth time, and was greeted by many locals who were protesting my visit. Although this was not a message I liked to hear, I welcomed that people were able to stand in public and express their views. I stepped out of the car and met with one of the protestors, who spoke passionately about her pride of being a Rakhine Buddhist, and her distress over the neglect of her community over the years. She spoke of how her community had suffered during the recent violence and upheaval, and of her hopes for a more secure and peaceful future.
In Rakhine State, the state and central government are working well with the international community to address urgent humanitarian needs of both Rakhine Buddhists and the Muslim communities. The authorities and UN agencies have been successful in building new shelters for Muslim and Rakhine IDPs to face the rainy season in time to prevent a humanitarian crisis, which has been a serious concern. In my meeting with the Chief Minister of Rakhine State, I welcomed his assurances that there was no two-child policy in place for the Muslim populations in Northern Rakhine State. The Minister of Immigration reconfirmed that such a policy does not exist, though he accepted that there might have been a practice of two-child restrictions on the ground by Nasaka. I welcome the disbandment of Nasaka, a border security force which has allegedly committed numerous human rights violations over the years.
However, my overriding concern is that the separation and segregation of communities in Rakhine State is becoming increasingly permanent, making the restoration of trust difficult. This continues to have a particularly negative impact on the Muslim community. The severe restrictions on freedom of movement in Muslim IDP camps and villages remain in place. I visited Aung Mingalar, the only remaining Muslim ward in Sittwe, where a large number of people are living in a confined space, with the periphery marked out with barbed wire and guarded by armed police. This has serious consequences for fundamental human rights, including access to healthcare, education, as well as access to livelihoods. Furthermore, there continues to be cases of humanitarian workers facing intimidation by local groups when attempting to provide healthcare to the camps, which compounds the problem of access to healthcare.
The police and army have now taken charge of security in Rakhine State. Although there are legitimate security concerns which the police and army are addressing, I have received many serious allegations of the disproportionate use of force in dealing with large crowds of Muslim protestors. The latest incident saw live ammunition used to disperse a crowd of Muslims in Sittwe, with two killed and several injured. Security forces need to stop the use of excessive force.
Sittwe and in particular Buthidaung prison are filled with hundreds of Muslims men and women detained in connection with the violence of June and October 2012. Many of these have been arbitrarily detained and tried in flawed trials. I met the State Chief Justice and urged for the respect of due process of law. The use of torture and ill treatment, including some cases of death, during the first three months of the June outbreak, needs to be properly investigated and those responsible held to account.
The starting point for the solution to the situation in Rakhine lies with the unavoidable role of the state in pursuing policies that benefit both communities and brings the restoration of the rule of law as a means to build bridges between them. The Minister of Immigration told me that he has started to involve third parties to facilitate engagement between communities and the Government. This is a positive step forward. At the same time, I believe that the central and state Government need to pursue coordinated policies which comprehensively address the spread of discriminatory views and practices in Rakhine State. This includes strong and consistent public messaging through print, broadcast and social media and the engagement of religious leaders and political parties in dialogue. The establishment of the Interfaith Group of Myanmar is a step in the right direction. Addressing the issue of underdevelopment and poverty, including the sharing benefits from the State’s natural resources with local inhabitants, must also be considered as vital to finding solutions to the crisis in Rakhine State.
There continue to be prisoners of conscience in Myanmar, and I reiterate they should be released immediately and unconditionally. I visited Insein prison and met five prisoners of conscience (Ke E, Zaw Min Than, Saw War Lay, Min Min Tun and Htauk Swan Mon). I also met in Yangon with two members of the committee appointed by the Government who have produced a list of remaining prisoners of conscience, which they will soon pass to the Chair of the committee. In Rakhine State, I also visited prisoners who have been arbitrarily detained (Dr. Tun Aung and U Kyaw Hla Aung), and the four INGO workers who have been arbitrarily detained since June and July last year.
President Thein Sein has announced that by the end of the year all remaining political prisoners will have been released. This is a very encouraging announcement, which I hope becomes a reality. The Presidential statement should be accompanied by the respect of every person in Myanmar to freely express and demonstrate their opinions. I have met persons who have been detained and charged under section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Demonstration Act for their involvement in peaceful protests, including on land issues. I reiterate that this legislation is not in line with international human rights standards.
In Yangon I met with a range of civil society groups, and listened to their concerns. I urge the Parliament to postpone the passing of the proposed Associations Law. The bill, if passed in its current form, would be a serious setback for the development of a strong and vibrant civil society in Myanmar. With this bill, the Government is setting up a system of registration for civil society which enables them to arbitrarily clamp down on legitimate organisations. I must make clear that the Government has to change its mindset on registration procedures if it is to create an environment in which civil society can thrive.
I also met in Parliament with members of the newly formed Constitutional Reform Committee, which will begin its work next week. Throughout the mission, I discussed with different stakeholders the issue of constitutional reform. They pointed out the provisions of the Constitution that are not in line with international human rights standards, and undermine democracy and the rule of law. These provisions include those that place unnecessary restrictions on who can run for President, and which allow for military appointees to occupy 25 per cent of seats in Parliament. I welcome the opening of space for discussions on the review of the Constitution and hope that this will bring concrete results in the near future.
I also met members of the LGBT community who raised concerns about discrimination and maltreatment at the hands of the police and application of the penal code against them.
I visited Lashio in Shan State where I met with township authorities and Muslim leaders. Both described to me that organised Buddhist mobs that had arrived from outside of Lashio in late April to wreak violence and destruction. I also met, at her home, the Buddhist woman who had inexplicably been set on fire by a Muslim man who was described by the authorities as mentally disturbed and high on drink and drugs. The violence which came after this incident affected mostly the Muslim community in Lashio, where in some cases the police stood by whereas some monks were intervening to try to quell the violence. I met with senior monk Sayadaw Baddhanta Ponnya- Nanda of the Lashio Mansu Shan Buddhist Monastery, who provided shelter for over 1,000 Muslims escaping the rampaging mobs. Muslim houses, shops, a mosque and a Muslim orphanage were burnt down. Also, a Muslim man was brutally beaten to death with sticks and stabbed, and his wife, who I also met, was severely injured. This brought home to me the terrible misery this intercommunal violence is bringing to the lives of ordinary people. A number of Buddhists have been tried and convicted as well as a number of Muslims. The question of how the police reacted, particularly in the early stages, must also be investigated. Many of the Muslim communities that lost their homes, including the orphanage, are unable to return due to administrative requirements which need to be overcome.
The prospect of restoring communities that live in peaceful coexistence in Lashio is much more challenging in Meiktila. On my way to the township administrative office in Meiktila, at around 10.30pm on 19 August, my car was descended upon by a crowd of around 200 people who proceeded to punch and kick the windows and doors of the car while shouting abuse. Due to these serious security concerns, I had to abandon my proposed visit to an IDP camp containing around 1,600 Muslims who had been displaced following the March violence; a visit which had been planned well in advance. The fear that I felt during this incident, being left totally unprotected by the nearby police, gave me an insight into the fear residents would have felt when being chased down by violent mobs during the violence last March as police allegedly stood by as angry mobs beat, stabbed and burned to death some 43 people. I must highlight the obligation of the Government to act immediately to control violent mobs, running riot in communities, and protect all people regardless of their religion or ethnicity; something it seems they have not done during the violence in Meiktila. The Government also has an obligation to hold to account those who have failed to carry out this duty.
The following day, outside of Meiktila, I was able to interview Muslim residents who had been directly affected by the violence, including a father whose son had been killed on his way to play football with a friend. The violence in Meiktila has highlighted to me the dangers of the spread of religious incitement in Myanmar, and the deadly environment that this can create, where a Buddhist monk and Muslim students were brutally killed. Although the Chief Minister declared that the trust had been restored, this does not reflect reality. The central and state government has also an obligation to urgently address these worrying trends.
Just prior to my mission, I was encouraged to see a large commemoration of the 88 pro-democracy demonstrations, and I praise the Government for allowing this to take place. I believe that these initiatives are a necessary part of the democratic transition occurring in Myanmar. The past is unavoidable and will always come up in a country that has suffered decades of conflict and oppression. Therefore, the Government together with civil society has to build on this progress towards addressing the past through mechanisms to establish the truth and bring reconciliation.
Myanmar is moving forward in a significant number of areas, which has brought positive changes to the human rights situation, and has the potential to bring further improvements. However, there are still critical challenges, including the historical need of reconciliation with ethnic groups. In this regard, the initiatives being implemented at the highest levels by the Government to stop more fighting in the country needs to be accompanied, in parallel, with measures at the grassroots level to also engage local and rural communities in the process of peacebuilding and reconciliation. More space needs to be opened up for their voices to be heard, particularly the voices of women, including in the peace negotiations, so communities have trust and belief that this process will lead to a better future.
I want to again thank the Government of Myanmar for its invitation and cooperation. And I reaffirm my willingness to work constructively and cooperatively with Myanmar during this transition to improve the human rights situation of its people.