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Human Rights Commission in Burma Rules Out Inquiry
The chairman of Burma's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) said on Tuesday that it was premature for the newly established body to investigate allegations of human rights abuses in ethnic minority areas. "The national reconciliation process is political," said Win Mra, chairman of the NHRC, speaking at a press conference at Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday afternoon. He added that "to investigate into conflict areas would not be appropriate at this time."
The NHRC recently visited war-torn Kachin State in Burma's north and urged both the government and the Kachin Independence Organization "to engage in a dialogue process." Fighting has raged in Kachin State since June 2011, driving about 50,000 people from their homes.
The London-based NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which visited the conflict zone recently, reported that "accounts of torture and other abuses are a cause for very grave concern, and the humanitarian challenges facing the internally displaced people require an urgent and sustained response from the international community."
Ongoing human rights abuses have plagued Burma over the past five decades of military rule, particularly in border regions close to Bangladesh, India, China and Thailand, which are home to many of the country's more than 130 ethnic minorities. To many observers, the idea of a government-backed human rights body in Burma sounds like a case of poacher-turned-gamekeeper, and Win Mra acknowledged that in the past it would have been unthinkable. "Before now, the idea of human rights was anathema to the authorities in Myanmar," he said, using the official name for the country.
The NHRC was established in September 2011 as one of a number of reforms introduced by the government of President Thein Sein, who took office last March. The reforms gathered momentum after what observers have described as a landmark meeting between Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in July. In other changes, the government has amnestied about 500 political prisoners, with the latest mass release taking place on Jan. 13.
Asked about how many political prisoners remain in detention in Burma, Win Mra said that "the picture is confusing, and the numbers are confusing, and it is difficult to estimate the numbers at this stage." While pointing to the government line that remaining prisoners are people accused of criminal acts, such as alleged bombings, the NHRC chairman acknowledged that there may be some prisoners of conscience remaining in jails in Burma, referencing numbers given to him by the United Nations human rights point man on Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, during the latter's recent visit to Burma.
"I learned from Mr. Quintana that there are 128 prisoners of conscience still in jail," said Win Mra, without saying whether the NHRC would press the government to free the remaining prisoners. He said that Quintana did not raise the issue of a proposed Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into human rights abuses in Burma during his recent visit.
"I was surprised by this," said Win Mra, before adding that "Myanmar's transition to democracy is not like other countries where a CoI was initiated. In our country the transition has been smooth." Pointing to what he termed "a changed situation" in Burma, he said that "some Western governments who had a stronger view on [the CoI] have changed."
Quintana first raised the possibility of a CoI for Burma in early 2010, based on accounts of abuses in war-wracked ethnic minority regions, in some cases similar to those said to have been carried out in Kachin State in recent months. Despite its unpromising genesis, Win Mra said he believed that the NHRC is already raising awareness of human rights issues in Burma, saying that between 20 and 30 letters of complaint per day are sent to the commission. "Protecting and promoting human rights is enshrined in the Constitution," he said.
Asked about the content of the complaints, Win Mra said that the letters were "mainly about general issues with regard to land, such as confiscation by government or private companies." The commission reviews the complaints and forwards its recommendations on action to be taken to the relevant ministries, he said, adding that this was in keeping with the commission's mandate and with the Paris Principles, the international benchmark for statutory human rights agencies.
"The people writing the letters want satisfactory compensation, or want their land back, or want replacement land in another location," he added. The NHRC chairman was in Thailand on a fact-finding mission, as part of an itinerary that will see the commission visit Malaysia, Indonesia and India in the near future to assess how human rights bodies operate in those countries.
This article was originally written for The Irrawaddy: www.irrawaddy.org.
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