BANGKOK—Speaking in Bangkok on Monday at the end of his week-long mission to Thailand, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, said that “the situation of ethnic minority groups in the border areas presents serious limitations to the government’s intention to transition to democracy.”
Expressing some optimism about recent political developments in Burma, the special rapporteur said that “these democratic institutions are very new, and I see some positive signs in them,” mentioning discussions of possible prisoner amnesty and the convening of an anti-poverty conference which took place in Naypyidaw on Monday.
However, he said that the “electoral process excluded several significant ethnic and opposition groups,” and despite the government’s claim that the parliament is “the only venue for discussion of national reconciliation,” added that violence continues in many ethnic minority areas.
Quintana was denied entry to Burma, a country he has been unable to visit since his March 2010 call for the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into alleged human rights abuses in Burma.
His mission to Thailand came at the request of the UN Human Rights Council, and involved meetings in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son, where he met with Thailand’s Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya and the Burmese ambassador to Thailand, as well as “various stakeholders including civil society and community-based organizations, experts, UN officials and diplomats.”
Thailand is the current president of the UNHRC, and Quintana praised the Thai government for co-operating with his mandate and mission.
Quintana said that Thailand’s foreign minister expressed his country’s desire to repatriate Burmese refugees in Thailand and close the nine northern Thailand-based border camps that hold around 140,000 refugees, though no timetable was apparently mentioned.
Asked by The Irrawaddy whether he could advise the Thai authorities on whether conditions in ethnic minority regions were suitable for return of refugees, Quintana reiterated his previous comments about the situation in ethnic regions, but added that his mandate applied only to issues “inside Myanmar.”
Burma has been lobbying fellow members of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to be allowed to chair the bloc in 2014, citing its new government as evidence of reform. However, last week, the Associated Press quoted Thai Foreign Minister Kasit as saying that Burma has an “obligation to itself, to the Asean community in terms of the credibility, respectability and also the internal position of the Asean community.”
Quintana spoke in positive terms about his interaction with Asean, saying that the bloc “is calling for the release of all prisoners of conscience in the country.”
Quintana said that refugees in Thailand, from Karenni State in Burma, has raised the issue of Burma’s new conscription laws, saying that village heads were told by the army to provide a list of all available men.
According to Quintana, this could worsen Burma’s child soldier problem because, outside of urban areas, many people in ethnic minority regions do not have official papers, meaning that there is no way to ensure conscription does not include underage people.
Last week, the Burmese government released thousands of prisoners, including 51 of the country’s more than 2,100 prisoners of conscience.
However, Quintana dismissed the release as a “a commutation of sentence by one year only,” adding that as with government policy in ethnic minority areas, the decision “did not provide a strong signal on national reconciliation,” as some of the detainees are “key stakeholders,” such as ethnic minority leaders.
The Special Rapporteur said that he spoke with Aung San Suu Kyi by telephone, but did not go into detail about the conversation, other than to say that she supports the call for a CoI.
According to Quintana, he and Suu Kyi regard the CoI as merely an inquiry, not a tribunal.
Asked whether he felt in retrospect whether he should have kept the call for a CoI private, which might in turn have facilitated his acquisition of a visa to enter Burma, Quintana answered that “human rights cannot be made subject to negotiation.”