BANGKOK — In 2007, just weeks after the Saffron Revolution against military rule in Burma and in the midst of an army crackdown on monks and other protesters, the Burmese regime established the Myanmar Human Rights Body (MHRB). The MHRB accepts “complaints and communications from those whose human rights are reportedly being violated, carrying out necessary investigations and taking proper actions although they are not included in the mandate of the Body,” according to the Burmese government’s submission to the January Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Asked about the body, National Democratic Front (NDF) Chairman Dr Than Nyein said that “the human rights organizations set up by the old government have not done anything.” Than Nyein—whose party hopes to push an amnesty in the new Parliament for Burma’s 2,189 political prisoners as well as Burmese exiles—added that “we have not considered raising the issue of human rights institutions in Parliament just now.”
Established by a group of former members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), the NDF won a total of 16 seats in the Nov 7, 2010, general election and hopes to function as a minority opposition in the country’s new Parliament, which opened on January 31. However, during the Jan 27 UPR proceedings in Geneva—the first time that Burma has been subject to the review—the Burmese delegation reiterated the government’s claim that there are no political prisoners in Burma, saying that all are imprisoned for violating “prevailing laws, not because of their political beliefs.”
The MHRB is apparently a revived version of an agency first established in 2000, but was set up under its current format on Nov 14, 2007, during a visit to Burma by former UN human rights envoy Paolo Sergio Pinheiro. This in turn came just after the arrest of Buddhist monk U Gambira, who was at the forefront of the monk-led protests during September 2007, and amid the rounding-up of hundreds of other protesters after unknown numbers died during the eventual army crackdown on demonstrations.
In his latest report on the human rights situation in Burma published on March 7, current UN human rights envoy Tomás Ojea Quintana said that he contacted the Burmese authorities about the workings of the MHRB. Quintana asked specifically about the legislative framework for the body, including how citizens could file complaints and how the government made citizens aware of the MHRB’s existence. But he has not yet received a response.
In its submission to the UPR, the Burmese delegation said that a notice about the body had been published in newspapers in 2006. According to the government, from January to August 2010, the Ministry of Home Affairs received 503 submissions and action was taken on 199 complaints, while 203 complaints were under investigation and another 101 were found to be false. According to Quintana, “these figures, and the mechanism itself, raise many questions that remain unanswered.”
The MHRB includes in its mandate the scope to “review and submit to the United Nations and international human rights activities,” meaning that it was likely to have been the lead agency in compiling and presenting the Burmese regime’s recent statement to the UPR. The MHRB seems to be working alongside UN agencies in Burma, at least on an ad hoc basis. According to the Burmese government report to the UPR, “the Workshop on the Universal Periodic Review Preparation for the National Report was successfully held in Nay Pyi Taw on May 10–11, 2010. The workshop was a very significant step which represented the first ever joint initiative between the government of Myanmar and the [Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights] regarding the UPR process.”
The Burmese delegation to the UPR was headed by Attorney-General Tun Shin, who is also head of the MHRB. Tun Shin is on the European Union visa ban list, part of the bloc’s sanctions against the Burmese regime.
Thailand currently holds the Presidency of the UN Human Rights Council. But this is a much-derided body which recently suspended the Libyan government from its elected position on the council due to ongoing violence as the Gaddhafi regime attempts to quash a rebellion in the country’s east. Libya, along with the United States and South Korea, was one of the three countries nominated to oversee the Burma review, which culminated in the Burmese delegation’s presentation over one month ago.
According to Tun Shin, the MHRB will eventually be reformed into a National Human Rights Commission even though no timetable has been given for this. As far back as 1999, the Burmese government hinted that it would consider setting up an independent human rights commission after suggestions by then Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer. As things stand, however, “the body is nowhere near the independence it should have in line with the Paris Principles on National Human Rights Institutions,” according to David Mathieson, Burma analyst at Human Rights Watch. The Paris Principles say that such human rights commissions should be independent of government and feature representation from the country’s civil society, among other criteria.
At the recent Geneva review, several countries—including India, Indonesia, Timor-Leste and Thailand—advocated to the Burmese delegation that they reform the MHRB into an independent agency. While the Burmese government was happy to take these recommendations on board, the delegation in Geneva shrugged off criticisms made by Western countries about Burma’s human rights record. The delegation said that Burma has a free press, that allegations of army rape in ethnic minority areas are false, and that human rights violations do not take place in Burma.
Last week, Denmark and Latvia joined a list of 16 Western countries backing the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma. Quintana, who initiated the call for a CoI in early 2010, reiterated the suggestion in his latest report on Burma. The UN Special Rapporteur said that such an inquiry is necessary as there is no accountability for human rights abuses in Burma, the majority of which are attributable to state policy.
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