Tomas Ojea Quintana was appointed UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on Myanmar [Burma] in May 2008. His task is “to examine, monitor, advise and publicly report on human rights situations” in Burma, one of eight countries that the Council focuses on. He is the fourth person to hold this position, and since his appointment has conducted three visits to the country. He concluded his most recent trip, from Feb. 15 to 19, with the assessment that a free and fair election could not be held in the country under current conditions.
Simon Roughneen spoke with him in the aftermath of the visit to find out more about the trip and what comes next.
Question: You expressed disappointment at not meeting Aung San Suu Kyi during your recent visit to Burma. Can you tell us why you felt it was so important to meet her at this time?
Answer: Firstly, on my two previous visits I was denied the opportunity to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been held under arbitrary detention for a long time now, and her human rights have been violated. Given the fact that the government has said it will hold elections this year, it was important that I get to meet with the leader of one of the most important political parties in the country.
Q: Are you aware that the government banned coverage of your visit, particularly your remarks at the the press conference you gave in Rangoon when concluding your visit? What is your reaction to this?
A: I read some news stories to that effect, and it is disappointing. If this is the case, then we have to take this as an indication of the willingness of the Myanmar government to cooperate with the Special Rapporteur and with the United Nations. The government is a member state of the UN and in that regard should respect any UN statements.
Q: As was the case when Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited last year, the head of government, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, did not meet with another visiting UN official. Were you surprised or disappointed by this?
A: I did not make any special effort to meet with the government leadership. At this time, with elections due to be held sometime this year, and with so many prisoners of conscience being held under arbitrary detention across Burma, it was more important that I try to meet with members of the opposition, and leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi. However, I met with officials from the Foreign Affairs Ministry, and with the Home Affairs Minister. I discussed the detention of political prisoners with him, I asked about the election—when it will be held, when the legal framework will be published. I told him that without sufficient advance notice of the election date and the election laws, it will not be possible for free and fair elections to be held. However, the minister was unable to tell me anything of note about these issues, including that of prisoners of conscience.
Q: You met with Tin Oo, the vice-chair of the National League for Democracy, who was released from his house arrest just days before your arrival in Burma. How was that meeting?
A: Tin Oo has spent many years under arbitrary arrest, and he was clear to me in his views about how human rights can be protected in Myanmar. He said that the 2008 Constitution must be revised, political prisoners must be released, and he said that the opposition leadership wants to meet with Snr-Gen Than Shwe to discuss these issues and to discuss how to bring about reconciliation in the country.
Q: You traveled to various parts of Burma during your five-day trip, including regions such as Arakan State, which you had been previously denied access to. Can you give The Irrawaddy an account of the conditions that you saw?
A: I met prisoners of conscience—in Sittwe jail, for example—who are suffering extreme conditions of detention. Food is scarce and of poor quality, health and hygiene is a concern, medical treatment is limited. These jails are harsh places. However, despite this, they maintain their commitment to peaceful reconciliation with the government.
In northern Rakhine [Arakan] State I went to assess the condition of the Muslim people there known as the Rohingya. There is a real situation of systematic discrimination against the Rohingya. The government is not willing to recognize their rights, there are many laws that restrict their basic human rights, and many are held in harsh conditions after being arrested arbitrarily.
Q: Opposition figures and former political prisoners have welcomed your visit, and in general many believe that the presence of a figure such as yourself brings some temporary improvement for some prisoners in Burma. However, UN envoys have come and gone, and even the secretary-general was snubbed when he visited in 2009. Many in the Burmese opposition and exile groups feel that UN visits typically achieve little or nothing. What do you say to counter negative reviews?
A: Firstly, it is important not to expect too much from these visits, but I understand the feelings among those who suffer human rights violations by the government and of those who want the situation in the country to change for the better. I have been appointed by the UN Human Rights Council as an independent expert and I use my visits to raise my voice on behalf of those who cannot speak out for themselves. There are a number of UN agencies working in Myanmar, and I speak on behalf of all of those as well, and I say what needs to be said. What is important now is that the government holds free and fair elections, based on the release of all prisoners of conscience and the other requirements discussed previously. I have said this to the government, and have repeated this to the media and others.
Q: After your visit, what comes next? Will you go back to Burma anytime soon?
A: I will report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 15. The report will first be presented to the member states before it is published. I will include the items mentioned and discussed during this interview, and more besides, but I do not want to prejudice the report in advance.
I have requested another visit to Myanmar, to take place sometime this year, and I hope that the government will agree. As for timing, I have no date in mind. It is difficult to arrange this right now as we do not know when the election will take place. My visit would be timed around that, but whether before or after, I cannot anticipate right now.Show