Tag Archives: Special Rapporteur

Rights envoy takes new approach on Burma

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A week or so from now the representative of the United Nations to Burma on human rights will present his annual report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. It should make interesting reading.

[Update, March 17: Advance copy of report available here]

The report follows Tomas Ojea Quintana’s second visit to the country since he came into the job last year, at the end of which the regime even allowed him a press conference inside the Rangoon airport, rather than back in Bangkok.

His careful remarks on the “challenging” rights situation were quoted in the state media, which also gave what by its standards was an unusually detailed account of his meetings and travels in February.

In the following days it also made out that the release of thousands of prisoners, timed to coincide with Quintana’s departure, had something to do with his visit rather than overcrowded jails.

Contrary to official news reports, the rights representative did not get everything he wanted. The government declined to let him meet with political party leaders. Because of this, U Win Tin, former long-term prisoner and National League for Democracy executive council member, refused to meet with Quintana individually.

And the rebel Karen National Union was irked that Quintana went to see leaders of splinter units that have gone over to the government side but didn’t call on it. As the envoy’s remit is to study and report on human rights abuse perhaps it should be relieved that he did not pay a call.

Ironically, the people whom Quintana could not or did not see got more press outside the country than those whom he did. Among the latter were the chief justice, attorney general, bar council members, home affairs minister and police chief.

These meetings are important because they speak to the new approach that Quintana has taken to the mandate, which distinguishes him from his predecessors. Continue reading

Rocky roads

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The latest report of a United Nations independent expert has rightly inferred that the deepening poverty of millions is the most endemic human rights abuse in Burma today.

The report, by Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, notes that even government figures reveal that citizens spend around 73 percent of their disposable incomes on food alone, while international agencies estimate that one child in three aged under five is malnourished.

The preponderant cause of this misery is the government itself. Pinheiro observes that, for instance, the confiscating of land is often followed by new big projects which in turn bring more suffering. He points to seven new hydroelectric schemes in the north that have been accompanied by military demands for labor, money and goods from people living in their vicinity, to say nothing of the environmental damage caused.

All of this is very far removed from the unceasing images in state-run media of generals standing resolutely above new dams, cutting ribbons at the entrances of schools, and strolling over carpets of petals strewn by maidens across big bridges. In their world, national development is measured in terms of cubic meters of concrete poured and machines itemized. What can be seen to have been done is what matters.

The propaganda is striking because it is in these fields that the regime is failing spectacularly. The new bridges span rivers which are reached by roads of such poor condition that hire vehicles refuse to travel them. Schools have classrooms and chairs but lack teachers, and for that matter, students. Power lines run to houses without metering devices, and the dams anyhow are not supplying those with them: households boil rice with charcoal because constant outages mean that an electric cooker switched on for dinner may not be ready until breakfast.

Moreover, as Burma’s people have been forced to continue treading rocky roads, so too has the U.N.’s expert. Continue reading

“I can’t read the thoughts of the government”

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“I don’t know. I can’t read the thoughts of the government. The only thing that they did is that they have not invited me as the council has proposed.”

– Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, outgoing UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, on not getting offered a follow-up visit to Burma after that of last November (above) (BBC)

Read his latest report. (See also: Tall tales at the Human Rights Council)

A duck, six prisoners & human rights in Burma

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Six men in Burma have been jailed on account of a duck. Anyone wanting to appreciate the real nature of human rights abuse there, and also why years of international efforts have so far failed to effect any significant change, should take interest in how and why.

This April, a crowd suddenly attacked four persons traveling through a village in the delta on motorcycles, injuring two, one seriously. The latter, Ko Myint Naing (lying injured, above), made a complaint to the local court that village council members, police and quasi-government officials had coordinated the assault. The reason? He and his friends had been talking about human rights.

It is important to realize that even under Burma’s authoritarian regime it is not illegal to promote human rights. On the contrary, officials have in the past themselves been schooled on them by Australians. They sometimes even get a mention in official propaganda. The country also has been a party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the beginning and in recent years has joined two important agreements on women and children. Myint Naing and the others were merely distributing copies of these and related domestic laws and informing villagers of their contents.

The assault attracted some passing concern. A spokesperson for a big human rights group said that the government “should order its thugs to stop harassing people for promoting human rights.” Two United Nations experts called for the authorities “to take all the necessary steps to protect human rights defenders” and “conduct an independent and thorough investigation into this event.”

Unsurprisingly, none of these things happened.

Continue reading

The pretence of legality

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On July 17 the government of Thailand renewed a state of emergency over the southern border provinces for the ninth time since it was introduced two years ago. That the bloodshed in the south has only worsened in these years should not be a surprise to anybody. The weakening of already limited safeguards on the activities of police, soldiers and paramilitaries there was certain to encourage more violence.

The emergency decree not only permits but also obliges extraordinary detention of suspects, by providing that “Competent officials shall be empowered to arrest and detain suspects for a period not exceeding seven days…in a designated place which is not a police station, detention center, penal institution or prison.” The effect of this clause — together with other parts of the decree — is to all but guarantee the use of torture, forced disappearance and extrajudicial killing, for which state officers need not fear consequences as they are anyhow exempt from prosecution if they have acted in “good faith”. As the decree is so vague that anything could be construed as good faith, as victims are unwilling to complain, as police won’t investigate and as judges are unlikely to hear any cases, this amounts to a blanket impunity clause.

Meanwhile, the junta that took power in Bangkok last September has proposed a national security law that owes much of its contents to the decree. The draft bill permits the army commander to curtail undefined security threats without requiring the approval of the prime minister. It grants him powers to shut roads and stop vehicles, close public gatherings, keep someone under house arrest, order employers to report on employees, oblige the police and civilian officials to cooperate with the army wherever and however necessary, issue preventive arrest orders, summon anyone to appear before a designated official on any grounds, search persons or vehicles or premises at will, seize anything, and “conduct suppressive operations against a person or group of persons or organization which gives rise to actions threatening internal security.”

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A wedding video & an injustice system

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The wedding video of a Burmese general’s daughter has proved a surprise hit. Footage of Thandar Shwe’s glittering marriage ceremony (right) has since last July been watched around the country on black market CDs, and globally on You Tube and news broadcasts. It has shocked viewers unaccustomed to seeing firsthand the sheer extravagance enjoyed by an otherwise inaccessible elite. In some versions, it has been cut to incorporate scenes of abject poverty in and around Rangoon’s streets, in contrast to those of diamonds and champagne behind its walls.

One person who had copies was Ko Than Htun. Acting on a tip-off, in March a team of police raided his house and charged him with possessing videos that had not been approved by the board of censors. He was initially released on bail but later rearrested. Shortly thereafter police claiming to have information from Than Htun arrived at the house of Ko Tin Htay, who lives in the same township. Entering without a search warrant, they found nothing. They called him to the station on a pretext and arrested him there. The following day the local ruling council met and decided that both men should be charged with intent to cause public alarm.

In court, the police produced a statement taken from Ko Tin Htay and used it against him as evidence, which is illegal. Absurdly, they also produced a photograph of Aung San, Burma’s independence hero and father of democracy party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to demonstrate that Tin Htay is politically active: a point anyhow irrelevant to the charges against the accused. Nonetheless, both Than Htun and Tin Htay were found guilty and sentenced respectively to over four years and two years in prison with hard labor. They have since been transferred away from their hometown and reportedly denied access to their families.

Two features of the case point to how years of dictatorship have thoroughly corrupted criminal law and procedure in Burma.

Continue reading