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UN Envoy hopes to make the Junta see sense

Bangkok (Mizzima) - The UN special envoy for human rights has arrived in Rangoon on the start of a five-day investigative mission. The key focus of this trip, the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana told Mizzima before he flew to Burma on Monday morning, was to assess what progress had made towards holding free and fair elections later this year, and to see first-and the treatment of Burmese Muslims.

During his trip, the UN envoy expects to have detailed discussions with senior government representatives, including the Prime Minister, General Thein Sein. But he is unlikely to see the country’s top general Than Shwe. Mr Quintana plans to see other political leaders and representatives of the ethnic groups to discuss the preparations for the elections. He also hopes to meet Aung San Suu Kyi on this visit – which he was denied when he visited Rangoon a year ago.tomas-ojea-quintana

“I hope this time the Government will reconsider its position,” Mr Quintana told Mizzima. “Her situation is clearly a human rights concern: she is one of the more than 2,100 prisoners of conscience in the country, and at the same time she leads an important political party,” he added.

UN officials privately are not optimistic that Mr Quintana is going to get anywhere on this visit, but the fact that it is going ahead at all, some six months after it was originally requested, is seen by some as a good sign. The envoy was scheduled to visit Burma in December, but the trip was postponed because the interior minister General Maung Oo was on an official visit to Russia.

“This mission is part of the UN’s regular human rights assessment of Myanmar,” said his assistant in Bangkok, Hannah Wu. “He is supposed to visit twice a year before reporting back to the UN – the UN Council on Human Rights in Geneva in March and the UN General Assembly in New York in November.”

But this is only Mr Quintana’s third visit to the country since he was appointed in April 2008 to succeed the irrepressible Brazilian human rights activist Professor Paul Sergio Pinheiro. His last visit was a year ago, in February 2009; he first was in August 2008.

“It is troubling, and indicative of the lack of progress in human rights in Myanmar -- that exactly one year after his last visit to the country, the UN special rapporteur's primary objective remains the same: the freedom of more than 2,100 political prisoners,” Amnesty International’s Burma researcher, Benjamin Zawacki told Mizzima. “The government has not even taken this first critical step toward allowing the political opposition to prepare for the forth coming elections."

Burma’s military authorities though released a leading political prisoner on the eve of the envoy’s visit to the country. U Tin Oo, the deputy leader of the opposition party, the National League for Democracy led by the detained pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, was freed on Saturday, spending six years under house arrest. He was originally arrested along with Aung San Suu Kyi in May 2003, after pro-government vigilantes attacked her convoy in central Burma.

Although his official house arrest ran this weekend, diplomats in Rangoon believe his release was also timed to coincide with the start of latest trip to the country. “In the past, when special envoys were due in the country, it was not unusual for the generals to free a few high-ranking political activists as a gesture of good-will,” said Zin Linn, a senior spokesman for the pro-democracy movement abroad. “But it does not mean anything has changed.”

Perhaps the most important part of the envoy’s current mission, is a scheduled to visit Northern Rakhine State, where a majority of the country’s Muslims, known Rohingyas live. No UN envoy has ever been there before.

Muslim leaders there have long complained of discrimination and harassment. Over the past three decades there has been successive waves of mass migration from that part of Burma because of repression, fleeing abroad to escape persecution. More than 200,000 Burmese refugees are still in neighbouring Bangladesh, a small proportion in refugee camps, fearing for their safety. A new repatriation programme has been agreed between Bangladesh and Burma, but few have been returned yet. 

During his previous trip to Burma last year, which followed the furore, Mr Quintana asked to visit Rakhine. The regime rejected the request and preferred to send him to Kachin and Karen states instead. The envoy wanted to see the conditions of the Muslim community there at a time when there was an international furore over the treatment of Rohingyas, following the atrocious way a group of fleeing Rohingyas – escaping in boats -- were handled by the Thai authorities, pushing them back out to sea to die, creating a major regional concern.

At the time the junta were in no mood to cooperate with the UN on that matter. Since then the generals have since made promises to their regional neighbours in Asean in particular to stem the flow of Muslim refugees from the west of the country. So Mr Quintana’s visit there may well be part of the regime’s attempts to allay the fears of the international community.

When Mr Quinta first approached the Burmese authorities to arrange his latest visit, he pointedly only requested a visit to Northern Rakhine State, apart from Rangoon and Naypyidaw, in the hope that would give no alternative than to approve the visit, according to senior UN human rights officials on condition of anonymity.

“In NRS, I will address the situation of the Muslim community, in particular the Rohingas,” Mr Quintana told Mizzima. “I want to collect first hand information about the human rights conditions, and contact local authorities to discuss actions and limitations for the mprovement of the political and social life of the community,” he added. 

The human rights issues for the Rohingyas remain horrific, according to aid workers in the area and human rights groups monitoring the situation. Most Muslims are denied citizenship, are virtually denied official permission to marry, while young Rohingyas are forbidden to travel out of their villages to attend school and university.

“Restriction of movement has increased over the last year,” Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project which monitors the situation of Rohingyas in the region told Mizzima. “In the past, villagers living on the outskirts of Maungdaw town used to be able to go into town without a travel pass, now they must also apply for travel permission,” she said.
Because the authorities refuse most Rohingyas permission to marry, many live together after a traditional Muslim ceremony. The children born from these couple are then of course denied registration – making them non-persons. This is an issue that Mr Quintana took up in his last report with the UN in November. And he should continue his interest in this issue, urge human rights groups. 

“The issue of unregistered children is serious as their numbers keep growing,” said Ms Lewa. “What is the future of these children: without being registered, they won't be able to apply for a travel permit, marriage, and so on. They are all potential refugees!” she warned.

Officially Mr Quintana has not heard whether he will be permitted to go to Northern Rakhine State – which is not unusual – the itinerary and meetings are usually confirmed at the last minute. “It’s a day-to-day programme,” Mr Quintana’s predecessor, Professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro told Mizzima recently.

But local sources have told Mizzima that senior government officials have already told Muslim leaders and village headmen around the two main towns in Northern Rakhine State -- Buthidaung and Maungdaw to expect an important foreigner and warned them not to criticise the authorities. “The population has been prohibited to mention anything negative about the government to foreign dignitaries visiting the area,” said a senior Muslim cleric. 

Mr Quintana will be stopping in the regional capital Sittwe, where the Burmese authorities have been building a controversial fence to keep the Rohinyas from escaping across the river to Bangladesh. Diplomats fear the government intends to use this as a publicity boost. “I suspect the SPDC will want him to visit the border fence, and not allow him to make an accurate, independent assessment,” a UN official who deals with the situation on the ground there told Mizzima on condition of anonymity. “For example, around Maungdaw town, all labourers get full wages, but that is not the case elsewhere,” he said.

“Forced labour has worsened over the past year due to the building of the border fence and the increased militarisation of the border, which also includes road construction and renovation, and building of new army posts,” Ms Lewa also told Mizzima. 

But human rights advocates also believe that Mr Quintana must also address the broader political issues, of prisoners and party participation while is in the Rohingya area. “I hope Mr Quintana raises the issue of Muslim political prisoners,” Ms Lewa said. “In particular, the 10 leaders of the Myanmar Muslim Association of Maungdaw have been sentenced to up to 13 years for allegedly holding a meeting to discuss the constitution.”

While repression and restrictions on political parties is rampant throughout Burma, it is particularly acute in Arakan, according to human rights activists. “Inclusive, participatory elections cannot occur unless the Rohingyas -- not even acknowledged as an ethnic minority, much less considered citizens--are afforded their basic civil and political rights," said Mr Zawacki of Amnesty International.  

Although Mr Quintana has his work cut out for him in Northern Rakhine State, he is unlikely to fair any better on his other main theme – urging the government to hold elections which will be internationally acceptable and credible.

“Any election, to be in accordance with international standards, must respect universal declaration of human rights,” Mr Quinta told Mizzima. “In this sense, the areas of most concern include how people will be able to express political ideas and how the elections will be held in the rural and border areas,” he added.

While the UN envoy may be well-intentioned, his greatest task will be to make sure he is not used to bolster the junta’s publicity campaign. In the past few weeks the state-owned New Light of Myanmar has been full of news report with the improvements being brought to Rakhine State. Pictures of senior military and government officials dominate the front pages –with captions -- “bringing better transport” or some other development. The junta would love to have the UN human rights rapporteur seen to endorse their plans and improvements there.

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 16 February 2010 11:45 )  

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