By Yola Verbruggen
In what many have hailed as a new dawn in terms of respect for human rights in Myanmar with the coming to power of a National League for Democracy government, some activists are questioning how much, and how soon, anything is going to change.
The focus is being directed squarely at the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC). Hailed as a step toward transparency and accountability when President U Thein Sein set it up in 2011, it quickly attracted criticism for its apparent failure to take on issues perceived as difficult or sensitive.
In particular, the commission seemed deeply reluctant to do anything that might incur the displeasure of the military authorities.
Its chair is U Win Mra, who served as Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1994 to 2001, where he regularly fronted for the then-regime in the face of criticism from the international community. One of his most visible tasks was to defend his government for its treatment of Myanmar’s most famous prisoner of conscience, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
The question many human rights activists are asking, as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi prepares to lead the next government, is what they are going to do about the MNHRC.
The question arises because the existing commissioners insist that U Thein Sein appointed them for a five-year term that expires only in 2019.
Asked about his party’s plans for the commission, NLD spokesperson U Win Htein said, “I don’t know. I don’t care about them.”
Others are less dismissive. One former commissioner said U Win Mra refused to take any case that might embarrass the old regime. “He struggles to move on from defending the flag to defending human rights,” he said.
Many feel the commission made a promising start in 2011. But following the enactment of the MNHRC law in 2014, its most vocal members – four of them from ethnic minority groups – were replaced and the number of commissioners was reduced from 15 to 11. Members are paid directly from the President’s Office and have the status of deputy minister, enjoying all the benefits that come with the position, according to a former member.
The law says commissioners should be selected by a board comprising Pyidaungsu Hluttaw MPs, the Bar Council, the Myanmar Women’s Affairs Federation – a government-organised non-governmental organisation (GONGO) – and registered NGOs. The chief justice, the minister for home affairs and the minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement also sit on the board.
However, such was the secrecy surrounding the appointment of commissioners in 2014 that many believed the president tapped them directly, without reference to the board. At the time, civil society groups, members of parliament and even a member of the president’s inner circle claimed to have no idea who was on the selection board when contacted by The Myanmar Times.
Some argue that could serve as grounds for the incoming NLD government to replace the current members with candidates selected in accordance with the law.
Such a wholesale house-clearing would certainly find favour with many activists.
“I think [the commission] needs to be reformed. People don’t trust the current members,” said U Bo Kyi, joint secretary and co-founder of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
The independence of the MNHRC has been questioned as the body was repeatedly criticised for lacking autonomy and refusing to handle some cases. Recently, the commission garnered more positive remarks when it released a statement critical of the government’s handling of squatter evictions, accusing authorities of making promises for aid it then failed to keep and of creating a “new breed of roadside squatters”. The body’s exposure of poor prison management and support for activists arrested during education protests at Letpadan in March 2015 has also been welcomed by human rights advocates.
The former commissioner dismissed this apparent show of independence as a mere tactic on the part of current members to retain their positions under the new government.
The commission still largely avoids the issue of the impunity of the military, as a Burma Partnership report of 2014 pointed out. “It is clear that the MNHRC will not investigate or become involved in the affairs of the Burma Army despite evidence that its actions constitute war crimes, such as using rape as a weapon of war,” said the report, called “All the President’s Men”.
Former and current members of the commission, which received thousands of complaints about human rights abuses, said they had dealt with many cases but that the President’s Office often took no subsequent action on their findings.
“We were set up to fend off Western pressure. [The President’s Office] ignored almost everything we sent them,” said a former commissioner.
Presidential spokesperson U Ye Htut said he could not comment without knowing exactly which cases the commissioners were referring to, as he was not personally involved in the handling of the complaints. However, he said it was possible that they were forwarded to specific ministries and then got stuck at the ministerial or director-general level. “The president paid the utmost attention to the complaints,” he said.
Current members of the MNHRC also denied that the President’s Office or other parts of the government applied any pressure on them to avoid certain issues, although they did acknowledge the need to navigate carefully and avoid angering the military while investigating abuses.
Willingness to investigate government bodies for wrongdoing may increase under an NLD government, but it is questionable whether the authorities, including the military, will allow access to conduct thorough investigations.
Rights commission member Daw Than Nwe admitted she was a “little worried” about the question of access, even under an NLD government. “In the president’s [U Thein Sein’s] time the ministries cooperated,” she said. “We hope it will be the same under the new government.”
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