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Burma’s nascent democracy faces immense challenges in coming years, some with the capacity to “jeopardise” progress made since the country’s transition from military dictatorship to quasi-civilian leadership in 2011, a UN official concluded.
Tomás Ojea Quintana, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Burma, will present the findings of his final mission to Burma to the Human Rights Council on Monday in Geneva.
“In assessing the reforms that have been initiated so far,” reads his report, released in advance of submission to the council, “the Special Rapporteur stresses that this can only be viewed as the start of a long process of reform that will be required to address the deep seated human rights issues in Myanmar [Burma].”
The Special Rapporteur made stern recommendations to the Burmese government in order to keep the transition on track, including support for an independent investigation into an alleged massacre in Duchira Dan [also written Du Char Yar Tan], on 13 and 14 January this year.
“The Special Rapporteur believes that investigations conducted with the involvement and support of the international community, including in relation to technical assistance, represents an opportunity to turn the tide of impunity in Rakhine [Arakan] State,” the report read. Quintana identified tackling the country’s history of impunity as “one of the most important challenges that Myanmar is facing”.
Rights groups have welcomed Quintana’s appraisal. In a statement on Friday, Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, said that since “The United Nations have confirmed what human rights organisations have been saying, that crimes against humanity have taken place against the Rohingya,” the British government must now support an international investigation.
“This report highlights very serious ongoing human rights abuses which violate international law, and contrasts significantly with the rosy picture that the British government and others try to present about Burma,” he said.
On Tuesday a government investigative commission presented their findings to the public, maintaining that no massacre occurred in Duchira Dan. Quintana’s assessment, made public on Wednesday, stated that “domestic investigations have so far failed” to identify and hold perpetrators of atrocities accountable.
Quintana has served as the Special Rapporteur to Burma for six years, a tenure that will end in May. From 14 to 19 February, he made his ninth and final visit to the country, making stops in Kachin State, Sagaing Division and Arakan State. His final report stresses that he saw “no improvements” in Arakan, where over the course of five visits he has reported severe, targeted, policy-enshrined discrimination against Rohingya and other Muslim groups.
Systematic mistreatment of Muslims in Burma, the report said, may amount to crimes against humanity that could be punishable by the International Criminal Court and, “if left unaddressed, could jeopardise the entire reform process.”
In the three years since Burma’s reforms began, the Special Rapporteur has noted several commendable improvements. The release of more than 1,100 political prisoners, a marked effort to rid the Burmese military of child soldiers and ongoing progress towards a nationwide ceasefire — which negotiators are trying to secure in April this year — are among the government’s “significant improvements”, though none of these efforts have yet been carried to completion.
Political prisoners remain in jail, many of those pardoned were not released unconditionally, and Burma has retained prohibitive legislation that the Rapporteur believes has been selectively enforced to hinder activism. These laws should be reviewed and amended, the report said.
Burma’s government has not ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Quintana has urged them to do.
While ceasefires have been secured with 14 of Burma’s ethnic armed groups, fighting continues in Kachin and northern Shan State, which has led to the displacement of an estimated 100,000 people since the reform process began.
Other items of serious concern include acute tenure insecurity and limits to press freedom. Both of these problems will need to be addressed through improved legislation, the report said.
Among Quintana’s 60 recommendations are changes to the Constitution, the 1982 Citizenship Law and judicial procedures. Burma would also “benefit greatly” from an in-country Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, it said.
While Burma evidently has a long way to go and remains in a “fragile” phase, the report concludes that there is “limited space for backtracking.”