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Burma: New Human Rights Commission

(Sept. 9, 2011) The Myanmar government officially established the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, comprising “former government officials, diplomats, academics, doctors and lawyers,” on September 5, 2011. (Alexandra Malatesta, Myanmar Government Forms Human Rights Commission, PAPER CHASE NEWSBURST (Sept. 6, 2011).) Some of these individuals have formerly made statements defending Myanmar's human rights record, which is one of the reasons that the Commission's formation has been met with skepticism; critics question whether the findings of such a group will be veracious and whether it will act authoritatively and independently of the government. (Id.)

The announcement of the Commission's formation (Notification No. 34/2011, Sept. 5, 2011) was carried in the government newspaper New Light of Myanmar. The Notification lists the names of the Commission members, all of whom are noted as “retired” from their former posts; Chairman Win Mra, for example, is designated as a retired “ambassador” (Mra was formerly the Permanent Representative of Myanmar to the United Nations; see,for example, Nation Page for Myanmar, UNDEMOCRACY.COM (last visited Sept. 8, 2011)). The new body was founded, as stated in the Notification, “with a view to promoting and safeguarding fundamental rights of citizens described in the constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.” (Myanmar National Human Rights Commission Formed, NEW LIGHT OF MYANMAR (Sept. 5, 2011) [click on the issue for Sept. 6].) However, the newspaper report “gave scant detail of the commission, its first meeting – if any – and its objectives,” and the scope and responsibilities of the panel remain unclear. (Myanmar Sets Up Human Rights Commission, UPI.COM (Sept. 7, 2011); Burma Sets Up Human Rights Commission, BBC NEWS (Sept. 6, 2011).)

Although elections on November 7, 2010, the first in 20 years, technically brought an end to military rule in Myanmar, and a civilian regime took power on March 30, 2011, the new government is still viewed by observers as tightly controlled by the military. The victorious political party, the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), comprises dozens of senior officers who retired to stand for the election. The USDP won almost 80%of the vote, and former generals are part of the new regime; the new President is himself a former lieutenant general. (Malatesta, supra; David Scott Mathieson, Burma's New President Is No Moderate, THE JAKARTA GLOBE (May 9, 2011); Pro-Military Party 'Wins' Burmese Election, BBC NEWS (Nov. 9, 2010).)

Moreover, the Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (2008), which was drafted by the military junta, reserves seats in both chambers of the new parliament (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) for the army: of the 440 Pyithu Hluttaw (lower house) representatives, up to 110 are to be Defense Services personnel nominated by the Commander in Chief of the Defense Services; of the 224 Amyotha Hluttaw (upper house) representatives, 56 are to be such personnel. A BBC news report commented, “[t]he combined force of these two groups is likely to mean that they have an effective veto over legislation.” (Pro-Military Party 'Wins' Burmese Election, supra; The Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (2008), arts. 74, 109, & 141.)

The new Myanmar National Human Rights Commission came into being not long after a visit to Myanmar in late August by United Nations Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana. Quintana had called upon the new government “to intensify its efforts to implement its own commitments and to fulfill its international human rights obligations” because “many serious human rights issues remain.” (Statement of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights [OHCHR] website (Aug. 25, 2011); see also Chronology of Visits and Reports [by U.N. envoys and rapporteurs to Myanmar, 1990-current], ALTSEAN-BURMA (last visited Sept. 8, 2011).)

Although the Myanmar government has denied accusations of widespread human rights violations in the country, especially in ethnic minority areas, there are reportedly “many well-documented cases of human rights abuses in Burma, including land confiscation, forcible recruitment of child soldiers, forced labor and rape and murder of ethnic civilians in conflict zones” that were perpetrated by the military. (Ko Htwe, Human Rights Commission Met with Skepticism, THE IRRAWADDY (Sept. 6, 2011).) The government began the process of releasing nearly 15,000 prisoners in May, but human rights groups contend that numerous political prisoners are still imprisoned. In December 2010, Quintana had urged the military junta to release 2,202 “prisoners of conscience,” who are being held under harsh conditions of detention. (Malatesta, supra; Myanmar: UN Expert Urges Government to Release over 2,200 Remaining Prisoners of Conscience, OHCHR website(Dec. 13, 2010); see also Constance A. Johnson, Burma / United Nations: UN Officials Critical of Human Rights Record, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (May 25, 2011).)