By Jacob Robinson
UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee has expressed concern about “possible signs of backtracking” that could undermine Burma’s reform process, according to a UN press statement released yesterday which highlighted some key points of Ms. Lee’s speech to the UN General Assembly about Burma’s human rights situation.
Ms. Lee’s speech on 28 October was designed to inform the UN General Assembly about the findings contained in her report about human rights issues in Burma. The report—which was released on 23 September—said that Burma’s “far reaching reforms have dramatically transformed the political, economic, social and human rights landscape…since the establishment of the new Government.” But during her speech Ms. Lee also said, “more is required if gains are to be genuine, sustainable and win the support of the people of Myanmar [Burma],” according to the UN press statement.
Ms. Lee’s report warned that if “possible signs of backtracking” are not addressed it could undermine Burma’s efforts to “take its rightful place as a member of the international community that respects and protects human rights.”
Strengthening the judicial system and the “rule of law” was another major theme of Ms. Lee’s report. The special envoy also expressed concern about reports that “outdated legislation” is still being used to “criminalize and impede the activities of civil society and the media.” In particular, she mentioned that the State Secrets Act of 1923, the Emergency Provisions Act of 1950 and other laws such as the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act have increased the number of political prisoners and resulted in sentences that are “disproportionately high.”
Burma has previously been criticized for using the release of political prisoners as a bargaining chip to secure more support and investment from the international community, and critics have noted that presidential amnesties of political prisoners are often announced prior to major diplomatic events. The latest prisoner release was ordered by President Thein Sein as Burma was gearing up to host two important meetings of East Asian leaders in October: the 9th East Asian Summit and the 25th ASEAN Summit.
However, following the most recent presidential amnesty on 7 October both Amnesty International and the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma said that only one of the 3,073 detainees released was a prisoner of conscience.
Most likely, Ms. Lee’s concern about government suppression of civil society and the media is a response to the unusually long prison sentences handed down to media employees and peaceful protesters this year—including five individuals working for a weekly news publication called Unity Journal who were sentenced to tens years’ imprisonment in July on grounds of “exposing state secrets.” The media workers were indicted after their journal published an article alleging the existence of a secret chemical weapons factory in central Burma. On 2 October the Unity Journalemployees had their ten-year sentences reduced to seven years after a two-month appeal process.
Ms. Lee’s address to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday also addressed Burma’s ongoing ethnic and inter-communal conflicts, and she said that currently there are around 613,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Burma—not to mention the untold number of refugees who have already fled the country.
Although the special rapporteur was careful to note that “serious human rights violations are being committed on both sides,” she also expressed particular concern about reports of ongoing human rights violations committed by the military, including arbitrary detention and torture. Ms. Lee expressed dismay that the military continues to perpetrate these and other human rights violations with impunity.
Most recently, a respected journalist was killed by the military while reporting on ethnic conflict in Mon State, an act that was widely condemned by the international community, including the United States, which has called on Naypyidaw to conduct a transparent investigation into the journalist’s death.
In her report, Ms. Lee paid particular attention to the situation in Arakan State, where ethnic Rohingyas have been crowding into rickety boats in a desperate attempt to escape persecution by individuals and the government. According to Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, an average of 900 Rohingyas have fled Burma every day since October 15. Although hundreds have already died on these dangerous high-seas voyages, Rohingyas are still willing to pay brokers a small fortune to help smuggle them to Malaysia and other neighbouring countries.
Another key area of concern in Ms. Lee’s report is landgrabbing and the detrimental effects of large-scale development projects—especially on vulnerable groups such as children, IDPs, the rural poor, ethnic groups, and women in vulnerable situations. In her report, Ms. Lee said that she was “struck” by the information she received on the impact of these large-scale projects, and the special rapporteur emphasized the necessity of conducting environmental and social impact assessments.
Ms. Lee’s report added that the recommendations of environmental and social impact assessments must not only be publicly disclosed, but they must also be implemented. In addition, Ms. Lee said that communities must be able to actively, freely and meaningfully participate “in the assessment and analysis, design and planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation” of large-scale development projects.
The UN statement said that during Ms. Lee’s speech to the UN the special rapporteur stressed that “sustainable peace [in Burma] must address the root causes of the conflict which lie in the denial of fundamental human rights.” The special envoy also recommended that any future ceasefire or peace agreements include mechanisms to ensure accountability for human rights violations.
Ms. Lee concluded her report by suggesting that Burma fully incorporate human rights into the country’s “institutional, legal and policy framework,” and that “a culture of respect of human rights must be engendered among all State institutions and the public at large.”
To this end, the special rapporteur said that Burma should be further encouraged and supported by the international community in order to address the country’s challenges and continue on its reform path.
On 28 October—the same day Ms. Lee gave her speech to the UN General Assembly—Amnesty International released a statement which said, “2014 saw progress on human rights reforms grind to a halt, with a worrying slide back in key areas.” The statement also criticized the Burmese government for failing to implement or make progress “on barely any of the 2013 [UN General Assembly] recommendations.”
In the wake of what Amnesty described as “the deteriorating human rights situation in Myanmar [Burma] in 2014,” Amnesty called on the UN General Assembly to “adopt a strong resolution on the situation of human rights in Myanmar at its 69th session, and clearly outline its expectations with regard to much-needed further human rights reforms in the country.”