Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, released a statement last week that highlighted the challenges facing the impoverished country.
He cautiously stated that the West should be encouraged by recent gestures of reform “there has been a continuing wave of reforms in Myanmar, the speed and breadth of which has surprised many international observers and many in the country.”
While welcoming the changes in Burma, Mr Quintana also highlighted the continuing human rights abuses being committed by the government’s military.
“I received continuing allegations of serious human rights violations committed during conflict, including attacks against civilian populations, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, internal displacement, land confiscations, the use of human shields, the recruitment of child soldiers” adding, “forced labour and portering.”
Mr Quintana said the release of political prisoners in Burma is an issue far from being resolved.
“Of particular concern is the information I received of remaining prisoners of conscience being held not only in Insein [jail] but also in other prisons,” Mr Quintana added, “A comprehensive and thorough investigation is needed to clarify records and determine accurate numbers of prisoners in Myanmar.”
Mr Quintana called for an “independent, impartial and effective judiciary within the powers of the Constitution is needed to uphold the rule of law and act as a last guarantor for safeguarding fundamental freedoms and human rights in Myanmar.”
Mr Quintana stressed that this was “a central and necessary step towards national reconciliation and would greatly benefit Myanmar’s efforts towards democracy.”
Mr Quintana warned that the process of reform had a long way to go, noting that many abuses were still taking place — notably with regards to human rights abuses in ethnic areas, the transparency of the upcoming electoral process, and the development of infrastructure.
“There is also a lack of clarity and progress on reviewing and reforming the laws that I have previously identified as not in full compliance with international human rights standards, such as the State Protection Law, the Electronic Transactions Law and the Unlawful Associations Act. These laws impinge upon a broad range of human rights and have been used to convict prisoners of conscience.”
Mr Quintana said while he welcomed the government’s attempts to implement changes the situation in Burma left a lot to be desired.
“While I welcome the Government’s commitment to socio-economic development and poverty reduction, many challenges remain and the situation is still dire. Concerns regarding the availability and accessibility of education and health care were specifically highlighted, as well as the need for the teaching of ethnic minority languages in schools in minority areas.”
Mr Quintana said the forthcoming by-elections on April 1 would be a test of the government’s commitment to real political reform.
“I have stated previously and continue to believe that the upcoming by-elections on 1 April will be a key test of how far the Government has progressed in its process of reform. It is therefore essential that they are truly free, fair, inclusive and transparent.”