I thank you for this opportunity to address the Human Rights Council for the first time, at a pivotal time in the reform process in Myanmar.
Before I start, I would like to express my deepest sadness at the recent sinking of the ferry last Friday near Sittwe. My prayers are with all the families of those affected by this tragic event.
Since taking up this mandate, I conducted two missions to Myanmar in July 2014 and January 2015. On both occasions, I have seen enormous potential in the country, which has come a long way since its transition began. As in any major process of change, there remain significant challenges, which must be addressed to ensure that everyone can enjoy the benefits of democratisation and development.
I would like to acknowledge the very good cooperation I received from the Myanmar Government during my missions, including efforts to ensure my safety and that of my team. The visits took place in a collegial and constructive atmosphere, enabling open and engaging discussions.
I was disappointed therefore by references by the Government that my visit could leave the people of Myanmar with discord, distrust and incitement. This has never been my intent, nor the intent of this Council in establishing my mandate. As a friend of Myanmar, my only priority is to be able to work with the Government and other stakeholders to contribute to a climate of unity and enjoyment of human rights for all.
While highlighting some positive developments, my report to this Council describes continuing challenges indicating worrying signs of backtracking on key human rights issues.
I would like to begin by updating the Council on the recent events in Latpadan involving students protesting for changes to the National Education Law. I was very disturbed by reports on 10 March that excessive and disproportionate force had been used against students and other civilians and that 127 people were subsequently arrested. This seems to be the largest crackdown by police on protesters since the clashes at Letpadaung copper mine in 2012. I hope these events will be thoroughly and impartially investigated. According to international standards, the use of force must be strictly necessary and proportional. I am further disturbed by reports that plain-clothed individuals were operating alongside the police and emphasize the dangers of using irregular personnel in law enforcement functions if they are not adequately trained and fully accountable. I welcome the release of some protesters and call for the immediate release of all the others.
A free and independent media has a vital role to play in any democratic society. I welcome the Government’s efforts to reform media governance. However, I am concerned that journalists are still being interrogated and arrested, and that 10 journalists were imprisoned in 2014. This needs to stop if Myanmar wants to create a meaningful democratic space.
During my visit, I was informed that human rights defenders faced regular surveillance and monitoring and that some are imprisoned along with journalists under outdated defamation, trespassing and national security laws. This worrying trend has a chilling effect on civil society activities.
I welcome the release of political prisoners Dr. Tun Aung and U Kyaw Hla Aung, but am concerned by the numbers of political prisoners who continue to be detained under the Law on the Right to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession and article 505 (b) of the Penal Code. For instance, last month 14 protestors from the Michaungkan community, demanding the return of land allegedly confiscated by the military, were sentenced to six months imprisonment. I have also received reports of 78 farmers serving sentences for trespassing on confiscated land with a further 200 activists on bail and awaiting trial.
Government and ethnic minority groups have made efforts to restore peace and ensure national reconciliation. However, I am concerned at the alarming escalation of fighting last month in the Kokang region, north-eastern Shan State, which has resulted in the declaration of a state of emergency. Reportedly, over 100 people have died and tens of thousands have been displaced. I remind the Government that even during a state of emergency, the Government has an obligation to strictly uphold fundamental human rights.
Far too often the people of Myanmar have suffered from the resurgence of violence and human rights violations in ethnic border areas. I continue to receive reports of sexual violence, which go unreported through fear of reprisals. Humanitarian access is still limited in some areas with large displaced populations, including in non-government controlled areas in Kachin State. I remind all parties to the conflict of the need to protect civilians and facilitate lifesaving humanitarian assistance. There has also been limited success in addressing the underlying issues at the heart of the conflict, including control over and benefit from natural resources and accountability for human rights violations.
I commend the Government for the significant steps it has taken to eliminate the use of child soldiers, including the identification and release of 553 children. However, I understand that recruitment of child soldiers continues both within the military and non-state armed groups, and I urge the strengthening of age verification and independent monitoring and oversight mechanisms.
Discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities is another factor, which fuels conflict. I am concerned by the progress of a package of four bills currently before Parliament, which risks fuelling further tensions between ethnic and religious minorities.
The situation in Rakhine State remains dire. The atmosphere between communities is hostile. There have still been no credible investigations into the serious human rights violations that took place in 2012 and 2014.
The justification given by the Government to the confinement of Muslims in camps for their own protection is troubling. During my visit to the region, I met with local authorities and community leaders and visited camps for Buddhists as well as Rohingya Muslims. I witnessed the ongoing discriminatory restrictions on the freedom of movement of Muslim IDPs, which also impacts the enjoyment of other basic fundamental rights.
Conditions in Muslim IDP camps I visited were abysmal. People said they had only two options: “stay and die” or “leave by boat”. Distinguished delegates, no one should ever feel faced with such a choice.
The use of the term “Rohingya” continues to be met with strong resistance. I believe that the focus on terminology has paralysed progress and we should now collectively find meaningful ways to improve the human rights of all in Rakhine State.
I have not yet received a copy of the latest version of the Rakhine Action Plan. I would be concerned, however, about any provision that would classify Rohingyas as “illegal aliens” and subject them to possible prolonged internment in camps or removal from the territory. The expiry at the end of March 2015 of the temporary white cards held by many Rohingyas as identity documentation raises more uncertainties and further increases their vulnerability.
While the development of the economy has benefitted some in the country, it is important that others are not left out. A human rights-based approach should guide all development programmes. I welcome the creation of a legal framework requiring environmental impact assessments before development projects are implemented but I am concerned by reports of illegal land confiscation and forced evictions and the difficulty to hold powerful interests to account.
I commend the Government on the work being undertaken to improve education, health, livelihoods and the collaboration with the international community in this area. However, I was deeply disturbed to hear that around 300 students were unable to graduate from Yangon University in December 2014 as they did not hold Citizenship Scrutiny Cards. Education is a right for all and I hope this situation can be remedied soon as per the assurance I received from the Deputy Minister for Education.
2015 is a tipping point for the reform process, with the prospect of democratic reforms to the 2008 Constitution and the holding of a free and fair General Election.
During my visit, I was encouraged to see that international electoral advisors were providing technical assistance to national election bodies. I am however concerned by amendments to the Political Parties Registration Law in September 2014, according to which only full citizens are able to form political parties. The recent decision of the Constitutional Tribunal on the ineligibility of temporary white card-holders to vote in the upcoming referendum on the Constitution reform is also concerning.
I am troubled by information that criminal proceedings for defamation and provision of “false information” are being brought against those making allegations against the military. This includes the conviction last month of Brang Shawng, who called for an investigation into the fatal shooting in 2012 of his 14 year old daughter, Ja Seng Ing.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is important to welcome the positive developments in Myanmar, but also to honestly highlight the areas of risk and the numerous challenges that must be addressed rapidly before they undermine the successes achieved so far.
In closing, let me inform you of the latest attack against me by the same U Wirathu in response to my report to this Council: “The beastly woman has done it again. It looks like she hasn’t learnt a lesson. This time I will not say it verbally. I will say it with my slipper. (…) Oh dear patriots, let us find ways and means to teach the beastly woman a lesson.”
Thank you for your attention.