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Myanmar: situation of ethnic minority groups restricts transition to democracy – UN Special Rapporteur

BANGKOK / GENEVA (23 May 2011) – The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, warned Monday the situation of ethnic minority groups in the border areas presents serious limitations to the Government’s intention to transition to democracy.

“Violence continues in many of these areas, while systematic militarization contributes to human rights abuses,” the independent expert said at the end of his eight-day mission* to neighbouring Thailand to gather information about the situation inside Myanmar, where he has not been able to visit.

“These abuses include land confiscation, forced labour, internal displacement, extrajudicial killings and sexual violence. They are widespread, they continue today, and they remain essentially unaddressed by the authorities,” Mr. Ojea Quintana said.

The Special Rapporteur expressed concern that the Government is not finding a political solution to solve the ethnic conflicts. “Even though the establishment of national and state and regional legislatures is important, these venues alone are not sufficient,” he noted.

“These democratic institutions are very new, and I see some positive signs in them, but it is too early for them to function effectively and to manage this important and complex issue that has a direct impact on ongoing human rights abuses and compromises stability,” Mr. Ojea Quintana said highlighting that the electoral process excluded several significant ethnic and opposition groups, “so their voices are not being heard in these fora.”

Regarding a recently announced release of prisoners, the independent expert noted that most of the prisoners of conscience still remain in prison. “The Government’s decision did not provide the strong signal of commitment to national reconciliation,” he said. “I would like to see a concrete and time bound plan announced by the Government for the systematic release of all prisoners of conscience.”

“Also key to national reconciliation is the issue of truth, justice and accountability,” the expert said. “I discussed the issue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who supports a commission of inquiry absolutely. She said a commission of inquiry is a commission of inquiry, not a tribunal. I agree with her.”

Mr. Ojea Quintana stressed that a commission of inquiry should be an instrument to bring about transition to democracy, national reconciliation and establishment of accountability, as well as to pursue the truth and facilitate reparations, and end and prevent ongoing human rights abuses.

“Through this mission, I see some positive signs in the developments,” he said. “In the first and only sitting of the Parliament so far, MPs despite limitations were able to raise some important questions from the human rights perspective, like the possibility of a cease fire in Kayin State, the issue of citizenship status of Rohingyas, and whether amnesty would be granted to Shan political prisoners.”

The Special Rapporteur also noted the beginning of discussions about economic, social and cultural rights and some participation by ethnic minority parties in the legislatures. In his view, “the new President’s speeches have led to some expectations for positive change. He provides some interesting ideas that could be developed into benchmarks for progress,” the expert said. “We will have to watch closely to see how this is translated into action.”

“It is my hope to be able to visit Myanmar as soon as possible to continue discussions with the authorities and other stakeholders about progress being made towards the transition to democracy and concerns about the ongoing serious human rights situation in the country,” Mr. Ojea Quintana concluded.

Mr. Tomás Ojea Quintana (Argentina) was appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council in May 2008. As Special Rapporteur, he is independent from any government or organization and serves in his individual capacity.

(*) Check the full end-of-mission statement by the Special Rapporteur: http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=11046&LangID=E

For additional information on the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, please visit: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/countries/mm/mandate/index.htm

OHCHR Country Page – Myanmar: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/AsiaRegion/Pages/MMIndex.aspx

For press inquiries and additional information, please contact Ms. Christine Chung (Tel: +41 22 928 9673 / email: cchung@ohchr.org) or write to sr-myanmar@ohchr.org.