Myanmar Reforms Could Falter, U.N. Investigator Says

Myanmar Reforms Could Falter, U.N. Investigator Says By NICK CUMMING-BRUCE Published: March 7, 2013

GENEVA — Political reforms that are delivering greater freedom in Myanmar could falter if the authorities do not tackle some conspicuous failings, including continuing torture in prisons and discrimination against ethnic minorities, a United Nations investigator said in a report released on Thursday.“Reforms are continuing in the right direction,” the investigator, Tomás Ojea Quintana, concluded in the report, written after a visit to Myanmar in February. But major shortcomings continue particularly in discrimination against the Muslim Rohingya minority and abuses in northern Kachin State, where the military has engaged in fierce fighting with minority rebels.

“Now is the time to address these shortcomings before they become further entrenched and destabilize the reform process,” Mr. Ojea Quintana said.

Despite the progress of reforms, “there remains a large gap between reform at the top and implementation on the ground,” he added. The Myanmar authorities offered no immediate, formal response to the assessment.

The report will be discussed next week at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council against a background of debate on whether it is time to reward the sweeping changes initiated by Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, by ending its designation as a “country of concern,” acquired during decades of ruthless military repression and abuse.

For that to happen, diplomats in Geneva suggest that Myanmar will first need to allow the opening of a United Nations human rights office in Yangon as it agreed in principle last year. United Nations human rights workers have paid three visits to Myanmar in recent months to negotiate terms but have been unable to reach an agreement.

Mr. Ojea Quintana’s report will also help to shape perceptions of Myanmar at a point when Mr. Thein Sein is touring Europe in search of aid and investment, seeking to dispel any lingering doubts about his government’s intentions after decades of isolation as a pariah state.

Speaking in Brussels on Tuesday, Mr. Thein Sein said his government had reduced the “culture of fear” in Myanmar, adding, “You have my promise we will continue on this path.”

Taking stock of the changes led by Mr. Thein Sein since he became president in March 2011, Mr. Ojea Quintana noted that Myanmar had released around 850 political detainees under a series of amnesties but said there were credible reports that some 250 prisoners of conscience remained incarcerated.

He expressed particular concern over the treatment of Rohingyas, a Muslim ethnic group, in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Clashes there between Muslims, including Rohingya, and Buddhists in October and November left nearly 200 people dead. Around 120,000 people are still displaced.

Mr. Ojea Quintana said he understood that the vast majority of the 1,100 people detained in the violence were Rohingya and that he had heard accusations that Muslims had been tortured and beaten to death in prison after the violence broke out last year.

He expressed concern at the inability of relief agencies to deliver humanitarian aid and health care, describing the camp for displaced people that he visited as resembling a prison and urging relocation of the displaced to avoid a humanitarian disaster in the approaching rainy season.

He also urged Myanmar’s neighbors to be more proactive in addressing the plight of Rohingya trying to escape the harsh conditions and insecurity in Rakhine, estimating that their numbers would reach 20,000 by April. Many flee in rickety boats, and Mr. Ojea Quintana said that hundreds had drowned. Humanitarian agencies say Bangladesh, India and Thailand have pushed back boats carrying Rohingya refugees in recent months. Mr. Ojea Quinta called for action to tackle corruption and trafficking linked to the movement of the Rohingya, saying that he had “received reports of the involvement of security officials in both Myanmar and receiving countries at every stage of the journey.”

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