Myanmar sends UN a clear message

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK – When a United Nations human-rights investigator for Myanmar called for an international inquiry to look into possible war crimes by the country’s military regime, he added significant weight to similar calls that had been made in other quarters.

But that call in March by Tomas Ojea Quintana, as part of a scathing 30-page report delivered to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, has come back to haunt the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar. Quintana has beendenied a visa by the junta to return to the Southeast Asian nation for his fourth visit, according to diplomatic and UN sources.

Pro-democracy activists in exile are hardly surprised by the treatment given to the Argentine lawyer, who is currently on a visit to Thailand and Indonesia ahead of preparing another report on Myanmar to be presented to the UN General Assembly in October.

His predecessor, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, was also shut out from the country by the junta following critical reports tabled before the world body.

“It was very clear that Quintana touched on a very sensitive issue for the Burmese [Myanmar] regime when he called for the setting up of an international committee to look into war crimes,” said Khin Ohmar, coordinator of the Burma Partnership, an Asia-Pacific network of civil society groups championing democracy and human rights in Myanmar. “The regime cannot tolerate such criticism.”

In fact, Quintana broke new diplomatic ground with the strong words he said in March, added the political exile. “It was the first time that a crime[s] against humanity inquiry was called for by a UN human-rights rapporteur.”

Despite being denied a visa , “he [Quintana] is still committed to pushing the inquiry forward”, revealed David Scott Matheison, Myanmar consultant for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based global rights watchdog. “He is not giving up; he wants to go back inside and engage with as many actors.”

The UN established a mandate to look into human-rights violations in Myanmar in 1992. That year also saw the start of resolutions critical of the junta being tabled during the annual sessions of the UN General Assembly.

But it was only in 2002 that the reports on war crimes allegations leveled at the junta began to emerge, confirming a worsening climate of oppression and abuse in a country that already had a growing list of gross human-rights violations. The most damning report was “License to Rape”, published by the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), a group from Myanmar’s Shan ethnic minority.

This disturbing report documented the military’s rape of Shan women as part of their war effort against Shan ethnic rebels.

Following that 2002 report, the UN General Assembly approved for the first time a resolution calling for an independent inquiry to investigate cases of rape and other crimes committed by the Myanmar regime in the border areas that are home to ethnic minorities where separatist battles were being waged.

Yet the disclosures in the SWAN report changed little, as reflected in other reports that followed. Some were published by women belonging to the Karen minority living along Myanmar’s eastern borders, where a six-decade separatist conflict continues.

The Karen and Shan victims are among those in the north and eastern corner of Myanmar, close to the country’s borders with Thailand and China, where some 500,000 internally displaced people live in dire conditions after fleeing conflict situations in their villages.

The impacts of these conflicts on the ethnic civilian population were exposed in a 2009 report authored by five international jurists. Over 3,000 ethnic nationality villages have been burnt to the ground by the military regime, revealed the report produced by the International Human Rights Clinic at the law school of the US-based Harvard University. “This is comparable to the number of villages estimated to have been destroyed or damaged in Darfur [Sudan].”

“The world cannot wait while the military regime continues its atrocities against the people of Burma [Myanmar],” added the jurists from Britain, Mongolia, South Africa, the United States and Venezuela in the report “Crimes in Burma”. “We call on the UN Security Council urgently to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate and report on crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma.”

Quintana echoed similar sentiments in his March report: “The UN institutions may consider the possibility to establish a commission of inquiry with a specific fact-finding mandate to address the question of international crimes.”

Quintana’s report, which followed his third trip to Myanmar in February following his appointment in May 2008, highlighted a litany of violations that included deaths and torture of detainees, forced labor, arrest of dissidents and the lack of freedom of expression and assembly.

“This report was the highest from a UN official and confirmed what ethnic communities living in the war zones have been saying during the past years,” said Charm Tong, a ranking member of SWAN. “The victims are still under attack and have to flee the Burmese army.”

For this suffering to end, Quintana’s concerns and his call for a war crimes inquiry should “break the silence at the UN Security Council”, the Shan activist told Inter Press Service. “We wantBurma to be discussed at the Security Council.”

New UN rights envoy visits Burma (8/4/08)

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