Myanmar sets up human rights commission

Sept. 7, 2011 at 6:19 AM
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YANGON, Myanmar, Sept. 7 (UPI) -- Myanmar has set up a Human Rights Commission, according to a brief report in the government newspaper New Light of Myanmar.

The formation comes after the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, called for an independent commission during his visit to the country last month.

But the New Light report gave scant detail of the commission, its first meeting -- if any -- and its objectives.

The report said the commission was created "with a view to promoting and safeguarding fundamental rights of citizens described in the constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar."

The article then listed the 15 members, all bureaucrats and academics and all of whom were noted as "retired" from their careers.

Members include the chairman, Win Mra, designated an "ambassador."

Another former ambassador, Kyaw Tint Swe, is the vice chairman.

Other members include retired law, labor and history professors, as well as a retired director general of the government's Forest Department.

Exactly what powers the commission will have remained obscure, a report by the BBC said. Analysts have questioned whether the retired civil servants and scholars on the panel will have the will or the ability to challenge the government.

Whatever its powers may have, its creation appears to be another attempt by the new nominally civilian government to garner international recognition after the former junta's highly criticized national elections in November.

Quintana's visit was the first in more than a year and included access to Yangon's notorious Insein jail that holds many of Myanmar's estimated 2,000 political prisoners.

In May, the government released thousands of prisoners in the country under an amnesty and also announced some death sentences commuted to life sentences.

The decree, signed by Thein Sein, former junta prime minister and now Myanmar's civilian president, said Myanmar was a "peaceful, modern and developed discipline-flourishing democratic nation."

But Human Rights Watch reacted strongly, saying very few of the country's 2,200 political prisoners were among those being released. The one-year reduction in sentences for political prisoners serving 65 years was "a sick joke," HRW said.

The BBC's Burmese radio service said it estimated around 30 political prisoners will be among those freed.

Human Rights Watch said the most prominent political prisoners are likely to remain behind bars.

These include Zargana, Myanmar's most famous comedian. He is serving a 35-year sentence for criticizing the government's slow response to help people after the devastating Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 in which around 138,000 are believed to have died.

U Gambira, a 30-year-old monk who helped lead the August-September 2007 protests, is serving a 63-year sentence and won't be released.

The heart of the civilian government's credibility problem is its military background. Sein, a former general, is a longstanding ally of former junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe, 77, who had ruled Myanmar, formerly called Burma, since 1992.

Sein led the Union Solidarity and Development Party in the general election. It comprised mainly retired military officers who resigned their posts to join the party and run as civilians.

Also, one-quarter of seats in Parliament were reserved for military appointments.

But absent from Parliament is the winner of the last national elections in 1990, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Her National League for Democracy Party, which won the 1990 contest, didn't register as a political party because Suu Kyi remained under house arrest.

She has since been released and has met government leaders, including Sein last month.

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