Friday, 26 February 2010 19:02 Larry Jagan

BANGKOK (Mizzima) – The United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana believes there that the country’s political prisoners will not be freed any time soon. “There seems to be no movement on political prisoners since my last trip [a year ago],” the UN envoy told Mizzima in an interview in Bangkok a few days ago. “In fact the government continues to deny that there are any prisoners of conscience.”

At the same time more critics of the government and activists have been imprisoned on spurious charges. And political prioners already in jail mounted protests to coincide with the UN envoys visit.

Scores of prisoners in at least two jails have gone on hunger strike, according to an organistion that monitors the situation of Burma’s political prisoners, and more than seventy in the Buthidaung jail, which Mr Quintana visited during his trip to the west of the country. Tthe regime’s total disregard for the envoy was underlined when five more political activists – a monk and five female activists – were given stiff jail sentences in the middle of his visit.

“There were few positives from the trip,” Mr Quinata told Mizzima, apart from being allowed to visit Northern Rakhine State and meet 15 political prisoners in three different prisons.

“They were not prepared to discuss the forthcoming elections in any detail, though it was clear from my visit that unofficial campaigning has started even though the electoral law has not been published,” he told Mizzima. The Argentinian lawyer was also frustrated that he was not allowed to see the country’s most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi who is currently under house arrest, where she has spent more than 15 of the last 21 years.

“Of course I was disappointed not to meet her, and even though I had made my desire to talk to her about the forthcoming elections, I never expected to be given permission to see her.”

The envoy is scheduled to give a detailed report on Burma’s human rights situation to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva next month from this, his third mission to the country since his appointment two years ago.

“But my mission should not be judged by whether the regime makes any concessions or not,” he said. “It’s a process – and the fact that they allow me to visit and continue the dialogue on human rights is very positive.” Otherwise the envoy seemed very down-beat in his over-all assessment of the trip.

The Argentinian also complained about the Burmese authorities approach to his five-day visit. For one thing, he said, there was never any advance warning of the agenda. “It was a day-to-day programme,” he said. This did not permit him and his team to prepare properly and reduced the effectiveness of his mission, UN sources told Mizzima on condition of anonymity.

There is no doubt though that Mr Quintana’s visit to Rakhine State in western Burma to see for himself the conditions of Burmese Muslims there was a significant concession by the regime. This is the first time a senior UN envoy has been allowed in that region – though the UN country team do have projects and people in the area. He visited both the regional capital Sittwe and Buthidaung in the north of the state — where the worse abuses against Burmese Muslims are alledged to take place.

Perhaps even more significantly he was allowed to be accompanied by the two senior representatives of the International Labour Organization in Rangoon, who are actively involved in checking reports of forced labour in the country.

During his mission there he was also allowed to visit Buthidaung prison where he met five political prisoners, including one of the ten local leaders of the Myanmar Muslim Association of Maungdaw — who have been sentenced to some 13 years for allegedly holding a meeting to discuss the constitution in 2007 – and a senior Shan leader, Tun Nyo who is now 79. Both were in very poor health, the envoy said.

“Curiously the conditions in the jail have improved over the last six months, the prisonsers told me,” Mr Quintana told Mizzima. “But no one seemed to know why. They assumed it was maybe to do with election preparations,” he added. “But the conditions remain a matter of grave concern,” he added.

“It is essential that the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] to be allowed to resume their prison visits,” he stressed. ICRC suspended these at the end of 2005 because of the interference of government officials. As a result many prisoners do not the medicines they need or soap.

More importantly the ICRC used to provide a channel of communications with the prisoners’ families. “I was the first visitor ever to Buthidaung prison,” he told Mizzima. “And while I thank the authorities for this opportunity, it is intolerable that some have had no contact with their love-ones since being transferred there – in some case that has been years.”

ICRC’s access to the prisons is something that has been in every report the envoy has put before the UN, and will feature prominently in his fourth report, the next to be submitted to the Human Rights Council in Geneva soon. It was also something that the envoy said he raised persistently and firmly at every opportunity, with the home minister, the attorney general and the chief justice. But the envoy remained pessimistic that the regime will take any notice.

Both Indonesia and China have also been quietly encouraging the junta to soften its stance towards ICRC behind the scenes. Most countries, even those with blemished human rights’ records, understand that the ICRC should be allowed to do its work unhindered by government interference.

“That the ICRC is not permitted to do carry out its full mandate is shameful, since this is considered worldwide to be a minimum standard of cooperation with the international community,” Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s South East Asia researcher based in Bangkok told Mizzima.

On Mr Quintana’s other two major concerns – the release of political prisoners and the forthcoming election – the regime remained equally intransigent.

“I don’t expect any progress soon [on the release of political prisoners],” he said. During his talks with the representatives of the regime he continued to stress the need to release all political prisoners before the elections if the process was to at all believable.

“These are well-educated and capable people who could participate in the election and help make the whole process credible I told the authorities,” he said.

But on the elections as a whole he found the senior representatives of the junta he met relatively uncompromising. No one was prepared to discuss the elections in any detail – all they would say was that the legal framework is being prepared and the electoral law will be released in time. The UN envoy was obviously frustrated at the regime’s apparent obstinance.

“But its important to have access to the authorities to be able to discuss human rights issues and explain what is needed to be done to meet international standards,” he said. “We can at least explain what is needed.”

When he met the Home Minister, Maung Oo, the Attorney General and the Chief Justice, he left the UN’s handbook on free and fair elections for their reference. Few people though, including the envoy, expect the regime to consult in any way.

“Barring an Election Law that marks a radical departure from its past and present laws and practices, the government is unlikely to allow political parties to participate fully–and meaningfully — in the elections process,” said Mr Zawacki.

“Politicians and political parties must able to communicate freely with both the domestic and international media,” he added. “Unfortunately, all the signs are that the only views acceptable to the government will be its own, with no room at all for a debate of any kind.”

The key people involved in the elections that Mr Quintana met also categorically rejected any involvement of international observers. “They aren’t needed,” he was told.

The envoy also took the opportunity to discuss acceptable approaches to demonstrations with the police chief, Khin Yi.

The issue was raised in terms of future protests rather than the brutal handling of the monk-led marches in 2007. “It’s important to peacefully control demonstrations, and force needs to be used proportionately,” he told the senior policeman.

Tin Oo, the deputy leader of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party the National League for Democracy, was freed on the even of Mr Quintana’s mission to Burma after nearly seven years in detention. But during his visit five other dissidents were imprisoned – including a Buddhist abbot and four women activists.

The four women were arrested last October after being accused of offering Buddhist monks alms that included religious literature, said Nyan Win, spokesman for the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by detained Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The women used to hold prayer services at Yangon’s Shwedagon pagoda for Ms Suu Kyi’s release.

The Buddhist monk, Gaw Thita was given seven years jail for violating immigration laws by making a trip to Taiwan last year, said his lawyer Aung Thein. He was also convicted of unlawful association and failing to declare possession of foreign currency.

On top of that, six detained political activists in Rangoon’s infamous Insein jail went on hunger strike a day before the UN envoy was due to visit the prison, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPP-B), a Thailand-based Burmese human rights group. They launched their week-long hunger strike after complaining that the prison authorities were denying them what they called “basic human requirements”. It was due to end on Thursday 25th February.

In a letter smuggled out of the prison, the political detainees complained that the rice that was given to prisoners was stale and mixed with small stones. “The bean soup and the sour vegetable soup often have insects in it and are dirty. We only get meat twice a week … and we get no salt,” said the letter.

The prisoners are denied appropriate medical attention or needed medicines, and are not allowed sufficient exercise, complained the prisoners.

In the letter activists said that although prisoners were allowed to receive books and newspapers from their relatives, all reading material was heavily censored. “Sometimes the pages are torn [out] and the books censored,” said the letter. “There is no regular access to newspapers, [and] when they do arrive, are often out of date,” compllined the letter.

The prisoners are also not allowed paper or pens. “If a prisoner is found with paper or pens, they are sent to the punishment cell called the ‘Dog Cell’, said the letter. “We are not allowed to write to our families,” the prisoners complained.

Last week, according to Mulim activists in Rakhune state, more than 70 inmates of Buthidaung prison also went on hunger strike in protest at the insufficient food rations. Their protests erupted after the prisoners, mostly non-Burmese, were denied a meeting with Mr Quintana when he visited Buthidaung prison.

But on the positive side, Mr Quintan found a child soldier – who had been sentenced to 7 years for desertion. He had been conscripted when he was 16, seized off the street in hi school uniform on the way home. He was arrested when he went home to see his sick mother less than six months after he was forcibly recruited.

When the envoy raised it with the Home Minister he at least responded positively, and maybe released soon. The ILO is following up the case.

But human rights groups still fear that these high-profile visits are only used by the regime for their own ends.

“When visits by UN envoys fail to achieve any progress, they allow the country to still claim it is cooperating with the UN, and leave the UN itself with little choice but to claim that the visits themselves constitute progress,” aid Mr Zawacki. “But in this case the special rapportteur is making it clear that the failure is the government’s fault.”

Although no spectacular break-throughs may result from this visit, the fact that senior members of the regime are engaged with representatives of the international community is significant, especially on human rights. Some Burmese leaders at the very top are hearing what the government needs to be done, especially if the elections are to be credible and to meet international human rights’ norms.

“If anyone expects that fundamental human rights changes are going to come about strictly through UN visits and other efforts they’re ignoring 20 years of history,” said Mr Zawacki. “Change will only come from within,” he added.

And the real problem is that the senior general Than Shwe, who makes all the decisions, may not be listening to any of it.

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