Debate

Sweden can make a difference in Burma

The Rohingya minority group is being subjected to brutal abuses in Burma, but the human rights commission that is supposed to protect them is making the situation worse instead. Sweden, which has previously provided financial support to the Commission, can make a difference by supporting civil society instead. It writes two human rights activists from the Swedish Burma Committee's partner organization Progressive Voice.

Reports of the military's brutal crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority in the state of Rakhine are shocking and outrageous. Enthusiasm over the reforms of recent years and the election of a new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi seems to have caused observers to forget the total dominance of the military in Burma.

The situation in northern Rakhine is dire. The UN calls what happened a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing". Sweden's Foreign Minister Margot Wallström (s) goes even further and calls it a crime against humanity. More than 647 Rohingya have been hunted down to flee neighboring Bangladesh. Entire villages have been destroyed and the fugitives testify to horrific abuses.

The Commission on Human Rights makes it even worse

Despite far-reaching and systematic violations of the human rights of the unprotected civilian population, Burma's National Human Rights Commission, which has long received support from Sweden, has not acted to protect the Rohingya. On the contrary, the Commission's action has diluted and aggravated the situation.

There are many examples of the Commission's inadequate action. A very serious one is that the Commission did not mention the military's abuses against civilian Rohingya in its statement following a visit to crisis-stricken Rakhine. Instead, the statement focused on "counter-terrorism" and recommended that even more soldiers be deployed in the area. Like many others who do not recognize the Rohingya's right to live in Burma, the Commission does not use the word 'Rohingya'. Instead, they use the very derogatory word "Bengalis" to describe the group. The Rohingya are denied the right to identify their own ethnicity, in violation of human rights.

The Commission's mission is to "create a society in which human rights are respected and protected in accordance with the UN Declaration of Human Rights". Nevertheless, the Commission has not taken any concrete action against the Burmese military, which has long committed serious violations of the human rights of the civilian population.

Another example of the Commission's inappropriate behavior is the case of freelance journalist Ko Par Gyi, who in 2014 was tortured and murdered by Burmese soldiers. Following international pressure, the Commission investigated the case, but the final report did not mention the torture and contained a large number of errors. The soldiers were acquitted in a military court.

In another case, Brawng Shawng reported the murder of his daughter to the Commission, after she had been murdered by soldiers in northern Burma. The incident was never investigated and instead Brawng Shawng was convicted of false accusations.

The military has impunity

The events illustrate a deep-rooted problem in Burma - namely that the military enjoys total impunity. This impunity is protected by the country's constitution, which was adopted in practice by the military in 2008 and which prevents the taking of responsibility for abuses such as extrajudicial executions, torture, rape and sexual violence, forced labor and ethnic uprising. The President of the Commission has even said that abuses in the country's conflict areas will not be investigated. The Commission can and does not want to challenge the current situation of serious abuses in Burma.

Civil society's confidence in the Commission is exhausted. The drop that caused the cup to overflow was a high-profile incident in which two teenagers were locked up and tortured while working for a tailor in Yangon. Instead of providing assistance, the Commission pressured the family and the victims to accept financial compensation from the tailor. Four commissioners were forced to resign following the scandal's attention, but public confidence in the commission appears to have run out.

The Commission needs to be redone

The question is whether the Commission has been appointed at all to defend the rights of vulnerable groups and stand up to the Burmese military. Given the serious human rights situation in the country, especially in northern Rakhine and the areas where there is armed conflict today, more needs to be done to address the situation and to bring perpetrators to justice. Countering impunity for serious crimes must be a priority for the Commission, but so far it has proved both reluctant and unable to do so.

It is time for a re-examination of the Commission. It is also time for international actors to push for a thorough recast of the Commission. It must have the capacity and political will to effectively and independently fulfill its mandate and its role as a national human rights institution. Sweden, which until recently has provided financial support to the Commission, can contribute by supporting civil society's efforts to demand responsibility and work for institutional reforms by the Commission. Today, very few stand up for the rights of the Rohingya. Burma's National Commission on Human Rights must be one of them.

Khin Ohmar
Aung Khaing Min

On Thursday, December 14, Khin Ohmar will attend a seminar on Burma's challenges at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Read more here "

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