Myanmar President Thein Sein reshuffled the National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) on Thursday just as civil society groups issued a scathing report criticizing the authorities for not addressing its weaknesses under a new law that institutionalizes the body.
Under a presidential order, Thein Sein revamped the previous 15-member commission, removing nine officials and adding five new members in a newly constituted 11-member body.
The previous commission has been accused of ignoring thousands of complaints it has received since its formation three years ago, and civil society groups say the panel has lost the trust of the people due to a lack of transparency.
Two local nongovernmental organizations, Burma Partnership and Equality Myanmar, slammed a recently passed law which will institutionalize and dictate the role of the MNHRC from 2015, saying it does not ensure the panel will be independent enough from the government to carry out its mandate.
“The MNHRC received many reports from the people [since its formation], but we don’t know how effectively they have been investigated by the commission,” Aung Myo Min, executive director of Equality Myanmar told RFA’s Myanmar Service, adding that the panel does not effectively communicate with the country’s civil society groups.
“We heard that some of the cases were referred to the relevant ministries, but the ministries don’t have enough power to resolve these cases. [The commission] is attempting to resolve them without challenging government policies, which lessens its effectiveness and makes it lose the people’s trust.”
Thein Sein’s office did not elaborate on why the commission membership was revamped.
Chairman Win Mra was among those maintained in the revamped body, while previous member Sit Myaing was promoted to vice-chair.
Non-governmental groups were not consulted on the new appointments which comprised mostly former civil servants, reports said.
Burma Partnership and Equality Myanmar said Win Mra and Sit Myaing had both served as Myanmar’s ambassadors to the United Nations during the previous military junta rule when human rights abuses were rampant.
The two officials had consistently denied that rights violations had occurred when they were UN envoys.
Other maintained in the commission were Nyunt Swe, Nyan Zaw, Than Nwe and Khin Maung Lay, while the new members are Zaw Win, Yu Lwin Aung, Myint Kyi, Mya Mya, and Soe Phone Myint.
According to the report by the two groups, of particular concern was the MNHRC’s failure to probe reports of human rights abuses amid communal violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and armed conflict in Kachin state, two areas where the panel “has done almost nothing.”
“The MNHRC, in times when an independent, principled investigation into human rights abuses is required, has proven to be ineffective and has actually contributed to the culture of impunity and hate in certain parts of [Myanmar],” said the report, titled “Burma: All The President’s Men.”
Commission chairman Win Mra had explicitly stated that the panel could not investigate abuses in active conflict zones, it said, “ruling out Kachin state and the ongoing atrocities there.”
The report also accused the MNHRC of failing to thoroughly investigate a “massacre” of more than 40 Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine state’s Du Char Yar Tan village.
The MNHRC had said it found no evidence of the massacre, but the report claimed the 40 were “killed with police involvement,” citing information from the United Nations and aid groups.
“Old forms of human rights violations continue and in some areas of the country they have increased significantly despite the new government and establishment of the MNHRC,” Khin Ohmar, coordinator of Burma Partnership, said in a statement on Thursday.
“Religious violence and the violence and war crimes committed by the [Myanmar] Army are resulting in the most serious of human rights violations in [Myanmar’s] long suffering ethnic areas. It is deeply disappointing to see that the MNHRC, despite the atrocities, is not taking a stand and an action for the victims.”
Additionally, the report listed criminal charges against journalists, as well as rights abuses linked to land confiscation for foreign-invested special economic zones, as issues that the commission has not seriously investigated.
Soon after taking power from the country’s former military regime in 2011, Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government issued an executive order for the creation of a national human rights commission.
The creation of the commission was immediately met with criticism as it was not approved by parliament, while the panel lacked a legislative text with a clearly defined mandate that adhered to universal human rights standards.
In March, the government enacted a law which will go into effect in 2015, providing the MNHRC with a mandate.
But Burma Partnership and Equality Myanmar said that under the new legislation, the commission lacks independence from the government and, in particular, the President’s Office, delegitimizing it as an institution.
“The funding of the institution as well as the benefits for individual members are under too much control of the executive, potentially limiting their independence,” it said.
“As for dismissal, the enabling law does not offer guarantees that prevent arbitrary dismissal which is crucial to effectiveness and independence,” the report said, adding that commission members can be dismissed on order of the president or union parliament speaker.
Regarding the selection of staff members, “there are no provisions to ensure an open and transparent recruitment procedure that would safeguard against nepotism.”
Aung Myo Min told RFA that he was “unsatisfied” with the law, which did not incorporate recommendations by civil society groups during its draft phase, and expressed concerns that NGOs had not been part of the selection process for the new MNHRC members announced Thursday.
“According to the draft [version of the] law, the commission has [the mandate] to discuss with the public and civil society organizations, but we haven’t been made aware of anything that the commission has done,” he said.
“The commission members are the people charged with solving our problems, but we [civil society groups] were not asked to select the new commission members. If the commission members don’t have any motivation to change, the commission won’t develop. It would be for show only and the people won’t trust or depend on it.”
The report said that in order to be seen making substantive progress, the MNHRC “needs to effectively tackle one of the myriad deteriorating trends in the human rights situation in [Myanmar]” to demonstrate a degree of independence and the political will to investigate rights abuses.
It called on Myanmar’s government, parliament and military to allow the panel unrestricted access to active conflict and ceasefire areas with guarantees of protection, and to amend the enabling law to ensure that the committee consists of more civil society representatives.
The report also called for a change to the enabling law to set up an independent mechanism for dismissal procedures, and to establish parliament as the source for the MNHRC funding and salaries for its staff members.
The MNHRC should regularly engage with civil society organizations, and speak out publicly on cases of arrest and intimidation of rights defenders, it said.
Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.