A senior United Nations human rights expert has called on Burma to establish a "truth commission" to investigate human rights abuses committed mostly under the previous military junta's harsh rule, as the country enters a new era of liberalization.
U.N. Special Rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana, speaking late Saturday after a week-long visit to the country, also called for an "independent and credible investigation" into the June violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and stateless Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine state.
He said that he had discussed with various "stakeholders" in Burma, including ethnic groups, political party leaders, and members of parliament, a proposal for establishing a truth commission based on a model used by South Africa to address rights violations during apartheid rule.
The military junta especially under retired general Than Shwe's two decades of ironclad rule has been accused of widespread rights abuses.
The well-documented abuses, including forced labor, killings, torture, displacement of ethnic minority people, and use of rape as a weapon to terrorize them, may amount to war crimes, some U.N. officials and human rights groups have said.
"I remain of the opinion that addressing grievances from decades of human rights violations is crucial for democratic transition and national reconciliation. Acknowledging the suffering of victims and allowing them to heal will help to prevent future violations from occurring," Quintana said in a lengthy statement after his Burma visit.
He said that the Burmese parliament, as the only multiparty and multiethnic public institution, is the most appropriate body for the creation of such a probe commission.
"As a first step, there should be a process of consultation with all relevant stakeholders, including victims of human rights violations, in order to get their advice and views on how this truth commission should be shaped," he said, adding that the U.N. and other international organizations could provide assistance in the endeavor.
Quintana, who also visited violence-hit Rakhine during his trip, said the human rights situation in the western Burmese state is "serious."
"I am concerned ... at the allegations I have received of serious human rights violations committed as part of measures to restore law and order. These include the excessive use of force by security and police personnel, arbitrary arrest and detention, killings, the denial of due process guarantees, and the use of torture in places of detention," he said.
"While I am in no position to be able to verify these allegations at this point in time, they are of grave concern."
He said it is therefore of "fundamental importance to clearly establish what has happened in Rakhine State and to ensure accountability."
"Reconciliation will not be possible without this, and exaggerations and distortions will fill the vacuum to further fuel distrust and tensions between communities," he said, calling for "an independent and credible investigation into these allegations of human rights violations as a matter of urgency."
The Burmese government has moved to restore law and order in Rakhine state, including the deployment of additional security forces to the area, and the establishment of a commission to investigate the incidents that sparked the communal violence.
Both the Rakhines and the Rohingyas have been blamed for sparking the violence, but human rights groups say the minority Muslim Rohingya group bore the brunt of action by Burmese security forces.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said government forces had sided with ethnic Rakhines and committed killings and rapes of Rohingyas.
Witnesses told HRW they saw security forces opening fire on Rohingya villagers fleeing their homes and groups of armed Rakhines traveling together with police, the rights group said.
Quintana also highlighted what he called "systematic discrimination" against the Rohingya community, citing a host of concerns including the Burmese government's denial of citizenship or legal status to the minority ethnic group as well as limitations on their freedom of movement and marriage restrictions.
"I hope that steps will be taken to address these issues, including a review of the 1982 Citizenship Act to ensure that it is in line with international human rights standards," he said, referring to the law which barred citizenship for the Rohingya group.
Burma does not recognize the Rohingya as one of its ethnic groups, considering them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh even though they have lived in the Southeast Asian country for generations.
The U.N. says that about 800,000 Rohingyas live in Burma and that they are one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
Quintana also said he received allegations of attacks on civilians, sexual violence, torture, and recruitment of child soldiers in northern Kachin state, where violence between troops and Kachin rebels resisting calls for dialogue have displaced at least 50,000 people.
"I must therefore reiterate that it is vital for these allegations to be addressed as a matter of priority," he said.
President Thein Sein's administration has struck ceasefire agreements with 10 ethnic armed groups since taking over from the junta in March last year, aside from a series of democratic reforms including releasing hundreds of political prisoners.
Reported by RFA's Burmese service. Written in English with additional reporting by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.