Activists in Myanmar have expressed outrage at a high-profile case of two teenage maids who were tortured and abused by their employers and what they view as an improper response by the country’s human rights commission.
Ma San Kay Khaing, 17, and Ma Tha Zin, 16, endured five years of brutal physical abuse by a prominent family of tailors for whom they worked as maids in Kyauktada township in the commercial capital Yangon. They said the family members stabbed them with scissors and knives, and burned them with an iron.
Police arrested three suspects-—the shop owner and her two adult children—earlier this week and charged them with human trafficking.
The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC), which accepted the girls’ case on Sept. 15, pressured their families to negotiate a monetary settlement with the alleged abusers rather than pursue legal action, according to local media reports.
The MNHRC mediated a deal in which the shop owner and her children paid 4 million kyats (U.S. $3,150) to one girl and 1 million kyats (U.S. $790) to the other in order to avoid punishment.
They did not express remorse for their actions and laid the blame on the girls, accusing them of disrespect while they were employed, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
Rights activists protested against the MNHRC’s actions outside its offices on Tuesday, prompting the commission to hold a press conference on Wednesday during which it attempted to defend its actions.
The MNHRC said it was only trying to get compensation for the two girls during its mediation and that legal recourse against the shop owner and her children was still a possibility.
“Three MNHRC members made inquiries about the complaint letter filed by the girls’ parents and arranged for a meeting with the home owners and the parents,” said commission member Zaw Win.
“They were told they could solve the problem between themselves, and that there were two courses of action—one is to go to court, and the other is to find a monetary solution,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“After some deliberations, the two sides agreed to end the case with compensation for the girls,” he said. “Our conscience is clear. We did our best with human rights basics and loving kindness.”
A bad buy-out
Rights activists, lawyers and lawmakers say the MNHRC should not have proposed and accepted this "buy-out."
“The MNHRC has not done anything solid for the people whom they should stand up for and give protection to,” said activist Thet Swe Win.
“The members should be pursuing legal action,” he said. We cannot accept them acting like brokers and mediators outside the law. We strongly condemn them and want the commission reformed.”
Prominent legal activist and human rights lawyer Robert San Aung said it is against the law to let the perpetrators of a serious crime go unpunished.
“Frankly speaking, it is like covering up a police case and the victims not getting full legal assistance or justice.”
Susanna Naw Hla Soe, a National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmaker who represents Yangon in Myanmar’s upper house of parliament, noted that the body’s Women and Children’s Rights Commission has received complaint letters about the case.
The commission asked for a report from the MNHRC on what it has done and how it has handled the case of the two abused teenagers, she said.
Created in September 2011 under Myanmar’s former military-backed government, the MNHRC has a government mandate to promote and safeguard the fundamental rights of Myanmar citizens enshrined in the country’s constitution.
It has come under fire for a perceived reluctance to investigate human rights violations that involve the military.
In 2014, the number of commission members was reduced to 11 from 15 retired bureaucrats and academics.
Reporting by Kyaw Zaw Win and Waiyan Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.