Myanmar President Win Myint on Monday said that the country’s human rights situation has improved, but critics disagreed, pointing to violence targeting Rohingya Muslims, the harsh treatment of ethnic minorities, an about-face on press freedom, and crackdowns on civic groups.
Addressing an event in Yangon commemorating the 70th anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.N. document that sets out fundamental human rights, he also called on the government and civil society to work with the country’s human rights commission to further improve human rights conditions.
“Human rights which are the most fundamental rights of humankind need to be enjoyed without discrimination with respect to race, color of skin, gender, language, religion or political belief by all equally,” Win Myint said in a statement issued in the state-run Global News Light of Myanmar newspaper.
“Ignoring and disregarding human rights is tantamount to the destruction of humankind’s ability to reason and differentiate causes and effects and between good or evil,” he said.
Win Myint also said Myanmar is making efforts to teach, create awareness of, and provide training courses on human rights as it moves along a path to democratic transition.
Myanmar’s parliament adopted the Human Rights Commission Law in March 2014, which established the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) to give more protection to human rights. Between January and November, it received 2,818 complaints and took action on 966 cases that met the requirements of the complaint system.
But U.N. personnel, diplomats, and members of civil society organizations said Win Myint’s words rang hollow.
“As Myanmar undergoes a challenging democratic transition, peace process, and economic transformation, some are left behind,” said Knut Ostby, U.N. humanitarian coordinator and resident representative of the United Nations Development Programme, in a brief speech at the event. “Particularly the vulnerable, marginalized, and stateless.”
He later told RFA’s Myanmar Service that it was disappointing to see the recent convictions of human rights defenders such as three prominent youth activists who organized peaceful antiwar protests in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state earlier this year, and two Reuters journalists who reported on the extrajudicial killings of 10 Rohingya in Rakhine state during a brutal military crackdown in 2017.
On Dec. 7, a court sentenced Lum Zawng, Nang Pu, and Zau Jat to six months in jail and ordered them to pay a fine for their involvement in rallies in Kachin’s capital Myitkyina in which protesters called on the government to help civilians trapped in war zones by fighting in the northern state.
In September, a Yangon court sentenced the two Reuters reporters to seven years in jail for possessing classified state documents in a much-criticized case that human rights groups and media advocates have strongly condemned as a sham and a blow to press freedom.
“I think a modern Myanmar needs these people to speak out and needs these people to speak out openly,” Ostby said.
Plight of the Rohingya
In a reference to the plight of persecuted Rohingya in Rakhine state, Ostby said it is important to resolve the problem of statelessness in addressing Myanmar's human rights situation.
Because Myanmar views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, they are denied citizenship and access to jobs, freedom of movement, and basic services.
“For people to be able to contribute to building a prosperous and peaceful Myanmar, they need to have an identity; they need to have a clear path towards citizenship,” Ostby told RFA.
Thousands of Rohingya were killed during the 2017 crackdown during which security forces carried out indiscriminate killings, torture, rape, and arson against the minority group, prompting an exodus of more than 720,000 who fled across the border and into Bangladesh.
The government of Myanmar has largely denied that its forces committed the atrocities that U.N. investigators, rights groups, and some nations say amounted to ethnic cleansing, genocidal intent, or genocide itself.
“We now are accused of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity,” said Aung Htoo, a human rights lawyer and founder of Myanmar's Legal Aid Network. “When we talk about basic human rights, freedom of expression and assembly and the right to form organizations are getting worse.”
A spate of anti-Rohingya hate speech on social media has been blamed for inciting ethnic violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
“It is important to control hate speech because all human rights violations are related to hate speech,” said MNHRC chairman Win Mra.
Ethnic minority groups in other regions where civil wars are underway, including Kachin and Shan states, have been subject to arbitrary arrest and intimidation when fleeing violence, forcible recruitment by soldiers, forced forfeitures of land, gender-based violence, and restrictions on freedom of movement, including the denial of safe passage those fleeing conflict zones.
“The worst situation is for people in ethnic areas because their land rights are badly violated,” Aung Htoo said. “Their right to self-determination is also being violated.”
‘Government, people must work together’
Kristian Schmidt, the European Union’s ambassador to Myanmar, said it’s normal that it will take Myanmar, which emerged in recent years from decades of isolation and military dictatorship, a while to establish full protection for human rights.
“But I can also say the sooner you get there, the faster Myanmar will enjoy sustainable peace, progress, and better living conditions for everyone,” he told RFA.
Critics of the government inside the country say much more needs to be done to ensure basic human rights.
Ye Wai Phyo Aung, co-founder and research manager of the domestic group Athan which promotes freedom of expression, said he couldn’t believe that Win Myint said Myanmar’s human rights situation had improved.
He noted that officials have filed a growing number of cases against activists and protesters under the country’s Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law, which allows public demonstrations only if organizers first obtain permission from local authorities.
Government officials, military officers, and high-ranking monks have increasingly been invoking other repressive laws, such as Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act and Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Association Act, to stifle journalists, ethnic minorities, and members of the political opposition.
Article 66(d) criminalizes online defamation, while Article 17(1) criminalizes association with an unlawful group, such as an armed ethnic organization engaged in hostilities with the Myanmar military.
“The human rights situation in Myanmar is getting worse,” he said. “For instance, we don’t have permission to hold any ceremonies in People’s Square and Park [in Yangon], although we could do so in previous years. We have restrictions everywhere.”
“We don’t have any mechanism to protect people’s rights,” he said.
Judicial system reform
Myanmar journalist Myint Kyaw, a member of the Myanmar Press Council, said existing laws are used to control people instead of protecting them.
“The judicial system has threatened freedom of expression and the right to information,” he said.
Ethnic Chin human rights and women's rights activist Cheery Zahau said that flaws in Myanmar’s judicial system have been detrimental to the country's human rights situation.
“To have standard human rights in Myanmar, we need to reform the judicial system and work towards eliminating torture, persecution, and killings in the country,” she said.
Reported Kyaw Thu, Htet Arkar, and Thet Su Aung. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.