“Myanmar is moving forward in many areas, but must stem the spread of incitement of religious hatred,” says UN expert

YANGON / BANGKOK / GENEVA (22 August 2013) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, said the country is moving forward in many areas “which has brought positive changes to the human rights situation, and has the potential to bring further improvements.” However, he warned about remaining critical challenges, including the historical need of reconciliation with ethnic groups and the spread of incitement of hatred against religious minority groups.

“The initiatives being implemented at the highest levels by the Government to stop more fighting in the country needs to be accompanied, in parallel, with measures at the grassroots level to also engage local and rural communities in the process of peacebuilding and reconciliation,” Mr. Ojea Quintana said* at the end of his 8th official visit to the country that took him to Rakhine State, Chin State, Kachin State and Shan State, and Meikhtila in Mandalay Region.

The UN independent expert called for more space to be opened up for “all voices to be heard, particularly the voices of women, including in the peace negotiations, so communities have trust and belief that this process will lead to a better future.”

He also called on the Government to fulfill its obligations in stemming the spread of incitement of religious hatred directed against minority communities, through strong public messaging, the establishment of the rule of law, and policing in line with international human rights standards.

The Rapporteur welcomed increasing space for civil society, including the recent commemoration of the 1988 pro-democracy protests: “The past is unavoidable and will always come up in a country that has suffered decades of conflict and oppression,” he stressed. “The Government together with civil society has to build on this progress towards addressing the past through mechanisms to establish the truth and bring reconciliation.”

He also drew attention to the fact that Myanmar still has prisoners of conscience, some of whom he met during his visit to the Insein prison in Yangon, and other detention centres in Rakhine State. “They should be released immediately and unconditionally,” he reiterated.

“President Thein Sein has announced that by the end of the year all remaining political prisoners will have been released,” the expert said. “The Presidential statement should be accompanied by the respect of every person in Myanmar to freely express and demonstrate their opinions.”

Kachin State
Mr. Ojea Quintana welcomed the recent agreement signed by the state’s authorities and the Kachin Independence Organisation, especially regarding the relief, rehabilitation and resettlement of internally displaced persons (IDPs). However, he expressed concern over its implementation.

“The information I have received about these areas is extremely concerning, particularly with regard to food security,” he said, noting that UN humanitarian agencies had only been provided with access to non-government controlled areas once between July 2012 and July 2013.

The independent expert also noted the lack of consultation with internally displaced communities on their return. “Any initiative to return IDPs to their places of origin has to be done with the free, prior and informed consent of the ethnic communities concerned, and also involve consultation with humanitarian agencies working in the State, including UN agencies,” he stressed.

Chin State
“I went to Mindat and Kanpalet, and noted that restrictions on Christians have eased notably in 2013, though there remain some shortcomings in terms of bureaucratic obstacles towards opening spaces for Christian worship,” the Special Rapporteur said, while stressing that in the Na Ta La schools, equal access for both Buddhists and Christians needs to be ensured.

The expert noted that Chin State has serious levels of underdevelopment. “With the country opening up, development will come, but it is important that this process occurs in a participatory, transparent, accountable and equal manner,” he said. “The process of development and the exploitation natural resources there should benefit the Chin communities, who have suffered from neglect from the central government over the years.”

Meiktila in Mandalay Region
In Meiktila, the Special Rapporteur’s planned visit to an IDP camp had to be cancelled after a group of protestors aggressively confronted him: “My car was descended upon by a crowd of around 200 people who proceeded to punch and kick the windows and doors while shouting abuse.”

In March, following weeks of incitement of religious hatred within the community, violence targeting the Muslim community erupted in Meiktila, leaving over 10,000 persons displaced. “The fear that I felt during this incident, being left totally unprotected by the nearby police, gave me an insight into the fear residents would have felt during the violence last March, as police allegedly stood by as angry mobs beat, stabbed and burned to death some 43 people.”

The expert highlighted the role of the state in preventing such incidents from spiraling out of control: “I must highlight the obligation of the police to act immediately to control violent mobs running riot in communities, and protect all people regardless of their religion or ethnicity; something it seems they have not done during the violence in Meiktila.”

After meeting with residents who witnessed the scenes last March, he stressed, “The violence in Meiktila has highlighted to me the dangers of the spread of incitement of religious hatred in Myanmar, and the deadly environment that this can create. The central and state government has an obligation to address these worrying trends.”

Rakhine State
Mr. Ojea Quintana noted that the state and central government are working well with the international community to address urgent humanitarian needs of both Rakhine Buddhists and the Muslim communities.

“However,” he said, “my overriding concern is that the separation and segregation of communities in Rakhine State is becoming increasingly permanent, making the restoration of trust difficult. This continues to have a particularly negative impact on the Muslim community.

“The severe restrictions on freedom of movement in Muslim IDP camps and villages remain in place,” he said. “This has serious consequences for fundamental human rights, including access to healthcare, education, as well as access to livelihoods.”

“Furthermore, there continues to be cases of humanitarian workers facing intimidation by local groups when attempting to provide healthcare to the camps, which compounds the problem of access to healthcare,” the expert warned.

During his ten-day visit, the Special Rapporteur met in Naypyitaw and Yangon with Government officials, members of Parliament and the judiciary, the National Human Rights Commission, and civil society.

Mr. Tomás Ojea Quintana (Argentina) was appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council in May 2008. As Special Rapporteur, he is independent from any government or organization and serves in his individual capacity. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/AsiaRegion/Pages/MMIndex.aspx

(*) Check the full end-of-mission statement: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=13649&LangID=E or

UN Human Rights, country page – Myanmar: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/AsiaRegion/Pages/MMIndex.aspx

Read the latest progress report on Myanmar by the Special Rapporteur: A/HRC/22/58

For more information and media requests, please contact: Daniel Collinge (+41 79 444 3707 dcollinge@ohchr.org) or write to sr-myanmar@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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