Abuses ‘could accompany’ Burma reforms: UN

Serious human rights concerns in Burma remain to be addressed, including legislative and judicial weaknesses, further prisoner releases and security for minority communities, the UN’s leading human rights expert on the country has warned.

Tomas Ojea Quintana yesterday raised concerns about inequitable development priorities and ongoing ethnic strife in Kachin state, as well as systemic political flaws at a meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

While he welcomed positive changes in Burma, including the four prisoner amnesties over the past year, he urged that a “comprehensive and thorough investigation be undertaken to clarify records and determine accurate numbers [of remaining political prisoners].”

He also warned against a risk of backtracking on the progress made to date and raised the possibility of a shift towards different types of abuses in a changing economy.

“Given the wave of privatisations last year and the expected increase in foreign investment, along with the new government’s plans to accelerate economic development, I also fear an increase in land confiscations, development-induced displacement and other violations of economic, social and cultural rights,” he said.

Quintana called on the Burmese government to develop a plan to “officially engage with ethnic minority groups in serious dialogue and to resolve long-standing and deep-rooted concerns.”

His comments come the same week as a new report by the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) highlights ongoing cases of forced labour and movement restrictions in Karen state.

“In Toungoo District, villages under the control of Tatmadaw Military Operations Command continue to face regular and ongoing demands for forced labour, specifically during military re-supply operations and road-building activities,” said the report.

Between November 2011 and February 2012, locals say they were forced to transport food and road building equipment, drive in front of bulldozers in potentially landmine-affected areas and to help with road building.

“We always have to do forced labour for the Burmese Army so we don’t have time to do our own work,” a 40-year-old witness told KHRG.

Villagers also reported having to pay arbitrary fees of at least 500 kyat ($US0.64) at each checkpoint along the Toungoo to Kler La road, as well as procure written travel permission documents for an additional 1,000 kyat ($US1.30) each time.

Locals are forced to resolve these issues as best they can with the local authorities, who are accustomed to abusing their position of authority. It underlines the need for the government to hold the military to account, the group says.

Last week, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) warned that forced labour remained a serious problem in Burma, despite the government’s ostensible efforts to address it. A new labour law, which legalises the right to strike for the first time since 1962, came into effect last week, but concerns remain about abuses that fall outside its remit.

“The government has utterly failed to rein in the army, which is responsible for most of the forced labour, or ensure that those responsible are prosecuted and face appropriate criminal penalties if convicted. Other serious human rights abuses continue throughout the country, with little accountability for those committing these crimes,” said a report by ITUC.

Quintana emphasised that the 1 April by-election will serve as an important test for Burma, but urged the government to address allegations of campaign interference. He added that human rights violations must be acknowledged and those responsible held to account.

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