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The Myanmar Human Rights Commission was set up in September 2011 by appointment of President Thein Sein as part of the sweeping democratic reforms his quasi-civilian government initiated in Burma following decades of army rule.
Khine Khine Win joined the 11-member commission as a director in 2014, and part of her job responsibilities include raising awareness of the commission and arranging human rights trainings for the government and army officials.
She has a bachelor’s degree from Burma and a doctorate degree in agronomy from Japan’s Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology. Prior to joining the commission, the 41-year-old worked at the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development. Recently, she visited Myanmar Now’s office for an interview.
Since its inception, the commission – chaired by Burma’s former Ambassador to the UN Win Mra – has come under heavy criticism from human rights groups. They said it has done little to investigate complaints filed with it and that it lacks authority and independence from the President’s Office. The commission’s investigation into the 2014 killing of journalist Par Gyi while in army custody unearthed his body, but was slammed for failing to call those responsible to account.
The commission had acknowledged some of its limitations, saying that ethnic conflict regions and Arakan State’s communal violence fall outside its authority.
Question: The commission is reportedly facing restraints during investigations into rights abuses, such as restrictions on what government documents it can access. What can you tell us about these restrains?
Answer: So far, we do not need to ask for such documents.
For example, when a complaint is lodged against an officer of the General Administration Department for violating human rights, we compile the evidence before consulting with legal experts. If the evidence is found to be concrete, we send the complaint together with our findings to the Ministry of Home Affairs. The General Administration Department may have to reply to the complaint within 30 days. If the officer was found to be guilty, the department takes action against the officer and informs our commission. We then hand over the letter to the plaintiff to present the result.
We also helped to recover a lawyer’s license that was unfairly revoked. We have not investigated cases concerning state security. In the case of the death of (journalist) Ko Par Gyi, military generals testified for the case. So we did not experience any constraints in our procedures.
Q: Do you think some commission regulations are limiting its activities? For example, is it possible for the commission to ask for a review of a court verdict?
A: We will try to ask for a review of court verdicts if many complaints come in. We would seek the help of parliamentary committees to do so through the public’s support.
Q: Does the commission face other constraints in its work?
A: By law, respective government bodies need to reply to the report of our commission within 30 days. But the law does not mention what will happen if they fail to reply within this period. Some government bodies have no regard for our commission. We have some difficulties with this issue.
For example, the chief minister of Bago Region refused to testify about the March 2015 crackdown on protesting students in Letpadan in his region. But we recorded his failure in our annual report. We will submit this report to parliament. We hope our work can improve under the new government.
Q: Do you think the commission should be able to advice on amending laws to make it more effective?
A: We need to compare this issue with foreign countries. For example, although both Thailand and India have human rights commissions, the former’s commission has no authority to (recommend) amending laws, while the Indian commission can make recommendations on it. Granting this power depends on the government. We expect to gain more authority to increase effectiveness and the power of our commission. However, we need experts to point out the legal weaknesses for the commission, as we cannot do it only by ourselves.
Q: Can you give an example of a successful investigation by the commission?
A: I can only say what’s a success from my point of view. I joined the commission in 2014. The commission helped in the murder case of Par Gyi, whose body we managed to dig up. President Thein Sein telephoned our commission to ask us to investigate this case as he is believed our commission could work efficiently in this case.
Q: Why did the president ask the commission to investigate Par Gyi’s death? He supposedly has the power to instruct the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Defence to carry out an investigation.
A: He can instruct these ministries to do so. We could do our best, we helped to bring his body to the cemetery in Rangoon.
Recently, [rights group] Assistance Association for Political Prisoners filed a complaint with a video recording of a prisoner being beaten at the Moehnyin Prison. After we contacted the prison department, they informed us they have fired the staff responsible for this prisoner abuse. The situation of prisoners has improved after (the commission started in) 2011. We have received many complaint letters that show growing public trust in our commission.
Q: Police and a group of civilian thugs called the Swan Arr Shin cracked down on a peaceful student protest at Rangoon City Hall in March 2015. It caused a public outcry. Did the commission investigate these events?
A: No, we didn’t, but we monitored this case.
Q: Burma’s military remains powerful and often above the law. Does the success of investigating a complaint depend on whether it involves senior military authorities or not?
A: No complaints have come against the top officers. All the complaints against the military we received concerned land confiscation cases. As we helped in these complaints, the military has returned the farmlands or provided compensation. We received over 1,700 complaint letter in 2015, reaching more than 10,000 complaint letters to the commission since it was formed in 2011.
Q: Some NGOs say the army and ethnic armed groups from both sides of the conflict are violating human rights. Will the commission take action in such cases?
A: We don’t go to such conflict areas because the (ethnic armed) groups have failed to guarantee security for us. Violations of human rights might be happening by both sides. But we have issued statements on the hardships of women and children in conflict, regarding their living conditions, education and access to healthcare services. We cannot intervene to stop conflict.
Q: Aung Linn Htut, a former Burmese military officer who is now living in exile, revealed a story of massacre by the military at Christie Island in 1998. The 2008 Constitution provides immunity for junta-era crimes. Can the commission take any action in case of such allegations?
A: It depends on the decision of the 11 members in our commission and I am not taking a role (on accepting cases). I think any human rights abuse case can be submitted to our commission. As the law for the commission has no time restriction (on cases), any human right abuse can be filed on behalf oneself or others.