UN envoy critical of Burma to visit

The UN’s special envoy to Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, has been a granted a visa to visit the country and will arrive next week.

The announcement by Burma’s Information Minister Kyaw Hsan at the weekend that Quintana would be allowed in comes exactly a year after the Argentine lawyer was denied a visa. Speculation surrounding the reason for the refusal centred on Quintana’s public backing of a UN probe into war crimes and human rights violations in the country.

He told DVB at the time that “human rights abuses are ongoing in the country because of militarisation in the border areas.

“The problems are still there, and I don’t see a real commitment from authorities in Myanmar [Burma] to solve this problem, other than further militarisation.”

Despite the change of government in Burma in March this year, his support for the inquiry appears to remain strong. In May he told a Bangkok press conference that, “A commission of inquiry is an option, and I’m not dropping it.”

He is scheduled to visit the capital Naypyidaw to meet ministers, the names of whom have not been disclosed, before heading to Rangoon to meet with opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

The issue of a UN commission of inquiry (COI) into Burma has divided international opinion and is a particular taboo for the Burmese government, which has barred international human rights groups from the country and repeatedly denied the existence of egregious rights violations, despite numerous reports to the contrary.

The UN has launched some 50 COIs in its history but has often struggled to gain substantial support. The US, Canada and Australia have all backed calls for the inquiry, and have been joined by a growing number of European states.

Yet Germany, a key EU member state, is allegedly a staunch opponent of both the commission of inquiry and the EU’s sanctions on Burma, which were enacted in reaction to its human rights record.

The UN is also apparently divided on the issue. Vijay Nambiar, an acting UN envoy to Burma and Ban Ki-moon’s chief of staff, appears less concerned about developments in the country, telling a press conference earlier this year that he was “very encouraged” by the new government.

This came after he was allegedly persuaded by Li Baodong, China’s ambassador to the UN, that the idea of a COI was “dangerous” and “counter productive”. China has been accused in the past of using its Security Council influence to sabotage the probe.

Fears over the ability of Quintana to both enquire openly whilst in the country and persuade his UN colleagues of the need for an investigation were expressed by Bo Kyi, head of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners–Burma (AAPPB), a Thailand-based support network and advocacy group.

“Importantly, he’s not a person who can make decisions on situations in Burma – his mandate is to only say whether there are improvements or not,” Bo Kyi said. “So it depends on how much cooperation he will receive from the government.”

Bo Kyi also reserved some criticism for the trip itself, claiming the government “is only inviting him into the country to get some credit”.

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