The UN’s special rapporteur on human rights, Tomás Ojea Quintana, spoke to DVB on Thursday about his latest mission to Burma. During the 10-day trip he visited displacement camps in Arakan state and riot-torn Lashio and Meikhtila. He also met with officials in Chin state. He says that as he arrived in Meikhtila his convoy was attacked by a mob of 200 people, an incident that the government denied.
You were met with demonstrators in Arakan state and Meiktila accusing you of bias toward the Muslim population. What is your reaction to that?
I was appointed by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations to help with human rights in all communities in Burma, that’s what I have been doing throughout my mandate since I started in 2008. And you may look into my reports, that I discuss the problems with the communities in Rakhine state, in Kachin state, and this time in Chin state. My reports are comprehensive on the humanitarian situations.
In Meikhtila you were faced with a mob which assaulted your convoy. Can you tell us exactly what happened and what precisely did the police do? And how did you feel? Have you received a response from the police or the local authorities?
Firstly let me clarify that I cannot confirm that these 200 people that descended over my car, punched, kicked the door and the windows, and shouted abuse, I cannot confirm that they were Buddhists. I really feared for my personal integrity. In addition, I saw the police nearby, standing by, while at least 200 people were all over my car.
I discussed this incident with the Chief of Police of Burma. He expressed his regret at what happened and we discussed my security in the upcoming days, particularly while addressing the media in Rangoon airport.
Physicians for Human Rights this week warned that anti-Muslim sentiment in Burma might reach ‘catastrophic’ levels and mentioned the word ‘genocide’. Do you see the situation spiraling? What measures must be implemented at a governmental level, a judicial level and a civic level?
The violence that erupted last year has caused victims on both sides, in both Muslim and Buddhist communities. On the other hand I’ve received allegations of killings in Muslim communities and I also personally visited Buthidaung precinct. I can confirm last year during the violence that hundreds of Muslims in detention were subjected to systematic use of torture. These are crimes that the government is obliged to investigate and to hold accountable those who are responsible.
In respect to solutions to the situation in Arakan state, I believe there is a need for building bridges between the two communities. That’s why I visited the monastery in Sittwe, where I had many conversations with monks. I also visited Aung Mingalar Muslim quarter in Sittwe and discussed this issue with Muslim leaders. However, the one who has the most important role in this situation is the government of Burma. When I say government I mean both state and central authorities.
The central and state authorities need to work in coordination towards solutions. It seems that in some circumstances there is a disconnect from policies coming from central government and implementation from state.
I believe that what is needed is a full party to help build bridges. And as far as I understand the government is now seeking the help of a third party to engage with both communities.
I am concerned though about the policy of separation and segregation. This policy seems to become permanent though it was meant to be transitory. The problem is that the policy of separation is mainly affecting Muslim communities because they don’t have freedom of movement. They cannot leave the places where they are sheltering.
So my recommendation to the government is to start looking into different ways to address the problems in Arakan state that are different from separation and segregation.
On Wednesday night you mentioned the challenges ahead, including the ‘historical need’ to reconcile with ethnic groups. Can you elaborate? Can you tell us more about your talks in Kachin, Chin and Shan states?
I think the most important challenge of this transition in Burma is the reconciliation between the central government and ethnic minority groups. This is an historical conflict that Burma has suffered throughout the years, particularly the civilian population, villagers, ordinary people.
This is a challenge and the government is addressing it with a consistent commitment to finding solutions. I welcome each of the ceasefire agreements the government has reached but I also believe that parallel to the ceasefire agreements what is needed are measures at the grassroots level.
The ordinary people from these communities who suffered the consequences of the violence need to be involved and need to believe that this country can bring a better future to the people of Burma.
I want I will insist on that the ordinary communities in ethnic areas need to be consulted properly. The role of women is very important in this regard and women need to be consulted in respect to how to implement ceasefire agreements. And those refugees who would like to return to Burma – they will definitely have something to say about how to implement ceasefire agreements.
How would you rate progress on the Latpadaung issue following your talks with the Implementation Committee?
I had a good meeting with the implementation committee of the Latpadaung copper mine. I was informed about different measures taken to compensate those who have lost their land and this is ongoing. I think the existence of this implementation commission is a good sign.
The government is trying to address what this kind of project can bring to communities. At the same time, I am concerned about the arrests of activists who I believe deserve to be released. Now there is a democratic transition in Burma, freedom of expression needs to be guaranteed.
In this case these people have been arrested because they were demonstrating their interests and the interests of their communities. Demonstrations cannot be friendly – I’m not talking about violence – but demonstrations are precisely meant to express concern, disagreement. That’s how freedom of expression and speech works in democratic societies.
To what extent are you satisfied that the Burmese government has addressed the matter of political prisoners, and what still mechanisms need to be in place to ensure that political opposition voices continue to be heard?
Of course I welcome the statement by President Thein Sein that by the end of this year all prisoners of conscience will be released. I know that the government is working with the political prisoners committee to establish names, numbers and locations, so then they can proceed with their release. Although the committee is not working quite properly, I hope it will see good results in the near future.
I hope that included in the lists of political prisoners are those in detention in Arakan state, particularly in Sittwe. They may not be political prisoners but they prisoners under arbitrary arrest. In Sittwe prison I met Dr Tun Aung who is a prominent Muslim leader. My conviction is that he was arrested arbitrarily and deserves to be released.
What steps do you propose for the security of the Rohingya community in Burma and in the region? Apart from a call to amend the 1982 Citizenship Law, what other measures do you propose Burma take? Have you been ensured that the proposed two-child policy will not be implemented?
I was informed by government authorities that there is no two-child policy regulation. However I was told that in the past, while the Nasaka [border guard] forces were operating in Arakan state, the practice of a two-child policy might have been implemented. I think that the government gradually understands the importance of letting all parties become involved to solve the situation in Arakan state.
In this regard I hope that humanitarian access is granted to UN agencies and I hope that reconciliation in Arakan state becomes a government priority. There is no other way to find solutions in the state except through reconciliation. Let me say this: the issue of trust, truth and justice is still alive.
Before arriving in Burma I was encouraged to see the commemoration of the 8-8-88 pro-democracy demonstrations. I welcomed the news that the government allowed this kind of demonstration as it shows to society that the past cannot be forgotten. And it is necessary to review the past to build a better future.
Some of the text has been edited for clarity