Burma’s first National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) began work in October, and has since become the focal point of aggrieved Burmese who use the body to file complaints of human rights abuses carried out by state actors. The group has also been given permission to access prisons across the country, and recently sent a team to Kachin state to meet with refugees displaced by the conflict.
Dr Than Nwe is among fifteen former ambassadors, government officials and academics who make up the NHRC. It claims independence from Naypyidaw but Burma observers have noted concern at the inclusion of ex-government officials in the rights body. Moreover, a number of those included, such as Chairman Win Mra, a former ambassador to the UN, are known to be staunch defenders of the Burmese government. But, Than Nwe, its work has already made an impact.
What kind of work is the NHRC prioritising?
Firstly, individual complaints [from aggrieved people]: we are looking into them everyday and following up with necessary procedures. Some of the complaints submitted to us were not relevant with human rights issues but more to do with their individual rights and family matters. We said in the newspaper what can be attributed as [a human rights affair] and what can’t but they didn’t seem to understand. So currently we are discussing whether to conduct workshops to educate [people about] what human rights are. We are also coordinating with UNICEF.
We also discuss when the time is right to make our voice heard on certain matters such as prisoners’ release. And we travelled to Kachin state in a group to study and discuss the situation there [with regards to the conflict and refugees].
A letter sent by you a while back to President Thein Sein requesting the release of prisoners was followed by the October amnesty. But a second letter you sent last month hasn’t resulted in anything.
Actually we requested two things [in the last letter]: to release the prisoners and that if it doesn’t happen soon, to transfer them to locations reachable and contactable by their families. I learnt that most of the [prisoners] have now already been transferred to such locations. Also, we are hoping that more will be released soon and we actually believe this will be the case.
But you used the term ‘prisoners of conscience’, which most top-ranking government officials have denied.
Conscience means you express something, and people may interpret that differently.
What about the discrepancy in the numbers of political prisoners in Burma? You said 500 prior to the October amnesty, but other groups say close to 2,000.
For that, we said in our request [letter] that the number we described was an ‘approximate estimation’ [of the actual number]. Initially, there were over 500 people in the list; more than 200 have been released so far and there are around 300 remaining. We inquired thoroughly with the Prison Administration Department and the home affairs [ministry] and these are the names accepted [as ‘prisoners of conscience’] by both sides through negotiations.
Have you been visiting many prisons?
We haven’t made it so far but we have a plan to this month – to observe living conditions of [the detainees] inside prisons. We’re sure it will happen this month.
Do you have any plan for more letters requesting further reforms by the government?
We will follow up with what’s necessary – prioritising on specific different things that are deemed important at the current time. For example, we just sent a group to Kachin state to observe the situation there and did things we thought were necessary to help.
What did you find in Kachin state?
There will be an official announcement. Local authorities said they have taken measures so far as to make it able for children who arrive in the refugee camps to go to school so they can continue their education without missing semesters.