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  4. December 1999 - Volume 18
  5. Visit to Myanmar (Burma) by the Australian Human Rights Commissioner

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FOCUS December 1999 Volume 18

Visit to Myanmar (Burma) by the Australian Human Rights Commissioner

Press Statement of Commissioner Chris Sidoti

Following discussions between Foreign Ministers I visited Myanmar, as it is officially called, or Burma, as it is still generally known, from 1 to 4 August 1999. The principal purpose of the visit was to discuss with officials of the Government of Myanmar the nature, roles and functions of independent national human rights institutions established in accordance with the relevant international standards, the Paris Principles.

While in Yangon (Rangoon) I met with senior ministers and officials of the government, with the heads of mission of United Nations agencies and of the International Committee of the Red Cross and with the vice chairman of the National League for Democracy. A full list of the persons I met is attached for information.

My discussions with representatives of the government focused on national human rights institutions and on other avenues for exploring exchange and cooperation on human rights matters.

I must admit that I was surprised by the expressions of support at several of these meetings for the establishment of an independent institution in accordance with the Paris Principles. The Minister for Home Affairs, Tin Hlaing, in particular assured me that his government was interested in pursuing this proposal. I advised the Minister of the various national institutions already established in the Asia Pacific region and of the work of the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions in strengthening existing institutions and promoting the establishment of new institutions. I expressed the view that there would be particular difficulties in establishing a fully independent institution in a political system such as that in Burma but that we were willing to assist if the government decided to pursue the proposal.

I also discussed with ministers and government officials other possibilities for exchange and cooperation, such as in human rights training for civil servants, police and the military.

In my discussions with the National League for Democracy, Vice Chairman U Tin Oo informed me that the NLD had misgivings and that in the NLD's view my visit, though well intentioned, was misguided. We discussed the nature of national human rights institutions and the work of the Asia Pacific Forum. U Tin Oo expressed doubts that Burma would be prepared to establish an independent institution. I assured him that only institutions that complied with the Paris Principles were eligible for membership of the Asia Pacific Forum. I also emphasized my commitment to discuss better mechanisms for the promotion and protection of human rights with anyone who was open to that exchange.

My visit has resulted in the identification of three areas for immediate attention.

First, we will work further with the Government of Myanmar to provide more information about independent national human rights institutions and the Government will give further consideration to establishing such an institution. The Government will be invited this week to send an observer to the next meeting of the Asia Pacific Forum to see human rights commissions in action and to meet with members of other commissions in the region. We will discuss on that occasion what further steps can be taken to assist the Government in its consideration of the proposal.

Second, the Government of Myanmar is interested in exploring possible exchange and cooperation in human rights training for government officials and the police. We will provide examples of possible curricula and processes for this training within the next month. We would also like to explore the provision of human rights training to the military. Other human rights commissions in the Forum have extensive experience in providing human rights training for police and military and their assistance will be sought for this proposal.

Third, the Government of Myanmar has proposed the development of a joint project dealing with the right to health. Government officials will give further thought to what possible projects could be undertaken. We will also develop project proposals in this area for further discussion.

My visit to Burma was undertaken with understandable caution on all sides. The Government ministers and officials did not know what to expect of me and I did not know what might be possible in working with them. The NLD of course also has every right to be cautious. I can say at the end of this first visit, however,

  • that an exchange of views on human rights has begun where none existed before
  • that we have been able to identify some areas in which cooperation may be possible and
  • that there is evidently a strong commitment to taking the process further.

Our objective has to be not exchange or discussion for its own sake but better promotion and protection of human rights in Burma. Only time will tell whether this objective can be met.

Meetings in

·Government of Myanmar

HE Col Tin Hlaing, Minister for Home Affairs
HE U Win Aung, Minister for Foreign Affairs
Dr Than Nyunt, Chairman, Civil Service Selection and Training Board
His Honour U Aung Toe, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
U Tha Tun, Attorney-General
Maj Gen Soe Win, Director General of the Myanmar Police Force
Director General of the Prisons Service
U Ba Than Aung, Director General of the Chief Justice's Office
Daw Thin Thin, Director General of the Attorney-General's Office
Col Sit Myaing, Director General of the Social Welfare Ministry
Lt Col Hla Min, Office of Strategic Studies, Ministry of Defence
Director of the Immigration Ministry
U Tin Maung Aye, Director, International Organisations Division, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Representative from the Ministry of Religious Affairs
Dr Kyaw Win, Chairman of the Myanmar Red Cross Society
Ambassador Wynn Lwin, Myanmar Red Cross

·International Agencies

Mr Patrice Coeur-Bizot, Resident Representative, UN Development Program and UN Coordinator for Myanmar
Mr Canh Nguyen-Tang, Chief of Mission, UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Mr Leon De Riedmatten, Head of Mission International Committee of the Red Cross

·National League for Democracy

U Tin Oo, Vice Chairman

*Commissioner Chris Sidoti can be contacted in this e-mail address: ChrisSidoti@HREOC.GOV.AU