A Human Rights Commission's shaky rise in Burma/Myanmar

U Win Mra, chairman of the Myanmar's new National Human Rights Commission.
Credit: Patrick Winn

In Burma, officially titled Myanmar, the creation of a new National Human Rights Commission begs the question:

Can an army-backed government really create a commission to help scrub away the stain of human rights abuses?

Even when those abuses were largely committed by the same army?

In time, yes, said U Win Mra, a former ambassador and chairman of Myanmar's nascent National Human Rights Commission, on a recent visit to Bangkok, Thailand.

The commission, set up late last year by the country's reform-minded parliament, is still getting on its feet. Its chairman is still touring neighboring countries to receive pointers from other government-run human rights agencies.

So, when I asked whether his commission can properly investigate claims against the all-powerful army, he suggested that my question was premature.

"This is a very difficult question," he said. "You have to know that this is a country that has just emerged out of an authoritarian regime."

Win Mra says that, to most raised under that regime, human rights is an alien concept. Part of his new job will involve public awareness projects and weaving human rights education into the public school curriculum.

But the chairman is encouraged, he said, by the 20 to 30 complaint letters his office receives each day. This, he said, shows that the population is learning fast. (Anger over land confiscation is a common theme.)

But his nascent office has a major shortcoming: it doesn't investigate claims in "conflict areas," the remote regions claimed by armed ethnic groups in varying stages of ceasefire negotiations with the government. This is where the majority of Myanmar's abuses are likely taking place.

"To investigate in the conflict areas," Win Mra said, "is not appropriate at this present point in time ... we've enouraged both the government and the rebel sides to engage in a succesful negotiation process."

In a separate interview with the Myanmar Times, Win Mra said that his commission would remain immune to government coercion despite his previous job as a high-ranking official.

Citing the sheer newness of the commission, and the decades of heavy authoritarianism from which Myanmar hopes to emerge, might be a fair defense for now.

But to truly gain legitimacy, the commission will eventually need to prove it can pursue complaints against powerful figures -- and do so even in Myanmar's conflict-torn hinterlands.

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