Ally of Human Rights, or Alibi of Abuse?
Members of Parliament discussed the 2016 Annual Report of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) in Parliament last week, and while the MNHRC continues to take on cases of domestic abuse, it is clear that it is still reeling from its failures to act ethically and find justice for the victims of the infamous Ava tailoring shop case in 2016 as criticism from parliamentarians demonstrates.
That case involved two domestic workers, aged 16 and 17, who had endured torture for many years working for a family of the Ava tailoring shop in Yangon. After the case was brought to light by journalist and Chief Editor of Myanmar Now, Ko Swe Win, the MNHRC, rather than pursuing criminal justice for the victims and their families, instead pressured the families to accept financial compensation. The fallout from the case, which sparked public outcry, included the resignation of four MNHRC commissioners and strong criticism from civil society and Parliament. (In a separate development, journalist Ko Swe Win was arrested at Yangon airport on Sunday, 30 July on charges of the infamous Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law for allegedly insulting ultranationalist monk, U Wirathu)
The mishandling of the case by the MNHRC and indeed misconduct of its commissioners only adds to the trust deficit between the MNHRC and rights-based civil society. This was exemplified at the time by an online petition calling for an investigation into the MNHRC, as well as a letter sent to President U Htin Kyaw signed by 142 civil society organizations urging reform of the commission. This trust deficit is based on the composition of the body of commissioners associated with the previous regime, the lack of transparency of selection of commissioners, the reluctance to investigate abuses in conflict-areas, particularly those committed by the Myanmar  Army, a lack of independence from the executive and the military, a lack of pluralism and insensitivity towards victims of human rights abuses. Furthermore, since the National League for Democracy (NLD) came to power in 2015, the MNHRC appears to have been side-lined by the Government. In March 2016, just before the NLD took office, spokesperson U Win Htein, responded to a question about the MNHRC by saying, “I don’t know. I don’t care about them.”
While it is a positive step for transparency that the activities of the MNHRC are being discussed publicly in Parliament, as is a recently launched MNHRC Facebook page, more substantive action will need to be taken to address the trust deficit. Given the lack of trust among civil society in the ability or even political will of the commission in its current composition, the next selection of commissioners, due in 2019 when their current terms end, will be eagerly awaited, especially given the lack of progress and even deterioration in the human rights situation in the country.
Yet it is not just the perceived inability of commissioners to adequately protect human rights that is a problem. The enabling legislation that gives the MNHRC its mandate – the 2014 Myanmar National Human Rights Commission Law – has gaps and problems that mean it is not in compliance with the Paris Principles, the international set of standards for national human rights institutions. MPs must address these problems, ensuring that representatives from civil society organizations, whether registered or non-registered, are on the Selection Board, explicitly giving the MNHRC a mandate to investigate abuses in conflict-affected areas, establishing quotas to include a gender-balanced and ethnically and religiously diverse composition of commissioners, and ensuring financial independence from the Government.
The previous government used the MNHRC as a shield from international criticism of certain human rights incidents or situations, such as the torture and murder of journalist, Ko Par Gyi by the Myanmar Army in 2014. Yet to go from alibi of abuse to ally of human rights there must also be political will from the NLD-led Government to revitalize and enable the MNHRC to independently and effectively fulfil its mandate to promote and protect human rights in Myanmar. As seen in other country contexts in the region, national human rights institutions have the potential to be a positive force for human rights, and to be effective institutions to find justice and accountability which would otherwise be elusive. The responsibility is on all stakeholders, on Parliament to push through legislative change, on the Government to give political backing, and on the MNHRC itself to be open to criticism, in order to gain trust from the victims of human rights abuse that desperately need an ally to fight their corner.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
Myanmar: Free Khaing Myo Htun, Protect Free Speech
By Fortify Rights
Myanmar: Free Wrongfully Detained Kachin Christian Leaders
By Fortify Rights and Human Rights Watch
Myanmar: UN Expert lists Catalogue of Concerns as Human Rights Slide in Worsening Conflict
By Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Human Rights Council President Announces Appointment of Marzuki Darusman as Chair of Myanmar Fact-finding Mission
By Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Adoption of a New National Manual on Vital Registration: A Major Step Towards the Fulfilment of the Rights of Every Child in Myanmar
By The United Nations Children’s Fund
Joint Statement: CSOs call on Appeal Court to overturn the unjust conviction of land activist and human rights defender Tep Vanny; for an end to judicial harassment against her, and for her release from prison #FreeTepVanny
By 27 Regional Civil Society Organizations
U.S. Democracy Assistance in Burma: USAID and State Could Strengthen Oversight of Partners’ Due Diligence Procedures
By U.S. Government Accountability Office
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”