The Myanmar government replaced its entire National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) on Tuesday, replacing all previous members with new commissioners. But according to some observers, the re-formation comes without any changes to relevant legislation or transparency in the selection process.
The 11-member MNHRC will be led by chairman U Hla Myint, the Myanmar representative to the ASEAN intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and vice chair Dr. Nanda Hmun, the retired permanent secretary of the Ministry of Religion and Culture.
All commissioners are retired civil servants—directors, directors general, deputy directors general, permanent secretaries—from ministries and government bodies such as the Bureau of Special Investigation, the Union Attorney General Office, the Union Auditor General Office, the General Administration Department, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and government medical offices.
One commission member is a retired official from the Office of the Commander-in-Chief (Army), another is a professor from the Department of Law at Yangon University and a third is a former ambassador.
Looking at the list, U Aung Myo Min, director of human rights advocacy group Equality Myanmar, said it was unclear “whether this is a rights commission or a club for former civil servants.”
The MNHRC was first formed by presidential decree in September 2011 and re-formed three years later in September 2014 after the first MNHRC law was enacted. The MNHRC law mandates that the rights commission be re-formed every five years, though the current re-formation has come three months after the September deadline.
“Civil society groups have been calling for more diverse representation in the MNHRC throughout the years. The commission lacked representatives who have specialized expertise in human rights affairs and who come from diverse backgrounds,” said U Aung Myo Min. “This re-formation also falls short in both regards and the president showed no consideration, so it makes the situation worse.”
Civil society organizations (CSOs) have been calling for the government to re-form the commission to include CSO representatives who have the experience in human rights affairs necessary to more effectively protect and promote human rights in Myanmar.
In an open letter to the President on Dec. 10, 2019, 20 CSOs called for the president to consider including CSO representatives on the Candidates Selection Board for new MNHRC members. The day before, they held a press conference highlighting the need for change.
The open letter followed a report from the groups, titled “Myanmar: A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action Please,” which analyzed the performance of the MNHRC on cases from 2018 and 2019 and determined that the rights body failed to address human rights violations, especially those committed by the Myanmar military.
In August, human rights advocates from 24 CSOs also met with parliamentarians from the Civil Rights Committee and the Bill Committee and urged them to amend the MNHRC law, which was enacted in March 2014, to amend the criteria of the Candidates Selection Board.
The Candidates Selection Board now consists of the union attorney general, a representative from the Myanmar Bar Council, two Union parliamentarians, one representative from the Myanmar Women Affairs Association, two members of CSOs officially registered under Myanmar law, the chief justice, the minister of home affairs and the minister of social welfare, relief and resettlement.
Rights advocates have called to amend the law to remove the minister of home affairs and the representative from the Myanmar Women Affairs Association from the board and replace them with representatives from groups working for the advancement of women, those with disabilities and the LGBTQ community.
“It is like spitting in the faces of CSOs,” said Thinzar Shunlei Yi, coordinator of the Action Committee for Democracy Development. She said that the list of new MNHRC members shows the lack of “political will” regarding human rights by the Myanmar government.
She added that she and her fellow advocates were “deeply concerned” and “upset” because, in addition to Parliament’s failure to amend the legislation, the selection of new commissioners was “not transparent, not inclusive and not rights-based.”
She also pointed out that the Myanmar government has missed the opportunity “to build a stronger domestic rights protection mechanism, just as Myanmar is facing the genocide case filed by the Gambia at the International Court of Justice [ICJ]” and that the missed opportunity “also contradicts what the State Counselor said at the ICJ.”
Maung Saung Kha, the director of Athan, an organization promoting the right to freedom of expression, said that he also does not expect much from the new re-formed commission. He added that the previous MNHRC members also covered up human rights violations by the government or the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, giving only the pretense that they were intervening in rights abuse cases.
“It looks like the government re-formed the commission not to protect human rights but to more easily control administrative matters,” said Maung Saung Kha.
The re-formation of the MNHRC came a day after the government invited Myanmar nationals who are living outside the country to contribute their expertise to the national development of Myanmar.
“If we look at this commission as an example, it raises concerns about whether the government would really accept those who have expertise [that the country needs],” said U Aung Myo Min.
He added that the government needs to change its mindset that only retired civil servants can serve the country. “It will be difficult for those people who want to come back and contribute to Myanmar’s development, because [the government’s] gestures and words are in contradiction,” he said.
The outgoing MNHRC members faced criticism for not intervening in numerous high-profile human rights abuses cases.
The MNHRC failed to properly investigate the arrests of 275 civilians and the killings of six civilians by the Myanmar military in Rakhine State in April and May 2019.
It also failed to investigate the murders of two ethnic Kachin villagers in 2018 despite the presence of eyewitnesses, instead agreeing with the Myanmar military’s claim that the two victims were members of the Kachin Independence Army.
Civil society groups also said that the MNHRC has failed to protect human rights in the cases of the performers in the Daungdohmyoset (Peacock Generation) traditional thangyat performance troupe. The performers have been sued several times by the military in different jurisdictions for criticizing the military in their satirical performances in 2019.
In October 2016, four members of the MNHRC resigned following a public outcry over their negotiation of a financial settlement in a high-profile abuse case in which the owners of Ava Tailor shop in downtown Yangon beat and cut two teenage maids, forcing them to work for five years with little or no pay.
The MNHRC was then restructured in April 2018 but most members were still public servants or those affiliated with the Tatmadaw.
The MNHRC’s intervention into cases of abuse against workers on offshore fishing rafts in Ayeyarwady Region and Mon State in November is ongoing.