Bangkok (Mizzima) - The United Nations' human rights envoy to Burma is currently half-way through a six-day visit to the country, assessing the current human rights situation. During his trip, the special rapporteur, Tomas Ojea Quintana, hopes to meet privately with some of the Burma's key political prisoners, according to UN sources.
But many analysts and diplomats in Rangoon believe the trip is only a "show-boat" mission, agreed to by the junta to give them face before the regional grouping of the summit South-East Asian leaders of ASEAN meet in Thailand in two weeks time.
"The SPDC [State Peace and Development Council] invited the UN VIPs only to prevent a strong declaration being adopted at the ASEAN summit criticising them," a senior diplomat told Mizzima, on condition of anonymity.
The UN envoy made his first visit to Burma last August, and is keen to see what developments there has been since, before he reports to the UN Human Rights Council, scheduled for later next month.
But pro-democracy activists and human rights advocates believe the visit is very timely, as more than 300 political dissidents have been sentenced to stiff jail terms in the past six months – around 20 leading student activists from the pro-democracy movement 20 years ago were each sentenced to 65 years in prison for their alleged involvement in the anti-prices protests in September 2007.
On the eve of his visit, UN officials told Mizzima that the envoy had hoped to meet senior members of the junta, opposition leaders and representatives of the country's ethnic minorities. He is particularly keen to talk to the detained opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, according to UN sources, but is not overly hopeful that a meeting with her will be arranged, they added. Mr. Quintana had also planned to visit some of the key ethnic minority areas in Burma's border regions, including Arakan, Karen and Kachin states.
"It is important that the envoy visit ethnic areas – and tries to set his own agenda," said a UN expert who declined to be identified. "It is good for him to show the junta that he does not want to be herded around and sees places other than Rangoon and the capital Naypitdaw.
He was heavily criticised by opposition groups after his last visit for not being adventurous – flying in a helicopter with the former deputy foreign minister Kyaw Thuu around the Irrawaddy delta – which was devastated by Cyclone Nargis last May – on a superficial inspection tour of the government's aid efforts. Nor did he try to see Aung San Suu Kyi on that visit, telling Mizzima that was too sensitive a request.
So far the envoy has been able to visit Karen area, and is expected to visit the Kachin region bordering China in the north before he leaves Burma on Thursday [19th February]. It is highly unlikely that he will be allowed to go to Arakan, a UN official in Rangoon told Mizzima. And that may yet prove to be the crucial visit, if the envoy is able to make his trip count for anything other than helping the regime dodge regional and international criticism, especially over its handling of its Muslim minority.
The issue of the Rohinyga refugees, who have fled Burma's north-western province, will be high on the envoy's agenda on this visit, a senior UN official told The National on condition of anonymity. The issue of the Rohingyas has surfaced again recently after several thousand, trying to get to Malaysia in small boats from Bangladesh, were towed out to sea a set adrift by the Thai military authorities after they were intercepted in Thai waters. They were given little food or water, and their boats engines disabled. Around a thousand ended up in the Andamans and several hundred made it to a small Indonesian island.
It has become a major regional issue – with the Thais defending their actions and now calling for a regional conference to discuss the matter. "The problem of the Rohingyas is a regional issue and needs to be tackled regionally," the ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan told Mizzima earlier last week. Thailand and Indonesia have agreed to hold a bilateral meeting in Bali month, Thailand's foreign minister told journalists last week. Thailand hopes to use the Bali process to resolve the Rohingya issue. The ASEAN summit will also discuss the matter later this month, according to Thailand's Prime Minister, Abhsit Vejjajiva, who is hosting the ASEAN meeting.
These Burmese refugees are members of the ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority, who live in northern Arakan state, in western Burma bordering Bangladesh. They have fled social and religious persecution by the Burmese military authorities there. Most human rights activists believe that the abuses committed by the junta in the Muslim-dominated areas of western Burma are worse than anywhere else in the country.
"Burma's Rohingya minority is subject to systematic persecution – they are effectively denied citizenship, they have their land confiscated, and many are regularly forced to work on government projects," Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International's Burma researcher told Mizzima. "The regime creates conditions and circumstances that make it clear to the Rohingyas that they are not wanted or welcome in the country; so it's no surprise that they try to flee the country by the thousands," he added.
During his mission to Burma last August, Mr. Quintana suggested to Burma' ruling junta that they should implement four key human rights elements before the national elections which are scheduled to held in 2010. These include legislative reforms to ensure human rights protection, the progressive release of political prisoners, the independence for the judiciary and training on human rights for the army.
But it is the issue of political prisoners that is certain to be the key issue on this visit. The UK-based human rights group, Amnesty International says the number of political prisoners doubled last year to over 2,100. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) has begun a renewed campaign for the release of all political prisoners. Last week the NLD launched a petition calling on the country's military rulers to free all political prisoners, including the group's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi who has spent more than 13 of the last 20 years under house arrest.
The signature campaign is aimed at showing the government and the world that Burma's people support freedom for all political dissidents, the NLD spokesman, Nyan Win told Mizzima. These signatures will be collected from all over Burma, despite restrictions on political activity by the country's military rulers, he added.
"The release of political prisoners is by far the most important issue for Burma at the moment," according to the Burmese dissident and democracy campaigner, Aung Din, now living in exile in the United States. "How can there be free and fair elections if most of the opposition politicians are behind bars," he added.
Mr. Quintana is also expected to be pre-occupied with this issue during this visit. He hopes to see some of the key political prisoners, including the student leaders Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi.
But he will also be seeking clarification of Aung San Suu Kyi's legal position. Lawyers for the opposition leader insist that under the country's draconian security regulations Aung San Suu Kyi can only be held for a maximum of six years. This should run out at the end of May -- but as the opposition leader was held in prison immediately after her arrest in 2003 and was allowed to have a hysterectomy before being returned to house arrest – the regime believes October is the date her detention started.
Most analyst and diplomats in Rangoon believe there is no way she will be released anytime this year. The regime does not want senior opposition figures to compete in the elections planned for next year, though they would like a token contest to prove the elections are free and fair. The Constitution already bars Aung San Suu Kyi from standing, as she was married to a foreigner – the renowned British academic and Tibet scholar Michael Aris.
If the regime feels it has effectively sewn up the elections – it may be tempted to release political prisoners in the lead-up to the elections, including Aung San Suu Kyi. This may then encourage the NLD to field candidates, at the last moment, but with the odd stacked against them.
No matter what the regime may be thinking, political prisoners and a genuine dialogue between the military and pro-democracy leader are the key issues that are going to dog them in the international arena, as well as at ASEAN. The regime knows this only too well, and over the last few months have been conducting a diplomatic charm offensive. Three weeks ago, Ibrahim Gambari, the UN special adviser to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon made another unsuccessful foray into Burma's political mine-field. The UN's chief for refugees, that UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guiterrez is also expected to visit Burma in the next few weeks.
Mr. Quintana had been hoping to come earlier than the current visit, but his trip was put off several times, according to UN officials. The authorities were suggesting March, but the envoy insisted that it had to be this month – and that in the last two weeks of February he would be gathering information for his human rights report in the region, irrespective of whether he was give permission to visit Burma. That was enough to make the junta relent and allow him in – their charm offensive would certainly have been deflected if they refused to receive him.
But most analysts and activists are understandably pessimistic that the UN envoy will emerge from this visit with any concrete results.
"We have seen it all before, the regime allows high-profile UN visits to help deflect international attention and pressure from them," the former political prisoner and spokesman for the Burmese government in exile, Zin Linn told Mizzima. "They come, they talk and they leave, and nothing really changes."
Just in case anyone is under any illusion that these UN visits lead to an improvement in the human rights situation in Burma or helps political dialogue, the regime showed its true colours on the eve of the envoy's visit – by extending the house arrest of the NLD's deputy chairman of the NLD, U Tin Oo for another year and sentencing two other party activists, Nyipu and Tin Min Htut to 15 years in jail on three offences, including the electronic act – which means breaking the regime's ban on unauthorised use of computers. More importantly, their lawyers were denied access to the court during their trial.