We won’t be influenced by the govt
Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission U Win Mra on the commission’s terms of reference, how it plans to investigate complaints of human rights abuses and why he believes it can reduce rights violations
September 19 - 25, 2011
U Win Mra, a former ambassador selected to chair the National Human Rights Commission, at his home in Yangon last week.
Pic: Aye Zaw Myo
What were the circumstances that led to this commission being formed?
Human rights is not a popular topic here. We didn’t have organisations to work on human rights issues, although Myanmar is accused of human rights violations. There was a human rights committee under the Ministry of Home Affairs but this commission has been formed by the government to promote and protect human rights according to the  constitution. National human rights commissions have previously been formed in four of the 10 ASEAN countries – Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia – so we are the fifth country to have a commission.
What standards will the commission be based on?
The commission is formed under the Paris Principles. They were defined at the workshop on National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights held in Paris in 1991. According to those principles, the commission must be allowed to make decisions independently. The commission shouldn’t be under a government ministry.
How will the commission do its job?
Our main task is to investigate complaint letters. If we find that there have been violations of human rights, we will contact the concerned person, company or government department. If they need to change, we will tell them to change. If they don’t listen, we will send a letter to the president advising him to take action. And we will also conduct our own investigations into whether human rights are being violated.
What do you think about the composition of the commission?
The current members were chosen by the president. In the group, we have members from various national races, including Chin, Karen, Kachin and Shan. I am Rakhine. I think this will help us be more effective in solving issues related to ethnicity. The same goes for religious issues; our group contains people of different religions. When you carry out promotion and protection of human rights, you won’t be successful unless you can deal with the international community. I think former ambassadors like myself are good at this. And other members of the commission have backgrounds in sectors such as education, law, environment, labour and social welfare. The committee members have the experience and knowledge to solve many different issues.
You are all retired government officials. Do you feel the government still has any influence over you?
We have heard a lot of criticism since the commission was formed, such as, “They were government officials once. If they follow what the government says, how will they promote human rights?” People doubt whether we can do our job effectively. Yes, we were government officials in the past. Government officials have to follow the policy of the government, whether it matches their personal beliefs or not. Now we have been appointed to work freely. I believe that we will be successful if we can use the experience we gained from our previous posts. The Paris Principles do not state that the [human rights] committee should not include former government officials. Even current government officials can sit on the commission – they are not allowed to vote on decisions but they can advise and give their opinions freely. Our commission won’t hesitate to decide fairly on human rights issues concerning the government.
How do you see the current state of human rights here?
What are human rights? What rights should people enjoy? Here people are not familiar with human rights. For example, sometimes foreign newspapers we subscribe to do not arrive. Myanmar people may think there’s a problem at the post office. But it’s a violation of the right to freedom of communication. Here, some people often knock on doors asking for donations. In some countries, it’s considered a violation of the right to privacy. These are established norms in Western countries but here they are not yet so. We don’t even know what the benefits of human rights are. We [Myanmar] do what we are told and we are very patient. It’s rare that we make requests and demands. So, when there are sudden demands, that’s when conflicts happen. We should practice the rights that we should enjoy and we also need to educate people on what human rights are. To promote and protect the human rights, it can’t be done only with the commission and we need cooperation from the government, non-government organisations, civil society and activist groups.
What has the commission done since it was formed?
We are holding meetings to write the terms of reference. If the committee starts to accept the complaint letter right now, I think we’ll get many letters from all over the country. It won’t be easy to handle them all. We need to have standardised norms for the complaint and investigation process. After we write the terms of reference we will send it to the government and get approval, after which we can start accepting complaints. Our terms of reference need to be officially approved by the authorities to become active. We are trying to do this process as quickly as possible.
Which issues do you expect to handle?
Many [issues]. When the UN special rapporteur on human rights Mr Quintana came, he stressed the issues of hostilities in border areas. These issues cannot be handled in a short time. We will aim to decrease [human rights] violations in prisons if they are occurring – they happen in prisons all over the world. If we are to protect human rights, we have to abandon these kinds of habits. If the government side also collaborates, these things will surely decrease even if they don’t disappear totally.