Statement by Mr. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro,

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar

59th Session of the General Assembly

New York, 28 October 2004


Mr. Chairman,

I have the honor to introduce my interim report on my activities and developments relating to the human rights situation in Myanmar in the first seven months of 2004. I would also like to take this opportunity to bring you up to date on subsequent developments.

The preparation of my report was constrained by the fact that it was impossible for me to carry out a fact-finding mission to Myanmar.  During my speech to the Commission on Human Rights this past March, I explained that although I had not been able to visit the country since November 2003, the authorities had agreed in principle to my next visit and that I was trying to work out mutually convenient dates with them.  On several occasions since then, I have requested cooperation from the Government.   However, I still have not received an invitation to visit Myanmar. 


Mr. Chairman,

            The end of December will mark my fourth year on this mandate.   During this period, I carried out six visits to Myanmar and reported as objectively as I could on my findings.  I acknowledged positive developments, noted the ongoing efforts, and offered recommendations regarding the problems that remained.   Despite the lack of access to the country in the past year, I have endeavored to follow the same working methods.  My statements and reports to the General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights attest to this.  With or without access to the country, I intend to pursue my work in the same spirit of independence, impartiality and solidarity with the peoples of Myanmar.


Mr. Chairman,

This year saw the revival of the National Convention, which had been adjourned since 1996.  It was convened from 17 May to 9 July 2004.  It marked a beginning of the implementation of the seven-point road map for national reconciliation and democratic transition announced by the former Prime Minister, General Khin Nyunt, in August 2003.  The National Convention was attended by 1,076 delegates, compared to 702 participants at the previous Convention.  The increase was largely made up of representatives of ethnic nationalities, including ceasefire groups that had emerged in the new political environment created as a result of ceasefires between the Government and former armed groups.  In terms of potential for conflict resolution, the 2004 National Convention may be a unique opportunity for ethnic minorities.  That being said, the challenges should not be underestimated. The ceasefire groups, comprised of ethnic minority-based former armed opposition groups, were included in the "specially invited guests" category.   They raised issues of local autonomy for the ethnic minority areas, and some substantive discussions with the authorities reportedly took place about these concerns.  The outcome of these discussions remains to be seen at subsequent sessions of the National Convention, the dates of which are yet to be announced.  The National League for Democracy (NLD) and other political parties that won a majority of seats in the 1990 elections did not participate.  Proceedings at the National Convention took place in the context of the six objectives and the 104 principles already laid down during the previous Convention.


            While noting serious concerns about the current National Convention process, in particular with respect to inclusiveness and the procedures governing its proceedings, I hope that its final outcome will bring some concrete solutions that will benefit the entire population of Myanmar.  Now, after the recent changes in the Myanmar Government, many fear that the achievement of those outcomes may become more difficult.   What could be a turning point towards this direction is the fulfillment of some fundamental human rights requirements.


            I have stated this on many occasions, and will repeat again, that a credible process of national reconciliation and political transition is not possible without two fundamental conditions: the early release of all political prisoners, and the relaxation of restrictions which continue to hamper the ability of political parties and ceasefire partners to operate.  I am concerned that the number of political prisoners has remained roughly the same for several years, with over 1300 political prisoners still in prison. Among them are those who remain imprisoned despite the fact that their prison sentences have expired, as well as very old, frail and ill prisoners, about whom I  have received reports of inadequate medical treatment, despite assurances by the Myanmar authorities that the close cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross continues to be effective.


In view of the current National Convention process, it would be particularly fitting if large numbers of political prisoners were to be released; this has not happened at least in the past two years.  It is my firm belief that such releases would be seen as a strong sign of the seriousness of the Government’s commitment to political transition and would strengthen the confidence of political parties and the society at large in the process and enlist their support.  It would relax some of the social tension which I sense is rooted in skepticism, fear, frustration and lack of hope.  It is my belief that there can be no way forward for the country when the majority of the population has no effective participation in government decisions.


Similarly, a credible process of transition from a military regime towards democratization requires the restoration of freedom for political parties to operate and conduct their activities.  Significant progress in this respect would contribute to improving the atmosphere, inside and outside the country, and help normalize its relations with the international community, including the United Nations, international financial institutions and private investment actors, for the benefit of all peoples in Myanmar.  In my reports, as well as in my letters to the Myanmar authorities, I shared - without much success - my thoughts about human rights reforms that would help create an enabling environment for the process currently under way in Myanmar.


The information I received during the reporting period indicates that the situation with regard to the exercise of fundamental human rights and freedoms in Myanmar has not substantially changed, and may have even worsened. The effects of the events of 30 May 2003 in Depayin have yet to be fully reversed and those responsible for the attacks, injuries and deaths continue to enjoy impunity.  There are still reports of people being arrested, tried and sentenced to prison for peaceful political activity under unjust security laws.  The most recent case in point is the reported arrest on 21 September of 58-year-old former political prisoner U Ohn Than who allegedly staged a solo protest outside the UNDP building in Yangon calling for a UN commission to investigate the events of 30 May 2003.   


At this juncture, I believe that restoring immediately the freedom of all politicians so that they can play a constructive role in the transition, and undertaking substantive discussions with the NLD and other political parties, as well as reaching a settlement with ceasefire groups that takes their suggestions into account, would contribute significantly to the success of a transition process.  In this respect, it is essential that the Government of Myanmar resume its cooperation with the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General.  The continued efforts of the Secretary General to engage with the Myanmar authorities deserve praise and support, particularly his initiative to convene a meeting in New York at the end of last month with his Special  Envoy and concerned Member States to discuss the lack of progress toward national reconciliation and democracy in Myanmar.   Although it is obvious that in the end it is up to the peoples of Myanmar to decide their future and their own internal reform, I believe they can benefit from external support for an enabling environment that would help to shape the ongoing political process in a more inclusive and credible fashion. Let us always remember the need to listen to the voices of 53 million people living in Myanmar and abroad.  No real process of development and democratization can be successful without the participation of all these key players, the peoples of Myanmar.


While attention to the current political process in Yangon is well warranted, let us be reminded of the broader picture of the human rights situation in the whole country, which shows no improvement.  I remain very disturbed by continuing allegations of human rights violations, particularly in ethnic minority areas affected by counter-insurgency operations or the presence of large contingents of the armed forces not involved in counter-insurgency activity.  These areas have reportedly witnessed widespread violations of economic, social and cultural rights, such as deprivation of means of livelihood through land and crop confiscation, destruction of houses, excessive taxation, and extortion.  Continuing reports of the use of landmines, forced labour, and sexual violence indicate that fundamental human rights are in peril in these areas.  There are consistent reports that the situation in one ethnic area, namely north-western Rakhine State, is particularly affected: mosques have been demolished, the freedom of movement of the Bengali-speaking Muslim minority has been excessively restricted and the vast majority of them are de facto stateless.


I have recently received a report containing numerous allegations of continuing sexual violence against ethnic women by the armed forces throughout Myanmar since 2003.    Earlier this year, another report relating to Karen women came out with similar allegations.  I take note of the preparations being made by the Myanmar Government to dispatch investigative teams to all the areas and sites connected or relevant to the investigation of each case mentioned in both reports.  These allegations are serious, and I would like to renew to the Myanmar Government my offer to carry out an independent assessment of such allegations in relevant parts of the country.  It may be recalled that not so long ago I made a similar offer to the Myanmar authorities with respect to the allegations of sexual violence against Shan women; however, the authorities failed to take me up on my offer.



Mr. Chairman,

I would like to take this opportunity also to refer to Myanmar’s drug control efforts, which, along with democratization and national reconciliation, are long-standing goals on the UN’s agenda with respect to this country.   According to the Myanmar’s Opium Survey 2004 released earlier this month by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, there has been a decline in comparison with 2003.  While this is commendable, I feel it is incumbent upon me to recall that the opium-growing communities will remain vulnerable to human rights abuses, human trafficking and forced relocation if they are not provided with sustainable alternative sources of income.   The basic human needs of those poor farmers in Myanmar should be attended to, for they will never otherwise escape their dependency on opium cultivation to meet their basic needs.   

I think that these cooperative initiatives are an indication of the Myanmar Government’s desire to bolster the confidence of the international community.  This is welcome, but the Myanmar Government must match these international initiatives with domestic confidence-building by respecting human rights.   


In view of the prevailing situation, I cannot but reiterate what I said on many earlier occasions.  Human rights reforms should start immediately by revoking security legislation restricting the full exercise of basic human rights and freedoms.  It is time to stop the arrest, trial and sentencing of people for peaceful political activities.  It is time to reopen offices of political parties and to revise the administration of justice to restore respect for due process rights.  This is the way to pursue the path towards an authentic process of political transition in Myanmar.        


Thank you.