With human rights envoy’s visit, change is in the air

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SUNDAY, 04 SEPTEMBER 2011

The Myanmar Times – SHORTLY before arriving in Myanmar on August 21, Mr Tomas Ojea Quintana said his visit would take place “in a somehow different political context”.

That statement was issued on August 19. Any doubts that Mr Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, was flying in to a politically “different” scenario than the one he observed in February 2010 were dispelled that day, when President U Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi met in the president’s office in Nay Pyi Taw.

Speaking to reporters at the end of his visit on August 25, Mr Quintana said the country was at “a key moment” in its history, with “real opportunities for positive and meaningful developments to improve the human rights situation and bring about a genuine transition to democracy”.

Mr Quintana’s closing comments were remarkably different from those following his previous visit in February 2010. It was another 18 months before he could secure a visa to return.

The relative openness of members of the new government – which extended to publishing a four-page article on Mr Quintana’s meetings in Nay Pyi Taw in state media on August 26 – will no doubt have been noted.

U Ko Ko Hlaing, a member of presidential advisory board who met Mr Quintana on August 22, said there had been “a good exchange of views on [human rights]this time”.

“We discussed the recent human rights situation here; we listened mutually to get concrete results. He said that this time he was seeing improvements in the human rights situation compared to [visits in]previous years,” said U Ko Ko Hlaing, who met Mr Quintana with advisers U Sit Aye, U Set Aung and U Nay Zin Latt.

“He’ll submit a report to the UN General Assembly in September containing his observations about the human rights situation from this visit.”

Mr Quintana arrived in Myanmar on August 21 and travelled to Nay Pyi Taw the following day for meetings with Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin, Home Affairs Minister Lieutenant General Ko Ko, Chief Justice U Tun Tun Oo, Labour Minister U Aung Kyi and four members of the presidential advisory board.

The following day he observed parliamentary sessions, met the speakers of the Pyithu Hluttaw and Amyotha Hluttaw and 19 hluttaw representatives.

In Yangon, Mr Quintana visited Insein Prison and then met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on August 24 before flying out of the country the following day.

U Kyaw Lin Oo, a columnist with The Voice, said there were other, less publicised positives to come out of the visit. “For example, even in the discussion with the government side, such as Lt Gen Ko Ko, he could talk about human rights cases and issues like land mines. He then spoke about his experiences of human right issues at the Ministry of Home Affairs’ human rights training program [on August 22]. These are all obviously positive steps,” he said.

U Kyaw Lin Oo said he expected the visit would result in enhanced cooperation between the government and UN agencies. “Mr Quintana should maintain the focus on Myanmar affairs and give good suggestions that can improve the human rights situation here,” he said.

U Kyaw Min Swe, chief editor of The Voice, said Mr Quintana’s visit was one of several “quite satisfying” political developments.

“Not only Quintana’s visit but also other changes in this period are good steps to improve our country’s situation. It seems the new government really has the resolve to see through its reform agenda,” he said on August 25.

However, he urged patience and said “proper foundations for the future” were more important than short-term gains.

He said in the transition period, both the government and opposition would have to face conservative elements in their ranks. “We need to make sure reformists do not suffer a backlash from the public; we should support them to ensure a smooth transition.”

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