New UN envoy upbeat after Insein visit
Burma's human rights record is again under scrutiny by the international community, almost a year after the junta cracked down on the anti-inflation street protests led by the country's Buddhist monks.
The UN's new human rights rapporteur for Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, has finished his first mission to Burma and feels certain that the regime is ready to cooperate with him. On his inaugural trip to Burma, political prisoners were his top priority, Mr Quintana told the Bangkok Post, after his five-day visit ended last weekend.
"The prison conditions of the political prisoners I saw were not so bad," he said after visiting only five renowned activists being held in Rangoon's notorious Insein prison, where hundreds are in detention. The country's longest serving political prisoner, journalist and writer Win Tin, had been allowed a hernia operation in the last three months, he added.
This assessment is, of course, in stark contrast to the views of his predecessor, Paul Sergio Pinheiro, who constantly told journalists that although the conditions of political prisoners had improved during his seven-year tenure as special rapporteur on human rights in Burma which ended in April - the conditions remained appalling and unacceptable.
Even the new envoy himself seems to have understood that conditions were far from adequate. One of the political prisoners, Thurein Aung, complained that he had been denied dental care for more than a year, and after Mr Quintana raised it with the prison authorities, a dentist was allowed to treat him.
The five political prisoners he saw were U Win Tin, Thurein Aung, Kyaw Kyaw, Su Su Nway and the revered monk, U Gambira. The envoy declined to reveal what they talked about on the grounds that these were private conversations and he wanted to protect them. But he conceded that "the monk was very angry; after all, he was detained for exercising his rights".
The regime seems keen to appear at least to be making some concessions to the human rights envoy.
"On the day of Quintana's visit to the political prisoners in Insein, they were given increased food rations," said Bo Kyi, the head of an organisation that promotes the cause of Burmese political prisoners, based in Thailand. "But the next day after his visit they went back to their meagre rations."
Over the last 12 months Burma's human rights record has gone from bad to worse, including the conditions endured by political prisoners.
"If anything, conditions in Insein [jail] have got worse in the past year since September's uprising," said Zin Linn, a former political prisoner now in exile in Thailand.
"Since the Red Cross stopped their prison visits, conditions have deteriorated. No proper medical care, no soap to wash with, less food rations and no one to courier letters between them and their families," he said.
This was part of the package provided by representatives of the International Committee for the Red Cross on their regular visits to the political prisoners. They suspended their prison visits more than two years ago because of government interference.
"The best thing the new envoy can do is to urge the junta to allow the Red Cross to resume their prison visits as soon as possible," said Zin Linn.
Although the UN envoy is relatively upbeat about his first visit, he did accept that it was largely "an introductory mission - a getting to 'know you' trip", he said.
"I wanted to get to know the government and for them to see where I was coming from. My main purpose was to see if we could start a dialogue, for that we had to meet face to face."
Now it is in the generals' hands to see where the process goes. But the omens are not good - he failed to meet any real high-ranking officials of the government or military.
He met Aung Kyi, who is in charge of relations with the detained opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and has met with her five times in the past year. "My visit comes at a very important time in Burma as it moves under the new constitution to civilian rule after the elections planned for 2010," the envoy said.
"What is important now is the interim period and I told the Burmese government that I planned to draw up a detailed proposal on how human rights issues should be treated and that I expected them to implement it," Mr Quintana said.
More pie in the sky, according to the former political prisoner Zin Linn.
"The international community has been telling the junta now for more than 20 years to release political prisoners and stop human rights abuses - without any appreciable success," he added.
There are still more than 2,000 political prisoners languishing in Burma's prisons, according to the British-based human rights organisation Amnesty International.
Although some political prisoners are periodically released, others are then detained, according the Burmese political activist Bo Kyi.
Earlier this week two MPs elected in the 1990 polls - which Aung San Suu Kyi's party the National League for Democracy (NLD) convincingly won but was never allowed to form a government - were detained by the authorities.
No reason was given when the NLD MPs, U Nyi Pu and Dr Tin Min Htut, were arrested, according to the party's spokesman, Nyan Win.
They both had signed a petition of parliamentarians opposing the planned elections in 2010, which was sent to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The UN envoy also did not try to see Aung San Suu Kyi, on the grounds this was a sensitive issue best avoided on his first visit to Burma.
But he did ask the military authorities to allow her to see her lawyer to discuss her detention.
On Friday, the NLD's U Kyi Win was permitted to see her for three hours at her lakeside residence where she is currently under house arrest. NLD sources believe that this was another concession to the envoy.
It now seems clear that Aung San Suu Kyi has had her house arrest extended for another year - until the end of May 2009. Her detention order was renewed last May, but at the time it was unclear whether it was for six or 12 months. Next May she will have been in detention for six years, which many legal experts in Burma believe is the maximum permitted under regulations that have been used to lock her up. The first time she was placed under house arrest, she was freed in July 1995 for a few days before the end of her sixth year under house arrest.
Aung San Suu Kyi has spent more than 13 years of the last 19 under house arrest. Mr Quintana said he could not clarify the conditions of her detention, but planned to study her case and the Burmese laws so he could discuss it fully with the Burmese authorities next time he visits the country.
Mr Quintana plans to return to Burma in February 2009, to help prepare for his submission to the UN Human Rights Council next March. The authorities seemed to be willing, he said, "but let's wait and see".
Many of his predecessors, particularly Mr Pinheiro, found making follow-up missions virtually impossible. In the meantime Mr Quintana is working on his report to the General Assembly of the UN in November.
The Burmese regime is keen to be seen cooperating with the UN, not just over the international recovery plans for the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which hit Rangoon and the Irrawaddy delta to the west of the former capital in May, leaving massive damage.
The UN envoy for Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, is expected to make his sixth visit to the country in the last three years within the next two weeks, to discuss a variety of political issues, including the regime's roadmap to democracy, the 2010 elections and Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest.