UN rights envoy visits Myanmar’s Karen state

Yangon: United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Tomas Ojea Quintana left Yangon yesterday to visit the Karen State, where Myanmar’s junta has waged a decades-old war against the Karen people, driving hundreds of thousands of them into Thailand. The Karen, many of whom profess to be Christian, are one of the few ethnic minority groups in Myanmar who have refused to sign a cease-fire agreement with the government, making them the targets continued military attacks and human rights abuses.

Yesterday, The New Light of Myanmar — a government mouthpiece, claimed that the Karen National Union (KNU) “terrorist insurgents” fired artillery shells into Myawaday city in the Karen State, with one shell landing in a Buddhist monastery.

“In practice they kill and frighten the innocent people by firing from the distance into the towns and villages in a cowardly way with heavy weapons,” the state-run newspaper said of the KNU. “Therefore, the people abhor the acts of the KNU,” it claimed. The government has been calling the Karen “terrorists” since former US President George W Bush launched his “war on terror.”

International human rights groups have documented widespread rights abuses by the military in the Karen State, such as forced labour, rape, forcing thousands of villagers off their land and creating conditions of starvation. The Karen have been waging a guerrilla war for the autonomy of their traditional state since 1949, making their struggle one of the world’s oldest insurgencies.

UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Quintana was scheduled to be in the Karen Satte all day Sunday, returning to Yangon on Monday, UN sources said. On the eve of Quintana’s arrival in Yangon on Saturday, Myanmar’s junta sentences two well-known political activists to 15 years in jail.

The opposition National League for Democracy said Saturday that two of its members, Nyi Bu and Tin Min Htut, had been punished by a closed court session on Friday for sending an open letter to the UN in August critical of the military’s plans to set up a civilian government.

Quintana wants to meet arrested opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners following a months-long spate of lengthy jail terms against scores of the military’s critics ahead of a general election next year.

The UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari – who visited most recently a week ago – has notably failed to induce the ruling generals to bend even slightly in the direction of compromise. Suu Kyi even refused to see Gambari on an earlier visit because she was so dissatisfied with his efforts.

Quintana will attempt during his five-day visit to persuade the regime to improve core human rights. Among the steps he will encourage are progressively releasing “prisoners of conscience,” giving independence to the judiciary, bringing its laws into line with international human rights standards and training officials to respect these rights, according to a statement by the UN in Geneva.

After the Karen State, Quintana is scheduled to visit the Rakhine (Arakan) and Kachin states, where local opposition movements havecomplained of repeated harassment by the authorities.

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