UN envoy: Myanmar does little to stop rights abuse

The United Nations' human rights envoy to Myanmar said the country's nascent civilian government has done little to address widespread abuses, including forced labor and extrajudicial killings, since replacing the ruling junta in March.

Elections last year for a new parliament and the installation of civilian leaders were hailed by Myanmar's military leaders as the final steps on as their "roadmap to democracy." But U.N. envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana told reporters Monday in Bangkok that "democracy requires much more."

Myanmar's government is currently refusing to allow Quintana to visit the Southeast Asian nation. The envoy spoke after a weeklong trip to Thailand to talk with refugees from Myanmar. Thailand is home to more than 100,000 people who have fled the neighboring country.

Quintana said violence continues along Myanmar's eastern border region, and ethnic minority groups there are victims of "land confiscation, forced labor, internal displacement, extrajudicial killings and sexual violence."

These abuses "are widespread, they continue today, and they remain essentially unaddressed by the authorities," Quintana said.

In Myanmar's eastern Kayah state, for example, both men and women have fled out of fear of being conscripted into the military, he said. There is such a deficit of schools there that some parents send their children to refugee camps in Thailand for basic education, he added.

Ethnic groups living in the eastern and northern border areas have sought more autonomy since Myanmar's independence in 1948, and the government maintains uneasy cease-fires with most armed groups in those regions but faces low-level rebellions by others. Human rights organizations have long accused the military of forcing civilians into forced labor, particularly as porters.

The military has ruled Myanmar with an iron hand since 1962, and the nominally civilian government is dominated by former leaders in the repressive regime. Critics say the election last year was a sham to perpetuate the junta's power and the new government is a charade.

Last week, Washington's deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Joseph Yun, also expressed concern about the new government's human rights policies.

The Myanmar Times, meanwhile, quoted Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin as urging Yun to refer to the country as Myanmar rather than Burma.

The former junta changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, but many regime opponents and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi still call the country by its former name.

The paper quoted the minister as telling Yun: "You might think this is a small matter, but the use of 'Myanmar' is a matter of national integrity. ... Using the correct name of the country shows equality and mutual respect."

The U.S. Embassy in Myanmar declined to comment on the report.

Though the U.S. long tried to isolate Myanmar, the Obama administration has switched to a policy of engagement in hopes of coaxing democratic change. Washington still insists that the government release political prisoners, estimated at more than 2,000 by the U.N. and human rights agencies.

Myanmar's government last week released more than 14,000 prisoners under a clemency program, but Quintana and international rights have criticized it. The very limited program freed those with relatively short sentences, applying to only a handful of political prisoners.

Over the weekend, the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, said 22 political detainees at Yangon's main Insein Prison began a hunger strike to protest living conditions, including poor food and health care that have given rise to a scabies outbreak.

"National reconciliation requires the full participation of all key stakeholders, including prisoner of conscience," Quintana said.