BANGKOK // The United Nations' human rights envoy to Myanmar has arrived in Yangon at the start of a six-day mission to assess the human rights situation in the country. During his trip, the special rapporteur, Tomas Ojea Quintana, hopes to meet privately some of the country's political prisoners, including the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, according to UN sources. The UN envoy made his first visit to Myanmar last August and is keen to see what developments there have been since, before he reports to the UN Human Rights Council next month. Democracy and human rights activists say the visit is timely as more than 300 political dissidents have been sentenced to long jail terms in the past six months - around 20 individuals who were leading student activists from the democracy movement 20 years ago were each sentenced in Sept 2008 to 65 years in prison for their alleged involvement in anti-prices protests.
The schedule of visits and meetings is yet to be finalised, according to UN sources in Yangon, but the envoy hopes to meet senior members of the junta, opposition leaders and representatives of the country's ethnic minorities. Mr Quintana also plans to visit some of the key ethnic minority areas in Myanmar's border regions, including Arakan, Karen and Kachin states. The issue of the Rohingya refugees, who have fled Myanmar's north-western province, will be high on the envoy's agenda on this visit, said a senior UN official speaking on condition of anonymity. The issue of the Rohingyas has resurfaced recently after several thousand were intercepted in Thai waters trying to get to Malaysia from Bangladesh and were towed out to sea and set adrift by Thai military authorities. They were given little food and water and their boats' engines were disabled. Around a thousand ended up in the Andamans and several hundred made it to a small Indonesian island.
It has become a major issue in South East Asia- with the Thais defending their actions and now calling for a regional conference to discuss the matter. "The problem of the Rohingyas is a regional issue and needs to be tackled regionally," Surin Pitsuwan, the secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), said. Thailand and Indonesia have agreed to hold a bilateral meeting in Bali next month, Thailand's foreign minister told journalists last week. The summit of regional South-east Asian leaders will also discuss the matter later this month, according to Thailand's prime minister, Abhsit Vejjajiva, who is hosting the Asean meeting. These Myanmar refugees are members of the ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority who live in northern Arakan state in western Myanmar bordering Bangladesh. They were fleeing social and religious persecution by the Myanmar military authorities there. Most human rights activists say the abuses committed by the junta in the Muslim-dominated areas of western Myanmar are worse than anywhere else in the country. "Myanmar's Rohingya minority is subject to systematic persecution - they are effectively denied citizenship, they have their land confiscated, and many are regularly forced to work on government projects," said Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International's Myanmar researcher. "The regime creates conditions and circumstances that make it clear to the Rohingyas that they are not wanted or welcome in the country; so it's no surprise that they try to flee the country by the thousands." During his mission to Myanmar last August, Mr Quintana suggested to Myanmar's ruling junta that they should implement four key human rights elements before the national elections which are scheduled to be held in 2010. These include the revision of domestic laws to ensure compliance with international human rights standards and provisions of human rights in the new Constitution; the progressive release of all prisoners of conscience; human rights training for and reform of the military; and the independence of the judiciary. The issue of political prisoners is certain to be the key issue on this visit, according to diplomats based in Yangon. The UK-based Amnesty International says the number of political prisoners doubled last year to over 2,100. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) has begun a renewed campaign for the release of all political prisoners. Last week the NLD launched a petition calling on the country's military rulers to free all political prisoners, including the group's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent more than 13 of the last 20 years under house arrest. The signature campaign is aimed at showing the government and the world that Myanmar's people support freedom for all political dissidents, the NLD spokesman, Nyan Win, said. These signatures will be collected throughout Myanmar, despite restrictions imposed on political activity by the country's military rulers, he added. "The release of political prisoners is by far the most important issue for Myanmar at the moment," said Myanmar dissident and democracy campaigner Aung Din, who now lives in exile in the United States. "How can there be free and fair elections if most of the opposition politicians are behind bars?" Mr Quintana is also expected to be preoccupied with this issue during this visit. He hopes to see some of the key political prisoners released, including the student leaders Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi. But he will also be seeking clarification of Aung San Suu Kyi's position. Lawyers for the opposition leader insist that under the country's draconian security regulations Ms Suu Kyi can only be held for a maximum of six years. This should run out at the end of May - but as the opposition leader was held in prison immediately after her arrest in 2003 and was allowed to have a hysterectomy before being returned to house arrest - the regime believes October is the date her detention started. But most analysts are pessimistic that the UN envoy will emerge from the visit with concrete results. "We have seen it all before, the regime allows high-profile UN visits to help deflect international attention and pressure from them," said the former political prisoner and spokesman for the Burmese government in exile, Zin Linn. "They come, they talk and they leave. And nothing really changes." firstname.lastname@example.org