28 March 2002
A U.N. special investigator says Burma is in the process of becoming a more open society and he says the international community should encourage these efforts. But, in a report submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, the investigator says the process of change in Burma is fragile and gross violations of human rights persist.
The human rights investigator, Brazilian Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, is calling for the release of all political prisoners in Burma, also known as Myanmar.
He says he does not agree with the Burmese government's contention that an estimated 1,600 political prisoners are criminal offenders. He says many people are detained simply for having peacefully exercised their political opinions.
"A case in point is Dr. Salai Tun Than, a brilliant PhD and a senior academic in the field of agricultural research, who was arrested in November 2001 and is now serving a seven-year sentence in Insein prison where I met him during my last mission," says Mr. Pinheiro. "Being myself a university professor and an academic, I felt depressed and distressed for this. There are persons who have never been charged nor tried and have been in prison for several years. There are persons who are old and sick and should be released on humanitarian grounds."
Mr. Pinheiro said he held lengthy, private meetings with 25 prisoners during a visit to Burma last month. He said prison conditions have improved, but they are not good. He also said he did not find any instances of beatings or torture.
The U.N. investigator said he met Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and says she does not seem hopeless about the future of her country. Mr. Pinheiro said he told Burma's military leaders she should be released from house arrest.
During his visit, the investigator said he collected first hand information relating to serious human rights violations allegedly perpetrated by military personnel in areas where armed opposition groups are active.
"Fundamental human rights, such as the right to life, personal security, physical integrity, freedom of movement, ability to make a living appear to be routinely violated by the army in the areas of suspected armed opposition groups," Mr. Pinheiro said.
Mr. Pinheiro did not investigate the issue of forced labor in Burma, he said. However, from discussions with human rights groups, Mr. Pinheiro said he is convinced that forced labor continues in areas of fighting.