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Burma's reforms not set in stone: Quintana
Interview with Tomas Ojea Quintana, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma.

For the past four years, Tomas Ojea Quintana has been the UN's Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma.

He's just completed another visit to Burma to check on progress. Tomas Ojea Quintana is speaking with Jim Middleton.
JIM MIDDLETON, PRESENTER: Tomas Ojea Quintana, welcome to the program.


JIM MIDDLETON: You left Rangoon with a message and appeal to authorities that the forthcoming by elections be free, fair, inclusive and transparent. Does that suggest that you fear that may not be the case?

TOMAS OJEA QUINTANA: I met during my mission with the electoral commissioner and he, of course, assured me that these elections will be free and fair. According to my opinion it is important that this opportunity, these elections might be also inclusive, meaning that NLD (National League For Democracy) and other political parties have the opportunity to participate.

JIM MIDDLETON: Whether or not there are international observers present for the elections is also a key test. If the Burmese authorities do not let observers into the country, that would undermine the credibility of the elections, I'd have thought?

TOMAS OJEA QUINTANA: The commissioner, the electoral commissioner told me that the question of international observers for the by elections were under consideration. But let me say that I'm sure the government will finally decide to allow the international community to test the election.

So I don't think at this point that the government is ready. The conditions are there, for the international observers, so we need to take that into account when we decide, when the international community sees how these elections are carried on.

JIM MIDDLETON: Another key test for the Burmese authorities is the question of political prisoners. Some have been released, many more remain in jail. Are you disappointed that the Burmese regime is yet to release all of them?

TOMAS OJEA QUINTANA: There are still a number of political prisoners being under arrest, under detention in Myanmar. They deserve the right to participate in this transition to democracy. People these people have been detained because they were struggling for more freedom in the country, so they definitely deserve the right to participate in the transition to democracy.

I call on the government to start working with all stakeholders, including NLD (National League For Democracy) and civil society to finally determine the number of political prisoners. But definitely there are still many political prisoners in Myanmar and the government needs to address it as soon as possible.

JIM MIDDLETON: Are you concerned that the Burmese leadership may believe the prisoners are one of their most important bargaining chips?

TOMAS OJEA QUINTANA: The question of political prisoners of course is a very important one, but there are many others. And this was part of my discussions during the mission in the country.

I can mention, I have been very concerned through these years about the situation of the civilians who find themselves in the middle of the armed conflict, suffering serious human rights abuses. Now the situation in Kachin State, for example, is critical. Let me tell you, and I want to emphasise this, I have received reports of human rights abuses not only from the government routes but also from non state routes. That's very important.

Many other issues, there's the question of discrimination. There are communities in the north state of Rhakine, one of the important states in Myanmar, this is a community, a Muslim community, who has been suffering discrimination through decades. And I don't see at this moment that government is ready to face these kinds of problems.

JIM MIDDLETON: You made many trips to Burma over the years. What's your assessment about the possibility of a return to the bad old days? Are the changes we've seen in the past year irreversible, or is there a possibility of a return to the closed authoritarianism of days gone by?

TOMAS OJEA QUINTANA: Many of the ministers, many of the new civilian authorities that I met in my last mission in February, I have met them before during the military government and they are holding the same positions. Now, regardless of that, it seems that there is an important process of reform that I see irreversible in some aspects.

At the same time, I see that the military still holds an important piece of the power. I went to the parliament and I witnessed how the deliberations of the parliament and I saw the 25 per cent of the military with their green uniforms sitting at the parliament. It is too soon to say that everything is finished and that now there is a democracy in the country.

JIM MIDDLETON: You met Aung San Suu Kyi again during your recent visit. She is a candidate in the elections. Do you think she will join the government once she is elected as has been authoritatively suggested?

TOMAS OJEA QUINTANA: It is not for me to make a political analysis or speculation. Now I really think that her decision to take part in these elections is very important. She's seeing an opportunity, she decided to participate, the government responded, the government released a lot of NLD members who were political prisoners. The government reformed the political party legislation which now allowed her and allowed LND to participate. That is important.

Now, I hope that the government and all stakeholders now after the election start really experiencing how it is to how is democracy, how is to debate very important issues for the country. And I hope Madame Suu Kyi will have an active role in the parliament in this regard.

JIM MIDDLETON: Tomas Ojea Quintana, thank you very much indeed.

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