Human Rights in Myanmar: A discussion with U Aung Myo Min (Part 2)

This is Part Two of a two-part interview with the newly-appointed Minister of Human Rights for the National Unity Government, U Aung Myo Min. Read Part One here.

[Editor’s Note: This post is part of a collaboration between Tea Circle and the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, to share transcripts and reports from a series of seminars on Myanmar that ISHR is hosting.] Selections from this interview have been translated. See the Burmese version here.

Thursday, May 13th at 10:30 EST/20:00 IST/21:00 MMT

Kristina Eberbach: Thank you, we have a couple of questions we received in advance or in the chat, some relate to the international community, and some more specifically, with respect to the International Criminal Court. I’ll begin with the international community in the sense that the UN Security Council, ASEAN, as well as individual countries have taken insufficient action in response to the situation in Myanmar. And so, one of the questions is how do you see the NUG working with these mechanisms going forward? There was also a question specifically about China, and the role of China. I know you’ve been working and calling on some sanctions against the junta, but beyond sanctions, what do you see the international community doing? And then a second question related to the role of the international community: What do you see civil society being able to do, including individuals on this call who want to support the human rights and democracy movement––what would you like to see them do?

U Aung Myo Min: Ok, on the international front, at least we have strong countries supporting us. They have been the champions of condemnation, they have called for the release of detainees and for an end to the violence. So, these are very friendly countries. And though some countries are not that strong, they support and call for peaceful dialogue and things like that, so we have different degrees of commitment. And then on the other side, China is, you know, always a protector of the military. They have a long history of these things because they have many interests in Myanmar. On the other hand, India is monitoring the relationship between China and Myanmar and measuring the pros and cons, because they are both regional giants and Myanmar is sandwiched between the two countries. So, they are thinking about checks and balances. Also, ASEAN’s role now is much more outspoken than before. In the past, ASEAN never considered the issues in Myanmar to be a regional issue, only internal. But at least there was a session, and some discussion about Myanmar; they made 5 recommendations for the military to follow up on. The military did not follow them, that is a kind of failure, but as long as you are not supporting the Myanmar military, that is fine, that is the bottom line.

But for the other strategies, we also should have a carrot and stick approach. The carrot means it is very unlikely the junta will listen to you, say yes or very politely follow (recommendations), because many countries and people have called on them to stop the violence but it is still going on. But there is kind of a ‘carrot way’, with a dialogue between the NUG, the military and other stakeholders to come together and find a solution––this is like, a good ending story, we would like to see a happy ending at the end.

This is one strategy. The second strategy is under the ‘stick’ category. Condemnation, and also some actions including selected sanctions, embargos, and ensuring accountability issues are put on the international criminal justice docket. These are the things we can do.

What we need is for countries to recognize the NUG as the legitimate government. We have support from the people, I would say, and it also has a mandate [from the CRPH], but in order to get other countries to recognize it as a legitimate government, we really need to work hard. We have sympathy and we have support, but not as a government yet. So, recognizing the NUG as the legitimate government and coordinating and supporting, for example, humanitarian assistance or other support for education help. We can work together on things like that.

Besides that, we have other issues where we need to talk with the international community, including sensitive issues from the previous government, like the Rohingya issue. We need to have a clear policy paper. The new government must have a clear policy toward the Rohingya. And we need to clarify how this kind of policy will be accepted, respected, and implemented. This process is also important. Right now, our ministry is preparing draft positions on our policy towards the Rohingya. So there are three areas: one is Rohingya being able to be called Rohingya, unlike under the previous government, where there was a denial of their identity rights. We can promise that the Rohingya will be recognized, as with the name and terminology. Second, no one––including the Rohingya––will be subject to violations of their civil rights. Arrest, torture, forced relocation, sexual violence, no one should be subjected to these. These rights are protected for Rohingya, like all other people. Third, we want to clearly implement the recommendations of the Kofi Annan commission for reconciliation of the Rakhine State issue. We recognize that these are good solutions, and we will set up a process for implementation. But those recommendations were made in 2017, almost four years ago. There should be another situational analysis, considering other things through consultation with the Rohingya people. We are in the process of meeting with different groups and people from Rakhine State, even Rohingya IDPs and refugees from the refugee camps, to get their ideas. I promise that our clear policies on the Rohingya will be released in two weeks. 

And on this, I will say, I will try my best to meet the international standards and to uphold the dignity and rights of the Rohingya people after consultation with them.

Ben Fleming: Myo, may I jump in and ask a question from the audience related to this? We know that the NUG has vowed to rewrite a new constitution, to get rid of the 2008 constitution. We have a question from the audience about the NUG’s position on the 1982 citizenship law. Is that something that the NUG also wishes to reform? Rewrite? And then one quick question is when the members of the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) will be announced.

U Aung Myo Min: Thank you. We are conducting a review, consulting with many people, with the stakeholders and one of the recommendations is on the 1982 citizenship law. I studied it, I can recite it by memory almost, truly, because I was a human rights activist, so all my homework from before helps! In my view, the 1982 citizenship law is very discriminatory. It is also based on ethnicity. It was created by U Ne Win based on the 135 nationalities, so in this respect, it is already flawed. The 1982 citizenship law and other laws that are not in line with international standards are now under review and under consideration to repeal, revise or replace with a new law. I can promise that, as the Minister of Human Rights, I will try to propose to repeal or amend the 1982 citizenship law. For the NUCC, they have already established who will be on the council but some of them cannot be made public for security reasons because many are still inside the country. We expect to announce this within 2 weeks, when it is safe to make this information public.

Kristina Eberbach: Thank you. Another question we received in advance relates to human rights as a meaningful terminology and meaningful framework within the country. This person is asking how you, as the Minister of Human Rights, would communicate the idea of human rights to people and convey its relevance to their everyday concerns? How will you adapt the international terminology to more localized understandings? And finally, how do you address the role of the state, given the problematic relationship, to say the least, that the state has had with Human Rights, and given the fact that within the framework of human rights, the state is one of the primary duty-bearers for respecting human rights? How do you go about approaching the role of the state in protecting or enforcing Human Rights alongside the role of local community practices in enforcement?

U Aung Myo Min: The motto of my ministry is equality, peace, and justice. Those are the basic principles of human rights. Equality means nobody is subject to discrimination. We will stay committed to Articles 1 and 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 1 deals with equality and Article 2 is related to non-discrimination. Thees are our principles. Whether you are from, one of the 135 ‘so-called’ nationalities or not, no one should be subject to any kind of violence or abuse, or rights violations from state or non-state actors. This is our commitment: no one should be left behind. If we have a marginalized group or disenfranchised group, like LGBT is one of them, and other minorities or persons with disabilities, these people are considered for temporary special measures, affirmative action, so their status would be upgraded, (to ensure they receive) equal treatment, justice, and peace. So this is my thing.

I set up my first organization, Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (HREIB) in 2000. This year is the 20th anniversary. We planned to celebrate our 20 years of service in Human Rights Education, but unfortunately, it will not happen. First, because of COVID, and second, the coup. The 2 C’s make it very difficult for us, but at least we can celebrate amongst ourselves. We have more than 20 years of Human Rights Education materials, including our TV channel, which we broadcast weekly through the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). This kind of groundwork and community-based action is good, and we can use them. We have trained more than 300 experienced trainers across the country. My role was a director to many staff before I joined the cabinet, but now my role is to make sure that these kind of Human Rights Education programs keep running. Not with lectures, but participatory learning based on the everyday situation of the country. 

We have what we could call a “three H” approach. One is Head, putting in the international standards, teaching what the UDHR, CEDAW, CRC, and CRPD is. The second one is Heart, so people can practice the three values of non-discrimination, equality, and respect for diversity. So people can feel it and they can also think about what social norms and taboos are not in line with everyday life. For example, calling someone Kalar (foreigner) is very discriminatory; calling someone achauk (gay) is horribly discriminatory; taw thar (rural) is also this kind of discriminatory language. We have been working on changing this language. That’s why you can see that in the Spring Revolution many women are actively participating, and LGBT flags, rainbow flags everywhere. This is the significance of the groundwork we’ve done, so we will keep doing that.

And finally, putting a Human Rights curriculum in the new system, from the primary level to high school. A faculty of Human Rights, or maybe, the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR) Myanmar! This is my passion. This is my dream. This was my dream as an activist before. Now that I’m the dreammaker, maybe, to put this into our government’s policy.

Ben Fleming: On that note, Myo, do you have any thoughts on the sort of efforts that the NUG and others are taking for a federal university to stand in for the CDM students and faculty. We know that thousands upon thousands of faculty have refused to return to work, and many thousands have been fired. Those who have returned to work have returned to empty classrooms. What role––and we are happy to play whatever part we can––can we play in supporting an effort to keep education alive for those in CDM?

U Aung Myo Min: Thank you, Ben. This is my request I was going to make, but you already answered that, Great! We are real Columbia, we know each other!

Our Ministry of Education (MoE) has that kind of alternative education and institution already in mind from the liberated areas. When I recall my experience back in ‘88, we were the students that left the classroom; we were eager and hungry for education. We didn’t have any proper institutions from which we could learn, we only had small libraries. That’s where I picked up a copy of the UDHR and started learning myself. And I don’t want that [situation] for the new generation!

Our MoE plans are to have alternative education at the institute level, and the university level in some areas. Because, you know that we have totally ethnic-controlled areas along the border. From Kachin State to the border along Thailand, in some areas, the education institutions are well-established. They have their own universities, their own teachers’ college, and system. In some areas, it is not a teachers’ college, but they have their own traditional teachers training that they can multiply in other areas, so based on some of these ideas, our MoE will set up one university in one particular liberated area. So, my work, my years-long work of Human Rights curriculums, Human Rights teaching will be adapted/adopted in that university. Further, with my association with the ethnic education committees, we can work together and my team is happy to contribute and distribute. But this is from the Myanmar context. 

Ben Fleming: We have lots of people on this call from a number of universities, so it is a call to arms for all of us to play our part in keeping education alive for the people of Myanmar.

U Aung Myo Min: Yeah, and welcome…for Human Rights, I’m open to working with any organization. For other non-Human Rights education, I can convey that message in the cabinet meetings, particularly with the MoE. 

Kristina Eberbach: Thank you. We only have a few more minutes left, and we want to be respectful of your time, we know you are very busy! There were two questions about the ICC and you talked a little bit about it in terms of the hope to engage the ICC in pursuing accountability. And then there was the question of the jurisdiction in terms of the time frame – are you hoping to pursue accountability not only for recent events, but for those in the past?

U Aung Myo Min: Oh yes, thank you. We are in consultation with a legal firm to study and analyze how we can be a member of, or ratify to be a member state of the ICC. So, we see the legitimacy issue, the process issue, and the jurisdiction issue, too. Wo have support and advice from this legal group, but we need also to think about it ourselves, and the process is already ongoing at the NUCC stage.

To any of you, when I met some Burmese students from Columbia University I also said, please, give me your input and ideas, I’m open to listening and different ideas can help enrich my understanding and thinking about the best and possible ways. I’m open to that sort of thing. 

On jurisdiction: We’ve thought about it, because usually only criminal acts committed after ratification can be held accountable. But some legal experts have said that you can request special circumstances. For example, this is the criminal, he’s not doing this just after February 1st, but there’s a long history of these things, so there is another special procedure we can request. And identifying the perpetrators, the criminals, and a long history of involvement in these kinds of crimes, these are special requests we are seriously considering, with regard to labeling it as ongoing crimes. 

The ICC also accepted the case taking place inside Bangladesh against the Rohingya because Bangladesh is a member of the Rome Statute. Myanmar is not, but they have already carried out IIMM and the Independent Fact Finding Mission, set up to collect (and document) all the previous Human Rights violations and abuses. We are collaborating on that, and we can extend its jurisdiction to inside the country.

Ben Fleming: We have some questions about the military or future possible military. I know the NUG has said clearly that any future armed forces will be civilian led. Is that going to be reflected in a constitution? Also, have you gotten, or do you know if there is much buy-in from the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) about a civilian-led military and what that should look like from an inclusive standpoint?

U Aung Myo Min: Well, the PDF (People’s Defence Force) is founded as an “NUG Armed Forces.” And you might be surprised to learn that the Defence Minister was a former poet and the Deputy Minister is the first woman Deputy Minister of Defence, and with an academic background! So, this is already a civilian leadership, when you know traditionally, “macho” men-in-uniform would take these places, so this is one such change. 

I think that kind of civilian-led institution is being established and that kind of militarized history has been broken already. This is the first step. But this kind of PDF, it is something like the small, first cell of the federal union, or the federal army that we are looking for. In this case, we are working with the Defence Minister, at least to have a code of conduct for members of the PDF. Because sometimes, when you are carrying arms and you want revenge, anything could happen. But that kind of PDF is meant to defend the people, and also work for the people, not to threaten or even do something bad to the people. This military code of conduct will be finished very soon, [and will] respect the dignity and the rights of the people based on international humanitarian law and also the law of armed conflict. 

We are in the process of talking with different ethnic armed groups. We don’t want them to come and work under the PDF because they are more senior, they have their own thing, and they have sacrificed their lives for their struggles. But what we need is cooperation and coordination. How can we put all the forces together, with a strong chain of command, military strategies, and mutual understanding? We need to guard against possible conflicts of interests, conflicts of power, and that is the purpose of the discussion with individual ethnic armed groups. Some are ready to go, but some are not ok because of a long history of mistrust between Bamar and other ethnic people. We are solving the problem, showing that the federal union and federal democratic constitution is not only for the Bamar, but for all the peoples of Burma, of Myanmar! We are at different stages of consultation and making sure that everyone is coordinating and complementing each other under the federal union. It’s a long process, because our country is a very complicated country with very complicated issues. 

(Featured image courtesy of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights)