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UN envoy leaves Burma with very modest gains

Tomas Ojea Quintana pushed for greater human rights, but said he 'deeply regretted' not being allowed to see the world-famous detained opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, during his five-day visit, which ended Friday.

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Tomas Ojea Quintana said he “deeply regretted” not being allowed to see the detained opposition leader. He also said the junta had given him no indication on the timing or framework of parliamentary elections that it plans to hold this year, the first since a 1990 poll won by Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and annulled by the military.

Observers swiftly criticized the snub of a UN envoy, the first to visit since two senior US diplomats traveled there in November. The US mission was part of a shift by the Obama administration towards engagement with Burma after decades of sanctions and arms-length diplomacy.

But human rights activists and Western diplomats argue that Mr. Quintana wasn’t expected to wrest major political concessions from the prickly junta. Instead, he went to meet prisoners of conscience, whose ranks swelled after a violent 2007 suppression of Buddhist monk-led protests.

On the eve of his visit, Tin Oo, a senior NLD leader, was released after seven years of house arrest, an apparent sop to the UN visit. However, the NLD has argued that any elections won’t be credible unless the junta releases Suu Kyi and more than 2,100 other political detainees and restores freedom of speech and assembly.

In addition, Quintana also tried to shine a spotlight on human rights in Burma’s ethnic minority areas, which have been largely overshadowed by the international focus on Suu Kyi. He traveled to Rakhine in western Burma to investigate the treatment of detainees held there, including minorities. Rakhine is home to the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, whom Burma doesn’t recognize as citizens, leaving them effectively stateless.

Getting access to Rakhine “is a bit of a coup because [Quintana] has requested access before and been denied,” says Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher in Bangkok for Amnesty International. “It’s a high-value visit.”

The Argentine diplomat has previously raised the issue of the Rohingya at the UN Human Rights Council. He is due to address the council again in March. Activists say a firsthand report should strengthen the UN’s hand in advocating for increased protection for this and other ethnicities in Burma, where about one-third of the roughly 50 million population belong to 135 recognized minorities.

The Rohingya, who aren’t in this category, are estimated to number about 700,000, though no reliable census exists. Over the past two decades, many have sought sanctuary across the border in neighboring Bangladesh and in other parts of Southeast Asia.

On Thursday, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, said thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh faced sickness and even starvation after being driven out of their homes in recent months. Most have moved to slums on the outskirts of UN-run refugee camps but aren’t eligible for food aid and run the risk of being forced back to Burma, the medical charity said.

Paul Critchley, MSF chief in Bangladesh, said more than 6,000 refugees had arrived since October at an unofficial camp of nearly 30,000 where the charity runs a clinic. Many reported harassment and beatings by security forces and neighbors, part of an apparent political campaign against an estimated 200,000 Rohingya who live illegally in Bangladesh.

The abuses meted out to refugees included being pushed into a river separating the two countries and told to swim back to Burma, say MSF officials. Those who make it to the camps have no means of making a living, and women who go outside to collect firewood have been raped.

“The only thing that they can legally do in Bangladesh is starve. This is not acceptable,” Mr. Critchley told a press conference in Bangkok.

Last year Thailand’s military was accused of forcing hundreds of Rohingya boatpeople back out to sea after they arrived from Bangladesh and Burma. Some later drowned or were rescued in neighboring countries.

This crackdown led to a drop in sailings, says Chris Lewa, who runs The Arakan Project, a human rights group focused on Rohingya. But the renewed harassment in Bangladesh is spurring more refugees to consider fleeing by boat, despite the hazardous journey and risk of reprisals.

Ms. Lewa says the anti-Rohingya campaign seems aimed at deterring new arrivals from Burma. But the upcoming election could be the trigger for another exodus, if the tensions aren’t handled properly by authorities.

“There is mounting tension that could develop into communal violence,” she warns.

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