Myanmar human rights commission faces outcry over child abuse case

A 17-year-old Myanmar child slave shows her scarred arms and twisted fingers whilst recovering in her family’s village in Baw Lone Kwin, Kawmu township.
A 17-year-old Myanmar child slave shows her scarred arms and twisted fingers whilst recovering in her family’s village in Baw Lone Kwin, Kawmu township.PHOTO: AFP

YANGON (Reuters) - Amid unprecedented public outrage over its handling of a child abuse case, Myanmar's National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) is facing scrutiny from the government after the office of President Htin Kyaw said it was reviewing its actions.

Lawyers, activists and politicians are calling for commission members to stand down after they allegedly failed in their duty when told about the abuse of two girls employed at a tailor shop in Yangon, the commercial capital.

The girls, aged 16 and 17, told reporters they were held against their will for five years and denied wages. Photographs showed they had suffered burns and their arms were lined with scars from knife wounds.

The office of President Htin Kyaw - who was nominated by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi following her party's election victory in November - said it was monitoring the case.

"It is studying the MNHRC's measures in connection with this incident, and is also watching developments arising from this incident," the office said, referring to itself, in a statement.

The commission is the main organisation addressing the rights abuses that monitoring groups still frequently report in Myanmar.

Suu Kyi addressed the UN General Assembly on Wednesday for the first time as the country's de facto leader, affirming her government's "faith in fundamental human rights".

The case has also drawn criticism of the police, who failed to act for some three months after a reporter tipped them off about the case, the commission has said.

When the reporter went to the commission, its response was to negotiate a financial settlement, allowing the suspected abusers to escape prosecution by paying about $4,000 to the victims and their families.

Commission members were not available for comment but they have told media the victims asked for financial compensation, so they helped them get it. Police declined to comment while the case was being investigated.

Critics say settling criminal cases outside the justice system means impunity for wealthy perpetrators.

Only after an outcry were five people arrested, at least four from the same family. They face charges including human trafficking.

Lawmakers want the case discussed in parliament.

Lower house member Htay Win Aung said the commission had"failed to prevent the abuse of human rights and to protect the constitutional rights" of citizens.

The 11-member panel was formed in 2012 and includes officials who served in Myanmar's junta, which during decades of military rule was routinely accused of rights abuses.

Prominent lawyer Thein Than Oo told Reuters the commission should be reconstituted with people "who know about human rights" and had no links to the old regime.