My perspective on child rights

  • Prof. Dr. Aung Tun Thet


Life is strange. I get to unintentionally witness the results of an issue I resolved over 30 years ago.
The year is 1989. It has only been a month since I returned from Germany after completing my PhD. The university was closed as well. I just needed to show my face to the department once in the morning. I wanted to take on a lot of work but wasn’t given that satisfaction.
Yet, an unexpected opportunity arose. When the State Law and Order Restoration Council was formed, Sayagyi Dr. Pe Thein was the only civilian appointed as minister. Furthermore, he was tasked with overseeing two ministries and we have been acquainted since before.
After receiving my PhD, I conducted research in varied fields, including the health sector. Thus, I would regularly present research papers at the annual gathering of the Myanmar Medical Association. Sayagyi was interested in research himself so we became fast friends. He used to be the director-general for three departments under the Ministry of Health.

Forming a new department
Now, when he became the Minister for Health, he offered me the post of director-general for the new planning and statistics department he wanted to form. It was an enviable position indeed. I was a lecturer at the University of Economics at the time and, I admit, the prospect of going three to four positions higher than I was sounded pleasing to me.
However, I worried that I may not get the job when it came to filling out my résumé. I have ran into several issues due to my status of certain members of my family. Colonel Myo Aung, my uncle, was an active member for the National League for Democracy, while father and older brother Thakin Ba Thein Tin was spreading his voice in politics.
I told Sayagyi about all of this. He knew me quite well. His wife, Prof. Dr. Kyu Kyu Swe was working in the same department with another uncle of mine, Prof. Dr. Soe Myint, at Mandalay’s University of Medicine. Sayagyi told me not to worry and submit my résumé and I soon got the position of director-general without an issue.
Since it was a new department, we had to gather a lot of people. Captain Kyi Soe and U Aung Kyaing left to pursue education abroad shortly after we opened the department. Dr. Nyo Nyo, the younger sister of former president Dr. Maung Maung, provided invaluable assistance during that time.
And so the department began to trudge along. It was based at the old building on Theinbyu Road and I myself had my office in the Minister’s Building. Now that I was given a government position, I could implement the plans I envisioned during my time at the university.

Making important changes
I think the most important change we made was forming the National Health Committee. The ministry can’t handle healthcare enterprises alone, it needs to coordinate with other ministries as well. And that is the hardest part. So, we formed the committee after Dr. Pe Thein and the higherups gave approval.
The Chairman was Secretary 1, I was secretary, and the committee members were from the ministries of planning and finance, agriculture, home affairs, and the Tatmadaw medical directive group. They were energetic and alert.
The committee received letters not just on health but on related matters from all ministries. The first thing I did was to establish nationwide movements with CSOs and this led to the formation of the Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare Association during Dr. Pe Thein’s period. We also invited international CSOs to Myanmar.
Secondly, we tackled the rising population issue, which was left unattended for successive generations in our country. Population boom can have a negative impact on the health, social, economic and education sectors of our nation. With that in mind, we began working on potential consequences that can arise if it was left attended.
We submitted the matter to our superiors. I had received assistance from Dr. Ko Ko, Director of the Southeast Asia Department for WHO. At last, we succeeded in pushing forward the family planning project, a most important implementation for the long term.
The third task I did was related to child rights. The representative for World Children’s Fund approached me on this matter. I studied the Convention on the Rights of the Child in detail so that our nation may join it. I decided that it would serve the best interests of our country and I made the remark with sufficient evidence to my superiors.
The decision didn’t come easily. I pressed my superiors on the matter whenever I could and I approached the Attorney-General as well. They were worried because it was called a ‘convention’.
I travelled to Bangkok and met with legal expert Prof. Vitis. I discussed the deeper meaning of conventions and to what extent they have influence on a country. I discovered that countries announce their reservations when signing. I had found the answer to alleviate my superiors’ minds and we signed the convention at the University of Nursing in 1991.

A new law for children’s rights
Soon, we were able to enact the new child law in 1993. I was no longer in Myanmar at that time but I was overjoyed to hear that news. I always try to see the government and the nation as separate. The nation is a priority because it is lasting while the government is relevant to the existing time period.
Now, since the previous government administration, we have tried to make amendments that child’s right law. The bill was recently passed at the Hluttaw and approve after the President viewed it. I am pleased to hear successful amendments taking place to fill in the needs of the present. The steps first taken 30 years ago are now newer and faster in development.
However, there were still worries, fear and protests against the amendment. Everyone has the right to voice their own differing opinion in a democracy and discuss about it. We need to base these debates on sound evidence and logic.

Discussion on the new law
U Ko Ko (Industrial College) moderated a roundtable on that bill on Sky Net and invited me. I discussed the bill with Amyotha Hluttaw representative Daw Hla Hla Soe, my former colleague Director-General Dr. San San Aye, the Deputy Director-General of the Advocate General Office, and CSO representative U Myo Myint Tun.
Everyone had something interesting to bring to the discussion and there were two points of interest I saw in our roundtable. It was about applying for birth certificate in adoption. But at a deeper level, it was about citizenship. We talked about how the 1983 Citizenship Law was still in effect.
I told everyone to keep the best interest of the child in mind when reviewing the bill. Children are innocent. It is the adult’s duty to protect them.
The most talked about topic in Myanmar right now is about that child’s right bill. These days, we are seeing unfortunate stories news of children circling around social media. The crimes committed against children are unbelievable. I am shocked these things are taking place in Myanmar.
This is why we need a comprehensive law. Our focus must be on their wellbeing. But we must question ourselves on whether the crime is increasing or we are able to uncover something existing faster.

Keeping the children in mind
Everyone from the government to the community has the duty to children. We must work together to resolve these issues facing us. We need to go beyond just providing sufficient food and clothing. We need to teach people the right ethics and morality and create a safe environment for our children.
I will push forward for the emergence of the child rights law. The hate and prejudice of grownups must not overwhelm and influence children. I urge everyone to put their wellbeing above all else.
(Translated by Pen Dali)

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