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Burma: New Doubts About Pace of Reforms

U.S. President
Barack Obama sits alongside Myanmar’s President Thein Sein in a US-Association
of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in Nusa Dua, Bali on November 18,
© 2011 Reuters
May 18, 2013
Obama Should Press
Visiting Burmese President to Keep Past Rights Pledges
(Washington, DC) –
The United States should use the upcoming visit by Burma’s president to ask
tough questions about the slowing pace of human rights reforms and insist on
implementation of past commitments, Human Rights Watch said today. President
Barack Obama is hosting a visit to Washington, DC, by Burma’s president Thein
Sein on May 20-21, 2013.
Six months after
Obama’s visit to Burma, key pledges by the Burmese government remain
unimplemented or unmet. With large numbers of political prisoners still not
released, a May 17 release of about 19 political prisoners appeared to be more
politically calculated than a genuine commitment to reform.
“The last year has
seen devastating violence against minorities and a stalled reform process,”
said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director. “President Obama should insist on
steps to prevent further outbreaks of violence. He must also make it clear that
there are consequences if the Burmese government fails to implement its
previous human rights pledges.”
On November 18,
2012, just before Obama’s visit to Rangoon, Thein Sein issued a set of pledges
on key reform issues, including promises to create a commission to review
political prisoner cases, invite the United Nations High Commissioner for Human
Rights to open offices in Burma, and “expedite its negotiations” with
humanitarian organizations for access to conflict-affected areas.
Regarding violence
against ethnic Rohingya and other Muslim communities in Burma’s western Arakan
State, Thein Sein’s 2012 statement pledged the government would take “decisive
action to prevent violent attacks against civilians,” hold perpetrators of
abuses accountable, and “address contentious political dimensions, ranging from
resettlement of displaced populations to granting of citizenship.”
Six months later,
the Burmese government’s implementation of most of these pledges has faltered.
No invitation has been issued to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human
Rights, and negotiations for an agreement to set up an office have made no
significant progress. Humanitarian aid organizations remain without full access
to conflict areas in Kachin State, where a nearly two-year armed conflict
between the Burmese army and Kachin rebels has displaced over 80,000 people,
and in eastern Burma, where over 400,000 people are displaced from decades of
civil war.
In February, the
government formed a Political Prisoner Verification Committee comprising
officials, members of Burmese civil society, and former prisoner groups, but
the committee has only met three times.
The release of
political prisoners on the eve of Thein Sein’s trip was done unilaterally by
the president’s office – not through the committee. A political prisoner
release in April was the result of a presidential amnesty, and the committee
was not even informed in advance.
“Burma’s government
still appears to be using political prisoner releases as a public relations
tool, rather than to bring an end to politically motivated imprisonment,”
Sifton said.
In Arakan State,
over 140,000 Rohingya and other Muslims remain in closed displaced person
camps, denied freedom of movement, without access to livelihoods, and lacking
adequate shelter, humanitarian aid, and basic services. Anti-Muslim violence
has continued, and there has been little accountability for local security
forcesimplicated in crimes against humanity committed during a campaign of
ethnic cleansing that began last year.
Obama and Thein
Sein should acknowledge that persecution of minority Muslims threatens Burma’s
reform process, and that the Burmese government should undertake diligent
investigations of past violence and persecution. Thein Sein should also commit
to major restructuring of border and police forces and an expedited plan for
reintegration and reconciliation of displaced populations.
Human Rights Watch
also called on Thein Sein to commit to amending Burma’s 1982 citizenship law to
remove discriminatory provisions that effectively deny Rohingya and certain
other ethnic groups the ability to obtain citizenship, even when their families
have lived in Burma for generations.
Human Rights Watch
urged Obama to comment publicly on the Burmese government’s lack of progress on
the November pledges, and to press Thein Sein to ensure their implementation.
Both governments
should acknowledge that the political reform process is incomplete, and that a
key milestone of progress will be free and fair parliamentary elections in
2015, along with necessary amendments to the constitution to remove the Burmese
military’s constitutional authority over civilian government. This includes
removing the military’s authority to appoint 25 percent of the seats in the
parliament, and to dismiss the parliament and president.
“There are negative
consequences for rights when diplomatic rewards continue even as reforms
stall,” Sifton said. “If the US keeps delivering carrots on the same schedule
while Burma breaks its promises, Burma’s leaders will conclude that they are no
longer under serious international pressure to follow through on reforms.”
Obama and US officials
should also make it clear that support for the Burmese military is contingent
on Burma meeting strict criteria of human rights improvement, including
accountability for past abuses, and constitutional reforms to fully restore
civilian rule.
“The reform process
in Burma will ultimately require the military coming under civilian rule and
formally and legally stepping aside from politics,” Sifton said. “The reform
process by necessity involves the military relinquishing its powers, and both
presidents should acknowledge this.”