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US Must Ask Burma: Why So Little Action on Rights, Rohingya?

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. © 2011 Reuters

Phuket_Wan:
May 19, 2013

By Human Rights
Watch Media Release

PHUKET: The United
States should use the coming 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, Human Rights Watch
said.
”The last year has
seen devastating violence against minorities and a stalled reform process,” said
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
”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 organisations for access to conflict-affected areas.
Regarding violence
against ethnic Rohingya and other Muslim communities in Burma’s western Arakan
[Rakhine] 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,
Human Rights Watch said. 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
organisations 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 forces implicated 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, Human Rights Watch said.
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
key milestones 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, Human Rights Watch said.
”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.”