Burma reforming, but abuses continue: HRW report

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TUESDAY, 24 JANUARY 2012

Burma, while introducing democratic reforms in 2011, failed to seriously address the “still dire human rights situation in the country,” Human Rights Watch said on Monday in its World Report 2012.

Burma’s newly elected parliamentary government followed up on this progress in early 2012 by releasing several hundred political prisoners. The government has followed through on promised democratic reforms, new reforms to improve human rights, and institute legal, economic, and social reforms, the human rights watchdog said.

However, the new reforms largely failed to address ongoing, serious human rights violations in the country, especially abuses related to the long-running civil armed conflicts in ethnic minority areas.

“Releasing key political prisoners was a crucial step and Burma’s government has voiced promises to reform, but it must also address decades of gross human rights violations,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch in a statement released with the report. “2011 may have been a year for cautious optimism, but there was no measurable decline in serious abuses, and enacting new laws is not a substitute for respecting the rule of law.”

In December, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi re-registered her party, the National League for Democracy, and announced plans to contest scheduled by-elections in April 2012. Two government amnesties, in May and October respectively, released an estimated 316 political prisoners. In January 2012, 651 prisoners were released, among them at least 287 political prisoners including prominent members of the 88 Generation students movement – which led the 1988 uprising against the military junta – monk leaders, and journalists.

Nevertheless, said the report, Burma continued to imprison hundreds for peaceful acts of free expression. Human Rights Watch called on the Burmese government to agree to an independent international mechanism to access prisons and publicly report on the whereabouts and condition of remaining political prisoners.

Burma’s government-formed National Human Rights Commission called the report “unreasonable” because it failed to cite progress over the course of the year.

The report failed to credit the break from the former junta by President Thein Sein, who many in the West say is a reformer, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) said, responding to the report on Monday.

“I think it’s unreasonable to make a broad report on the whole of 2011 – you have to look at the year as it progressed from March [when the government came to power],” said Sitt Myaing, secretary of the NHRC.

Regarding the fighting with ethnic armed groups, he said: “We don’t want to deny the mental, physical and economic suffering of civilians – there is always a collateral damage in armed conflicts – and that people had been killed or injured. But we will only know the truth behind this if we observe carefully which group caused this.”

He said one clear sign of improvement was the formation of the NHRC in 2011, which is tasked with handling complaints from Burmese of rights abuses committed by government authorities.

In January 2012, the Burmese government entered into separate preliminary cease-fire talks with the Karen National Union and the Kachin Independence Organization. Several other ethnic armed groups agreed to cease-fires or talks with the government in late 2011, the report noted, such as the Shan State Army-South and the United Wa State Army. Human Rights Watch said that the Burmese military continues to violate international humanitarian law through the use of extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence, beatings, abusive forced labor, antipersonnel landmines, and pillaging of property, particularly in Kachin, Shan, and Karen States.

Burmese army units in Karen State forced convicts to work as porters in ongoing operations in combat zones, mistreating them through beatings, torture, and use as “human shields” to deter attacks or clear antipersonnel landmines, the report said.

The army continues, it said, “to actively recruit and use child soldiers, even as the government cooperates with the International Labour Organization on demobilizing child soldiers.” Ethnic armed groups have also been implicated in serious abuses, such as recruiting child soldiers and using antipersonnel landmines around civilian areas.

The report noted the heavy fighting in Kachin State, where more than 50,000 civilians were internally displaced by fighting since June, fleeing Burmese army abuses such as forced labor, extrajudicial killings, and attacks on civilian areas, with several thousand seeking refuge in China.

In December, President Thein Sein publicly called for the Burmese army to cease attacks against the Kachin Independence Army, but fighting in northern Burma has continued. In January 2012, he is reported to have repeated the request with respect to attacks in all ethnic areas.

“The government’s commitment to a genuinely inclusive political system will be tested in the April by-elections,” Pearson said. “To show it’s serious about ending rights violations, the government should also permit an independent international mechanism to investigate alleged abuses.”

In 2011, Burma’s pledges of reform resulted in visits from several Western foreign ministers and envoys to meet with senior members of government and opposition leaders. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) granted Burma the chair of the grouping for 2014.

“The flurry of diplomatic visits to Burma shouldn’t detract from the challenges that lie ahead,” Pearson said. “If 2011 was the year of promises, 2012 is the year Burma’s government needs to end the country’s culture of impunity, release all remaining political prisoners, and demonstrate through actions that it respects human rights.”

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