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Demonstrations for Real Change in Burma Continue Despite Regime’s “Charm Offensive”

By Burma Partnership  •  September 12, 2011

In a continuation of its recent attempts at improving its public image, Burma’s regime officially established a national human rights commission (NHRC) on 5 September.  The commission was formed “with a view to promoting and safeguarding fundamental rights of citizens described in the constitution”.  Given that the NHRC will be headed by retired ambassadors Win Mra and Kyaw Tint Swe, who have previously denied well documented human rights abuses committed by the military regime, it is hard to believe that the commission will actually take measures to end the commission of crimes against the people of Burma.  Additionally, given that the commission is explicitly based upon the 2008 constitution, which enshrines impunity for military and civilian leaders, its ability to provide justice and accountability is inherently limited.

However, campaigners within Burma and around the world recognized this move for what it was, nothing more than window dressing. If the regime was truly interested in promoting human rights one of the first steps it would take would be to release all political prisoners but today almost 2000 individuals are still behind bars solely because they dared to express their opinion or advocate for change. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted a few days ago in his report to the 66th General Assembly on the situation of human rights in [Burma] “the detention of all remaining political prisoners will continue to overshadow and undermine any confidence in the Government’s efforts”.

Civil Society groups similarly recognized the importance of the release of political prisoners to the establishment of a true democracy in Burma. On 4 September three hundred opposition campaigners and relatives of political prisoners held a prayer ceremony at Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon to pray for the humane treatment of political prisoners, the release of these prisoners, and an end to the “unlawful arrests of pro-democracy activists.” Less than a week later, on 9 September protests took place outside Burma’s embassies in Bangkok, London and Paris, as well as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, to call for the release of jailed video journalist Hla Hla Win.   As Frédéric Débomy, President of Info Birmanie, a Paris based group that advocates for change in Burma, put it “Hla Hla Win is a symbol that things still need to change in Burma. If the Burmese regime is serious about wanting national reconciliation and wants some credibility, there is one action they can undertake now: release all political prisoners”

Illustrating the desire on the part of the people of Burma for a voice on the matters that impact their lives and communities, another demonstration took place in Rangoon where an estimated five hundred advocates gathered on 10 September to express their concerns about the negative consequences of the recent hydropower projects along the Irrawaddy River(Burmese). The event was aimed at raising awareness of the environmental damage caused by the damming of the river as well as the harm being visited upon local communities. As the people of Burma continue risking their freedom to work towards improving the situation in their country, it is crucial that the international community not be misled by the regime’s “charm offensive” and instead continue to demand real change in Burma.

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