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“Winds of Change” Blow a Gale of Human Rights Abuses

By Burma Partnership  •  October 7, 2014

29 September 2014 Photo By Shannon Stapleton ReutersBurma’s Foreign Minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, gave a glowing report on the progress towards democracy and respect for human rights in Burma at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) yet given the deteriorating human rights situation on the ground, it is difficult not to view his words as a North Korean-esque sting in the tail.

Wunna Maung Lwin specifically requested that Burma be taken off the agenda of the Human Rights Council as well as the Third Committee of the UNGA, citing that “all major concerns related to human rights have been addressed to a larger extent in the new Myanmar.” Yet on closer inspection, this statement is preposterous, with the realities on the ground providing a striking contrast to these words.

Remarking on the peace process, the government is apparently “serious in its commitment” to making this work. The problem is that the government and the Burma Army say and do different things. As the government is making promises to ethnic armed groups, the Burma Army is still launching offensives in Kachin State and northern Shan State. Even with groups that have a ceasefire, the Burma Army continues its aggression, as seen in Kyeithi Township, Shan State over the weekend where it attacked Shan State Army – North positions yet again. Around 300 villagers have been forced to flee in this township alone in recent months due to attacks. This is emblematic of the current state of the peace process, where too much attention has been placed on the signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement. Yet as recent clashes indicate, a ceasefire simply isn’t enough to rein in the Burma Army, and this state of affairs remains volatile, as the recent briefing paper produced by Burma Partnership explains.

Wunna Maung Lwin also claims that “the first wave of reform has brought about the national reconciliation, granting of a series of amnesties, creation of greater political space, freedom of media, and freedom of expression, freedom of association and peaceful assembly.” He later concludes that the presidential amnesties “have created an enabling environment for everyone to participate in the parliament, political parties, civil society organizations and labour organizations.” However, as this recent briefing paper on the shrinking space for civil society in Burma, by Burma Partnership and the Assistance Association for Political Prisoner (AAPP) argues, not only is it quite simply not true that all political prisoners were released in the December 2013 presidential amnesties, in fact many more activists, farmers, human rights defenders, journalists and peaceful protestors have been arrested, detained, charged, sentenced and imprisoned over the course of 2014, not to mention intimidated, threatened and harassed.

Moreover, the Burma authorities are failing to respect and protect people’s human rights and fundamental freedoms at a legislative and judicial level, particularly the rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression that Wunna Maung Lwin explicitly mentions. They are enacting legislation that is not in line with international human rights law and norms, and refusing to repeal repressive and draconian colonial – or junta-era legislations. Meanwhile the judiciary falls woefully short in terms of competence, independence and transparency, and thus offers no access to justice for the victims of human rights abuses in Burma. In short, there is no rule of law whatsoever.

Wunna Maung Lwin also touts press and media freedom as “one of the most visible outcomes of the reforms,” when in fact, as the Burma Partnership/AAPP briefing paper shows, independent media in Burma is currently facing serious, existential challenges, ranging from intimidation to legislative threats to unfair commercial pressures.

Moving on, in his remarks on the Rohingya, Wunna Maung Lwin comments that “In addressing the root cause, we are working for peace, stability, harmony, and development of all people in Rakhine State.” This involves a plan which would force Rohingya to accept ethnic reclassification as Bengali, thus entrenching the belief that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Those who don’t accept this would not be able to attain citizenship, and would be segregated in apartheid-like conditions as many of the 140,000 displaced Rohingya currently are.

The “winds of change” that Wunna Muang Lwin talks of do not translate to those suffering from human rights violations in relation to armed conflict, to those being arrested based on politically-motivated charges, to Rohingya segregated in camps, or vast majority of the people and communities who are not benefiting from these so called changes in Burma. Thus it is imperative that Burma does remain on the agendas of the Human Rights Council and the Third Committee of the UNGA. The international community must take Burma’s foreign minister’s words as what they really are; an effort to deceive in order to take Burma’s still appalling human rights record out of the spotlight.

Thus the international community have a responsibility to pressure the Burma Government to place human rights as top priority on its reform agenda and respect, protect and promote the rights of its people. The International community must not be further misled or deceived by the Burma Government’s time buying – the same old tactic applied by the military regime previously. In particular, the long-time champions of Burma’s struggle for democracy and human rights such as the US, UK and the EU must stand firmly on human rights and ensure the Burma resolutions remain at the UNGA and Human Rights Council and reflect the human rights situation for people of Burma. It is this, not economic or geopolitical interests, which must dictate the resolution.

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