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Heightened Expectations and Hopes for Real Change in Burma Can Only be Realized with Coordinated International Pressure

By Burma Partnership  •  September 19, 2011

Derek Mitchell, the United States (US) Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma, made his first visit to Burma from September 9-14.  Throughout his visit Ambassador Mitchell consistently expressed his belief that now is a time of opportunity for Burma.  He stated in a press conference before leaving the country that “[a]mong both the international community and the Burmese people, it is clear from my visit that there are heightened expectations and hopes that change, real change, may be on the horizon.”  However, Amb. Mitchell recognized that while there is opportunity for change, the human rights situation in the country is clearly still problematic. He stated of his meeting that “I was frank about the many questions the US – and others – continue to have about implementation and follow-through on these stated goals…I raised concerns regarding the detention of approximately 2,000 political prisoners, continued hostilities in ethnic minority areas accompanied by reports of serious human rights violations, including against women and children.”

This week Daw Aung San Suu Kyi expressed a similar message when she stated that “[n]ow is a key time for Burma as change is possible but not yet assured.” At such a key moment in Burma’s development it is crucial that the international community not accept mere superficial changes on the part of the regime and instead demand genuine reform.

On 13 September Burma’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin stated to the UN Human Rights Council that “the priorities of the new government are to achieve good governance, clean government, fundamental rights of the citizens, rule of law, transparency, accountability… and economic conservation.”  While this certainly sounds positive, actions speak louder than words and the actions taken by the regime this week suggest very different priorities. On 14 September Sithu Zeya, a video journalist already serving an eight year sentence in Insein Prison under Burma’s Unlawful Association Act, received a ten year extension to his sentence based on the Electronic Transactions Act Article 33 (a) which is frequently used “to punish pro-democracy opposition members who disseminate information by electronic communication that is deemed to threaten security or harm the government.”  In response to this extension, Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists stated “[t]oday’s punitive sentencing of DVB reporter Sithu Zeya further shows that nothing has changed for the press under Burma’s new government”.

The United Nations (UN) and its Member States must not accept mere words from the regime and must place pressure on regime aimed at producing genuine change in the country. This pressure should include economic sanctions against the regime.  Amb. Mitchell was clear that the US would maintain its sanctions until reform in Burma was evident.  In response to a question at the 14 September press conference he stated “[y]es, our policy has not changed. My trip is consistent with the policy. That sanctions remain in place is a component of our policy.” Amb. Mitchell made clear that “I never presented, nor have I developed such a roadmap” for removal of sanctions. He called on Burma’s government to take measures that include “releasing all political prisoners unconditionally, engaging in meaningful outreach to the political opposition, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and engaging in dialogue rather than armed conflict with ethnic minority groups.” The US should not consider lifting sanctions on Burma until all of these conditions are met.  The European Union, ASEAN and all UN Member States must take similar steps as only coordinated action will force the regime go beyond mere words and engage in genuine reform.

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