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UN and ASEAN Must Ensure Regime’s New Promises are Followed by Real Actions

By Burma Partnership  •  October 3, 2011

After months of extensive public mobilization to save the Irrawaddy River from development, President Thein Sein took yet another calculated step this week announcing the suspension of the Myitsone dam project amid controversy within the regime. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed the decision, as did community and environmental groups campaigning on the issue. However, Burma Rivers Network pressed for further steps, namely that the China Power Investment corporation issue an official declaration to confirm Thein Sein’s announcement, and immediately remove all personnel and equipment from the dam site. The network also called on the regime to cancel the 6 other dam projects planned on source rivers of the Irrawaddy.

At the UN General Assembly in New York this week, Burma’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin said that the regime would grant an amnesty to prisoners “at an appropriate time in the near future.” However, he failed to clearly state when this would be or whether this would include any of the nearly 2,000 political prisoners who remain imprisoned in Burma.

The international community has maintained a strong stance, continuously calling on the regime to release all political prisoners. Following his Group of Friends meeting, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reiterated these calls, telling media that “real opportunities for progress exist, but the Government must step up its efforts for reform if it is to bring about an inclusive – and irreversible – transition. In particular, the authorities must cultivate improved dialogue with all political actors and release all remaining political prisoners.”

The Secretary-General and the international community must maintain pressure on the regime to put its words into action. Now is not the time to start rewarding the regime for the small changes it has been making, nothing more than gestures designed to win support from the international community. The regime’s motivation is clear when one considers the upcoming ASEAN Summit in November when the bloc will make a decision on Burma’s bid for the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014, and the UN Resolution on the Situation of Human Rights in Burma that will be decided upon at this session of the General Assembly. We have seen the regime make such carefully timed gestures before, including with previous releases of political prisoners. For example, in 2008, NLD leader, U Win Tin, was released among 9,002 prisoners as the UN General Assembly was meeting to discuss the situation of human rights in Burma. Moreover, the release of political prisoners is often followed by the arrest of many more. The regime is clearly not committed to allowing space to opposition voices, but rather sees the release of political prisoners as a means to lift international pressure.

In May of this year, President Thein Sein announced that all prisoners’ sentences would be reduced by one year, and that death sentences would be commuted to life in prison. An estimated 14,600 prisoners were released, but this only included 58 political prisoners, most of whom were nearing the end of their sentences. Other prominent political prisoners were not affected by the amnesty, including Shan politicians Khun Htun Oo and General Hso Ten, serving 93 and 106 years respectively, and 88 Generation Movement leaders Min Ko Naing and Htay Kywe, serving 65 years each. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said this was the worst prisoner amnesty in Burma’s history.

It will not be enough for the regime to release only a token few political prisoners. They must all be released unconditionally, including those imprisoned under false, tenuous, or trumped-up criminal charges, which the regime repeatedly uses to imprison political activists, journalists, students, and those in real or perceived opposition to the regime.

The release of political prisoners is a fundamental step needed towards genuine democratic change in Burma, but it is also not the only one. The regime must also establish a nationwide ceasefire to immediately halt armed conflict and associated human rights violations in ethnic areas, and engage in tripartite dialogue with ethnic nationality representatives, including armed groups, and the pro-democracy movement, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy.

Without all of these steps, ASEAN and the international community must not recompense the regime by granting the ASEAN chairmanship, or issuing a softer UN General Assembly Resolution. Now is the time to maintain the pressure on the regime to ensure that it turns its promises into concrete changes in Burma.

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