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Clinton Must Prioritize Release of Political Prisoners and Human Rights Abuses on Visit to Burma

By Burma Partership  •  November 28, 2011

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to arrive in Burma this Wednesday, 30 November, for the first visit by an American Secretary of State to the country in more than fifty years. In announcing her visit, US President Barack Obama has focused on positive developments in Burma, referring to “flickers of progress” but he also recognized that “there’s far more to be done” and that the possibility of establishing closer ties between Burma and the United States “will depend upon the Burmese government taking more concrete action.”

While many have welcomed the visit by Secretary Clinton, it is crucial that during her time in Burma, she prioritize putting pressure on the regime to bring an end to the decades of human rights abuses perpetrated against civilians throughout the country. Despite the “flickers of progress” that President Obama highlighted in his speech, the reality is that in many ways human rights abuses have escalated since President Thein Sein took office. The new conflict that erupted in Kachin State in June of this year as a result of the Burma Army’s attacks on the Kachin Independence Army, which broke a seventeen year ceasefire, has brought rape, torture, extrajudicial killings and the use of civilians as human shields and human minesweepers. Similar atrocities continue to be committed against Karen civilians, as well as civilians from other ethnic nationalities living in conflict areas. The Thai-Burma Border Consortium recently noted that in the past year more people have been forcibly displaced than at any time since the group began keeping track of such statistics in 2002.

There can be no serious consideration of the lifting of US sanctions on Burma until the regime puts an end to these atrocities and takes steps toward genuine national reconciliation. As Secretary of State Clinton stated herself, “We’re not ending sanctions. We’re not making any abrupt changes.” She also echoed several of the calls made by numerous civil society organizations insisting that the regime must “release all political prisoners. I mean, that just is a condition. They need to begin to look at how they resolve these ethnic conflicts that have driven tens of thousands of Burmese of different ethnicities into refugee status. They have to have a real electoral system with an open door to political parties and free expression.”

As noted by Secretary Clinton, as well as several other US and UN officials, the continued detention of political prisoners demonstrates that there is a limit to the space the regime is willing to provide for democratization. Despite the regime’s frequent assertions to the contrary and the much touted amnesties that took place in May and October of this year, close to 1,700 political prisoners remain in prison, detained on trumped up charges because of their political activities. Another general amnesty which releases token numbers of political prisoners should be viewed as insufficient and the US must continue to demand the release of all political prisoners as one of the necessary preconditions to the lifting of sanctions.

On the point of resolving ethnic conflicts, it must be recognized that in order for there to be true peace and national reconciliation in Burma, it is crucial that the underlying causes of these ethnic conflicts be addressed. The recent preliminary talks towards peace negotiations taking place between the regime and ethnic armed groups do not even begin to address these causes and should be viewed with skepticism. The regime continues to refuse the demand of the ethnic groups to hold political dialogue through the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of ethnic armed groups, and instead continues to engage in piecemeal talks with individual groups.

While the National League for Democracy is taking steps to reregister as a political party, Burma is still far from having “a real electoral system with an open door to political parties and free expression,” one of the conditions mentioned by Secretary Clinton. No date has been announced for the expected upcoming by-elections but Shwe Mann, Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament, has stated that they will not take place for at least three months. Censorship of the media continues and, as of yet, freedom of the press is non-existent with journalists, as well as other ordinary citizens, continuing to be imprisoned for expressing themselves.

It is clear that whatever changes may have taken place in Burma, they have fallen far short of the substantial reforms necessary to make the country into a functioning democracy. Much more must be done and it is crucial that the international community continue to place pressure on the regime to make the necessary reforms. In particular, Secretary Clinton should use the opportunity of her visit to Burma to demand that the regime release all political prisoners, put an end to the armed conflict and human rights abuses in ethnic areas, and continue to take steps towards genuine peace, national reconciliation, and the creation of a true democracy with freedom of expression for all people. Until these demands are met, sanctions cannot be lifted.

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