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Crucial Benchmarks Must Be Met Before Sanctions Fully Lifted

By Burma Partnership  •  January 30, 2012

On 23 January, the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union decided to lift the visa bans on Burma’s top government officials, including President Thein Sein, the vice-presidents, ministers and speakers of the two houses of Parliament. In its statement, the Council praised the recent reforms made by Thein Sein’s government while ignoring the serious issues that have not yet been addressed, including ongoing armed conflict and grave human rights abuses in ethnic nationality areas, continued detention of hundreds of political prisoners, and failure to make critical political, economic and legal reforms.

Contrary to the Council’s statement, Thein Sein’s government has not made enough effort to engage ethnic nationalities in the political process. While there have been ceasefires reached with some armed ethnic groups and initial steps taken towards agreements with the Karen National Union and Kachin Independence Organization, the government has not shown the willingness to address the underlying political issues of ethnic equality and self-determination. Furthermore, the Burma Army continues to deploy troops, engage in battle with the Kachin Independence Army and attack civilians fleeing from fighting, giving reasons to doubt the government’s sincerity in achieving peace.

While the EU Foreign Affairs Council praised Thein Sein’s government for the release of political prisoners earlier this month, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners estimates that 918 political prisoners remain behind bars. There have been no mechanisms put in place to provide rehabilitation to political prisoners or necessary legal reforms to ensure that they will not be re-arrested. Legal reforms are also needed to ensure the basic human rights of the people of Burma, something that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is unable to promote because of the body’s fundamental lack of independence and effectiveness. This was made even clearer this week with the NHRC’s dismissal of Human Rights Watch’s report of ongoing human rights abuses as “unreasonable,” arguing instead that the organization failed to acknowledge the progress in the country since the government came into power in March.

At the conclusion of its Article IV mission to Burma this month, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expressed the potential for high economic growth in the country. However, both the IMF and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi warned about the necessity of fundamental economic and legal reforms. In her address to the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said, “Economic progress is dependent on more than the fiscal and monetary measures that have been advocated for Burma by international financial institutions. Such measures will need to be up held by judicial and legislative reforms, which will guarantee that sound regulations and laws will be administrated justly and effectively.”

Rather than rewarding Thein Sein’s government for promises of reforms, the international community must help encourage genuine democratic progress by maintaining pressure on the government. One such way is for the EU and the US to keep sanctions in place until more crucial benchmarks are met on the path to genuine democratic transition, including the release of all political prisoners, nationwide ceasefire and troop withdrawal, end of attacks on ethnic communities, inclusive political dialogue towards national reconciliation, and lasting political, economic and legal reforms.

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