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Letter to ASEAN Heads of State

By Task Force on ASEAN and Burma, Burma Partnership and Altsean-Burma  •  April 4, 2012

His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah
Prime Minister Hun Sen
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
President Lt. General Choummali Saignason
Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Mohd Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak
President Benigno S. Aquino III
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra
President Truong Tan Sang

Subject: Urge Burma/Myanmar’s President Thein Sein to take meaningful steps towards a democratic transition, peace and national reconciliation and an end to human rights violations for a successful ASEAN Chairmanship in 2014

Your Excellencies,

We write to you today to share our serious concerns about ongoing human rights violations in Burma/Myanmar, ahead of the ASEAN Summit on 3 and 4 April in Phnom Penh. We would like to request that you use this opportunity to urge President Thein Sein and his government to take meaningful steps towards a democratic transition, peace and national reconciliation as well as to put an end to gross human rights violations in the country.

Thein Sein’s government has taken a number of indisputably positive steps since November 2011, when Burma/Myanmar was granted the chairmanship of ASEAN for 2014. These include the release of close to three hundred well known political prisoners, some amendments to the election laws to allow the National League for Democracy to participate in the by-elections, and the loosening of pre-publication censorship regulations. While we welcome these encouraging developments, Burma/Myanmar should put forth the necessary effort in order to lead ASEAN in 2014, particularly given the fact that the ASEAN Charter commits member states “to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms,” but also to ensure a people-centered ASEAN in 2014.

We note with concern that the recent negotiations between government representatives and ethnic armed groups have not led to an end to conflict and the Burma Army continues to perpetrate gross human rights abuses against ethnic civilians. On 6 February 2012, despite having signed a ceasefire agreement on 2 December 2011, Burma Army units shelled a base belonging to the Shan State Army – South in Mong Ping Township in Eastern Shan State. Armed clashes continue in Kachin State after the last round of peace talks failed. In March, the Burma Army breached the initial ceasefire signed in December with the Karen National Union (KNU) by attacking the frontline position of the KNU in Papun District. In his report to the United Nations Human Rights Council dated 7 March, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Mr. Tomás Ojea Quintana, commented that he “has received reports of attacks against civilian populations, extrajudicial killings, internal displacement, the use of human shields and forced labour, and the confiscation and destruction of property.” Moreover, the reigning culture of impunity allows Burma Army soldiers to continue perpetrating such abuses without fear of punishment.

We would like to draw your attention to the fact that the recent easing of media censorship and other “openings” that have been hailed by the international community have not been accompanied by legislative reforms. Repressive laws in Burma/Myanmar which include restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly and the press remain on the books, unamended. Consequently, the people of Burma/Myanmar continue to fear arrest for their political activities, thus limiting their ability to participate in public life.

The recent release of political prisoners has been praised as one of the most significant steps on the road to democracy. However, hundreds of political prisoners still remain behind bars. Additionally, those prisoners released on 13 January 2012 were freed under Article 401(1)3 of the Code of Criminal Procedure which allows for prisoners’ sentences to be suspended or remitted. Given that laws prohibiting freedom of expression remain in place, speaking out against the government will endanger them to be imprisoned again.

We believe that Burma/Myanmar needs to complete genuine democratic reforms as an essential prerequisite to leading ASEAN in promoting “regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law” and ensuring a people-centered ASEAN in 2014. Special Rapporteur Quintana stated in a 5 February press conference after his visit to Burma/Myanmar that “prior to its assumption of the Chairpersonship of ASEAN in 2014, I would encourage Myanmar to demonstrate concrete progress in improving its human rights situation. The international community should remain engaged and should support and assist the Government during this important time.”

Recognizing the important role that you can play at this critical juncture and in ensuring a successful ASEAN chairmanship in 2014, we would like to urge ASEAN leaders to take an active role in promoting a genuinely people-centered ASEAN and the free and meaningful participation of the regional civil society during Burma’s chairmanship and that you urge President Thein Sein to:

  • Unconditionally release and rehabilitate all political prisoners;
  • Immediately stop intimidation and surveillance of released political prisoners;
  • Reach a nationwide ceasefire that addresses the root causes of conflict with ethnic armed groups;
  • Address the issue of accountability for human rights abuses and put an end to the ability of the Burma Army to perpetrate crimes with impunity; and
  • Amend or repeal those laws that restrict the fundamental freedoms of the people of Burma/Myanmar in order to allow all of the country’s people to fully participate in public life.

Signed by 263 individuals at the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, from 29-31 March 2012.

Read the press release here.

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This post is in: ASEAN

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