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Burma Continues to Repress Critical Voices

By Burma Partnership  •  January 21, 2013

According to Freedom House’s annual global survey on political rights and civil liberties released this week, Burma is still rated as “Not Free.”  A “Not Free” country is one where basic political rights are absent, and basic civil liberties are widely and systematically denied.

This could come as a surprise after the reforms that President Thein Sein and his government have started implementing but as Freedom House explains freedoms of expression and association improved in the last two years “but they depend more on current government policy than on deep institutional changes.”

One of the noticeable areas of reform is freedom of information. Thein Sein released bloggers and journalists, ended pre-publication censorship, and authorized the publication of privately-owned dailies. Regrettably, as explained in a report released this week by Reporters Without Borders, “as things stand, the possibility of the reforms being perverted cannot be ruled out.” The Press Scrutiny and Registration Division is still in place and can suspend any weekly that publishes “forbidden” content, there is no law providing protection to media and journalists, the old oppressive laws remain unamended and privately owned weeklies have been facing legal proceedings.

Self-censorship is widespread. “[Journalists have] tried to publish articles critical of the authorities but quickly discovered that the government’s red lines had not retreated as much as they had imagined,” says the Reporters Without Borders report. The “red lines” were apparently crossed this week as the Union Parliament passed a motion to investigate a dissident blogger, known as Dr. Seik Phwa, who criticized the legislature for acting “above the law” on the Internet. In the article the blogger challenged the legislature’s decision to grant itself greater powers over the election of the constitutional tribunal judges.

Another illustration of the continuous violations of people’s fundamental freedom that occurred this week is the sentencing to one month in prison of Aung Hmine San, Than Htike, Min Naing Lwin, and Thein Aung Myint, four activists who demonstrated against the controversial Letpadaung copper mine near Monywa.

The activists were charged under Section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which bars public gathering without official permission. This new law, warmly welcomed by the international community and considered to be a sign of progress and further guarantees of peoples’ freedoms, has actually been consistently used as a tool to persecute and arrest dissidents.

This week’s two reports warned that people in Burma are still not enjoying their civil and political rights, one blogger is being investigated by the Parliament for criticizing it and four activists received jail sentences for peacefully demonstrating. This is a normal week in Burma for any voices critical of the government illustrating the serious limits to Thein Sein’s reform process. We call on the government of Burma to fully respect people’s fundamental freedoms and on the National Human Rights Commission to thoroughly and independently investigate these human rights abuses. The international community must continue to pressure the current administration until citizens can fully exercise their freedoms without fear, risk of arrest and harassment. We must all ensure that self-censorship will not replace State censorship in Burma.

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