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President Obama to Welcome Burma’s President Thein Sein to White House, Ignores Plight of Ethnic, Religious Minorities

By US Campaign for Burma  •  May 15, 2013

Today the U.S. Campaign for Burma (USCB) expresses its dismay over President Obama’s decision to welcome Burma’s President Thein Sein to the White House on Monday, May 20, 2013, just days after President Thein Sein failed to effectively manage the multiple dangers Rohingya internally displaced persons (IDPs) face from the oncoming cyclones and security forces, ignoring months of warnings about the danger they face in low-lying areas during cyclone season, and not holding security forces accountable for their role in attempting to ethnically cleanse the Rohingya from Burma.

President Thein Sein will be the first Head of State from Burma to visit Washington, DC in nearly five decades. He attended the United Nations General Assembly in September 2012 but did not travel to Washington, DC during that trip. This trip follows a troubling downward trend in Burma: hundreds of new political prisoners, ongoing war against the Kachin, breakdown of several ceasefires, ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, escalating anti-Muslim violence, denial of humanitarian aid, pandemic land confiscation, and a complete lack of justice and accountability.

Over the past year, the Obama Administration has dramatically shifted US-Burma policy away from a measured action-for-action policy to an encouraging reformers approach. This decision abandoned the centerpiece of a bi-partisan US-Burma policy over more than two decades that is cemented in US laws mandating that sanctions remain in place until the Burmese government meets certain conditions: the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, substantially moving to end human rights abuses and implement tripartite dialogue between the military, democratic opposition and ethnic minorities for national reconciliation and genuine democracy. These conditions enjoyed broad support from Burma’s democratic opposition, ethnic nationalities, and the human rights community.

Despite its controlled shift to a quasi-democratic state in 2011, Burma has not fully met even one of the above conditions. In fact, some political prisoners who have been conditionally released are now being forced to serve the remaining years of their sentences. This includes Nay Myo Zin, who on May 7, 2013, was sentenced to serve the 6 remaining years of his original 10-year prison sentence. Yet in a massive shift in foreign policy, the Obama Administration has responded to Burma’s recent modest reforms by waiving congressional requirements and lifting most sanctions. “This encouragement policy is not working,” says USCB Executive Director Jennifer Quigley. “Over the past year, and particularly in the past couple of months, the Burmese government has escalated its human rights violations and military attacks against ethnic minorities.”

The State Department published Burma’s crimes against humanity, war crimes, and abuses bordering on genocide in its 2012 and 2013 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. In his most recent statement, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, announced that he had “received credible allegations that widespread and systematic human rights violations by state officials targeted against the Rohingya and wider Muslim populations have occurred and are continuing in Rakhine State. These involve the most serious of allegations, including extrajudicial killings, rape and sexual violence, arbitrary detention and torture and ill-treatment in detention, deaths in detention, and denial of due process and fair trial rights.”

In spite of these reports, the US Administration has not reinstated any sanctions. “Instead of retracting previous concessions or freezing new concessions on the condition that the government stop abusing the Rohingya, the Kachin, Muslims, and others,” says USCB Executive Director Jennifer Quigley, “the US Administration has responded disproportionately by granting more concessions. President Obama is sending the message that crimes against humanity by state forces against ethnic and religious minorities in Burma will be ignored by his Administration.”

President Obama’s invitation to President Thein Sein is yet another US gift to the Burmese government. The invitation ignores Thein Sein’s role, as head of state, in the abuses against the Rohingya, Muslims, escalating military campaigns against the Kachin, Shan, and Karen, and the government’s extensive land seizures to secure lucrative foreign investment deals.

President Thein Sein has a responsibility to protect his people, and, as the UN Special Rapporteur insists, Thein Sein “has an obligation under international law to investigate these allegations effectively, promptly, thoroughly and impartially and, where appropriate, to take action against those responsible, in accordance with domestic and international law.” But President Thein Sein has not taken any recent steps to investigate allegations of government perpetrated violence, revise laws that condone human rights abuses, or hold anyone accountable for gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

Inviting Thein Sein reinforces the message of a positive US-Burma relationship while human rights violations escalate and rampant impunity in Thein Sein’s government is condoned. US concessions have thus helped embolden actors in the Burmese government who discover that human rights abuses are no longer disciplined by the US, and thus no longer fiscally problematic. The US Administration, instead of honoring an abusive leader, should tie its concessions to conditions, including curbing the anti-Muslim violence, pursuing justice and accountability, allowing humanitarian aid to reach IDPs, and halting military assaults against ethnic groups.

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This post is in: Press Release

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