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Thein Sein’s Words Must be Followed by Action

By Burma Partnership  •  July 22, 2013

AVAAZ Rohingya stunt London 15 July 2013 © Anna Roberts Burma Campaign UKPresident Thein Sein completed his first visit to the UK and France on 18 July with more promises of reform and was prematurely rewarded with trade and investment discussions, military cooperation and a gloss of legitimacy. Although Prime Minister David Cameron, President François Hollande, as well President Thein Sein, paid lip-service to reform and human rights, this does not disguise the reality of a dire human rights situation, the stalled peace process, and the empty promises of reform that characterize Burma today.

One of the promises that Thein Sein made was that all political prisoners would be released by the end of the year. It has been over two years since Thein Sein assumed the office of President, and the amount of times that world leaders have pushed him on this issue has been countless. Yet there remain hundreds of people languishing in jail for their political activism, while the number of new political prisoners is increasing. On the very day that Thein Sein made this statement, a 74 year-old Rohingya human rights activist in Arakan State was arbitrarily arrested and detained. Just a few days later on 18 July, Daw Bawk Ja, a Kachin human rights activist and member of the National Democratic Force, was unlawfully detained on politically motivated charges.

Thein Sein also stated that a nationwide ceasefire was just weeks away, and this would mark the first time in over 60 years that the country would not be in a state of conflict. Yet the Burma Army offensive in Kachin State continues unabated, while there are more and more clashes in northern Shan State with the Shan State Army North and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army. The peace process has actually regressed since ceasefires were signed with many of the major armed groups since 2012.

Perhaps the most empty of Thein Sein’s promises was a “zero tolerance approach” to those who are inciting racial hatred. As the extremist monk Wirathu travels the country spreading hate messages against Islam, Thein Sein has recently labelled him a “son of Buddha” and a “noble person.” This is the same noble person who preaches that Muslims are repeatedly raping Buddhist women and imprisoning them in their home, that they are launching a jihad in Burma and as such, any Muslim businesses should be boycotted and restrictions placed on marriage between Muslim men and Buddhist women. His vitriolic, anti-Muslim 969 campaign is inciting hatred in the country, as seen in the many bouts of extreme violence against Muslims throughout Burma. Rather than a zero tolerance approach, the government is implementing a 100% tolerance approach.

It is of no surprise, therefore, that human rights groups in France and the UK, denounced Thein Sein’s visit and urged Cameron and Hollande to press Thein Sein for concrete actions rather than simply words. It is of great disappointment that trade and investment are given priority over human rights by these two governments in their relationship with Burma. Worryingly, the UK has also pledged military cooperation, thus assisting the same military that is guilty of serious past and ongoing human rights violations in Burma’s ethnic areas.

When the EU lifted sanctions previously, it ignored its own benchmarks that outlined the reasons for their imposition, renewal, and suspension. Thein Sein made some big promises on his trip to Europe. It is not only Thein Sein’s responsibility to ensure that these promises are fulfilled but it is also the responsibility of the international community, especially the governments of the UK and France, as well as the EU, to pressure Thein Sein to put these words into action. Specific benchmarks must be laid out for an improvement of the human rights situation in Burma, and there must be consequences if these are not met.

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