Positive actions by Burma’s new government should not obscure the serious human rights problems persisting in the country one year after the November 2010 elections, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released on November 3, 2011.
“While the new government has passed reformist laws and promised policy changes, the real test will be the reaction when Burmese citizens try to avail themselves of their rights,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Atrocities against civilians in conflict zones, torture of political prisoners, and courts that justify repression have been features of the first year of nominally civilian rule as much as the announced reforms.”
Since President Thein Sein took office on March 30, 2011, the rhetoric of his government has changed markedly. Media restrictions have relaxed and a number of bills passed in the second session of parliament since August suggest a new commitment, on paper at least, to protect some basic rights. The new government has pledged additional reforms and made significant gestures to the political opposition. Senior members of the government have talked about pursuing economic reform, promoting democracy, respecting human rights, and sponsoring peace talks with ethnic armed groups to end the civil war. They have permitted democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi a level of freedom she has not been able to exercise since 1989. She has met regularly with senior government officials, and described these talks as more substantive and hopeful than past rounds of dialogue.
“These changes have been greeted with domestic and international optimism,” said Pearson. “But they are at an elite national level. There has been little measurable change in basic modes of governance or repression at the local level across the country.”
Military abuses continue with impunity in ethnic areas, and the new government has not raised the urgent issue of military reform. The government continues to suppress dissent through a raft of repressive laws and the lack of an independent judiciary. Large numbers of political prisoners remain in prison, with two prisoner amnesties in May and October releasing only an estimated 297 political prisoners. The new government largely continues the official culture of denial over the human rights situation – even as it formed a National Human Rights Commission in September, a body whose independence and commitment to promoting human rights remains an open question.
Legislative reforms in the new parliament have tabled bills on forming trade unions, permitting peaceful assembly and amendments of the political party registration laws which could open the way for participation by the long repressed opposition party, the National League for Democracy. These laws are encouraging on paper, but it remains to be seen how they will be implemented and the level of social participation.
During 2011, Burma has had various high-level international visits, including by the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy Vijay Nambiar, a delegation from the European Union, the US Special Envoy and Policy Coordinator Derek Mitchell, the foreign ministers of Australia and Indonesia, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma Tomas Ojea Quintana.
“The international community should be supporting real change, not an escalation of promises. Concerned governments should still press Burma’s government to pursue genuine sustainable change that promotes basic rights,” Pearson said. “The jury is still out about how genuine the promises are, how deep they will reach, and above all, what likelihood they have to improve the lives of ordinary people in Burma.”