United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should emphasize the need for genuine reforms to address Burma’s still dire human rights situation, Human Rights Watch said today. Ban will visit Burma for several days beginning April 29, 2012 to discuss with Burmese officials a range of issues including political reform, development and humanitarian needs, and refugee issues.
Human Rights Watch urged Ban to press publicly and privately for the release of all remaining political prisoners and the creation of an independent review board to verify and report on those still imprisoned, an end to abuses in ethnic conflict areas, and a field presence in Burma for the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights.
“Secretary-General Ban is right to be encouraged by recent signs of change in Burma, but that optimism sours when you factor in ongoing human rights abuses,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “There is much for the UN to do to nurture the process, but Ban’s priorities should include pushing for the release of all political prisoners and an end to rights abuses in ethnic areas.”
“Many challenges lie ahead,” Ban told reporters April 24. “Many concerns have yet to be addressed. Yet I am convinced that we have an unprecedented opportunity to help the country advance toward a better future.” During his last visit to Burma, in July 2009, he was not permitted to visit the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, then under house arrest, and had concluded that the trip was “deeply disappointing.”
Over the past year the Burmese government has released a significant number of political prisoners, which has long been a priority of the secretary-general and the international community. In four amnesties announced by President Thein Sein, in May and October 2011 and twice in January 2012, the government released an estimated 659 political prisoners. Estimates vary on remaining numbers, but hundreds are believed to be behind bars. The Thai-based Assistance Association of Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPPB) estimates that there are still 473 verified remaining political prisoners, with possibly 465 others unverified. A network of recently released political prisoners in Rangoon maintains a working list of 445 remaining prisoners.
The government contends that 120 remaining prisoners considered to be political prisoners by governments and human rights organizations have been convicted of security offenses or violent crimes. Given Burma’s opaque and often secretive legal system, those arrested on politically motivated grounds have routinely been prosecuted on criminal charges in closed proceedings, often without counsel or the opportunity to present a defense. Judges in Burma lack independence.