TODAY -

BCD calls on India to raise human rights issues during Burma's Parliamentary Delegation's visit to India
- Burma Centre Delhi (BCD) -

New Delhi, 13 December 2011 *

Burma Centre Delhi Logo



Burma Centre Delhi welcomes the Government of India's goodwill invitation to Burma's Parliamentary Delegation to India from 11 to 17 December 2011. The high level Parliamentary delegation is led by Thura U. Shwe Mann, Speaker of the Lower House of the Myanmar Parliament. During their week-long visit, the Burmese delegation will study the Indian model of democracy and interact with Indian Parliamentarians and other important figures in New Delhi. The delegation is also scheduled to visit places of economic, cultural and historic importance in New Delhi and Mumbai.

The visit of Burma's Parliamentary delegation is a follow up of the State visit of President U. Thein Sein to India in October this year after the formation of his new government in Burma.

Although recent reforms including convention of new Parliament, amendments of Political Party Registration and Election Laws, relaxation of media restrictions and the passage of a bill permitting peaceful protests are being initiated by Thein Sein's new government, the people of Burma continue to suffer serious human rights abuses on a daily basis.

Therefore, we strongly recommend that Indian Parliamentarians should take the opportunity to raise these serious human rights issues during Burma's parliamentary delegation's visit to India and push forward to take the following actions:

Immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners;
Declaration of a nationwide ceasefire with ethnic armed groups and cease attacks on ethnic communities; and
Pass legislation to ensure that the NHRC operates independently and with a broad-based mandate to investigate violations of fundamental human rights.

Burma Centre Delhi
Tele: +91-11-45660619
Email: office@burmacentredelhi.org
www.burmacentredelhi.org





Human Rights Abuses in Burma Must be Addressed When Burma's Parliamentary Delegation Visits India

"Since the November 2010 elections in Burma, a number of political changes have taken place in Naypyidaw. These include negotiations between the regime and pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the suspension of the unpopular Myitsone dam, release of over 200 political prisoners, formation of the NHRC, relaxing media censorship, and developments in parliament such as the passage of a bill permitting peaceful protest, and amendments to Political Party Registration and Election Laws. However, these steps are insufficient to demonstrate that genuine reform is underway given that, at the same time these measures are being taken, more than 1,600 political prisoners remain behind bars, human rights abuses that may rise to the level of crimes against humanity continue to be committed in ethnic areas, and impunity remains rampant.

Political Prisoner

In his report to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly dated 5 August 2011 Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated, "The continued detention of political prisoners remains of deepest concern to the United Nations and the international community. It is inconsistent with the Government's commitments and initial efforts towards greater openness and respect for fundamental freedoms and the rule of law. It is also counterproductive to fostering social peace and dialogue. The detention of all remaining political prisoners will continue to overshadow and undermine any confidence in the Government's efforts."

Following his visit to the country, on 25 August 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, expressed a similar sentiment:
"While I welcome these and other positive developments, there are still serious and ongoing human rights concerns that need to be addressed. Of key concern to me and to the international community is the continuing detention of a large number of prisoners of conscience. I have, since the start of my mandate, consistently called for their immediate release and, in my meetings with Government interlocutors, I conveyed my firm belief that their release is a central and necessary step towards national reconciliation and would bring more benefit to Myanmar's efforts towards democracy."

Nearly two months later, in a highly touted gesture, the regime announced the granting of amnesty to 6,359 prisoners. However, only 240 political prisoners were released as part of this amnesty. In response, Daw Suu noted, "The freedom of each individual is invaluable, but I wish that all political prisoners would be released." The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) reports that 1,638 political prisoners remain behind bars today.

Rather than releasing all of these political prisoners, or even engaging in a genuine dialogue about their future, in an interview with Voice of America at the end of October, Burma's Foreign Minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, simply echoed the denials given by regime officials for decades. He stated, "As far as our government, we do not even have such vocabularies as 'political prisoners' or 'prisoners of conscience'. We do not arrest and imprison people for doing politics in our country." During a 15 November interview with the Wall Street Journal, Information Minister Kyaw Hsan repeated these denials, responding to a question on the detention of political prisoners with, "Today people who are serving the prison terms in our jails are people who broke the existing laws of the country," clearly ignoring the fact that the existing laws criminalize political activity in opposition to the regime.

Burma's President, Thein Sein while speaking to reporters during East Asian Summit in Bali in November 2011 has denied that the country's jails are home to prisoners of conscience, and said his government "doesn't agree with" the commonly-held belief that around 1,700 people are serving jail terms because of political activity. "We punished them because they violated the law," he said. "There are a lot of people in prison for breaking the law, so if we apply the term ['prisoner of conscience'] to just one group, then it will be unfair on the others."

Human Rights Abuses in Ethnic Areas

After calling for the release of political prisoners, Special Rapporteur Quintana, noted in his 25 August 2011 press conference: "Also of concern are the ongoing tensions in ethnic border areas and armed conflict with some armed ethnic groups, which continue to engender serious human rights violations, including attacks against civilian populations, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, internal displacement, land confiscations, the recruitment of child soldiers, as well as forced labour and portering."

In fact, the post-election period has seen an escalation of armed conflict between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups as well as an increase in attendant human rights abuses. Civilians in the border areas of Karen, Shan and Kachin States have faced increasing human rights abuses and threats to their personal security as decades-long ceasefires have broken down. The Thai-Burma Border Consortium noted in an October 2011 report that, in the past year alone, 112,000 people have been forcibly displaced in Eastern Burma, a number higher than at any time since the group began keeping track of such statistics in 2002. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recently named Burma as the fifth largest refugee producing country in the world, with 415,700 people from Burma living as refugees as of the end of 2010.

Fighting erupted in Karen State on 8 November 2010, merely one day after the elections. The Burma Army attacked Brigade 5 of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a ceasefire group that had refused to join the rest of the DKBA in transforming into a BGF. Fighting in the state has continued sporadically since then. More recently, the regime broke its long-standing ceasefire with the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), another ceasefire group, attacking the group on 13 March.

In early June, spurred on by the refusal of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a third ceasefire group, to accept the regime's BGF proposal as well as the KIA's strategic control of areas with lucrative Chinese hydropower projects, the Burma Army launched a full-scale attack on the KIA, breaking a seventeen year-long ceasefire. Civil society groups have documented a horrific pattern of human rights abuses perpetrated by the Burma Army as part of its campaign in Kachin State with extensive evidence available that the Army is directly targeting the civilian population for attack. These abuses, continuing today, include rape, torture, forced labor, extrajudicial killings, the use of human shields, the burning of villages, and forced portering in which civilians, including women, children, and the elderly, are forced to carry supplies while walking at the front of moving army units to trip any landmines that may have been laid in the area. As a result of such abuses more than 50,000 civilians have fled to the China-Burma border area. These internally displaced persons (IDPs) are suffering from disease and food shortages and with each day the crisis continues, the danger grows.

Many have argued that recent peace talks taking place between representatives of the regime and ethnic armed groups demonstrate that the regime sincerely wishes to find a solution to this issue. However, in order for there to be true peace and national reconciliation in Burma, it is crucial that the underlying causes of these ethnic conflicts be addressed, including the lack of equality for ethnic nationalities. The recent preliminary talks do not even begin to address these causes. The regime has also refused the demand of the ethnic groups to hold political dialogue towards a nationwide ceasefire through the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of ethnic armed groups, and instead continues to engage in piecemeal talks with individual groups.

As Special Rapporteur Quintana noted in his 16 September report, "The situation of ethnic minority groups, including armed conflict in the border areas, presents serious limitations to the Government's intention to transition to democracy."

Impunity

The regime has failed to provide any such justice and accountability measures and has instead enshrined impunity for perpetrators in the 2008 Constitution and continuously denied that human rights abuses are taking place. Special Rapporteur Quintana clearly articulated the need to address impunity when he stated on 25 August 2011 that, "I continue to hold the belief that justice and accountability measures, as well as measures to ensure access to the truth, are fundamental for [Burma] to face its past and current human rights challenges, and to move forward towards national reconciliation."

Many in the international community have cheered the announcement, on 5 September 2011, that the regime had established a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) charged with promoting and safeguarding the fundamental rights of citizens in accordance with the 2008 Constitution. However, this commission is little more than an empty gesture aimed at whitewashing the regime's appalling human rights record. The NHRC was not established according to the Paris Principles on independence and autonomy of national human rights institutions. Most notably, it was established through a presidential decree, rather than an act of parliament, and no information about its mandate or operating procedures has been made public. As Special Rapporteur Quintana said in a 2 December interview, "the problem of its lack of independence, if not addressed, might compromise its future performance."

There are two additional factors that raise concern about the ability of the NHRC to address violations of human rights. The first is that it is tasked with protecting rights "in accordance with the 2008 Constitution," a document which itself violates the rights of the people of Burma and is an instrument used by the regime to maintain power and oppress the population. For instance, article 445 of the Constitution grants immunity to any regime official who commits, or has committed, any crime while carrying out his or her official duties. This puts the NHRC in a position where it is unable to address any human rights violations committed by regime officials, the primary perpetrators of such abuses in Burma.

Finally, the members of the NHRC are retired ambassadors and officials who were appointed by the regime, rather than selected in an open and transparent process with the input of civil society actors. The chairman and vice-chairman of the NHRC are both former UN ambassadors who have historically denied categorically that there are human rights violations taking place in Burma. Most notably, the Vice-Chairman of the commission, Kyaw Tint Swe, has repeatedly argued that there are no human rights violations occurring in Burma and all allegations of rape, forced labor, etc. are "fabricated." It stretches credibility to believe that these individuals will now do an about face and take the lead to prevent and punish such human rights abuses. After all, one cannot take action to put an end to atrocities without acknowledging that they are happening.

Conclusion

It is abundantly clear that despite the supposed reform underway in Naypyidaw and Rangoon, the people of Burma continue to suffer serious human rights abuses on a daily basis. The continued refusal of the regime to admit to the well-documented atrocities taking place in ethnic areas of Burma, along with the failure to recognize the more than 1,600 individuals imprisoned as a result of their political activities as political prisoners, demonstrates that the regime has not truly changed its approach to its population. It is thus crucial that when Burma's parliamentary delegation visits India, Indian leaders take the opportunity to raise these serious human rights issues with the delegates. Indian leaders should call on Burma's parliament to take the following actions:
0 Call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners;
0 Declare a nationwide ceasefire with ethnic armed groups and demand that the Burma Army cease attacks on ethnic communities; and
0 Take up the issue of the NHRC and pass legislation that will ensure it can operate independently and with a broad-based mandate to investigate violations of fundamental human rights.

By: Burma Centre Delhi
Email: office@burmacentredelhi.org, Website: www.burmacentredelhi.org
Sources: Burma Partnership, Website: http://www.burmapartnership.org/

Note: BCD memorandum to Prime Minister of India and Media Briefer here - PDF 1.4 MB.


* This information was sent by Burma Centre Delhi (BCD) who can be contacted at office(at)burmacentredelhi(dot)org
This Post is webcasted on December 13, 2011.

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