Political prisoner release and an end to attacks on civilians in ethnic minority areas should be U.S. Sec. Of State’s priority in Burma.
BANGKOK – Burmese opposition figures and analysts hope that the upcoming visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Burma will boost reforms in the country, but caution that the Burmese Government continues to violate human rights despite some positive recent signals
Speaking by telephone from Rangoon, National League for Democracy (NLD) spokesperson Ohn Kyaing said that “We welcome Secretary Clinton’s visit, as we hope she can address the Government to release political prisoners, give human rights to our people and to stop fighting in the ethnic regions”.
US President Barack Obama announced on Friday that Clinton will visit Burma on December 1-2, the highest-ranking US official to visit the country since military rule was imposed in 1962.
The visit comes after what Obama described to as “flickers of progress” in Burma – in reference to a series of reforms and policy decisions taken since the military government stood aside in March 2011. The current nominally-civilian administration under President Thein Sein, a former army general, came to power after what were widely-dismissed as rigged elections in November 2010, the country’s first opportunity to vote since 1990.
Since then the Burmese Government has allowed a slight easing of some of the world’s most draconian media laws, freed over 200 political prisoners, suspended an unpopular and exploitative US3.6bn Chinese dam project in Kachin state in the country’s north, and enacted new labour laws.
Clinton will meet Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) who on Friday gave her backing for Burma’s post-election political system by confirming that her party would contest by-elections scheduled to take place in coming months. The Clinton visit was only confirmed after President Obama spoke with Suu Kyi by telephone while en route to Bali last week, a reminder of the 1991 Nobel Peace laureate’s influence over some western policymaker views on Burma.
The Clinton visit was announced after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to allow Burma chair the grouping in 2014, two years ahead of schedule. To some observers, the award was premature, given that Burma is scheduled to hold elections in 2015. Those polls could have been used as another crucial yardstick of reform in the country, in turn allowing ASEAN to use the 2016 chair as an incentive to the Burmese Government to hold fair elections.
Nonetheless, Sec. Clinton’s visit has raised the possibility that some of the U.S. economic sanctions on Burma could be relaxed in the near future, a request made again recently by the Burmese Government. However, given that the U.S has long called for free and fair elections in Burma, the implication is that any substantive sanctions amendment is unlikely prior to 2015.
NLD spokesperson Ohn Kyaing said today that “our leader has said that sanctions depend on the Burmese Government”.
Prior to the 2015 elections, the Burmese Government can undertake reforms in other crucial areas. Burma holds an estimated 1700 political prisoners, while the country’s army is fighting in Karen and Kachin states, ethnic-religious minority regions along the country’s long-volatile borders with Thailand and China.
Speaking in Bali, however, President Thein Sein said that he “doesn’t agree with” the assessment that Burma holds political prisoners, reverting to the long-standing military regime classification that Burma only jails criminals.
In remarks reported by Democratic Voice of Burma, he said that “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”, he said, in comments that suggest that more political prisoner releases are not a foregone conclusion in Burma.
However, more releases should be a litmus test for assessing the veracity of the Burmese Government’s reformist intentions, say some. Looking forward to Sec. Clinton’s visit, Bo Kyi, founder of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, and a former prisoner of conscience in Burma, said that Clinton should ask the Burmese Government to release all political prisoners. Failing that, he suggested that another amnesty – of “at least 500 including Min Ko Naing, Khun Tun Oo (leaders of the 1988 student protests against military rule in Burma and long-time detainees) should be released before her visit.”
The AAPP estimates that there are around 1700 political prisoners still locked -up in Burma, but given the difficulty in getting accurate information from inside the country, the true number is hard to gauge. Sec. Clinton could request some clarification on these numbers while in Burma, he suggests, with the International Committee of the Red Cross or the UN Special Rapporteur on Burma’s human rights, Tomas Ojea Quintana, are ideally-placed to undertake this task. “In order to get true numbers of political prisoners, Burmese regime should allow ICRC or the Special Rapporteur do independent investigation to all 42 prisons and labor camps in Burma”, said Bo Kyi.
With ongoing fighting in ethnic minority regions along Burma’s Thailand and Burma borders, wars which have dragged on since the 1940s in some cases, Sec. Clinton should press Burma’s Government to seek “an end to the military’s attacks on civilians in ethnic states”, said Benedict Rogers, East Asia Team Leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
Rogers said that the Burmese Government is perpetrating a series of rights abuses across a wide swathe of ethnic minority regions, and expressed hope that Sec. Clinton “will raise serious concerns over the regime’s offensive in Kachin State,including attacks on churches, the use of rape, forced labour, torture and killing, as well as the plight of the Rohingyas, whose citizenship in Burma should be recognized if the country is to change, religious persecution in Chin State, and the continuing crimes against humanity in Karen, Karenni, Shan and other ethnic states.”