“Let These People Go”

On the eve of Thanksgiving, the human rights community holds the first ever Day To End Impunity to demand justice for those who have been killed for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Nowhere in the world is impunity more front and center than in Burma, as the international community and press freedom advocates monitor the actions of Thein Sein’s government to determine whether true reform is happening or if they are merely part of a public relations charade.

Impunity occurs when perpetrators of human rights violations are not brought to justice. This is particularly common in countries where there is a lack of civil society and rule of law and where corruption is rampant, such as in Burma. Every day around the world journalists, musicians, artists, politicians, and free expression advocates are silenced, often with no investigation or consequences to their persecutors.

The International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) is a global network of organizations working to defend and promote the right to freedom of expression. The organization hopes this day will raise awareness about impunity and honor those who have been silenced forever for exercising their right to freedom of expression. The day is a solemn reminder of the risks taken to inform the public and is also meant to be a day to recognize the work people are doing to combat injustice and to inspire action.

During the 2011 IFEX Strategy Conference in Beirut, Lebanon, IFEX members announced they were joining forces to launch the first ever International Day to End Impunity on November 23, the anniversary of the single deadliest attack on journalists in recent history: the Maguindanao massacre in the Philippines. In November 2009, some of the worst violence in recent Filipino history occurred when almost 60 people, including at least 26 journalists, were killed and buried in shallow graves in the province of Maguindanao. The victims were accompanying supporters of a gubernatorial candidate as he filed nomination papers for elections scheduled to be held in May 2010. The Committee to Protect Journalists calls the event the single deadliest event for journalists in history.

Last Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama announced during his visit to Indonesia that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Burma next month. It will be the first visit of an American Secretary of State to Burma in over 50 years. Mr. Obama says that she “will explore whether the United States can empower a positive transition in Burma and begin a new chapter between our countries.”

Beginning his announcement confirming America’s commitment to the future of human rights in the Asia-Pacific region, Mr. Obama said that “For decades, Americans have been deeply concerned about the denial of basic human rights for the Burmese people. The persecution of democratic reformers, the brutality shown towards ethnic minorities, and the concentration of power in the hands of a few military leaders has challenged our conscience, and isolated Burma from the United States and much of the world.”

He said that there have been “flickers of progress” in the last weeks and that President Thein Sein has “taken important steps on the path toward reform” including the release of some political prisoners and relaxed media restrictions. He said the Secretary’s impending visit could be “an historic opportunity for progress,” and that she will encourage Burma to continue to implement democractic reforms.

In 2011, the Burmese government began softening its stance on censorship, even allowing state-sponsored publication to interview and publish images of Aung San Suu Kyi — acts that were forbidden in the recent past. In October 2011, the country’s powerful censorship czar said in an interview with Radio Free Asia’s Burmese service that he was open to ending state-sanctioned restrictions on content for print media. Whether these reforms will continue and if they will be lasting will be among the many questions to which observers of Burma will hope to be able to answer in the near future.

Also last month, Burma released some political prisoners as part of a mass prisoner amnesty program amid reforms touted by the new nominally-civilian government but some key dissidents remain locked up. Among the most prominent dissidents freed was comedian Zarganar, who was arrested in June 2008 and sentenced to 59 years in a remote prison. He had criticized the then-military junta for their weak response to the Cyclone Nargis disaster that killed more than 140,000 people.

Calls for change in Burma continue. Last Friday, a group of monks risked arrest to demand further reform. Five Buddhist monks staged a rare protest in Burma’s second largest city, saying they wanted the government to release all political prisoners, end a longstanding ethnic armed conflict and allow freedom of speech.

What does this mean for the future of Burma? Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia Director, just told me that the organization is really concerned about the rush to embrace Burma and still counts 12 journalists in Burmese prisons. “There are a tremendous number of people still in jail — very few were released in the first wave of releases and we still see a repressive regime in place. We’re glad to see Aung San Suu Kyi being allowed a place in politics but the larger question about democracy goes beyond one personality,” he said.

CPJ is very wary of what’s going on in Burma: “We understand the value of trying to engage with this new government and glad to see that happening, but without the release of political prisoners and journalists, we’re just not ready to start applauding yet,” Mr. Dietz told me.

When I asked him what Secretary Clinton could do leading up to and during her visit to Burma in December to encourage democratic reforms, he answered unequivocally: “Address this issue of journalists and the larger issue of people in prison.” He said that the Burmese government has “done a very big public relations stunt and unless they are genuinely serious about letting opposition voices into the process, then there is no reform.”

He said that Secretary Clinton should push for the release of political prisoners “aggressively.”And what could Burma do to send a real signal the international community that it is serious about change? “Unconditional release. Let these people go. Begin to rebuild the concept of democracy in the country that has been absent for decades, which is a longer term issue. Reengage with outside world, not just for seeking investment or access to Burma’s natural resources, but as a dynamic player on the world stage. I’m worried that Secretary Clinton and all other countries engaging now have been overly enthusiastic.” He said that Secretary Clinton should push for the release of political prisoners “aggressively.”

The next steps for Burma are unclear, but on this first annual Day to End Impunity, it is certainly clear that much work needs to be done.

You can view CPJ’s 2011 Impunity Index, Getting Away With Murder, which spotlights countries where journalists are slain and killers go free here.

To join the conversation about truth and reconciliation, please join the event: Live and Online: A Conversation on Impunity this afternoon. IFEX is teaming up with the International Press Institute (IPI) to broadcast an online Q&A with experts from Colombia, Mexico, the Philippines and the international community. The event will start today at 12:30pm EST.

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