Clinton’s Visit to Burma Should Be Measured in Human Rights Improvement

November 30, 2011: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is greeted by Burmese Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Myo Myint as she arrives in Naypyitaw to begin her historic visit to Burma. Photo courtesy U.S. State Department.

The success of the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma, which begins today, should be decided by whether the authorities respond immediately by undertaking bold and far-reaching human rights reforms, says human rights group Amnesty International.

Secretary Clinton’s two-day visit to Burma is the highest-level visit by a U.S. official in over half a century.

“What steps will Secretary Clinton take to ensure that the so-called ‘improvements’ in Burma are not reversed?” asked T. Kumar, Asia and the Pacific Advocacy Director for Amnesty International USA. “There are over 1,500 political prisoners, including some in cells designed to hold dogs. Abuses in ethnic minority areas are continuing, including rape. What is disturbing is that the regime in Burma seems to have taken for granted that the U.S. government has other priorities than promoting respect for human rights and freedoms in the country.”

Burma has released at least 318 political prisoners this year, but more than a thousand remain behind bars, many of whom are prisoners of conscience. Their release should not be, in words of several Burmese government officials, part of a “process” but should be immediate and unconditional.”

The United States has long advocated the establishment of an international Commission of Inquiry into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity against ethnic minority civilians in Burma. Article 445 of Burma’s Constitution codifies immunity from prosecution for officials for past human rights violations.

During the State Department’s briefing on Tuesday en route to South Korea, a senior State Department official said that there has been an “enormous amount of tragedy over the course of the last 50 years” in Burma and that Secretary Clinton “comes with a series of very specific steps that we would like to see in terms of the next phase of the process that is underway inside the country.”

Mrs. Clinton will spend Thursday in Naypyitaw where she will have a meeting with her counterpart, the Foreign Minister. They will discuss domestic concerns as well as focus on the relationship between North Korea and Burma. She will then have a long meeting with President Thein Sein, which the State Department expects will be a a review of the steps that government has taken and “what might be possible if the process of reform and openness continues.” After that, she will have two sessions in parliament, one with the upper house and one with the lower house. From Naypyitaw, she travels to Rangoon Thursday evening.

In Rangoon, she will visit Shwedagon temple. Friday evening, she will have a private dinner with Aung San Suu Kyi to talk about developments that are underway. It will be their first meeting. The State Department said that Aung San Suu Kyi “believes that there is a genuine effort underway. She believes that this may be an historic opportunity. She wants the United States to try to reinforce this effort, as well as other countries in the international system.” The State Department will have a bilateral meeting with the members of her party, the National League for Democracy.

Secretary Clinton will also have a session with a collection of civil society organizations who have been involved in public support for decades including in education, in support after Hurricane Nargis, HIV/AIDS work, issues associated with rape and women and violence, and problems in ethnic areas.

Previous Burmese governments successfully cited visits by foreign governments and international organizations as evidence of human rights progress or concessions to human rights concerns. Will this high-level visit legitimize the Burmese government?

“Burma’s human rights situation has improved modestly in some respects but is significantly worsening in others,” said Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Burma specialist. “The U.S. Secretary of State’s visit sets a clear challenge for the government to respond with bold and meaningful steps, including the release — once and for all — of every remaining prisoner of conscience, and ceasing atrocities against ethnic minority civilians.”

In several ethnic minority areas, including in parts of Kayin, Kachin and Shan States where conflict has reignited or intensified over the past year, the Burma army continues to commit human rights violations against civilians on a widespread and systematic basis. Mr Zawacki said that “The United States must not allow Burma to mischaracterize Clinton’s visit as a reward, rather than a challenge. The United States is taking a gamble, but much of the outcome rests on its own insistence on human rights progress.”

There is debate over how many political prisoners are actually being held in Burma, and over the definitions of political prisoner and prisoner of conscience.

Ko Ko Hlaing, a senior political adviser to President Thein Sein, told Swedish Radio on October 18 that there were “about 600” remaining prisoners of conscience in Burma. He said accusations that there are 2,000 political prisoners in Burma were “an exaggeration,” and the 300 political detainees that have so far been released by the president’s amnesty order cannot be considered a small number. He added that he thought more will be freed in the near future.

But in an interview with Irrawaddy Magazine eight days later, he conceded that he did not “have exact figures.” There are significant differences between the government’s figures for prisoners of conscience and those put forward by some opposition groups. Ko Ko Hlaing also said that differences may “depend on how people define prisoners of conscience and ordinary prisoners.”

On November 21, on the final day of the ASEAN summit in Bali, Burmese President Thein Sein was quoted by the Democratic Voice of Burma as recently saying that “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.”

New York based Committee To Protect Journalists is also very wary of what’s going on in Burma and said that Secretary Clinton should aggressively push for the release of political prisoners: “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,” Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia Director, told me. “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.

Amnesty International has previously expressed concern that many political prisoners — some of whom are members of armed opposition groups — may be classified as ‘common criminals’ in the country’s extensive prison system. The group has called on the government to clarify who they classify as political prisoners, by convening a panel to reconcile differences in numbers and definitions.

In order to ensure that all political prisoners are identified, it says that authorities should include the National League for Democracy in such a panel and seek and receive help from the United Nations. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced November 19 that he would visit Burma “as soon as possible” to help propel reforms.

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