United States President Barack Obama’s visit to Burma will be a success only if it generates concrete and lasting steps toward improving human rights in the country, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says. On Monday, President Obama will visit Rangoon and hold meetings with President Thein Sein and the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in the first visit to Burma by a sitting U.S. president.
Obama should press for the release of all political prisoners and an end to abuses by state security forces in ethnic minority areas, HRW said. Obama should also publicly call for legal and constitutional reform in Burma, including ending military authority to dismiss the government, dropping the military’s 25 percent quota of parliamentary seats, and revising laws limiting basic rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. All those responsible for serious abuses should be held to account, the organization said.
“Obama’s trip to Burma risks providing an undeserved seal of approval to the military-dominated government that is still violating human rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director at HRW. “Obama’s success in securing tangible commitments on human rights, not his mere presence in the country, is crucial for promoting genuine and lasting reform.”
Thein Sein reportedly included no political prisoners among the 452 prisoners released in a November 15 amnesty just prior to Obama’s visit, HRW said. In four amnesties in the past year, the government has released at least 300 political prisoners, leaving an undetermined number behind bars. HRW and others have called for independent international monitors to be given unfettered access to Burma’s prisons to provide an accounting of all remaining political prisoners. Many released political prisoners face travel and other restrictions.
Obama should publicly address the deadly sectarian violence between ethnic Arakan Buddhists and ethnic Rohingya Muslims and non-Rohingya Muslims that erupted in June in Arakan State. State security forces failed at the outset to protect either community from violence and then increasingly targeted Rohingya in killings, beatings, and mass arrests.
State security forces committed further abuses in October when deadly violence erupted again, partly as a result of the government’s failure to provide adequate security and pursue accountability for earlier crimes, HRW said.
Over 110,000 people, mostly Rohingya, have been displaced by the violence in Arakan State. Government restrictions on humanitarian access to displaced Muslim communities in Arakan State have left many in dire need of food, adequate shelter, and medical care. The authorities also indefinitely suspended nearly all pre-crisis humanitarian aid programs to the Rohingya, affecting hundreds of thousands who remain in their homes.
“Obama should press Thein Sein to end discrimination and violence against the Rohingya and grant them citizenship on par with other ethnic nationalities,” Adams said. “He should stress the urgent need to allow international aid to reach the Rohingya and for security conditions that would allow them to return to their homes.”
Obama should also raise concerns about continuing abuses and unmet humanitarian needs in Burma’s Kachin State, where conflict continues between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The Burmese military has attacked villages and committed extrajudicial killings, forced labor, torture, rape, and pillage. Both sides have used anti-personnel landmines.
The number of internally displaced people in Kachin State has reached an estimated 90,000 this year. The government has largely denied humanitarian access to displaced people in KIA-held territory.
The fundamental right to peaceful assembly remains tightly restricted in Burma, Human Rights Watch said. Thirteen activists who led over 1,000 protesters in a September 21 march in Rangoon calling for peace in Kachin State and elsewhere were subsequently summoned to local police stations. Nine protesters now face prison terms on charges of violating the purportedly reformist 2011 Peaceful Assembly Law.
Obama’s visit is the most visible gesture of praise by the US government toward Burma, the organization warned.
In May, the Obama administration named the first US ambassador to Burma in 22 years and in July lifted longstanding sanctions against Burma, permitting American companies to invest in every sector of the country’s economy. Human Rights Watch and others have expressed concern that it was premature for the US to open up across-the-board investment in Burma and had sought much stronger preconditions, including an updated sanctions list and binding prohibitions on investment in Burma’s problematic oil and gas industries.
US officials, including National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon, have said that the purpose of Obama’s visit is to “lock in” reforms. Human Rights Watch urged Obama to be cautious and realistic when assessing the changes that have taken place in Burma thus far.
“While genuine progress in Burma should be encouraged, Obama should be careful not to overstate the changes that have occurred,” Adams said. “The still-suffering Burmese people will be better served by a US president who is committed to seeing long-term reform in their country than one who expresses overeager praise.”